"That cold ain't the weather. That's death approaching."
-The Strange, "30 Days of Night."
It was the 23rd of December 2009. The day before Christmas Eve. Children across the world were waking up to count down the number of sleeps left until the big day. But in one house in Salisbury, Wicomico County, Maryland, United States, their day started off with a sinking feeling of fear and dread. Eleven year old Sarah Haley Foxwell was missing.
Sarah had eight siblings. She lived with her aunt Amy, who was her legal guardian, in a converted farm house. The night before they had pizza and went to bed around 9pm dressed in their Christmas sleepwear. Sarah shared a bedroom with her younger sister, six year old Emma. The bedroom was at the end of a hall beside the back door. The temperature had dipped below freezing when they went to bed so they knew they would have a beautiful white Christmas that year.
Early the next morning, the 23rd of December, Jennifer received a call around 7am. Jennifer was Sarah's mother and had been working overtime so that she could buy the children gifts for Christmas. Jennifer wasn't expecting to hear from Amy so early but Amy's call made her immediately concerned. Amy could not find Sarah. She had checked the barn , inside and outside, but there was no sign of her. They reported her missing.
Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis and Sergeant David Owens and the entire sheriff's department went to Amy's house.
There was something that disturbed them about the case. Even though the only item missing was her green toothbrush, nobody believed Sarah just left on her own in the middle of the night. They believed she was kidnapped and taken from her bed when everyone in the house was asleep. But as there was no sign of forced entry in the house and the dog did not bark, police believed it was someone who was familiar with the house and the family. When police searched the house, they noticed that while the front doors and windows were all locked tight, the back door which was beside Sarah's bedroom was open and the spare key that Amy left in the garden was missing.
A statewide Amber Alert was issued.
Emma told her family that she knew what happened to Sarah. She pretended to be asleep when a man she knew, Tommy, entered the bedroom. He was the one who had Sarah. Tommy was a thirty year old man, Thomas Leggs Jnr. He knew the family as he had dated Amy but he had not been in touch for over a month. Their relationship had ended. Amy confirmed that Thomas knew where the spare key in the garden was and he knew which bedroom belonged to Sarah.
When they had dated, Thomas was at the house frequently and spent time with the children. Police knew exactly who Thomas was. He was a registered sex offender in both Maryland and Delaware. He had spent time in prison for the molestation of a twelve year old girl in Salisbury and been arrested for assaults on two children at a local mall and a sixteen year old at Delaware's Rehoboth Beach boardwalk.At the time of Sarah's disappearance, he was out on bond. He was arrested and accused of assaulting a twenty four year old woman just a few months before Sarah was taken. The woman in that case told police he broke into her house at 4am and was standing over her bed undressing himself.
Thomas lived just a few miles from Amy's house. He lived in a shed on his parent's property. Police found him and brought him to the station for questioning. They were aware that he had molested and sexually assaulted young girls in the past but to their knowledge, he had never killed anyone before so their main focus was to find Sarah and to find her alive.
Police told Thomas to give himself up and tell them where Sarah was as Emma saw him in the bedroom so they could place him at Amy's house that night. He denied being in the house that night. He said that he was at a bar in Salisbury until 1 am. After that, he drove straight home. Nobody could verify where he was between 1am and 7am. He claimed he was at home so police checked his phone records. That night, he sent text messages to multiple women and tried to meet up with them. They all declined. In the early hours of the morning when Sarah disappeared, his phone pinged off of three different cellphone towers.The cell tower data placed him in a specific area. It allowed police to focus on that area only off Melson Road, east of Rum Ridge Road in Delmar.
On Christmas Day, the city of Salisbury saw the best and worst of humanity. That day, despite it being Christmas Day, thousands of volunteers from the community helped police search for Sarah. Every Wicomico deputy helped in some way and police K-9s and experts in fugitive tracking from around the state joined on the ground. Officers from neighboring communities on horses and ATVs combed woods, fields and roadside ditches for any sign of Sarah. Helicopters searched the area by air also.
Despite the searches, the prayers, the wishes and hope, there was no Christmas miracle that year. At around 4pm, Sarah's body was found in Lily Lane in a wooded area of Wicomico County near the Maryland-Delaware line. It is a small side road about sixty feet into the woods. Sarah had been murdered. She was on her back and her arms were stretched towards the sky with her fists clenched.
Sarah's death was ruled as a homicide. Thomas was charged with her murder.
The case against Thomas was strong. Emma saw him in the bedroom that night and later picked him out of a lineup. Sarah's toothbrush was found in his gold 2003 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck. Sarah’s hair and fibers from the Christmas themed pyjama bottoms she had worn to bed were found on the passenger side of his truck. The tire marks in the snow near Amy's house from that night matched his truck and DNA from his underwear matched Sarah's DNA.
Police believed that Thomas kidnapped Sarah from her bedroom in the middle of the night and sexually assaulted her. The Autopsy revealed she had multiple injuries to her body. A number of the injuries such as asphyxia, smoke inhalation, hypothermia and burns contributed to her death. Police believed that after Thomas sexually assaulted Sarah, he did everything in his power to hide his crime. He knew that Sarah would be able to identify him. Police believed he tried to smother her and drown her in the mud water. Some of that debris was found in her lungs. He then left the woods and returned with gasoline and attempted to burn Sarah's body. When he did this, Sarah was still alive and that is evident from the Autopsy findings of smoke inhalation being a factor in her death.
Due to the severity and savagery of the crime, the State of Maryland wanted to seek the death penalty. Thomas agreed to a plea deal instead. He received two life sentences without parole for the first degree murder and the first degree sexual offences of Sarah. He was also given thirty years for kidnapping and twenty years for burglary. All sentences are to be served consecutively. The plea deal meant that Emma would not have to testify at Trial.
Thomas should never have had the opportunity to even know Sarah, let alone be in her life. He was not safe around children. Regardless of what he may have told others and how he may have portrayed himself, his criminal convictions revealed his true identity and he should never have been near children. His sentences in the past were not good enough either. This was a man who committed serious crimes yet was released early and even when he continued to commit crimes in the State, he was released on Bond which afforded him not only more time to rape again but this time to escalate his crimes and murder a child.
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"The criminal justice system will take a hard look at what happened to Matthew Eappen. It is up to the rest of us to take an even harder look at who is minding our children."
- Eileen McNamara, the Boston Globe
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- Sandra Pupatello
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