As Robin Goen pulled out of her driveway Friday, a new neighbor ran up with an urgent question.
“Have you seen a little girl?” the neighbor asked, Goen recalled Sunday. The missing girl, Goen said, was Skylar Jade Dials, 9, whose body was found nearby several hours later. And the neighbor was Shane Clifton Collett, 40, who faces kidnapping and murder charges in Skylar’s disappearance and death.
When she saw Collett’s jail-booking photo on television Saturday, “I could not believe he was the one out heading the search,” Goen said. “My God. He knew all along.”
In a rural section of Spalding County on Sunday, Goen and others tried to make sense of what had happened in their neighborhood the past 48 hours. Normally quiet except for the occasional car’s crunching along the gravel road or hunters’ gunshots echoing from nearby woods, the Williamson community reeled not just from the killing, but from the news that both the victim and the accused lived among them.
“We have a little crime, but not murder,” said Charles Garner, a truck driver who has lived across Yarbrough Mill Road from the crime scene for 30 years. “Leave the babies and the old folks alone.”
Collett remained in jail without bond Sunday. Neighbors said police took him into custody Friday evening, apparently a few hours before state game wardens located Skylar’s body behind a pile of logging debris.
Authorities gave no new information, such as the cause or time of the girl’s death. A spokeswoman for the Spalding County sheriff’s office said more details might be made public Wednesday. The state’s child protective agency said it had previous contacts with Skylar and members of her family but details were not available over the weekend.
Skylar, a fourth-grader at Orrs Elementary School in Griffin, moved to the Williamson community several months ago with her aunt and uncle, identified by neighbors and public records as Renae and Robert Lupes. No one answered the door at their house Sunday. At the end of their driveway, a small memorial took shape as friends placed stuffed animals and hand-lettered messages. A Mylar balloon with the word “Princess” bobbed in the breeze above the teddy bears and other toys. “We will always miss you,” a pink poster said.
Neighbors recalled seeing Skylar playing in the family’s expansive front lawn and occasionally riding an all-terrain vehicle with a relative.
“You’d never see her out by herself,” neighbor Michael Moore said. “She was always with somebody.”
Skylar, who had a hearing impairment, loved drawing and Hello Kitty and gave hugs to almost everyone she met, according to a woman who said she is the mother of one of Skylar’s friends. Skylar was supposed to spend Friday night with her daughter, said the mother whom the AJC is not identifying because of her request to protect her young child’s privacy, but Skylar’s aunt called about 4 p.m. to say she was missing.
Late that morning, Skylar had left home wearing her favorite sweater: a hand-me-down pink and white cardigan. School was out for the holidays, and she was going to play with another girl who lived barely a quarter-mile away, just out of sight of her own house along a dirt road lined with pens that hold horses and donkeys.
That playmate was there with her mother and two men: the homeowner and Collett. Neighbors said they were unsure about the relationship between Collett and the others, and no one came to the door there Sunday. Collett apparently moved in no more than a couple of months ago.
On the back window of a truck in the driveway, a decal honors Collett’s daughter, Bethany, who died in 2007. According to a Facebook page maintained by family members, the girl was born with cerebral palsy and other disabilities and died just before her fifth birthday.
Collett’s Facebook page says he graduated from Fayette County High School in 1992, and public records show that he worked in the city of Fayetteville’s water department. He filed for personal bankruptcy in 2005. Public records do not indicate that he has a criminal record.
Reached by telephone on Sunday, his father, Joe Collett, who lives in Jonesboro, said, “I can’t tell you nothing because I don’t know nothing.”
Like others in the Williamson community, Shane Collett joined law enforcement authorities in the search for Skylar as dusk approached Friday.
Moore, one of the neighbors, said that when he saw Collett, “he was standing there like nothing had happened.”
“Everything was normal,” Moore said. “You would never, ever think …” His voice trailed off.
When Collett stopped Goen on Friday, she said, he never used Skylar’s name and simply said the girl “never made it to the house.”
Goen stopped by the memorial outside Skylar’s house late Sunday morning to tidy up the offerings left in the child’s honor. What happened, she said, was beyond comprehension.
“Right before Christmas,” she said. “She was 9 years old. She had her whole life ahead of her.”