Vanessa Merritt was on her way to work as a shift leader at Dairy Queen in Effingham on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013. Scrolling through Facebook, she saw a post about a missing 7-year-old girl in Watson.
"My heart dropped," Merritt recalled. "I was terrified like everyone else. I immediately said, 'That's Makenzie's friend. We have to help.'"
Merritt's daughter, Makenzie Swofford, attended South Side School with Willow Long. The two had been friends since kindergarten. They played together on the playground, as well as at day care after school.
"They were quite the talkative pair," said Merritt. "I used to join my daughter for lunch at school and all her friends would sit with us. Willow joined us every time."
Merritt's employer allowed her time off to join in the search that was amassing hundreds of community members who felt compelled to find the girl.
Merritt and her boyfriend at the time, Patrick, went home, grabbed their four-wheeler, and headed to Watson. She recalls how the next two days were filled with searching through some of the roughest terrain, walking cornfields and beanfields, knocking on doors, and searching random people's properties.
"I'll never forget seeing Watson so packed with four-wheelers, horses, police, news media, and just everyone trying to help. That small town has never been so lit up," she said.
Like Merritt, volunteers searching for the girl first learned of her disappearance through social media.
The platform elicited a response from local and surrounding communities, as well as nationwide, that overwhelmed emergency responders as multiple agencies joined in to help. They had set up command centers to deal with attention to a case most hadn't seen before and haven't since.
"That was difficult for us to grasp," said Effingham County Detective Corporal Darin Deters, adding the outpouring of public support had a lot to do with social media. "Willow missing went viral over Facebook and the community showed up in droves to help."
"So many people were showing up so quickly. Obviously, us managers of that had to bring some order to it," he said. "There were arms and legs to this we didn't anticipate going in."
Agencies would soon discover the social media attention had downsides.
As the crowd swelled, parking became an issue. And as for the supplies people were dropping off, those working the scene had no where to go with them.
Volunteer stations were needed and triages were set up to treat exhausted and overheated searchers. Deters said they were running out of trained personnel to oversee the groups of volunteers pouring in.
"At that point, we were just trying to manage the chaos," he said.
While more than a thousand people, at one point, searched day and night for the girl, now-retired Illinois State Police commander Kelly Hodge led an investigation into Willow's disappearance.
Hodge worked for the agency's Zone 7 investigation unit that covered 32 counties in southern Illinois. Throughout his career, Hodge had been involved in a number of high-profile cases. But the search for Willow Long was different.
"I had never been on a case where you had that much outpouring of community support. It was unique in that regard and makes you feel good to be in community that gives time and effort to find a missing child," said Hodge.
Willow Long's disappearance also hit close to home for Hodge, who would find himself in the rare position of working a case in "his own backyard," not far from his Lake Sara residence.
The widespread attention also brought false information, forcing investigators to navigate through many twists and turns.
The search would end Monday evening, when a group of women, who were turned away after the search was suspended, found Willow’s body south of Watson.
The discovery was the break in the case investigators needed. They had suspected Willow's uncle, Justin DeRyke, had been connected with her disappearance. DeRyke was arrested and pleaded guilty to her brutal murder. He is serving life in prison.
The nature of the case still stands out for Hodge today.
"It was a particularly heinous crime. There's just some you work on you never forget and that's one for me," he said. "I don't know much more that would be more gut-wrenching than that."
But out of the tragedy would come a realization of the enormous support the community could have for just one girl and how to best manage that.
"I think the help of the people was a big key to solving the case and putting everything in perspective and that's what it takes sometimes. No matter how hot it was they were willing to go out there and do it and helped solve the case," said John Monnet, who was Effingham County sheriff at the time.
"We gained lot of experience. One of the things is to anticipate the public support and how to utilize that in our mission," said Effingham County Chief Deputy Paul Kuhns, who was a patrol sergeant at the time. "We also learned a lot about incident command and how to help manage the scene."
Effingham Assistant Fire Chief Matt Kulesza, who was the Watson fire chief at the time, was one of the first on scene and worked with county incident command to get a game plan put together to be able to start a search.
"We thought we had good hold before on exactly how we were going to handle the situation," he said.
The first responders found themselves among a multitude of agencies — fire departments, ISP that also brought in a helicopter for the search, FBI, city and county emergency management agencies, Illinois Department of Transportation and even Unit 40, which brought in buses to transport volunteers, as well as others — all working simultaneously.
"We learned now how to have better radio communications and coordinate between all different departments," said Kulesza. "Our game plan, if it ever happens again, is much more structured now then it was before."
Their game plan was somewhat tested when nearly a year later a toddler had wondered off from her rural Altamont home. News of the missing girl had immediately drawn volunteers to help search.
"We began setting up staging and doing early coordination efforts and took what we learned from Willow and applied it to the situation and brought it to a close pretty quickly," said Deters.
The girl was found safe in a cornfield three hours later.
The Willow Long case also better prepared acting ISP Zone 7 Captain Ryan Shoemaker when he was called in 2016 to investigate a missing 8-year-old Olney girl, who was found murdered less than 24 hours later.
"We were able to have more resources available much quicker. Willow helped in getting that," he said.
"It's still talked about today, of how it's one of the worst challenges we faced, but others are amazed how fast we were able to organize with as little resources possible," said Deters.
Many of the agents, responders and law enforcement had to put aside sleep and emotion until Willow's body was discovered.
"During, you have to put emotions away because you have a job to do and that's pretty much what I did and when it was done that's when emotions kicked in but not just for me, a lot of people," said Kulesza.
"When comes to search like that, it always gets into somebody's heart. In 2004, I lost my daughter at 10 years old. Anytime I deal with kids, it's heart-wrenching for me," said Kulesza.
Monnet, now retired, said he is reminded of those two days five years ago when he passes the memorial to Willow Long on the drive from his house to Effingham. The memorial is located along Illinois Route 37 outside of Watson near where Willow's body was found.
"I think back on that case. It never goes away. Every time I make that turn. All that comes back to you and everything that happened," he said.
The outcome shocked the community, Monnet said.
"You never think it can happen in Effingham County. Can't say that now because it does happen in Effingham County," he said.
Merritt, who now lives in Terre Haute, Indiana, said her daughter thinks about Willow every day.
"My daughter lost a close friend in an unthinkable tragedy at such a young age," she said.
Willow's grandparents gave Makenzie Willow's favorite stuffed animal, a sheep she has named Willow and is protective of today.
Merritt said the loss will impact her and her daughter forever.
"The pain never goes away. You just learn to live with it. Makenzie goes to bed every night with pictures of Willow above her bed. We will forever miss her. She had such a beautiful soul."
Cathy Griffith can be reached at email@example.com or 217-347-7151 ext. 136.
Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013
At 11 a.m., Effingham County Sheriff’s Office receives a call of a missing girl in Watson.
An hour later, other responders and agencies are summoned to the village. Soon after volunteers begin pouring in to search for Willow Long.
Monday, Sept. 9, 2013
Search continues for Willow Long.
At 7:30 p.m., a group of women who were turned away after the search was suspended find Willow’s body south of Watson.
Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013
At 5:55 a.m., Willow’s maternal uncle, Justin DeRyke, is arrested at the Watson residence he shared with Willow, Willow’s brother, their mother and grandparents and confesses to her murder.
Later that day, a candlelight vigil is held in Watson and purple is dispersed throughout the area, from ribbons to armbands bearing her name.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Justin DeRyke pleads guilty to Willow’s murder and receives a life sentence.
Saturday, May 24, 2014
Willow Park in Watson in dedicated in memory of Willow Long.