10 YEARS LATER: Haleigh case remains a mystery

Investigators cite changing stories, lack of cooperation as hindrances

Ten years ago, tragedy struck Putnam County when 5-year old Haleigh Cummings disappeared without a trace from her Satsuma home. 

And now, after numerous leads, countless prayers, and arrests and convictions in other cases, local residents have been left without closure.

Haleigh was reported missing 3:27 a.m. Feb. 10, 2009, when her father, then-25-year-old Ronald Cummings, returned home from work and his then-17-year-old girlfriend, Misty Croslin, telling him Haleigh was missing. 

Putnam County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Dominic Piscitello responded to the scene as the supervisor of the investigation and played a critical role throughout the case. 

Today, he is in charge of the agency’s Crime Investigation Bureau. He remembers searching for Haleigh and how much Croslin, Ronald Cummings and others affected the outcome of the investigation. 

“It is very difficult because our ability to validate the truth is not there. We have no standard or baseline to work off of,” he said this week. “Unfortunately, the tips we have received have not led us to an answer in the case.”

Croslin told investigators she was home with Haleigh and Ronald Cummings’ 3-year-old son at the couple’s Satsuma trailer on Green Lane the night before Haleigh went missing. Ronald Cummings didn’t return from work until after 3 a.m. 

Croslin told authorities she put Haleigh to bed around 8 p.m. On the 911 call, Croslin said she last saw Haleigh at about 10 p.m. 

“Hi … I just woke up … and our backdoor was wide open … and I can’t find our daughter,” Croslin said at the beginning of the 911 call.

Croslin described Haleigh to the dispatcher and said the back door was locked when she put her to bed. At the time of the 911 call, Croslin said there was a brick holding open the door. Ronald Cummings then grabbed the phone and began to speak to the dispatcher. 

“I just got home from work, my 5-year-old daughter is gone. I need someone here now,” he said. “If I find whoever has my daughter before you all do, I’m killing them … I don’t care. I will spend the rest of my life in prison. You can put that on the recording … I don’t care.”

The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies searched far and wide for Haleigh in the days, weeks and months after her disappearance. Hundreds of law enforcement agents and volunteers searched by air, on the ground and in the St. Johns River. 

The disappearance of the blonde, brown-eyed Browning-Pearce Elementary kindergartener touched countless people throughout the county and the nation, leading to numerous vigils and volunteer searches.

Tom Townsend was the Superintendent of Schools for the Putnam County School District when Haleigh disappeared, and he still remembers how the tragedy shocked the district.

“We pooled all our resources together. Everything we had, we made available. It was our worst nightmare,” he said. “We cooperated with everything we could. We clung to hope, and that never panned out.” 

Barbara Buckles, the principal of Browning-Pearce when Haleigh vanished, said the entire school was shocked when Haleigh’s disappearance hit the news. They did their best to help the family in the following weeks, she said. 

“As a school, we supported the family with food and water and paper supplies and anything like that,” Buckles said. “They had so much family gathering at the home, so we collected for that.”

Nancy Harris was a Putnam County Commissioner representing District 1, which covers Satsuma. She said the entire county — from Interlachen to Palatka to Crescent City — came together to look for the girl. 

“We were all tremendously upset. She was such a cute little girl. It was such a sad situation.” Harris said. “So many people did vigils. They had signs and things in all of the windows. The whole community, I think, rallied around that. But I just don’t know what could have been done different.”

Despite an exhaustive investigation and intense public awareness campaign, no clear answers have ever been found to explain what happened to Haleigh. 

Law enforcement couldn’t find any breaks, primarily because the investigation lacked groundbreaking evidence. There was no physical evidence at the scene, nor were there signs of a break-in at Cummings’ home.

But perhaps the biggest wrench in the investigation comes from the waning credibility of major players, namely Ronald Cummings and Croslin, who was the last person to see Haleigh alive. 

Dick Schauland was a retired sheriff’s office captain when Haleigh disappeared. He returned to the agency after she vanished to serve as the agency’s media spokesman. 

Haleigh disappeared barely a month after then-Sheriff Jeff Hardy was sworn into office for his first term. The sheriff’s office needed someone equipped to deal with the media, which is what Schauland did.

Schauland backed up Piscitello’s belief the investigation was affected by the credibility of key people. He said Croslin changed several major factors of her story. 

“A good example is the information Misty gave us (about) the last clothes Haleigh was wearing. And then, when they did a search down in the house, they found those clothes in the dirty clothes pile in the laundry room. So those kind of things were changing,” he said. “You just have to keep up with it. I would try to explain to all of the media that this was the information we originally had, but it has now changed.”

The FBI, the state Department of Law Enforcement and other agencies assisted the search. Because of the large investigation and the unique circumstances surrounding the case, “It became big in a hurry,” Schauland explained. 

To add to matters, Ronald Cummings and Croslin married just a few weeks after Haleigh vanished. That plus a similar missing-child case near Orlando added fuel to an already raging media fire.

“The thing with Caylee Anthony was going on down in Orlando, and of course, all of the media from around the nation was down there dealing with that. So when (our case) came up, they just kind of migrated our way,” Schauland said. “So it became very busy as far as doing that. We were doing regular press conferences to get the information out the best we could. We’d do a couple a day (sometimes).”

No evidence of Haleigh had been found by the time Ronald and Misty divorced later in 2009. For months, and even years, investigators chased down thousands of tips and conducted interviews with numerous people, including several with Croslin.

In April 2010, Hardy announced the case was officially a homicide investigation.

Eventually, the media attention and tips decreased. Schauland left the agency roughly six months after Haleigh disappeared. 

“At that point, the case had kind of settled down (to) where we really just felt she was killed, and she was a murder victim. There was nothing new coming in,” he said. “They quit having a whole team of detectives working (the tips) at that point.”

Ten years later, Haleigh has still not come home. No substantial evidence of Haleigh, who would be 15 today, has been found. 

Croslin’s stories have continued to change over the years, and authorities have deemed her the key to the investigation. 

At one point, Croslin told investigators her cousin kidnapped Haleigh on Feb. 10, 2009. The cousin was questioned but was never charged with crimes related to Haleigh or her disappearance. 

In January 2010, Croslin and Ronald Cummings found themselves behind bars. The couple; Croslin’s brother, Hank Croslin Jr.; Ronald Cummings’ cousin, Hope Sykes; and friend Donna Brock were arrested following a month-long investigation into the trafficking of prescription pills.  

Croslin was given a 25-year jail sentence. Cummings and the others arrested were given 15-year sentences. In recorded jail interviews with Misty Croslin’s mother, Misty continued to deny any involvement in Haleigh’s disappearance.

Attempts to speak with members of the Cummings and Croslin families were unsuccessful. 

Today, investigators still follow up on what tips they receive about Haleigh. The homicide case is still an open investigation, one investigators hope to one day solve.

Piscitello still has a bookmark made by Haleigh’s relatives with her picture. It hangs on his computer to remind him of her. He still hopes the truth will one day be revealed about what happened to Haleigh on Feb. 10, 2009, he said. 

“Justice for Haleigh and the family will result when the truth comes out about the night she went missing.  All those involved in the case have suffered due to her missing,” he said. “My hope is that the person who knows the truth comes forward to provide additional information that would assist in bringing Haleigh home.”

Anyone with information regarding Haleigh’s disappearance is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 888-277-TIPS (8477). Crime Stoppers is offering a $15,000 reward for tips that lead to an arrest.

Palatka Daily News

1825 St. Johns Ave.
Palatka, FL 32177
(386) 312-5200

 

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