New details emerge in death of 8-year-old Sophia Mason; three more arrests announced

Authorities on Sunday announced the arrests of three women accused of helping a suspected killer of 8-year-old Sophia Mason elude capture for six months during a manhunt that stretched from the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley to Los Angeles.

The Merced Police Department on Sunday said the arrests came the same day as authorities captured Dhante Jackson, 34, who was wanted on suspicion of murder and child abuse in the killing of Sophia earlier this year. Authorities had previously arrested and charged the girl’s mother, Samantha Johnson, on similar charges in the case.

All three women were acquaintances of Jackson who either provided money, shelter or transportation in helping Jackson elude authorities over the last six months, according to the Merced Police Department. Authorities said that Jackson tried traveling to the Los Angeles area after being named a suspect in Sophia’s death, then went to the Bay Area where he was ultimately arrested Saturday in Newark.

Sophia’s body was found decomposing in a bathtub on March 11 at a residence in Merced after her relatives in Hayward — where she had spent much of her life — grew concerned about her wellbeing. Sophia had mostly been raised by her grandmother until January 2021, when Sophia’s mother re-entered the picture and took a renewed interest in raising the girl.

A three-month Bay Area News Group investigation later discovered deep deficiencies in the response by the Alameda County Department of Children and Family Services to repeated concerns about Sophia’s well-being during the last year and a half of her life. It found the county failed to respond to five of the seven complaints of abuse or neglect made during the last 15 months of Sophia’s life. An eighth report — one made years earlier in 2014 — also was determined to be unfounded by the agency.

Those failures appear to be part of larger, systemic issues in the Alameda County child welfare office, which lags behind nearly every other county in California in responding to report of abuse or neglect within the legally-required time frame.

In announcing the arrests, Merced police gave new details about the last part of Sophia’s life and death.

Sophia died at least a month before her body was found decomposing in a bathtub in Merced, having spent the last part of her life living in a backyard shed and in a closet, Merced police said Sunday. Her death was ruled a homicide by the Merced County coroner’s office, and it appears that Sophia had been malnourished at the time of her death, authorities said Sunday. Still, they did not announce a specific cause of death.

Check back for more to this developing story.

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