As authorities continued their search for a man they believe killed an 8-year-old from Hayward earlier this year, new details are emerging about horrific abuse the child allegedly endured at an unassuming Merced home from the suspect and her own mother.
Dhante Dwayne Jackson, 34, is wanted on murder and felony child abuse charges in connection to the death of Sophia Mason. The Merced Police Department is offering a $3,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.
Sophia’s mother, Samantha Johnson, 31, has also been charged with murder and felony child abuse. She is in custody without bail and is scheduled to be arraigned Monday in Merced County Superior Court.
Jackson, who is Johnson’s boyfriend, is a Black male standing 5-feet-11-inches tall and weighing approximately 220 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes. Police believe he is in the Bay Area, as he has family in the area and was working here prior to the discovery of Sophia’s body.
A Merced police report stated that Jackson worked for Facebook, but a spokesperson for Meta — the company’s new name — said he was employed by CBRE, a commercial real estate and investment firm that contracted with Meta.
— Merced Police Department (@MercedPolice) March 24, 2022
Sophia was reported missing to Hayward police on March 8 by her grandmother and aunt, who grew concerned after Johnson told them that she was coming to the Bay Area without Sophia because she “gave her away.” When officers located Johnson two days later in Newark, Jackson was with her. Hayward police arrested Johnson on a warrant stemming from a 2021 child abuse case but released Jackson at the scene because at that time police were looking for Sophia and there was “only probable cause for Johnson,” said Hayward police spokeswoman Cassondra Fovel.
Johnson told detectives in a later interview that Jackson had instructed her to lie to law enforcement and tell them that Sophia was fine and was in Texas, according to the police report. Johnson and Jackson went to an AT&T store shortly before she was arrested and changed their cell phone numbers to Texas area codes.
The day after Johnson’s arrest, Merced police searched Jackson’s residence on Barclay Way and discovered Sophia’s body inside.
Melissa Harris, a cousin of Sophia, called it “unfortunate” that police were unable to apprehend Jackson initially but said she was told by detectives that they tried everything they could and “time ran out and they had to let him go.”
“It’s sad, disappointing and infuriating,” Harris said. “But now that he’s gone, we just hope that the FBI, DOJ and everyone else is going to do everything they can to try and apprehend him.”
In charging documents filed earlier this week, Merced County District Attorney Kimberly Lewis alleges that Johnson and Jackson killed Sophia “on or about Feb. 10, 2022, to March 11, 2022.”
It is unclear at this time how Sophia died or how long she was dead before her body was found. An investigative police report included in the court filing earlier this week paints a picture of what may have led to her death.
According to the police report, Johnson told detectives that the pair kept Sophia in a metal shed in the backyard of the home and that Jackson physically and sexually abused her. Authorities said they collected evidence to support that claim.
The trio moved to Merced in November 2021 after Johnson was kicked out of a sober living housing facility in Alameda County, according to the report. Until January 2021, when Johnson decided to take her daughter under her care, Sophia lived in Hayward with her her grandmother and aunt, although neither of them had formal custody of her, according to relatives.
The mother told police that Jackson’s abuse began in Hayward when Sophia was seven years old and escalated over time. She said she gave Jackson permission to “discipline” Sophia and took little to no action to stop the abuse because she was afraid of him, the report states.
Johnson said Sophia had bruises and belt marks and patches of hair missing from her head as a result of Jackson’s abuse.
She told police that on Feb. 10, she removed Sophia, who had “feces on her”, from the shed so that she could take a shower. After leaving Sophia in the bathroom, Johnson said she heard a “thud,” as if someone had fallen, and that Jackson told her later that her daughter wanted to be left alone, according to the report.
The next morning Johnson saw that the back sliding door was open and assumed that Sophia had run away. She told police that she did not contact authorities or ask neighbors whether they had seen her daughter.
Almost exactly a month later, when Merced police arrived at the home to look for Sophia, they found her body in a bathtub inside a locked bathroom on the first floor of the home.
The two-story home where they were living in Merced is located in a quiet, newer subdivision in the northern part of the city. Neighbors say they moved there for the neighborhood’s safe, peaceful environment.
“I know this kind of stuff can happen anywhere, but I never thought it was going to be next to me,” said a neighbor who asked not to be named out of concern for their children’s safety.
Another neighbor said they rarely saw the trio because they always kept their curtains drawn and typically came in and out of the house in the middle of the night.
“If anything, I used to kind of feel suspicious of them because you know how normal families function — going outside, saying hi to your neighbors,” the neighbor said. “But I never saw them, never met them, never talked to them.”
Anyone with information about the case or Jackson’s whereabouts can call Detective John Pinnegar at 209-388-7712 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.