By Catherine E. Shoichet and Alina Machado
(CNN) — The night that ended with Cherish Perrywinkle’s disappearance started with a generous offer at the dollar store.
Investigators said a man met the 8-year-old’s mother at a Dollar General in Jacksonville, Florida, Friday evening. He told her that the family looked like they were down on their luck and that he wanted to take them to Walmart and buy them new clothes.
Hours later, the mom called 911. Her daughter was missing.
The mother and her three children had spent hours shopping at Walmart with the man when he offered to buy hamburgers at the store’s McDonald’s, according to Michael Williams, director of investigations and homeland security for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
The man set off toward the front of the store with Cherish.
That, Williams told reporters, is when something went horribly wrong.
“They walked to the front of the Walmart toward the McDonald’s. They did not stop at the McDonald’s,” he said. “They walked outside, got in his van and left.”
On Saturday morning, investigators found Cherish’s lifeless body in a wooded area near a church 4 miles away.
Authorities accuse the man who offered to buy her family clothes at Walmart, Donald James Smith, with kidnapping and killing her.
He was arrested Saturday morning after an officer spotted his van driving on a local highway.
Suspect appears in court
Smith, 56, pleaded not guilty when he appeared in court on Sunday, CNN affiliate WAWS reported. He is being held without bond. It was not immediately clear whether Smith has a lawyer.
Smith is a registered sex offender who was released from custody less than a month ago, Williams said. Authorities from the sheriff’s office had just made contact with him to verify his address on Friday morning.
According to the Florida Department of Corrections, Smith has a lengthy criminal record that includes crimes involving children. He was most recently convicted of impersonating a public employee and aggravated child abuse by willful torture.
Court records show he was sentenced to a year in the county jail and was released on May 31.
Investigators have not released information about how Cherish died or what they believe Smith was doing from the point of the abduction until his arrest.
Her mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, hasn’t spoken publicly about what happened Friday night, and she declined to discuss the case with WAWS on Sunday.
Williams told reporters that investigators had used all the resources they could to find the child. He said the tragic case offered a sobering reminder.
“Pay attention to your surroundings,” he said. “Pay attention to who you meet, who you give access to your children.”
A devastated community
A makeshift memorial of flowers, balloons, cards and stuffed animals has piled up in front of the church near the area where Cherish was found over the weekend, WAWS reported.
Devastated friends left hand-written notes.
Kendall Cabanda, an elementary school classmate, cried as she told WAWS about how much fun she had riding the bus with Cherish.
“We talked about stuff like TV shows, like girly things about dolls and fairies,” Cabanda said, “about stuff that is imaginary.”
On Sunday, hundreds attended a candlelight vigil to honor Cherish, whom friends described as a vibrant girl who liked to play dress up and loved to sing.
At the vigil, her 5-year-old sister sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for her.
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