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Child’s body found in California home of man dating mother of missing girl, police say

Police are searching for a California man after the body of a child was found in his Central Valley home, authorities said Saturday.

The body was found Thursday in Dhante Jackson’s residence in Merced, police from the cities of Merced and Hayward said in separate statements.

Sophia Mason
Sophia Mason.Hayward Police Department via AP

Jackson is the boyfriend of a woman whose 8-year-old daughter, Sophia Mason, was reported missing Tuesday.

Two separate probes have been launched into Sophia’s case: one in Merced, where Jackson lived, and the other in the Bay Area, where a relative reported concern for the child’s well-being and whereabouts to Hayward police.

Following the relative’s request for help Tuesday, officers twice visited Jackson’s home in Merced in their search for Sophia and her mother, Samantha Johnson, but no one answered the door, Hayward police said.

Johnson was taken into custody Thursday. After her arrest, Hayward police said they received information that “re-confirmed” Jackson’s residence as a probable location for Sophia.

A body was discovered when Merced authorities went back to the residence, police from both departments said.

Johnson faces a murder charge connected to Sophia’s case, Merced police said. She has also been jailed on charges of obstruction of an officer’s investigation and corporal injury to a child, Santa Rita jail records show.

Johnson was also the subject of a child abuse investigation in 2021, and has an active warrant from the case, Merced police said.

A murder warrant has been issued for Jackson, Merced police said.

It wasn’t clear if Johnson or Jackson had legal representation. The public defender’s office in Merced did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Melonie Verlatti, who said she has known Sophia since she was born, told NBC Bay Area the discovery of a body in the case prompted “just complete and total shock.”

“So hard to believe,” she said.

The Merced County coroner will determine the identification and cause of death.