The exact facts of what happened the night little Adelynn Merrell died aren't known, but it apparently was not the first time the little girl had been at the receiving end of violence.

CRESTVIEW — At the end of a dirt road lined with heaps of trash and dense woods, a cluster of candles flickered around a small memorial made of teddy bears, flowers, crosses and dolls.

A wooden “A" was placed at the center of the memorial — for Adelynn Merrell, the 3-year-old Crestview girl whose body was found Friday in the woods not far from her 4700 Bobolink Way home.

The girl’s mother, 23-year-old Destinee J. Merrell, and Merrell’s live-in boyfriend, 29-year-old Cory M. Hagwell, were arrested that same day and charged in the little girl’s death. But as her close-knit neighborhood reels from the tragedy, authorities are starting to put together a timeline of the events that led to Adelynn’s tragic murder.

Conflicting stories

On Nov. 10 at approximately 12:15 p.m., Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers received a 911 call from Merrell reporting her 3-year-old daughter had gone missing and was possibly kidnapped.

When deputies arrived, she told them her blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl was last seen wearing a long sleeve pink shirt, blue jean pants and no shoes while playing with the family dog in the backyard of their home.

But according to her arrest report, a deputy noticed that despite apparently believing her daughter had been kidnapped, Merrell seemed “very calm” and “was not showing any signs of emotion.” After a bit of prodding, Merrell eventually told the deputy, “Adelynn is dead and Cory took her into the woods.”

Investigators found the little girl’s body, clothed in the pink shirt and blue jeans, in the woods off rural Palmetto Avenue, located near the Walton County line. An autopsy revealed she had a skull fracture to the back of the head and died from blunt force trauma.

Merrell gave two versions of events to investigators, according to her arrest report. First, she told authorities that at around 6:30 a.m. Nov. 10, she heard Adelynn call out for her from her bedroom. Hagwell got up, went to Adelynn's room and began “yelling” at the girl, then Merrell heard a loud “thump” and two doors shut. Hagwell then walked back into their bedroom and Merrell “no longer heard Adelyyn crying,” saying she figured the girl must have “listened” to Hagwell.

Merrell then said she didn’t check on Adelynn until around 11:30 a.m. She tried to get into the girl’s bathroom, which was blocked with a wooden chair that she had to move. She then opened up the bathroom closet door and found Adelynn on the floor, “laying on her back and her eyes were looking at her.” Merrell said she knew her daughter was dead, so she called Hagwell, who came back and tried to perform CPR on the girl.

When he couldn’t revive Adelynn, Merrell said she took two other children in the home into her bedroom and turned on a movie, while Hagwell carried Adelynn’s body into the woods and left her there. Hagwell and Merrell then called 911 with the concocted kidnapping story.

But Merrell’s story changed after her initial interview with investigators. She later told them the little girl had been punished the night of Nov. 9, after Hagwell “spanked” her and locked her in a closet because she had gotten out of her car seat without permission. Merrell said the girl stayed in the closet until Nov. 10, when Hagwell transferred her to another closet. Merrell said she heard another loud “thump,” two doors slam shut and discovered her body later that morning.

Hagwell, however, told deputies it was Merrell who fatally injured the girl. He said Merrell was “implementing corporal punishment” on the girl and had spanked her in the guest bathroom, causing her chin to strike a tub, killing her.

A young child in the home, whose name, age and relationship to the family were redacted from arrest reports to protect him, told authorities he witnessed Hagwell “kick” Adelynn when she was playing in a room. He also said he did not see Adelynn on the morning of the incident, but did see her in a closet the night before “not talking” and “laying with clothes.” He told authorities she had an “owie” and pointed to his own cheek and chin area.

He said he also saw Hagwell hit Adelynn on the cheek, and said at one point “everyone was eating hamburgers but Adelynn didn’t get to eat because she was in the bathtub.” He said Hagwell put Adelynn in the bedroom closet and he “never saw or heard Adelynn again.”

