Cherish Perrywinkle: The case that shocked Jacksonville

Police: 8-year-old girl kidnapped, brutally raped and strangled in 2013

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More than four years ago, the Jacksonville community was shaken to its core by news of the kidnapping, rape and murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle.

Surveillance video from a Northside Walmart shows Cherish, wearing an orange dress, leaving through the front door with Donald Smith about 10:30 p.m. on June 21, 2013.

The next morning, the 8-year-old's half-naked body -- still wearing the same dress -- was found wedged under a fallen tree in a grassy marsh area several miles away.

What happened from the time Cherish left the Walmart until the life was choked out of her in the woods behind a church is what prosecutors will try to unravel for a jury this week.

RELATED: Smith trial begins with jury selection 
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Cherish's autopsy report paints a grisly picture: the terror she endured likely lasted hours, not minutes.

Prosecutors hope to convince a jury that the killer and rapist who tortured her was Smith, a convicted sex offender who police said befriended the girl's mother and baited her with a promise of buying clothes for her children.

What Smith really wanted, prosecutors said, was the little girl with the long brown hair in the orange dress.

(Editor's note: The remainder of this story contains details that many may find disturbing)

Fateful meeting

Cherish's mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, told police that Smith saw her about 7:30 p.m. that night with her three daughters at a Dollar General on Edgewood Avenue.

She said he asked if she wanted a dress.

According to a police report, Smith told Perrywinkle (pictured) that his wife had a $100 Walmart gift card and offered to buy clothes for the children with it if they went with him to meet her at the store.

Perrywinkle said she told him, “I don't go with strangers, but if your wife is coming, then it's OK.”

Unaware that Smith wasn't married and he was a registered sexual offender, Perrywinkle piled her children into Smith's white van for the ride to a Walmart on Lem Turner Road, police said. She had no idea that he was a sex offender who had been released from prison just 20 days earlier.

Shopping trip

Surveillance video at the Walmart shows Perrywinkle, her daughters and Smith shopping inside the store for more than an hour.

Several times, Perrywinkle told police, Cherish, the oldest of her three girls, went with Smith to look at shoes in another section.

She told police she didn't think much of it because she felt safe in the store.

After an announcement over the loud speaker around 10:30 p.m. that the store was closing in 30 minutes, Smith said he was going to the McDonald's at the front of the store and offered to treat them to cheeseburgers, Perrywinkle told police.

She watched as Cherish went with him.

It was the last time Perrywinkle saw her daughter alive.

The surveillance video shows Smith walk past the McDonald's and out the front door.

The little girl with long brown hair in the orange dress walks out beside him.

911 call

When Perrywinkle went to meet Smith at the checkout about 11 p.m., he wasn't there, police said.

Neither was Cherish.

Perrywinkle said she knew something was wrong, and she called police to report a kidnapping.

RELATED: Chilling 911 call reveals moments after Cherish Perrywinkle's kidnapping 

“I hope to God he doesn't kill her. I hope to God he doesn't rape her," Perrywinkle told the 911 operator. “I don't understand why he would leave right now unless he's going to rape her and kill her. That's the only reason."

According to prosecutors, that's exactly what he was doing.

Perrywinkle said she felt responsible for allowing Smith to take them to the Walmart in the first place.

“My girls need clothes so bad. That's why I let him do it," she said.

LISTEN: Rayne Perrywinkle calls 911 to report missing daughter

Perrywinkle wept bitterly as she lamented to the operator that she couldn't remember details about what Cherish was wearing or what Smith's van looked like. She only knew that it was a white van.

Authorities issued an Amber Alert with details of Smith's van, but not until about six hours after police received Perrywinkle's 911 call.

Van spotted

About 9 a.m., an officer working a traffic crash on Interstate 95 recognized Smith's van as it drove past her and called it in. Police cornered his van on I-95 near I-10, and the highway was shut down while other officers with guns drawn arrested Smith. 

Cherish was nowhere in sight.

IMAGES: Police evidence photos from the day Cherish was killed

According to a police report, Smith, whose clothes were soaking wet, admitted that Cherish had gotten into his van in the Walmart parking lot but said she jumped out at a red light and ran away.

About 30 minutes before the officer spotted Smith's van on I-95, police got a call that the vehicle had been seen parked behind the Highlands Baptist Church on Rutgers Road earlier that morning.

With Smith in custody, a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office K-9 team headed to check out the tip.

Cherish still needed to be found.

Body found

When he arrived at the church, Officer Charlie Wilkie spotted fresh tire tracks in the grass and deployed his K-9, Gator, who headed right for Cherish, a police report said.

But it was too late.

Her body was found in the marsh of Broward Creek, lying on her left side, half under water, covered by a fallen log, rocks, grass and a branch, according to the medical examiner's report.

Cherish was still wearing the orange dress from the surveillance video, but it was pulled up to her chest and she was naked from there down, the report said.

The medical examiner's report found that the sexual trauma Cherish had suffered was brutal. She had bruises on her body and evidence of blunt trauma to her face and head.

PHOTOS: Remembering Cherish Perrywinkle

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Smith's DNA was found all over Cherish's body, including her neck.

The medical examiner found that bruising on her neck and other evidence indicated Cherish was strangled.

Photos taken during the autopsy will be shown to the jury during Smith's trial, a judge decided.

Smith's defense unsuccessfully argued that the photos are too shocking and could prejudice the jury. But the medical examiner testified during a pretrial hearing that the photos are shocking because what Cherish endured was shocking.

Trial delays

A grand jury indicted Smith on July 2, 2013, on kidnapping, rape and murder charges.

Since then, seven trial dates have been set for Smith, and the judge assigned to the case -- Mallory Cooper -- has retired. But Cooper successfully petitioned to remain on the case and will preside over Smith's trial this week.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty if Smith is convicted, a factor that contributed to multiple delays in the trial because of controversy over Florida's death penalty procedure.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's law in 2016. Last March, the Florida Legislature passed a new law requiring a unanimous recommendation from a jury before a judge could hand down the death penalty.

That change cleared the way for death penalty cases, including Smith's, to go to trial.

Smith's attorneys have repeatedly asked Cooper to change the venue for Smith's case, citing heavy media coverage. But Cooper said she will only consider that if it's impossible to pick an impartial jury in Duval County.

That process starts Monday -- 1,690 days after Cherish's mother watched her walk away for the last time.

About the Author:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.