NIAGARA FALLS – Sixteen-year-old John R. Freeman Jr. offered authorities a reason for killing 5-year-old Isabella S. Tennant.
“She wouldn't go to sleep. She wouldn't stop crying,” he reportedly confessed.
But police find it hard to believe that a crying child who refused to go to sleep could provoke anyone to take a life.
And that is why the investigation is continuing.
Freeman, police and neighbors say, befriended the child's family doing all kinds of chores, including helping her disabled great-grandfather, which allowed the teenager unfettered access to the Sixth Street home even at a late hour Sunday night when Isabella was killed.
Police Capt. William Thomson, commander of the criminal investigation division, refused to discuss any aspects of the case, except to say that his detectives as of late Wednesday were actively seeking leads in the homicide that shocked the region.
Authorities say Freeman, a Niagara Falls High School dropout, killed Isabella by using his hands to compress her neck and stop her from breathing.
With the child dead, Freeman informed his friend, Tyler S. Best, 17, that he needed help in disposing of her body.
“He told Best, 'I killed Isabella and need you to help me,'?” a law enforcement official said.
Best, who has lived with the Freeman family for about a year in their modest home on the 400 block of Sixth – several doors from the home of the great-grandparents, Sharon and Hank Lascelle – agreed to help get rid of the body, police said.
“They stole a garbage can, the kind that has wheels on the bottom, from a neighbor, and Freeman put the girl's body in it and they started walking around the city looking for a place to leave the body,” the official said.
They found that spot several blocks away in an alley between Third and Fourth streets, where a massive memorial honoring Isabella has been set up, with hundreds of candles, stuffed dolls, bouquets of flowers and a sign that says “God's child.”
Freeman, who is charged with second-degree murder, initially denied any role in the slaying, claiming that he left the Lascelle home at “11:58 p.m.” Sunday to walk over to the nearby Seneca Niagara Casino and meet his father, John R. Freeman Sr., a kitchen worker, at the end of his shift.
Crystal Walker, Isabella's mother, who lives in Cheektowaga, returned in the early-morning hours from her part-time job as a barmaid at Player's Sports Bar, several blocks away on Niagara Street, to her 65-year-old grandmother's home and discovered her daughter was missing. Police were summoned to the Lascelle residence at 6:20 a.m. Monday.
Sharon Lascelle, who was baby-sitting her great-granddaughter, informed police that she had gone to bed at about 10:30 p.m. Sunday and read a book before falling asleep.
Freeman, she said, was visiting at the house when she had gone to her bedroom. She described him to police as “a trusted family friend.”
Isabella, she explained, usually “crawled into bed with her when she was done playing,” the law enforcement official said.
The case started as a missing child case, but shortly before 9 a.m. Monday, Best, who is from Buffalo, arrived at police headquarters with his mother and took investigators to the alley off the 500 block between Third and Fourth streets, where police found the fully clothed child in a trash bag inside the garbage can.
At about the same time, another Sixth Street resident reported a stolen garbage can to police.
“His conscience was bothering him,” the official said of Best, who has been charged with evidence tampering.
Like Freeman, Best has pleaded not guilty and both are being held at the Niagara County Jail without bail.
On the question of how Freeman could become so trusted by the Lascelle family, authorities and neighbors said he presented himself as a good-hearted teenager, always willing to help those in the neighborhood.
“Sharon's husband has had medical problems, and Freeman would help her. He'd cut the grass and do other yard work,” the law enforcement official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
As a result, Freeman was allowed to come and go from the Lascelle residence as he pleased. “He'd come over and watch television, play on the computer and sometimes stay all night,” the official said.
Freeman lived with his father, who years ago split with his wife, Brenda, neighbors said. The couple has four children – an older son and daughter, and John's twin sister.
Neighbors described Sharon Lascelle as one of the most caring people in their neighborhood, a place that might not have much in the way of material possessions but is rich in concern for one another.
“Sharon would not turn anyone away,” Lupe Kennon said. “She would rather have John over than have him out on the streets running with a gang.”
Kennon, a longtime resident of the 400 block of Sixth, said neighbors are devastated by the homicide and never saw any signs Freeman might ever be involved in such a violent act.
There has been all kinds of speculation as to what might have provoked the killing, from sexual assault to horseplay that accidentally turned deadly, she said. But no one really knows what to believe.
Authorities say there were no signs of a sexual assault.
“No one saw this coming, and we may never know the answer. It is going to take us a long time to heal,” Kennon said.
Isabella, she said, frequently stayed over at her great-grandmother's home.
“I knew Crystal when she was a little girl and then her daughter Bella, who had the same energy and light as her mom. Bella was a little Crystal,” Kennon said, her eyes welling with tears.
Robert Viola, the public defender representing Freeman, has said he intends to attempt to suppress the teenager's statement in order to avoid impacting a future jury.
“The people's case rests on a statement by my client, and I want to litigate on it and its admissibility,” Viola said Tuesday at the arraignment for Freeman and Best.
Acting Niagara County Court Judge Angelo J. Morinello granted Viola's request to keep the statement sealed from the media, while it is in litigation.
In a message on her Facebook page, Crystal Walker remembered her daughter this way: “My world, my best friend. The reason for my smile. I want to wake up from this nightmare and heartache.”
Isabella's family and friends will gather for a Mass of Christian Burial at 9 a.m. Saturday in St. Louis Catholic Church, Main and Edward streets, Buffalo.