An overnight search for a missing 3-year-old girl ended in tragedy Wednesday morning when law enforcement officers found the child’s body in the New River about a half-mile from where she was last seen. The girl’s mother and the mother’s boyfriend were arrested and charged with felony child neglect and reckless disregard for life and felony child endangerment.
According to the Wythe County Sheriff’s Office, Kimberly Dawn Moore, 45, and her boyfriend, Adrian Neil Puckett, 45, reported Josie Burleson missing about 7:28 p.m. Tuesday in the Rocky Road area of Barren Springs. More than 100 law enforcement officers and rescue crew members searched through the night and found Burleson about 1 a.m.
Wythe County Sheriff Keith Dunagan said that officers did not know how long the child had been missing because Moore and Puckett “were on meth and they made two or three different statements, and we don’t know which one is correct.”
In criminal complaints against the two filed in the Wythe County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, Investigator C.J. Terry wrote that he had a difficult time holding a conversation with both Moore and Puckett.
Terry wrote that that Puckett told him that he and Moore had recently used crystal meth. The department of social services was then contacted and the couple failed drug tests for methamphetamine.
The sheriff said the couple called 911 from a rental property they were visiting at 290 Rocky Road, near their home at 246 Rocky Hollow Road.
“We believe she wandered down to the river,” Dunagan said. “There was a swing she had been to in the past. It looks like she went in that direction. They found her footprints in the mud at the edge of the river. The current was swift there, and we believe it carried her down the river.”
He said Burleson’s biological father had given up his rights to the child.
The search for Burleson began within minutes of the first responder’s arrival at the scene. The sheriff’s office was assisted by the Lead Mines Rescue Squad, the Virginia State Police, New River Trail Police, Virginia Conservation Police, Wytheville Police Department, Pulaski Fire Department, Black Diamond Search and Rescue, and Southwest Virginia Mounted Search and Rescue. The searchers looked in fields, on trails and in the water for more than 5.5 hours.
The search took an emotional toll on the rescue crews, many of whom have young children of their own.
“I said bye to my 3-year-old blonde daughter to go look for this girl,” one officer said.
Moore and Puckett are both being held at the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail in Dublin.
The court’s clerk said the pair were “unable to participate” in arraignments on Wednesday, but are scheduled to appear Thursday afternoon.
The sheriff said more charges are pending in the ongoing investigation.
“We are praying for the family,” Dunagan said. “It’s a horrible thing.”
To reach reporter Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 35, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Jasmine Dent Franks contributed to this story.