SEARCY, Ark. — Officer Terri Lee closed her eyes and turned away, hurriedly wiping away tears as she talked about Malik Drummond.
Over the course of a year, the investigation into the child’s disappearance consumed hundreds of man-hours and involved 25 officers from the Searcy Police Department. Three officers recounted the effect the missing child had on them and others.
Lee first heard about Malik around 6:30 on the evening of Nov. 23, 2014, the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
Malik’s father, Jeff Clifton, had notified police that the 2-year-old was missing. Clifton and his girlfriend, Lesley Marcotte, had been keeping the boy and his twin sister, Aryanna, for the past two weeks for their mother.
The couple told officers Malik had wandered away while the other children in the house took a nap.
The Police Department sent out a mass text asking officers to help search for the missing toddler.
Lee left the Sunday night service at her church to join the search.
Officer Brian Wyatt had just gotten off of a long weekend shift when he got the message. He was tired. Any other call, he might not have gone. But this was a child.
Wyatt and his wife had been trying to have a child for 11 years when this smiling, brown-eyed boy disappeared, just a few miles from the department where they work.
“Any good cop will tell you it’s hard to let go of any case,” Wyatt says. “But when it comes to a child, it opens up a whole new element. It’s so hard to stop.”
Lt. Steve Taylor was driving home from visiting relatives when he heard about Malik. Taylor dropped his family off at home, then drove to the search scene.
The missing little boy would touch every person at the department in some way.
“In many ways,” Taylor said, “Malik became our child.”
In a photo Malik’s family gave police for a search poster, he stands beside a kitchen counter in a blue camouflage shirt and oversized jeans. He is too short to see over the bar.
Tanya Drummond, Malik’s mother, said he was always laughing, always happy. He listened when someone spoke to him, but he rarely replied. He wasn’t picking up speech as quickly as Aryanna. Drummond thought he could be autistic, but she never had him tested.
Malik was afraid of loud noises and darkness. So his mother let him and Aryanna sleep with a night light on with the bedroom door open.
Drummond said the twins were best friends. They did everything together.
In the living room, Drummond would turn on music so the twins could dance together.
“They were dancing to some music I was playing, and Aryanna would fall and Malik would pick her up. He would fall, and she would go pick him up. It was so funny,” Drummond said.
When officers didn’t find Malik the first day, the department began a search that would grow to involve more than 400 volunteers from all over White County.
Searchers walked through the community, asking neighbors if they’d seen him. They crawled underneath houses and into small, dark spaces where a child might hide.
Would a scared 2-year-old who had trouble speaking answer when he heard his name? Would a child afraid of loud noises run when he heard the searchers shouting?
The department notified the FBI and sent out an AMBER Alert, a notice that sends a photo of a missing or abducted child to news media and digital highway signs. Police set up kiosks across the neighborhood to direct the swarm of volunteers, but no one found anything.
There was nothing to find.
The community hunt continued for a week. But on Dec. 1, 2014, the volunteers were told to go home. For them, the search was over.
For the Searcy Police Department, the search was just beginning.
Searchers scoured the Little Red River. Scent and cadaver dogs worked the riverbanks. Divers from the Pulaski County sheriff’s office water patrol unit scoured the river’s floor in 36-degree weather.
Wyatt walked the banks for three weeks.
His blue eyes fill with tears as he remembers the fruitless days.
“I kept thinking, ‘Today’s the day we’re going to bring that baby home.'”
But the search dragged on.
When Christmas arrived, Tanya Drummond saved Malik’s presents so she could give them to her child when they brought him home.
Lee and Taylor suspected early on that Malik had not really just walked out of his home.
When a specialist at the White County Child Safety Center spoke to Clifton’s and Marcotte’s children, the officers learned that Marcotte sometimes put a sock in Malik’s mouth and wrapped duct tape around his head to keep him quiet or to teach him a lesson.
Marcotte denied taping a sock in Malik’s mouth. There wasn’t even tape in the house, she said in a video interview:
Taylor tells her that investigators found three rolls of tape and child-sized socks with blood on them in her home.
Marcotte says she had taped the sock in Malik’s mouth only once.
She would never hurt a child, she says.
Marcotte crosses and uncrosses her legs nervously. She says people in the neighborhood had blamed her for the disappearance.
“I told them, ‘When they find him, and they prove I had nothing to do with it, everybody in here is going to kiss my feet.'”
As the investigation wore on, Wyatt often went to his church, The Gathering Place, still in uniform and filled with questions he didn’t know how to answer.
It’s easy to get angry with God in a case like Malik’s, Wyatt said. Why would this happen to a child?
Barrak Stafford, Wyatt’s minister, worried about him.
“I watched him go day and night,” Stafford said. “I even told him, ‘You’re going to have to stop and get some rest.'”
Wyatt said every officer on the case broke down crying at some point. The strain pulled officers together.
“We all felt like he was ours,” Wyatt said. “We never knew him … but we wanted to bring him home.”
