Donald James Smith is behind bars for the abduction and murder of 8-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle, whose body was found in a creek in Jacksonville, Florida.
At around 7:30 p.m. on June 21, 2013, Smith was at a discount store on Edgewood Avenue when he noticed Cherish with her mother, Rayne Perrywinkle, who was struggling to pay for clothing for her three daughters.
When Rayne left the store, he approached her in the parking lot and offered to use a $100 gift card to purchase clothing for the girls at a nearby Walmart.
Smith also offered to give them a ride in his white van.
Rayne was reluctant at first, but when he told her that his wife was going to meet them at the store, she agreed to go.
She and her children then got into Smith’s van and headed to Walmart on Lem Turner Road, according to the NF Daily News.
Unbeknownst to Rayne, Smith was not married. He was a registered sex offender who had been released from jail 21 days prior, and he had a lengthy criminal record that began in 1974.
When they arrived at Walmart, Rayne and her girls began shopping while Smith stood nearby, watching. Several hours went by before Smith offered to buy them food at McDonald’s in front of the store.
He said he would take Cherish with him while they tried on clothes in the fitting room, and when they were done, he told her that he would meet her at the checkout line.
However, Walmart’s surveillance camera captured Smith walking past McDonald’s and out of the store with Cherish, who was clad in an orange dress.
His van was subsequently seen leaving the parking lot.
When Cherish wasn’t at the checkout line with Smith, Rayne began looking for her. When she couldn’t find her daughter, she alerted a Walmart employee, who helped her search every aisle, but even then they couldn’t find her.
That’s when Rayne contacted Jacksonville police around 11 p.m. and reported Cherish missing.
In a 911 call, Rayne could be heard sobbing as she’s telling the operator that she didn’t want “him [Donald James Smith] to kill her.”
She said, “I don’t want to be one of those parents who go through this. I don’t understand why he would leave right now unless he’s going to rape her and kill her. That’s the only reason.”
“We’ve been here probably two hours, and she didn’t show up. I have this cart full of clothes that he said he was going to pay for. I had a bad feeling.”
“I feel like pinching myself because this is too good to be true. I got to the checkout, and he’s not here… My girls need clothes so bad. That’s why I let him do it.”
At 5:28 a.m. on June 22, 2013, local authorities sent out an Amber Alert with a description of Smith’s van, according to WJCT. It wasn’t long before a witness called 911 and reported seeing the van parked behind a church earlier that day.
When officers searched the area with K9 dogs, they found Cherish dead.
Her half-naked body was found partially submerged in a creek behind Highlands Baptist Church on Broward Road. She had been hidden underneath a log, grass, and rocks.
Cherish’s body was transported to the state’s medical examiner’s office for an autopsy. The results revealed that she died from strangulation, possibly with a shirt.
Dr. Valerie Rao testified that the article of clothing was wrapped around Cherish’s neck so tightly that her eyes, nose, and gums began to bleed.
Cherish also had severe injuries to her vaginal and anal areas, which indicated that she had been raped.
Rao said, “What she sustained was a tremendous force on her neck, such that she basically, she could not breathe. She suffered swelling of her brain as a result of lack of oxygen to her brain, and as a result of which, she died.”
“It took Cherish three to five minutes to die… Here we have two people who are in a struggle. The child is not incapacitated, and she is going to struggle during this entire process.”
State Attorney Melissa Nelson stated that Cherish’s death was a “brutal” and “tortured murder,” as she “did not die quickly, and she did not die easily,” Jacksonville reported.
Later that day, on June 22, 2013, a Jacksonville police officer who was tending to a traffic crash on I-95 spotted Smith’s van near Interstate 10 and called it in.
Another officer pulled the van over, and it was Smith behind the wheel.
According to First Coast News, he was wearing the same clothes he was seen in on the surveillance video. He was arrested without incident, but he refused to speak about Cherish, and he asked for a lawyer.
Dr. Rao examined Smith at the Police Memorial Building, and she said: “He had injuries to his penis, which related to trauma and were consistent with the timing of Cherish Perrywinkle’s death.”
Nicole Lee, with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Regional Crime Lab in Jacksonville, asserted that Smith’s semen was found in the child’s mouth, vagina, and rectum.
His DNA was also found on her neck.
Smith was charged with kidnapping, rape, and murder.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Despite the defense’s claim that Smith was unable to control himself due to his long history of drug abuse, a jury deliberated for 12 minutes before returning with a guilty verdict on Feb. 22, 2018.
They also recommended the death penalty.
In May 2018, Smith was sentenced to death. He requested a new trial, but it was denied.
Action News Jax law and safety expert Dale Carson said, “That is one of the appeals that will happen, and others related to the types of information developed during the trial.”
“Objections, the court’s sustained objections, all of them work together to create great fodder for the appellate system.”
Juror Paul Hinson said, “It is not going to be officially over until he’s put to death, but that’s whenever they decide to do that. That’s when it’s going to be.”