A major investigation is under way to determine whether the discovery of an 8-year-old missing autistic boy’s body Thursday morning was the result of a tragic accident or foul play.
Marquail Johnson was reported missing after he was last seen by his mother about 7:45 p.m. Wednesday playing near his home at 810 S. Western Ave. A relative saw him between 8:15 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. in the alley behind 740 S. Western Ave.
At 10 p.m., the boy was reported missing to police as a possible abduction.
About 8 a.m. Thursday, the boy’s body was found inside an older model refrigerator with a door that latches closed from the outside behind the relative’s house at 740 S. Western Ave. The appliance was unplugged and upright near the back door of the home.
Three houses and an empty lot separate the boy’s home from the spot where the body was found.
A woman who identified herself as a close friend of Marquail’s mother described him as “just a regular kid who was out playing” Wednesday night.
“He was a good kid. He was a child of God,” Sandra Carter said as she sat on a South Western Avenue curb while police worked across the street. “He was ready to start school, just in a couple of days.”
She added: “This is crazy.”
Authorities shut down traffic in the 700 and 800 blocks of South Western Avenue as they investigated. A chain link fence was covered with a white sheet at the rear of the home where a deputy coroner eventually removed the body, and crime scene technicians handed off several brown paper bags of evidence.
As the coroner’s van backed up to the fence and a stretcher was unloaded, a woman collapsed in the street and loudly wailed. Several people rushed to help her and led her back to the home of the missing boy, where a crowd had gathered.
Peoria County Coroner Johnna Ingersoll said Marquail was pronounced dead at 8:27 a.m. and that his body had no outward signs of injury. An autopsy to determine preliminary cause of death was scheduled for later Thursday night.
District 150 Supt. Grenita Lathan said the district’s pupil support team would be at Trewyn on Thursday, where teachers gathered for staff development after a staff rally in the morning. A teacher at the school mourned the death and its timing.
“The staff is torn up,” a Trewyn teacher said as the district’s annual back-to-school rally at Bradley University ended. “What a way to start the school year.”
Peoria police described a man who may have been seen with Marquail before he disappeared as an “older” white male, 5-feet-8-inches to 5-feet-10-inches tall, with a medium build, gray hair and beard, wearing a yellow shirt and blue pants.
By Thursday afternoon, that subject was described by police as a person still wanted for questioning who should be stopped if seen in the area of South Peoria where the boy disappeared but whom officers did not yet have probable cause to arrest.
Authorities labeled the inquiry a “suspicious death investigation.” One complicating factor in determining the nature of the death is the state of the body: the boy was unclothed inside the appliance when he was found.
Lisa Gerontes-Bowe, president of the Peoria Chapter of the Autism Society of America, said the boy’s developmental condition could have played a role in either scenario. Autistic children sometimes wander and disrobe for comfort, but also could be lured away by someone who knows their condition.
“People with autism sometimes have a tough time tolerating clothing; they have sensory issues,” Gerontes-Bowe said. “It’s very typical for kids with autism to wander. They don’t understand the danger.”
About half of autistic children are prone to wander, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics. Wandering has led to the deaths of more than 60 children across the country in the last four years, according to a recent analysis by The Associated Press and autism advocacy groups.
Matt Buedel can be reached at 686-3154 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JournoBuedel. Pam Adams contributed to this story.