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St. Johns County sheriff reflects on tragic missing child investigations

HaLeigh Cummings case ‘has never stopped in my mind,’ says Sheriff Robert Hardwick

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – Last Tuesday was HaLeigh Cummings’ 18th birthday.

The 5-year-old was reported missing on February 10th, 2009. Her father’s girlfriend, Misty Croslin, said she woke up early that morning to find the kindergartener missing from bed in HaLeigh’s father’s Putnam County home and the back door propped open with a brick. HaLeigh has not been seen since. No one has been charged in her disappearance.

“The case has never stopped in my mind,” said St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick.

Hardwick was assigned to the missing girl’s case while he worked as a homicide investigator for the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office 12 years ago.

“You know, without getting too emotional, I can’t believe it was that long ago when she was just 5 years old,” he said as we discussed HaLeigh’s 18th birthday.

Age progression photo from National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows HaLeigh Cummings on the left at age 5. On the right, what she's believed to look like at age 16. (News4Jax.com)

Hardwick’s assignment was to interview and investigate Croslin’s account of that night. He said it became clear to them early in the investigation that the 17-year-old was not telling investigators everything.

“Inconsistencies in her story, minimization of her story, minimizing her role, her involvement,” he said. “Giving us a story in the beginning that we all fell for and worked on and went in that direction because she is the last person to see her alive.”

At one point in the investigation, Hardwick said, Croslin told them she knew what had happened to the little girl. She led them to a boat ramp not far from HaLeigh’s home.

“This is the person who took us to a boat ramp with a fabricated story,” he said. “Why take us down that road if you don’t need to? So if you don’t have the information, why would she provide the information to us falsely?”

Hardwick said Croslin told him HaLeigh had died and that her body was put in the water and weighed down with a cinder block. But the water was searched and the 5-year-old’s body was never found. Hardwick said that as he was driving away with Croslin, she told him never mind, she was not telling them the truth.

St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick (WJXT)

It’s the reason he has always believed Croslin has the answers to what happened to the little girl.

“She holds the key to success of the story,” said Hardwick.

He and other investigators who worked the case said they do not believe HaLeigh is alive. They think she died the night she was reported missing.

INTO THIN AIR: The disappearance of HaLeigh Cummings

Croslin continues to deny she knows anything about HaLeigh’s disappearance. She is currently serving a 25-year sentence on an unrelated drug trafficking charge.

Eleven years after HaLeigh’s disappearance, the 5-year-old is the first person Hardwick thought of when he was notified about a missing 13-year-old girl in St. Johns County. Hardwick had just been elected sheriff of St. Johns County and was facing another missing child investigation.

“The first thing that comes to my mind, while I was driving, is this cannot be a HaLeigh Cummings’ case,” said Hardwick.

To work one missing child case is hard enough for a law enforcement officer. To work two, can be unbearable. Hardwick was in charge of his second.

Sadly, it ended tragically. Tristyn Bailey’s body was discovered soon after she disappeared from her Durbin Crossing neighborhood on Mother’s Day 2021. She had been stabbed more than 100 times. Her 14-year-old schoolmate is now charged with murder.

Tristyn Bailey

It was not the ending Hardwick had hoped for, but he said he finds some solace knowing his department has been able to bring justice to the 13-year-old’s family. He is still waiting for justice for HaLeigh.

“I can’t tell you how many law enforcement meetings we had. Our staff choked back tears because we had no information to provide. We had no information to provide to the family. Most important, we had no information for us. We weren’t making any progress,” Hardwick explained about all the frustrating hours, days and months spent trying to find HaLeigh. “The case has never stopped in my mind. It will never go away,” said Hardwick.

If you have any information about HaLeigh’s disappearance or whereabouts, you are asked to call Northeast Florida Crime Stoppers at 1-888-277-8477. The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office told me it still receives dozens of tips a year about the missing girl. Many are ones it’s heard before. New ones are followed up.

Earlier this year, in March, the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office said it received a tip of a person who said she is HaLeigh and lives on the West Coast. The FBI is helping with that investigation. The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office said DNA analysis does not match HaLeigh Cummings. The woman is not the missing 5-year-old.

We’ve tried to get more information about that tip, including why it’s taking so long to get the DNA results given this is such a high-profile case. We are still waiting for answers.

About the Author:

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