Lee encountered questions about the case everywhere she went.
“What do you know?” people around town would ask her, at the grocery store, at the bank, at church.
Officers weren’t allowed to discuss details then, but that was all people wanted to talk about.
Lee began to avoid the questions. She stopped going anywhere she might be recognized.
She knew early that when this case was over, she would need a break.
“I’m not going to be tough all of the time,” she said. “I can’t be.”
Calls flooded in about Malik. People from Iowa to Texas to California said they’d seen the missing toddler at a Wal-Mart, a gas station or a farmers market.
Investigators followed up more than 300 leads over 12 months, requesting security videos, traveling, making phone calls.
The photo of one child from a report in Texas looked so much like Malik that even Drummond couldn’t decide if it was her son.
A ransom letter sent to a friend of the family in February was from a scammer in Nigeria.
One tip said Malik had been taken because of a drug deal, but the woman the letter accused of taking him was in jail at the time of the child’s disappearance.
Authorities in Chicago found the hands, feet and head of a toddler in Garfield Park lagoon. For a brief moment, Searcy officers thought they’d found Malik. But it was a different lost child.
While disproving all of the distant tips and far-fetched claims, the investigators never took their eyes off the little family.
In April 2015, Lee spoke to a friend of Clifton’s who said she remembered Marcotte saying that “she could not handle the twins and that, if it was just one of them, that she could handle it.”
Officers often tailed Clifton or Marcotte and studied the family’s phone, Facebook and email records. Marcotte’s email handle was “iluvmykids07.”
In August and September, when Malik would have been preparing for his first day of preschool, the officers again interviewed witnesses from the beginning of the investigation. Some people painted a happy picture of Clifton and Marcotte; others reported abuse and yelling in the home.
In early November, Lee reviewed videos of old interviews with Marcotte. She wrote about it in her investigator’s notes.
“I watched more Lesley videos this morning. I saw the part again where it was mentioned that Malik could have fallen and bumped his head, brain swelled, and died. She said ‘Malik is clumsy. He fell 2 or 3 times that day. He fell off the toilet that day, toward the bathtub.'”
As the anniversary of Malik’s disappearance neared, Little Rock’s FBI field office announced a $20,000 reward for anyone with information, and the Police Department redoubled its efforts.
On Nov. 23, Lee and FBI special agent Brandon Watkins, who had worked with the officers since the case began, interviewed Marcotte again — exactly a year after Clifton reported Malik missing.
Lee felt they were close.
After two hours in the interview room, Marcotte, in the late stages of her eighth pregnancy, finally told a new story.
Malik had not walked away.
Three days before he reported Malik’s disappearance to police, Clifton disciplined his son because he wouldn’t eat his dinner, Marcotte wrote in her confession.
When Malik drank another child’s drink, Clifton disciplined him again.
Malik’s breath became ragged. Marcotte begged Clifton to take Malik to the hospital, but he wouldn’t.
“He was scared to because of how bruised Malik was.”
Malik slept with them that night. His legs grew cold, and his stomach began to swell.
“Malik was biting his finger, and I knew he felt no pain because his finger was bleeding.”
Marcotte wrote that when Malik began to choke, she performed CPR. But it didn’t help.
Clifton wrapped Malik in Marcotte’s purple robe and went outside to take him to the hospital.
But Malik died before they got there.
He died in the arms of his father. In the arms of his killer, Marcotte said.
Clifton decided to conceal Malik’s death, waiting three days to borrow his brother’s Dodge Durango and leaving in the middle of the night, she said.
She had to stick to the story that the 2-year-old had wandered away, or Clifton “would bring me down with him or he would get rid of me. So I did as he told me.”
Marcotte agreed to record a phone conversation with Clifton for police.
Clifton tells her the police have nothing on them.
“They can’t come after you with nothing. Period,” he says. “All you got to remember is to keep saying you don’t know.”
The department got a warrant for Clifton’s arrest and took him in for questioning on Dec. 1, 2015, one year after the community search ended.
The interview began like many others had. The officers worked through the timeline again, this time focusing on the days before Malik’s disappearance.
Clifton, 6 feet 7 inches, speaks with a slow, deep voice in the video.
The 42-year-old leans forward in his seat and gestures with his hands as he tells the familiar story.
Then Taylor tells Clifton about Marcotte’s confession, and everything changes.
Clifton leans back in his seat sullenly. He begins asking for his children and his mother. He fidgets in his seat, his voice growing louder.
“I’m not saying nothing until I can at least see my kids and tell them goodbye. If I can do that, I’ll tell y’all everything,” he says.
“I did not kill my son. Anybody who knows me knows I love my kids. I did not kill my son. I did not kill my son.”
The officers press further. If he tells them the truth, he could see his children, they say.
“Can I at least call a lawyer? I’m going to tell you … I want him to be here to hear this.”
The officers pause for a moment.
“Can you take us to where Malik was put?” Taylor asks.
