Former lead detective opens up about HaLeigh Cummings' disappearance

Detective: Girlfriend of missing girl's father gave inconsistent accounts

By Jennifer Waugh - The Morning Show anchor, I-Team reporter, Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM

Ten years after 5-year-old HaLeigh Cummings disappeared from a bedroom in her Putnam County home, the detective who was in charge of her missing persons case is speaking candidly with News4Jax, sharing what investigators were hearing back then, what they thought, and who they were investigating in the girl’s disappearance.

Seventeen-year-old Misty Croslin was the last person who saw HaLeigh on February 10, 2009. Croslin was the girlfriend of HaLeigh’s father, Ronald Cummings. Two days after HaLeigh was reported missing, Croslin told News4Jax what had happened inside the home.

“I got up, cause I had to use the bathroom, but I didn’t make it to the bathroom,” Croslin tearfully said. “I seen the kitchen light on and I walked in the kitchen and the back door’s wide open. I mean I didn’t notice about HaLeigh then until I seen the back door open and then I go in the room and she’s gone. And that’s all I know.”

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

Croslin insisted that the back door that had been open was closed hours earlier, when she laid down to sleep next to HaLeigh and the girl’s younger brother. Croslin had been home alone with the children overnight while Ronald Cummings was at work.

A portion of Croslin’s call to 911 went into detail regarding the open back door:

Dispatcher: OK, alright, you say the back door was wide open?
Croslin: Yes, with a brick, like there was a brick on the floor. Like when I went to sleep the door was not like that.
Dispatcher: Was your back door locked, do you know?
Croslin: Yes, the back door always stays locked.

“A stranger comes into the house and picks up the little girl and takes her out and leaves a little boy there? It makes no sense,” said John Merchant, a retired Putnam County Sheriff’s Office detective who led the Cummings case in 2009.

The back door Misty found propped up

“I would think that to prop a back door open with a concrete block, it was a metal outswing door as I recall, something had to make some noise,” Merchant said.

But no one ever reported to deputies that anyone woke up – not Misty, not HaLeigh, not her little brother.

Merchant is also now revealing to News4Jax other inconsistencies in Croslin’s account of what happened.

“Her story changed about the location,” the detective said.

According to the police report written that night, Croslin said the children were sleeping in her bed. However, Merchant said Croslin told them later that HaLeigh was in her own bed, when Croslin discovered she was gone.

Nearly three weeks after HaLeigh disappeared, the little girl’s family invited a News4Jax crew into the home. We could see HaLeigh’s toddler mattress against one wall of her father’s bedroom, and on the other side of the room is where her father and Croslin slept – the bed where Merchant said the teen initially told them she was, with the two children.

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Also, as Croslin told News4Jax, she had gotten up to use the bathroom, but never made it there. According to the police report, Croslin told investigators she woke up that night to get a drink, making no mention of the bathroom. Merchant believes the teen was not being truthful about what happened.

“She had it stuck in her mind that she had a story she wanted to tell us,” Merchant said.

“Yet she was tripping up?” we asked.

“Often,” Merchant responded. “And you know, that comes with, telling the truth is easy, telling a lie is not easy at all.”

Merchant said he spent many, many hours interviewing Croslin and said, “Misty has never had the same story.”

Deputies searched the ground, air and water for signs of HaLeigh

Merchant was never able to prove Croslin was lying about the details of that night, and with no physical evidence or any sign of HaLeigh – despite an exhaustive, weeks-long search – Croslin was never charged with any wrongdoing.

In fact, to this day, she insists, as she did when News4Jax interviewed her two days after HaLeigh disappeared, that she had nothing to do with it.

“I just want everybody to know that I didn’t do anything with that little girl,” Croslin said on Feb. 12, 2009. “I love her like she’s my own, and I’ll do anything to get her back.”

Over the years, HaLeigh's father has been criticized and some have accused him of wrongdoing related to his daughter's disappearance. Merchant told us he does not believe Ronald was involved.

"Ronald was a person with a checkered past. He lived fast, but he was a good father," Merchant said. "There is no proof today that Ronald had anything to do with it (his daughter's disappearance). We can't hold anybody out (as a suspect), but I do feel comfortable saying that Ronald Cummings is probably not involved, " explained the former investigator. 

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

Ten years after the little girl disappeared, News4Jax is hoping renewed attention to this case will generate new information about what happened to HaLeigh. Anyone who witnessed or knows anything about the disappearance of the kindergartner is urged to call Crime Stoppers of Northeast Florida at 888-277-TIPS. Callers can remain anonymous and be eligible for a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in this case.

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