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10 years later: What happened to HaLeigh Cummings?

Investigators close to the case speculate on the fate of the missing child

What happened to HaLeigh Cummings? That question has stumped investigators from the moment the 5-year-old girl was reported missing from her Satsuma home 10 years ago. With few concrete leads to pursue, authorities eventually zeroed in on Misty Croslin, her father’s girlfriend, and the last person believed to have seen her alive.

At first, the 17-year-old Croslin told deputies she realized HaLeigh was missing when she woke up in the early morning hours of Feb. 10, 2009, and noticed the back door of the home was propped open with a cinder block. The back door, she insisted, was locked when she had gone to sleep hours earlier. That baffled investigators, who found no sign of forced entry.

“There was nothing at the scene that indicated any type of foul play,” said John Merchant, a retired Putnam County Sheriff’s Office detective who was in charge of Cummings’ case in 2009.

Monday: HaLeigh is gone
Tuesday: Reliving the nightmare
Wednesday: Misty's inconsistencies
Thursday: Investigators' theories
Friday: Who was HaLeigh Cummings?

It was difficult for Merchant to imagine how an intruder might have broken in unnoticed and abducted HaLeigh without disturbing anyone inside. After all, he pointed out, the back door was metal, so opening it likely would have caused a commotion. Yet no one home at the time reported waking up to any noise.

“A stranger comes into the house and picks up the little girl and takes her out and leaves a little boy there?” Merchant said. “It makes no sense.”

Despite their suspicions that Croslin’s version of events did not add up, investigators chased down every tip and lead that trickled in during the days that followed. For instance, HaLeigh’s great-grandmother, Annette Sykes, thought a man who lived in a nearby mobile home might have been involved. After speaking with the man, though, authorities learned he had an alibi and ruled him out.

Because they were dealing with a missing child, authorities also considered the possibility that sex offenders who lived nearby could have been involved. In fact, 44 registered sex offenders lived near HaLeigh at the time. Following up with all of them led investigators as far away as Nebraska, but each was accounted for on the night she went missing.

“If you look at a map of Putnam County at that time and the number of registered sex offenders within a one-mile radius, there were a tremendous number of them,” said Robert Mathis, then the chief investigator for the State Attorney’s Office for Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit. “We looked at all of them.”

Investigators also took a close look at Joe Overstreet, Croslin’s cousin. Merchant said Overstreet left the state the same day HaLeigh was reported missing. It seemed suspicious to investigators for a relative of the last person to see the girl to suddenly leave Putnam County to return home to Tennessee within hours of her disappearance.

“A lot of time was spent on surveillance on Joey. Maybe hoping that he would do something out of the ordinary,” said St. Augustine Beach Police Chief Robert Hardwick, who was the assistant chief investigator for the State Attorney’s Office at the time. “Nothing ever came to fruition.”

That avenue led to yet another dead end. Confronted by investigators, Overstreet denied having any involvement in HaLeigh’s disappearance and he was never charged in the case. 

By then, other information was beginning to filter in, and it all circled back to the same person. 

“Everything pointed at Misty,” Merchant said.

He and Mathis were convinced Croslin knew more than she was letting on. Neither of them, nor Hardwick, believes HaLeigh was taken by someone she didn't know. Merchant said multiple people came forward with information claiming the girl was seen at a party in Palatka hours before she was reported missing.

“I think that somebody gave the child some drugs or the child got some drugs accidentally and she died and people panicked and had to get rid of the body,” Mathis said.

Added Merchant: “We actually went to an area southwest of Palatka and drained a pond where someone had said she left this party in the trunk of a car and was put into the pond. We drained the pond and there is no HaLeigh.”

With no body and no physical evidence of any kind, the unverified information from known drug users was not enough to prove in court what three investigators believe happened to HaLeigh. They couldn’t charge anyone and the case went cold – until months later when they caught a break.

Croslin was arrested in January 2010 on drug charges, nearly a year after HaLeigh’s disappearance. Merchant thought for sure if she had any information about the girl’s fate, she would likely talk to investigators in exchange for a deal. She was facing a 25-year sentence if convicted.

“Misty gave some indication of the involvement of her brother and Joe Overstreet, her cousin, that she had knowledge that HaLeigh was dumped in the water at the Shell Harbor Boat Ramp – even described the bag, even described the concrete block, even described the rope,” Merchant said.

Like Overstreet, Hank Croslin, Misty's brother, denied having any involvement in the case. In spite of that, investigators in April 2010 rushed to the boat ramp – about 500 yards from where HaLeigh vanished – in the hopes that they would find the 5-year-old girl. They brought Misty Croslin with them.

Mathis said professional divers from Clay, Duval and St. Johns counties, among others, spent days searching the river surrounding Shell Harbor. But they found no sign of HaLeigh. Once again, investigators walked away empty-handed.

As authorities drove Croslin back to jail, she spoke up. Hardick said he’ll never forget what she told them.

“She’s like, ‘Never mind. I’m not telling the truth,’” he recalled. “I mean, I just didn’t get it. We would spend so much manpower and so much time, thinking we might have something and bring hope back to the family and to law enforcement.”

To this day, these investigators believe Croslin holds the answers to the mystery behind the little girl’s whereabouts.

“Your original account is you woke up in the middle of the night and HaLeigh is missing, and then now you’re saying, ‘Well, I watched my brother and Joe Overstreet take her out of the house.’ That’s confessing that you didn’t tell the truth the first time and you have knowledge of what happened,” Merchant said.

Croslin, now 27, never gave investigators any more information about HaLeigh Cummings. She is currently serving a 25-year sentence at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala for trafficking in prescription medications.

We reached out to Croslin last month as part of this story. In a written response, she said in part that she would be interested in helping “in any way possible for HaLeigh’s sake,” but she denied having anything to do with the girl’s disappearance.

“I know this has been a long time coming and is something that carries much weight on my heart,” Croslin said. “ … I want to know and get to the bottom of this just as much if not more then (sic) the community. I love HaLeigh and wish desperately for any advancement and safe return of her back to the family.”

No one has ever been charged in HaLeigh’s disappearance. Though loved ones cling to hope that she will be found alive someday, the case is now classified as a homicide investigation. And while the case remains open, it has gone cold.

Into Thin Air - watch this week

Monday: HaLeigh is gone
Tuesday: Reliving the nightmare
Wednesday: Misty's inconsistencies
Thursday: Investigators' theories
Friday: Who was HaLeigh Cummings?
Sunday: Putnam County 10 years later

News4Jax is hoping renewed attention on this case will generate new leads. Anyone with information about the disappearance of HaLeigh Cummings is asked to call Crime Stoppers of Northeast Florida at 888-277-TIPS. Callers can remain anonymous and they may be eligible for a $15,000 reward if their hotline tips lead to an arrest.

About the Authors:

Jennifer, who anchors The Morning Shows and is part of the I-TEAM, loves working in her hometown of Jacksonville.