TOPEKA, Kan. — A 25-year-old homeless man was charged Thursday in the rape and killing of a 5-year-old Kansas girl who died despite firefighters’ efforts to save her life in a gas station parking lot.
Mickel Cherry faces one count of capital murder — which would allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty — and one count each of first-degree murder and rape in the death of Zoey Felix on Monday. He was jailed in Topeka on a $2 million bond, and his next court appearance has not yet been determined.
Shawnee County District Attorney Michael Kagay told reporters that a decision about seeking a death sentence won’t be made until after a preliminary hearing to determine whether Cherry stands trial. That is standard in capital cases.
Mark Manna, of the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit, said his office would represent Cherry, but that he had no further comment. Cherry’s family didn’t respond to messages.
Authorities have released no details about the cause of Zoey’s death, but former neighbors of the girl and her family believe she, her father and Cherry had lived the past few weeks in a grove of trees on a wooded lot near the gas station, just blocks from the home where her mother lived. They believed she was carried from the wooded lot to the gas station, but police have not confirmed any of those details.
Kagay said in a news release that Topeka police rushed to a gas station where fire crews were attempting to save Zoey’s life. She was later pronounced dead. A medical examination at the hospital revealed injuries consistent with sexual assault.
“I think the investigation into the murder and rape of this 5-year-old girl is fairly complete,” Kagay told reporters during a brief news conference.
Asked about potentially charging other people, Kagay said, “I’m willing to consider any actionable investigations brought to me,” but when he was asked whether he is aware of any other investigations, he said, “I’m not.”
Timothy Phelps, deputy director of the Shawnee County Department of Corrections, confirmed that Cherry used to live at the same address as Zoey, but at the time of his arrest, Cherry was homeless.
Cherry has no criminal record in Kansas, but he does have a misdemeanor criminal trespass conviction in Amarillo, Texas.
Neighbors said they had raised concerns that Zoey’s family home had no electricity and that they called the police and child welfare.
“She just had a good spirit to her. Honestly, very outgoing, smart. She was curious about everything. She’d ask you a 1,001 questions, and she demanded answers for those too,” said Shaniqua Bradley, a neighbor.
Topeka police confirmed Thursday that they made three visits to the home in September: one on Sept. 5 for a welfare check following a report that the home had no electricity; and two domestic disturbance calls in the afternoon and evening of Sept. 19, a little more than an hour apart. Police did not provide details about those two calls.
City spokeswoman Gretchen Spiker said in an email that during the first call officers confirmed there was no electricity and that they were told the child wasn’t staying there. Police met with the child, saw she was in “good spirits” but still made a report to child welfare and property officials, Spiker said.
The city moved to condemn the house but backed off when the utilities were turned back on. Neighbors said that everyone but the mother had moved out by then.
One tent and a tarp were set up in the woods a few blocks away from the home, in an area about a football field away from the pumps at a Dillons grocery store where fire crews tried to resuscitate Zoey.
Her dad worked at the gas station; a coworker said Wednesday that he was taking time off and the company hasn’t responded to an email from The Associated Press.
A makeshift memorial of flowers, balloons and toys sat nearby.
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. AP news researchers Jennifer Farrar and Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.