Virgil Mangualt, Desiree Dixon and Christepher Bohaner pay their respects July 29, 2011, at a makeshift memorial after learning that the charred remains of a little girl found in this home were those of missing 5-year-old Mariha Trenice Smith.
(Photo: Jarrad Henderson, Detroit Free Press)
Tammy Stables Battaglia, Detroit Free Press
DETROIT - A 22-year-old Detroit man has been charged with sexually assaulting, killing and burning his girlfriend's 5-year-old niece in July 2011, according to the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.
Darnell Cheatham was arraigned Monday before Magistrate Steve Lockhart on charges of first-degree premeditated murder, felony murder, arson, torture, child abuse, and dismemberment and mutilation of a body.
Lockhart ordered Cheatham to jail without bond to await a Nov. 1 preliminary hearing.
Mariha Trenice Smith was last seen sleeping in the front room of her house at 3:30 a.m. July 24, 2011, according to investigators. Her 26-year-old mother, who told police she had passed out after a night of drinking at a gathering at the home she shared with a sister, reported Mariha missing a few hours later.
"This very difficult case was solved due to the diligence and tenacity of Wayne County prosecutors and Wayne County Prosecutor's Office investigators," Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a press release. "Much of the work was done on their own time to finally bring justice to little Mariha."
Detroit firefighters found Mariha's body after they were called to a fire in an abandoned home around 8 a.m. the day she was reported missing. After the fire was extinguished, Mariha's charred body was on top of a mattress.
"She was just a happy, pretty baby," her grandmother Diane Henry said a week later when Mariha was definitively identified. "She was a special child."
As early as two weeks into the investigation, police had said Cheatham, who was dating Mariha's aunt, was considered a person of interest. At the time, he was arrested on probation violations and spent about a month and a half in jail but was not charged in connection with Mariha's death.
Investigators say Cheatham spent the early morning hours of July 24 with the girl's mother and aunt, left the house with Mariha, sexually assaulted and killed her, then set the mattress on fire in the home about a dozen blocks away.
The Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office had said Mariha, whose skull was crushed, died of asphyxiation before her body was set on fire. Traces of gasoline were found on her clothing.
At the time, authorities were looking into the purchase of 41 cents of gasoline at a nearby station at 7:44 a.m. that day; 10 minutes later firefighters found Mariha's body.
Cheatham was arrested again Friday.
During his video arraignment, Cheatham remained silent other than answering yes when the magistrate asked if he understood the charges against him. Assistant Prosecutor Mark Hindelang asked that no bond be set for Cheatham considering the seriousness of the charges.