FULTON, Ark. — A month-long search for 4-year-old Maleah Davis may have ended Friday along a tree-lined junction in southwest Arkansas after investigators found a child’s remains scattered along Interstate 30, where her mother’s ex-boyfriend confessed he dumped her.
Houston police said they could not confirm that the remains are those of Maleah — whose disappearance captured the nation’s attention — but indicated they believe they found the missing girl. The identify is pending the results of an autopsy.
“I was fearing there was never going to be an ending,” said Texas EquuSearch founder Tim Miller, whose volunteers had spent the month combing Houston for signs of the child. “There’s an ending. Certainly not the way we wanted it, not a scene we wanted to see, but unfortunately we can’t choose these things.”
A work crew mowing Interstate 30 near Fulton — about 330 miles from Houston — discovered a bloodied black garbage bag earlier this week, but they left it alone with the assumption that its foul odor was from a discarded animal. A mower earlier on Friday struck the bag, tore it open and scattered its contents, Hempstead County Sheriff James Singleton said.
Authorities turned their focus to the bag Friday morning after longtime community leader Quanell X announced that he had visited 27-year-old Derion Vence at the Harris County Jail and garnered a confession. The information he gleaned was enough to send investigators and Texas EquuSearch crews packing for Hempstead County.
By dusk, several law enforcement vehicles parked along the road and investigators searched for evidence along a grassy embankment. Miller said authorities would be flying the remains back to Harris County for an autopsy.
Miller wishes they could have reached the site “before the tractor and brush hog went over” the bag.
The grisly discovery in his jurisdiction confounded Singleton, a grandfather to two young girls. He said Vence had no known connection to the area.
“I have no earthly idea why he came to Hempstead County,” Singleton said of the suspect. “If you’re in law enforcement … you’re going to see horrible and cruel things. There’s a lot of evil in the world.”
The junction is about 20 miles from the Texas border and a five-and-a-hour trek from the Alief-area apartment in southwest Houston home where Maleah lived with Vence and her mother, Brittany Bowens. Maleah was last seen alive on April 30 at the apartment while Bowens was attending a funeral in Massachusetts.
Quanell had been speaking for Bowens during media interviews and court hearings in the wake of Maleah’s disappearance. Earlier this week, he said he is no longer representing Bowens, who could not be reached Friday.
Vence was a no-show to pick Bowens up at Bush Intercontinental Airport on May 3. He resurfaced at a Sugar Land hospital the night of May 4 to report Maleah missing and to tell police that three men attacked him and abducted her. On May 11, he was charged with tampering with evidence in connection with the missing girl.
Nearly three weeks later, after police Chief Art Acevedo disputed Vence’s account and characterized him as uncooperative, Vence allegedly told Quanell that he killed the girl and disposed of her body in Arkansas.
“He says it was an accident. And he confessed to me where he dumped her body,” Quanell said. “He felt like he was just totally overwhelmed, because Brittany wasn’t being the mother she should be being.”
Vence reportedly kept track of how long he drove and how far, he continued.
“He said that he pulled over in Arkansas, got out of the car, walked to the side of the road, and dumped the body off the road,” Quanell said, without indicating how the girl may have died.
HPD Executive Assistant Chief Troy Finner said he anticipates a murder charge in the case but would not elaborate. Vence has already been charged tampering with a corpse and is being held on a $45,000 bond.
The alleged confession was a point of contention for Vence’s newly-appointed attorney Dorian Cotlar, who filed a motion Friday morning prohibiting Quanell X from visiting his client at the jail.
The jail does not generally allow inmate visits on Fridays, except for lawyers, ministers and sometimes community leaders, officials said.
“We know Quanell X as a community leader,” Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer said. “When a community leader asks to visit an inmate, we generally allow it, as long as the inmate agrees to the visit.”
Cotlar said his client was led to believe by HPD investigators on Friday that he no longer had a lawyer. His previous lawyer, Thomas Burton, had motioned to withdraw from the case on Wednesday. The motion was granted on Thursday and Cotlar was immediately appointed to the case, court records show.
Vence did not know that Cotlar was his new lawery and he was under the impression that his family sent Quanell to the jail to represent him. Quanell indicated that he would provide Vence with new lawyers and that “everything was going to be fine.”
“Quanell X completely misled my client,” Cotlar said. “I don’t know how he was able to get into the jail.”
Details that Quanell claimed to have learned from Vence during that brief jailhouse meeting did not happen, Cotlar continued.
“My client did not confess to Quanell. He did not use the word ‘accident’ with Quanell,” Cotlar said. “Quanell makes his living off of reward money.”
Burton had been privately retained but said he withdrew as counsel this week because Vence’s family could not pay for his services.
“It’s too complex of a case to be working on for free,” Burton said. He received some compensation, he said, but it wasn’t enough.
Burton also questioned Quanell X’s role in the case.
“It certainly appears he’s attempting to practice law without a license,” Burton said.
In a phone call, Quanell said he was not representing Vence or his family at the time of his visit. He said he went to the jail to see Vence because “I wanted to.”
“I felt like I needed to,” he said.
During the news conference at HPD headquarters, Finner declined to comment on Quanell’s visit.
“He’s been working with law enforcement for years,” Finner said. “I don’t know how he got there, or what was said when he was there. I know that he did get some information about the whereabouts of this little angel.”