In this retelling of Malik’s last hours, the little boy caused his own death.
Malik fell twice the night he died, once off of the toilet, once on the way to the table for dinner, Clifton said. The rest of the story parallels Marcotte’s.
While the officers plan their next move, the video shows Clifton waiting in an interrogation room. He puts his head in his hands as he sits doubled over in his seat. An officer enters the room and puts his hand on Clifton’s shoulder. The tall man looks up and says:
“I’m just ready to get my son. I just want to get him from where he is and do this the right way.”
It was dark by the time eight officers — Wyatt, Taylor and Lee among them — reached the field where Clifton said he left Malik.
In the video, the waist-high grass looked like thin, white fingers reaching out for the officers.
Clifton walks in one direction and then another, handcuffs on his wrists and a constant stream of words coming from his mouth.
The group walks past an abandoned house. The sound of cars on the road can be heard in the distance as Clifton and the officers slosh through the cold, wet grass.
“I remember this … I remember it was right over here,” Clifton says. “I remember it because I jumped this fence … this has got to be the place.”
But he continues wandering in the dark.
Later Taylor said he noticed a change.
“He always spoke of Malik as a person. When we were in the field, it struck both of us that he said, ‘I put it right here.’
“I think, in that instant, Malik became an ‘it.'”
In the video one of the officers points out a white cloth on the ground — a sheet Clifton had used to swaddle his son before leaving him there one year and eight days before.
Inside the sheet the officers found the toddler’s pants and a child’s small, white bones.
The officers returned to the department, where they conducted a final interview and allowed Clifton’s mother, father and brother to speak with him.
In the video of the interview, Clifton’s mother, May Clifton, cries, “Please. Please tell me it’s not true.”
Their voices overlap in heated confusion as he tries to calm his mother, and she begs him to explain. After a few moments, May sits on the floor at her son’s feet and waits for him to speak.
Clifton tells her Malik fell onto a bed frame when he spanked the boy, and it knocked the wind out of him. Malik’s breathing became ragged.
Clifton says he decided to take his child to the emergency room. But Malik died before he got there.
He says he thought about his first son, Jeff Jr., who died when a passing car struck him on his way to school in Texas. Clifton tells them that was the first time he had ever seen his father cry.
With his son dead in the back seat of the Durango, he thought about how this death would affect his family.
He decided it would be better if Malik was missing than if he was dead.
“That’s why I did this,” Clifton says. “I didn’t want y’all to hurt like this.”
The officers went home late that night, as they had so many nights before. But this time it was over.
“I remember going home that night, and I laid down in bed and started crying, and my wife asked what was the matter,” Taylor said.
“He deserved better than to be left in a field in the middle of nowhere.”
Lee wrote the obituary for a child she loved but never knew.
She organized Malik’s memorial service for Dec. 19, 2015. Family and members of the community who had searched the neighborhood a year before went to remember Malik, but law enforcement officers comprised more than half of the crowd.
Lee’s parents drove from Georgia to attend the memorial. They knew how much Malik meant to her.
What actually happened to Malik remains unclear because of competing confessions.
One version placed Malik’s death on Wednesday night or Thursday morning, Nov. 19 or 20, 2014, but according to police records, a neighbor reported seeing Malik in their yard playing with other children on Saturday.
Another version said Clifton was alone the night he took Malik’s body and disposed of it in Jackson County. Another that he and Lesley drove there together.
In one of his last recorded confessions, Clifton said he, Marcotte and three of their children made the 40-minute drive together, with Malik’s body in the back of the SUV as the other children, unaware, slept in the back seat.
Officials found few remains in the field. Medical examiners found evidence of a fracture on a piece of Malik’s skull and a rib. The state Crime Laboratory said blunt force head and chest injuries caused his death.
Clifton pleaded no contest to second-degree murder on May 27, 2016. He received a 40-year sentence.
Marcotte pleaded guilty July 7 to felony hindering apprehension or prosecution. She received a 10-year sentence.
The Searcy Police Department had spent a year looking for a child who was never lost, but Lee said every officer would do it all again.
“Everything that I’ve done in life has led me to that case. I did my job, and we found him, and we brought him home.”
Lee digitized the evidence for FBI records. For six weeks, she went through all the old videos, all the detectives’ notes — a year’s worth of work.
The process helped her deal with her emotions.
“On good days, we’re worried about going home safe. On bad days, we have cases like this,” she said.
“There was always that hope that he was just missing,” she said. “I don’t know if I realized how much hope I had until we found his bones.”
Things are getting better. Lee transferred to patrol to take a break from the criminal investigation division. She’s back at church.
She thinks of Malik only occasionally — when she passes a house she searched when she still hoped Malik was alive, when she sees a little boy the age he was, or the age he would be.
“I remember the first time I went hiking and thought, ‘I don’t have to look for him,'” Lee said. “I don’t wake up and think, ‘Where else could he be?'”
Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.