People started calling her Precious Doe, and from the moment her body was discovered, she haunted Alonzo Washington. The child was found decapitated April 28, 2001, in a wooded area about 20 miles from Washington's Kansas City, Kans., home. When the girl remained unidentified for a few days, Washington began what turned into a four-year crusade to identify her and find her killer. "No one in her family was claiming her," says Washington, 37, a comic book artist and father of seven. "This little girl had no other champion." So Washington stepped up, organizing candlelight vigils, starting a campaign that raised $33,000 for reward money and even publishing a comic book about Precious. He always figured, he says, "we're only one tip away."

That tip came April 30. Two days earlier, just as he had on every anniversary of the girl's discovery, Washington put an ad about the case in the Kansas City Call newspaper. This time someone phoned in with information that led cops to Michelle Johnson, 30, and her husband, Harrell Johnson, 25. On May 5 police charged the pair with second-degree murder. And Precious Doe finally had a name: Erica Michelle Marie Green, Michelle's 3-year-old daughter. Police credit Washington—a community and child—safety activist (see box)—for helping solve the case and keeping it "in the forefront of people's minds," says Capt. Rich Lockhart. "He's been this child's advocate."

Erica's death had touched the whole community. Hundreds turned out for her funeral in December 2001, and dozens more passed out fliers and answered witness hotlines. Last August residents dedicated a permanent memorial near where Erica was found. "You hear so much about violence you think nothing is ever going to shock you again. Well, this one did," says Susy Campbell, a travel agent from nearby Grandview, Mo., who made a special visit to the memorial after Precious was identified. "She was just a teeny little kid."

The odds were stacked against Erica, the last of five children born to Michelle and Larry Green, from the start. Her mom, a crack cocaine user, was in prison for forgery at the time of her birth. Larry Green, 33, was also a drug user and says he rarely saw his daughter. Soon after Erica's birth, a neighborhood woman Michelle trusted, Betty Brown, now 72, took the girl in.

After splitting with Larry, Michelle married Harrell Johnson, who had served time on a variety of charges, including assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. On April 4, 2001, Michelle picked up Erica from Brown's house, saying she was taking her to a family reunion. She never brought her back and for a short time lived in Kansas City.

For the next four years, Michelle avoided discussions of her daughter's whereabouts—even with Erica's four older siblings, Jasmine, 14, L'Kaila, 11, Elisha, 10, and Larry Jr., 9, who lived with other relatives. "All of us were talking on the phone just this past November, and Jasmine asked Michelle, 'Where's Erica?' Michelle just kept on talking like she never heard the question," says Betty Green, Larry's mother. Police say Michelle told people Erica was living with other family or had been adopted. "The families never communicated," says Muskogee, Okla., police department major Mark Hudson.

Police say Harrell Johnson, while high on PCP, killed Erica by kicking her in the head because she didn't want to go to bed. According to cops, Harrell and Michelle took her to the woods not far from their house, where Harrell cut off her head with hedge clippers and placed it in a garbage bag. Michelle admitted to police that she later passed out fliers for Precious Doe. "To think I might have held her hand during the prayer vigil," says Washington.

Michelle and Harrell soon moved back to Muskogee. After seeing Washington's ad, a relative of one of the suspects called Washington, identified the girl and fingered the Johnsons in her death. Muskogee police then arrested the couple, who face life in prison. Washington simply hopes justice will be done. "There were times when I despaired," he says. "But this case wouldn't let me go. Every kid deserves better than to end up in a trash bag."

Bob Meadows. Pam Grout in Kansas City, Chad Love in Muskogee and Shia Kapos in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Pam Grout,
  • Chad Love,
  • Shia Kapos.