By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. — Five people intend to plead guilty in a scheme to kidnap a 6-year-old girl from an east Mississippi elementary school as part of a plot to pressure her mother in a land deal, according to a court filing Tuesday.
The woman who authorities say orchestrated the plan, Jesse Mae Brown Pollard, and her son, Devonta Pollard, a former basketball player at the University of Alabama who was charged with conspiracy, are not among those scheduled to plead guilty.
Lawyers for both of the Pollards say their clients maintain their innocence and will go to trial.
Authorities say Jesse Pollard came up with the plan to pressure the child’s mother, Pollard’s cousin, in a land dispute, though details of the dispute were not spelled out in the court record.
The child was taken from East Kemper Elementary School on April 30 and turned up unharmed on a rural road in Enterprise, Miss., the next day. A change of plea hearing is scheduled Nov. 6 in U.S. District Court in Jackson for Shamarius Ruffin, Wanda Faye Dancy, Shaquayla Johnigan, Joyce Johnigan and James Shurmon Johnigan.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Tuesday that all five defendants have told the court they intend to plead guilty in the case.
James Johnigan’s lawyer, Thomas Brame Jr., said Tuesday that his client had “a very minor role in this unfortunate situation” after his daughter, Shaquayla Johnigan, called him for help. James Johnigan was charged with conspiracy for allegedly burning a gym bag containing a cellphone that was used to send text messages to the abducted child’s mother.
“He wants to make things right and get on with his life,” Brame said.
Attorneys for Shaquayla Johnigan and the others who intend to plead guilty either had no comment or did not immediately respond to telephone messages Tuesday.
Jesse Pollard’s lawyer, Abby Brumley, said Tuesday that her client maintains her innocence and they’re preparing for trial, scheduled for Nov. 18.
Devonta Pollard’s lawyer, Lisa Ross, said her client “never conspired to kidnap anyone” and also plans to fight the charges.
Authorities say Dancy, a secretary at the school, told Pollard where to find the child — in the school library — and what clothes she was wearing, according to the indictment dated June 25.
Ruffin went to get the child, telling the librarian that she had stopped in the school office and talked to “Ms. Wanda (Darcy)” about picking up the girl, the indictment said.
Prosecutors said Pollard and Ruffin drove the child to a hotel in Bessemer, Ala., then went to a nearby store where Pollard bought a cellphone. Pollard used the phone to text the child’s mother a message that read: “don’t call the police I will call you later if you call the police u won’t see her again,” the indictment said.
At some point, Devonta Pollard drove to Boligee, Ala., to pick up Shaquayla Johnigan and told her that Jesse Pollard “took” the child, the indictment said. Investigators say he drove Shaquayla Johnigan to meet Jesse Pollard.
Shaquayla Johnigan took the child and a rental car from Jesse Pollard and drove to a hotel in Laurel, Miss., where she sent a text message from the same phone to tell the child’s mother: “since you called police, I want $50,000 by 3 p.m., I will tell you location later,” according to the indictment.
There’s nothing to indicate in court records that any money changed hands.
The next day, after a missing child alert had been issued about the girl, Devonta Pollard allegedly called Shaquayla Johnigan to say his mother “had gone to take a polygraph.”
Shaquayla Johnigan called Joyce Johnigan and asked to meet in Vossburg, Miss. After meeting, the two then dropped off the girl, unharmed, near a stranger’s mobile home in Enterprise, Miss., telling the child that “her mom was in the trailer and to run up to it,” the indictment said.
Shaquayla Johnigan drove the car into a ditch in Jasper County and left it there, then later gave a gym bag containing the phone to James Johnigan, who burned it, according to court records.