Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputies have arrested Matthew Flugence, 20, the relative of Ahlittia North who is suspected of stabbing the 6-year-old Harvey girl to death and stuffing her into a trash can.
At around 10 p.m. Tuesday, deputies got word that a person matching Flugence’s description had been spotted near Victory Drive and the Westbank Expressway in Westwego, according to a Sheriff’s Office spokesman. Flugence, who was armed with a knife, was taken into custody without incident, authorities said.
After questioning, Flugence was to be booked into the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center with one count of first-degree murder, as well as with a pending count of sexual battery stemming from an unrelated case, authorities said.
The arrest came nearly 24 hours after sheriff’s investigators called Ahlittia’s mother, Lisa North, to let her know they had news about her missing daughter.
“We got all excited thinking she was alive,” Albert Hill, Ahlittia’s stepfather said Tuesday.
But the development was devastating: deputies told Hill and North that they had found Ahlittia’s tiny body stuffed at the bottom of a trash can rolled out to the curb six doors down from her mother’s apartment in Harvey, hours before a garbage truck was scheduled to empty it.
The family’s gut-wrenching day only got worse when Sheriff Newell Normand named Hill’s nephew -- Flugence -- the prime suspect in Ahlittia’s death. Deputies believe hefatally stabbed the girl, cutting her twice in the neck and twice in her abdomen.
Flugence, who already was wanted for an unrelated alleged sexual battery of an 11-year-old girl in late April or early May, now faces a charge of first-degree murder. State law calls for that charge if a victim is younger than 12.
Flugence’s brother, 21-year-old Russell Flugence, was booked with obstruction of justice earlier Tuesday after he completed an interview with investigators who believe he knew about the crime and did not alert authorities, Normand said.
Ahlittia disappeared from the family’s apartment in the 2900 block of Destrehan Avenue sometime between about 11 p.m. Friday, when she went to bed, and 8 a.m. Saturday, when Hill awoke to find her gone. Investigators found no sign of forced entry to the house.
Relatives said earlier in the day that they were convinced someone Ahlittia knew and trusted kidnapped her and ultimately killed her.
Matthew Flugence was no stranger to Ahlittia, her 1-year-old brother and 9-month-old sister, having baby-sat the children on several occasions, relatives said. He also lived at 2900 Destrehan Ave., across a small courtyard from Ahlittia.
The news that Matthew Flugence was wanted in the death stunned Hill. “I could’ve passed out,” he said. “Everything points to him. It feels like a nightmare.”
Hill said he was completely unaware of Matthew Flugence’s other charge. “If I’d known that, he never would’ve been near my family,” he said.
Hill added that he had no idea what might have led Matthew Flugence to kill the child.
Hill said he spoke to Russell Flugence just days ago and that he said he knew nothing. “Words can’t describe how I’m feeling,” Hill said.
Normand said investigators believe the door of the apartment was locked, which Hill said was true. Hill said Matthew Flugence did not have a key to the apartment, so Ahlittia must have unlocked the door at some point during the night.
Bernard Barnett, Ahlittia’s uncle, said earlier in the day that it would have been impossible for the girl, who was 4 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed 60 pounds, to open the front door and an iron security gate on her own. The door, he said, was difficult even for adults to open, and the gate is heavy.
That led the family to believe someone took her.
“It’s somebody she knows,” Barnett said.
And that likely led to Ahlittia’s death, said Shenitha Cox, a cousin.
If someone harmed her and then released her, that person would have been identified, she said. “The problem was she can talk,” Cox said.
Normand said the early stages of the investigation led detectives to the yard of a fourplex at 2836 Destrehan Ave. Neighbors told deputies on Saturday morning that they heard gunshots behind the building between 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Friday. A pool of blood was in the yard. Samples were taken, but it took another three days before DNA results were returned.
Meanwhile, a search of local hospitals and clinics turned up no gunshot victims, Normand said. That, coupled with the fact that video footage from a nearby grocery store showed Ahlittia with her mom, stepfather and siblings together at 10:38 p.m., perplexed investigators, who spent the weekend canvassing a wooded area across the street from the apartment, searching 400 to 600 homes and checking in trashcans and abandoned buildings in search of the girl.
“This case has been a huge investigation,” Normand said.
Interviews with several people began to point to a person who might have information about the disappearance: Matthew Flugence.
Hill said he hadn’t seen Matthew Flugence in several weeks, adding that Matthew Flugence’s girlfriend last spoke with him on Friday. But Normand said the suspect was “in and around” the area on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Jefferson Parish coroner Gerry Cvitanovich said an autopsy found that Ahlittia had two “very aggressive” stab wounds to her neck — likely fatal wounds — and two stab wounds on her abdomen. She also had bruising on the right front and back of her head, her right shoulder, lower back and legs, Cvitanovich said.
Normand said test results to determine if she was sexually assaulted were not yet returned, but the coroner said there were no obvious signs of that from the autopsy.
Though her blood was found behind one of the abandoned fourplexes on Destrehan Avenue, it was not clear if Ahlittia was killed there, nor was it clear how long she might have been dead before her body was found, Normand said. Cvitanovich noted her body did show some signs of decomposition.
Also unknown is where her body might have been stored if she was killed days ago, since authorities during the weekend searched the area, including the garbage can in which she was eventually discovered, but never previously found her.
The DNA results on the blood samples collected behind the abandoned fourplex were returned about 10:30 p.m. Monday. While some investigators reviewed those, others were on Destrehan Avenue, searching. They made the grisly discovery at about 11 p.m.
Ahlittia was stuffed in the trashcan, either wrapped in or under a blanket that was missing along with her, under some other trash, Normand said.
“We still have not gotten to a conclusion in this matter,” Normand said. “We still have our nose to the grindstone.”
The case, he added, remains open and under investigation.
“A 6-year-old missing is one of those goosebump, shock-the-conscience situations,” Normand said. “It’s the ultimate nightmare of a parent to wake up and their child’s gone and (they) have no idea what happened to the child.”
Rene Johnson, Ahlittia’s grandmother, said the child had only lived with her mother at her West Bank apartment the last few weeks.
Before that, Johnson said, the girl had lived with Johnson and Johnson’s son, Mark Johnson —Ahlittia’s biological father — in Donaldsonville.
“Littia,” as she was known, was a regular child, Rene Johnson said, who enjoyed singing and talking to anyone.
That someone could harm the carefree child was hard for Johnson to grapple with.
“What kind of heart does he have?” she asked earlier in the day.
Ahlittia’s mother was inconsolable Tuesday afternoon when she learned of the latest developments in the case.
“She’s just a baby,” she said in between loud wails. “She don’t mess with nobody.”
Hill asked that Matthew Flugence surrender himself to the authorities.
“We know it’s you,” he said. “If you don’t want to do it for me, do it for Ahlittia.”
Throughout the day many people — including dozens of neighborhood children — placed stuffed animals in front of the fourplex.
A sign placed among the colorful bears, dogs and other creatures expressed hope that the happy girl who met such a brutal end was finally at peace.
“She’s dancing in heaven now,” it read.