Seeking justice for missing girl in Augusta County
As communities in Augusta County mourn, they're also demanding justice in the case of a three-year-old girl who was reported missing in September and is presumed dead. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
On the corner of Cattle Scales and Old White Bridge Road outside of Waynesboro, a banner with a little girl's picture on it demands "Justice for Khaleesi." It's surrounded by offerings from the community: teddy bears, a cross, artificial flowers, costume butterfly wings, a unicorn piñata. The girl is Khaleesi Cuthriell, a three-year-old who was last seen in January, but wasn't reported missing until September of this year – a lapse of time that's been a huge obstacle in the Augusta County Sheriff Office's investigation into what happened.
Her body still has not been found. Sheriff Donald Smith said that he’s not yet at liberty to provide an update on the search.
DONALD SMITH: The reason I'm not going into that is to protect the integrity of the case … I don't mean to be blunt or evasive in any way, but … the investigation is ongoing, and I don't want to release too much information that could, you know, affect the integrity or affect the case in any way.
As the News Leader in Staunton reported, Khaleesi's mother gave the child to Candi Jo Royer in October 2020 to look after while the mother was incarcerated in Middle River Regional Jail. The sheriff's office has now established that no one else has seen Khaleesi since February of this year, but she wasn't reported as missing until September, when Royer herself was reported missing. Royer was found and arrested with her boyfriend, Travis Brown, in Pennsylvania shortly afterwards. The sheriff's office then released a statement saying, [quote] "The investigation has revealed Khaleesi Cuthriell died while in the care of Travis Brown and Candi Royer."
SMITH: We just extradited Brown and Royer back from Pennsylvania … and they're in custody here in our regional jail system. The investigation – we have arrested both of them for felony child neglect, and are pretty much now waiting for them to be arraigned and stuff like that through the court procedures and stuff.
In the meantime, memorials and events commemorating Khaleesi have sprung up all over the area. There's the banner on Cattle Scales Road, which is near where Royer was living while Khaleesi was in her care. The sheriff's office has also put up an image of her, surrounded by purple lights, where mourners have left teddy bears and bouquets.
SMITH: I think it was good for the community to have a place to come honor Khaleesi around the holidays, and remember Khaleesi, but also for the community to know that this agency is working on Khaleesi's case every day, and I may not be putting very much information out, but I'm doing that for a reason, and I'm doing everything that I can to make sure that we bring justice for Khaleesi.
A Facebook group following her case, Justice for Khaleesi, has more than 4,000 members – some of whom have organized events to keep the little girl in the public’s consciousness. Purple has been adopted as her color – I've been told that's either because it was her favorite, or because it's the color of the domestic violence awareness ribbon. Some in Waynesboro have swapped out their porch lights for purple bulbs, or decorated outdoor trees in purple Christmas lights. A group gathered to celebrate what would have been her fourth birthday on December 5th.
JOY CALEDONIA: And that had a pretty good turnout.
Staunton resident Joy Caledonia is one of three local mothers I spoke with via Zoom, with kids and dogs occasionally piping up in the background. They're part of a community crying out in unison that this kind of tragedy can not be allowed to happen again.
ERIN LANDES: I want her to be found, and I want her to be laid to rest, and I want the people responsible for whatever happened to her, I want them to be held to the maximum penalty for what they've done.
Erin Landes is also from Staunton.
LANDES: I want to prevent this from happening to anybody else …
CALEDONIA: And I think, too, that they need to know that this community is not going to let it happen. They're going to know that, you know, she has so much support and people that love her and want her found, and that, you know, we ain't going away.
They were joined by Crystal Riddle of Augusta County, who's made window decals and t-shirts demanding justice for Khaleesi.
CRYSTAL RIDDLE: If they didn't want her, they should have given her to someone who did want to take care of her.
All three women said that in addition to Brown and Royer being prosecuted, systemic changes need to take place within Child Protective Services, so that when a kid's parent goes to jail, their child doesn't fall through the cracks like this. The News Leader reported in September that Shenandoah Valley Social Services, which runs Child Protective Services in Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta County, would not talk about their procedures in such cases. The agency's assistant director, Lisa Shiflett, did not respond to WMRA's interview requests by the time this story aired.
LANDES: It's not said and done and over with after she's laid to rest. There need to be changes. There needs to be stuff that is set in place to prevent this.
A representative of the Augusta County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court told WMRA that Brown and Royers' preliminary hearings will be held on January 12th.