Pattern of abuse

Whatever happened the night of Adelynn’s death, it apparently was not the first time the little girl had been at the receiving end of violence.

The day after her arrest, Merrell told investigators her boyfriend had a history of violence toward the little girl. She said it intensified ever since Hagwell lost his job a month ago.

“While (Merrell) indicates she never witnessed the violence, she describes hearing ‘thuds’ and other loud noises, followed by Adelynn crying and/or (Hagwell) yelling,” her arrest report said. “These would occur in either the closet of the front bedroom, the closet in the guest bathroom or the tub. She put the number of instances within the past month at approximately 15 to 16 times.”

She went on to say that as punishment, Hagwell would withhold food from the 3-year-old girl and lock her in closets for extended periods of time.

Adelynn’s autopsy revealed signs of child abuse consistent with Merrell’s statements to authorities.

Additionally, on Sept. 1, deputies were called to the couple’s home in reference to two children who had been locked inside and had broken out. Allen Simmons, a neighbor who lives just a few houses down from Merrell and Hagwell’s home, said he was in the garage with his son on Sept. 1 when he saw a little boy running up his driveway, distraught and out of breath.

“It took me about 10 minutes to get him calmed down to talk to me,” Simmons said. “I didn’t know where he came from, what was going on, I couldn’t understand him ... he said his parents were gone all day, he can’t find his parents.”

Simmons said the boy led him to his home and showed him the window he had kicked out. Simmons saw Adelynn inside screaming, pulled her out of the window and held her until deputies arrived.

According to the incident report from the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, Merrell and Hagwell arrived to the home at the same time as deputies did. They said they had three children in their care, but had taken the youngest, a baby, on a car ride to soothe him because he was teething, and left the two other children in a room by themselves. They said they had only been gone for "five or 10" minutes and said they hadn't locked the bedroom door.

The deputy said the couple appeared "remorseful" and the children appeared to be healthy. He explained they could be charged with child neglect, but decided not to arrest them. He also noted he did not "believe it is common for them to leave their kids unattended."

The deputy referred the case to a Department of Children and Families case worker, who told him "a report would be generated."

It is unclear what, if any, action was taken by DCF. No one from DCF could be reached late Monday afternoon.  

After Adelynn’s death, investigators took another child in Merrell’s care to the Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, where a doctor found the 5-year-old child weighed less than 33 pounds, was malnourished and had “bones in all regions of his body exposed.”

Hagwell is charged with child cruelty and first-degree premeditated murder. Merrell is charged with three counts of child neglect, one count of child cruelty and one count of accessory to murder after the fact. Both were denied bond and are set to make pleas on Dec. 20, according to court records.

A community comes together

The quiet Crestview neighborhood where Adelynn lived and ultimately died is reeling from the tragedy that took place in the quiet home at the end of Bobolink Way.

Vinny Boyd, who lives across the street from Adelynn’s home, said the family moved in about three months ago but they were reclusive and didn’t socialize with the other neighbors.

“They would just come home and keep to themselves,” Boyd said. “They would close the garage. We didn’t even know they had children. We never saw them playing in the front yard.”

Down the street, Simmons has a wife and two young children of his own. He said he was “heartbroken,” especially since he held little Adelynn in his arms just two months ago, but was trying to move forward from the tragedy.

“The community is great. We had the candle lighting Saturday,” he said. He also said he is going to reach out to local businesses about donating supplies so a memorial garden can be built in Adelynn’s memory.

Simmons said the father of Adelynn and the little boy lives in Kansas and is coming to the area sometime this week to make arrangements.

Another group of neighbors is planning on working to clean up “Trash Road,” aka Palmetto Avenue, the dirt road where Adelynn’s body was discovered.

Burnell Reliford said his wife, Anita, and their three daughters would be on the road “every day” picking up trash until it’s completely cleaned up.

“This little girl was discovered out there, and how dare they treat her like a piece of trash,” Reliford said. “So we’re going to do what we can to remove the trash.”

.embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }