School was one of the few consistent places Sophie could go and enjoy just being a kid.
It was a place she could eat, play and laugh with other 5th graders. And, for a few hours a day, get a break from her unstable life at home.
“She's very special. All of them are but she was born pre-mature, yellow jaundice,” her grandmother told investigative reporter Faith Abubey as they sat on a park bench near her home in Coweta County.
That premature baby thrived and was now a vibrant 9-year-old.
We’re calling her “Sophie” to protect her identity.
She grew up barely knowing her father, he was in prison. Her mom was always working. She and her brother were constantly being shuffled from one relative's home to another.
Her grandmother helped raise them in Coweta County during the week.
Then one day, everything changed. Police were watching Sophie and her brother as they got off the school bus into her grandmother's van.
“All of a sudden Grantville police surround me,” her grandmother recalled. “They ask for [Sophie] and she's already crying in the van.”
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Sophie had realized during sex education class that the man who was touching her at home was sexually abusing her. She told her elementary school administrators. They alerted police, and officers were now telling her grandmother about her outcry.
“What did they tell you, exactly?” Abubey asked.
“That she claimed that he had touched her,” said Sophie’s grandmother.
The man who was eventually convicted in the sexual molestation of Sophie was 34-year-old Nicholas Deon Thrash -- her mother’s boyfriend.
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“There was never a sign at all of any kind of child molestation. The Deon I knew at that time, he was stealing cars and stuff like that. He never, ever gave anyone an impression that he would touch any child. He was the perfect man,” Sophie's grandmother replied.
That’s what Sophie’s mother also thought as Thrash charmed his way into her life. She even let him move in with her and the kids in Troup County.
“He had her believing that she was a queen. He would work, come home, cook, clean. Pamper her. Do her toenails, get her hair done, massage, buy the kids clothes, buy the kids toys, take them out for ice cream,” the grandmother said.
In fact, according to police investigators, no one ever reported that Thrash was physically violent in any way. But, investigators believe he could have been manipulating the child into trusting him.
“When the [sexual assault] would be over, he would take [Sophie and her brother] out for ice cream or take them out to the yard like it never happened. Basically buying them off,” said Hogansville police investigator Jeff Sheppard.
He took over the case from Grantville Police because, while Sophie made the outcry at her Coweta County school, the house where Thrash was abusing little Sophie was just minutes from his police station in Hogansville.
“After the interviews with [Sophie], I knew that [Thrash] had done something,” said Lt. Sheppard.
“What made this one so believable?” Abubey asked.
Sheppard took a deep breath and let out a sigh.
"How does a 9-year-old make something up that graphic and traumatic? You can tell when someone is desperate for help," he said.
Sheppard and his team immediately began their investigation into the sexual abuse. They contacted the Georgia Division of Family and Children (DFCS) which set up a safety plan to keep the perpetrator away from Sophie.
As Lt. Sheppard and DFCS are busy making sure Sophie is physically OK, Thrash disappears.
“It was as if he fell off the face of the earth,” Lt. Sheppard said. “Where is Nicholas Thrash? Mom says she hasn't seen him. She can't get him on the phone. We know during the interviews that the children say the mom is talking to him on the phone.”
It was Lt. Sheppard's first sign that Sophie’s mom would become one of the biggest obstacles in his investigation into the sexual assault her little girl.
“Do you think your daughter was in denial?” Abubey asked Sophie’s grandmother.
“My daughter [Sophie’s mom] was brain-washed. Very naive and searching and just trying to find a man to love her," the grandmother said. "Their mother had never been loved by a man. Never shown any kind of care. So, when he started showing her love and care, she fell deep for it.”
HER ABUSER IS A BLOOD RELATIVE
As the 11Alive Investigators have uncovered, it's a little more complicated than that. It’d been weeks since Sophie made the outcry of what happened in the Troup County house.
Her father was now out of prison and looking for Thrash, according to Sophie's grandmother.
“One of us told him that your daughter accused him. They're first cousins so naturally, he wanted to kill him,” Sophie’s grandmother said.
That’s right: the man who was accused of molesting Sophie was her own relative. Her father's cousin. That cousin was now dating her mother and living with them in Troup County.
“She would just leave them with him. He was the sole caregiver,” Lt. Sheppard said. “I got a search warrant for the house. Mom did not even come to the house for the search warrant. She sent the grandmother who came to let us into the house.”
PROOF OF SOPHIE'S RAPE AND HER MOTHER'S ROLE
Lt. Sheppard and his team collected clothes, blankets, and underwear from Sophie's room.
They didn’t need a test to see the evidence on the child’s clothing.
“We sent the evidence for DNA analysis to the GBI. As we felt like we were getting closer and speaking with prosecutors and felt like we were honing in on this case, I got a call from Greenville, in Meriwether County. Apparently, the victim had made another outcry about another person in Meriwether County, in Greenville that they were turning in to the GBI to investigate.”
Sheppard continued, “the two interviews were night and day. In my opinion, it looked as though the second interview, as if, she was given the answers to tell the investigators before she went into the interview.”
Sheppard says “it was a ploy to try to take attention away from Nicholas Thrash. By what I suspect now, the mother had concocted it. I have no proof of that. The second story was not believable, but it put doubt on her first story.”
It also gave Sophie's mother the excuse she wanted to believe to stay with her boyfriend.
“Mom had started then, 'My daughter, I don't think she's telling the truth. This case needs to be dropped. It's all a big mistake.' I told her then, my case is going to be based on his DNA and that's what I'm waiting on. It's not going to go away,” Sheppard recalls.
The police investigator now regrets not putting a rush on that DNA evidence. Not requesting a rush on the DNA analysis gave Thrash the space and time he needed to cross state lines where Georgia laws couldn't touch him.
“At the time, we didn't have a warrant on paper yet because there's believing somebody but then there's getting the evidence to get the warrant,” Sheppard explained.
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Soon enough, while the investigation in Troup County stalled, Sophie, her brother and mother also disappeared.
Sophie’s grandmother also lives with regrets, knowing she could have fought harder to force Sophie’s mother to leave the kids with her when she took off.
“They were in a safety plan with me through Coweta County DFCS. They couldn't wait for evidence to come in so they released them back to [Sophie’s mother]. What else can I do?” she said.
Sophie’s mother reunited with Thrash. He was hiding in Indiana. Sophie, her brother, and her mother were once again under the same roof as her abuser.
'EVIDENCE DOESN'T LIE'
“Looking back, I think maybe I got some tunnel-vision on the investigation. I didn't put a rush on the DNA. But waiting on it to come back, trying to find some more physical evidence, some more witnesses, and working on that, then mom disappeared. And the kids. They were gone. I couldn't get her on the phone,” Sheppard reflects.
The DNA test results eventually did come back -- almost two years later.
Sheppard had sent the samples from the search warrant to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's State Crime Lab on March 10th, 2016.
He says the test came back on July 24, 2016, indicating there was the presence of foreign matter but the actual confirmation didn’t come until Nov. 30, 2017.
It was a positive match. Thrash had been raping his 9-year-old cousin while playing stepfather to the child, the DNA test indicated.
Sheppard remembers finally tracking Sophie's mother down to tell her by phone.
“I've got my evidence back. Your daughter was telling the truth. This did happen to her. And I'm in the process of pursuing this case. And she acted surprised. Concerned. Crying.” Sheppard recalled.
“And then she said, 'I don't want to put my kids through this. I brought them out here to protect them from him.' And I asked her point blank, have you had any contact with Nicholas Thrash? Or do you know where he is? And she told me no," Sheppard said. "I can only suspect that not only was she aware of it, that she was actively allowing it to happen. She's the one who put forth the effort to try to cover it up.”
10 YEARS OLD AND PREGNANT
Court records obtained by the 11Alive investigators confirm, by then, Sophie was more than five months pregnant. The 10-year-old child was carrying Thrash’s baby.
“He is a sick individual. Very sick. Very, very, sick. Who hurts a baby that way. Who? Monsters. Who? The baby will never be normal again. She don't have a childhood anymore,” Sophie’s grandmother cried to Abubey.
“Talked to her on the phone and she said 'Nana, can I still play with Barbies even though I have a baby?' yes, you can," the grandma sobbed.
“She has to be an adult. And a mother. The one person that you would think would your biggest protector and your biggest ally is the one that let you down the most. And that would be the mother,” Sheppard explained.
It wasn’t until Sophie's mother tried to get her 10-year-old daughter an abortion that Indiana investigators found them.
Police arrested Thrash and Sophie’s mother.
A NEW HOME, ANOTHER ABUSER
It'd been two years since her initial outcry and it seemed Sophie had finally caught a break. It was short-lived.
The home where the state placed her when her mom and her abuser were arrested became another nightmare.
Court records show her foster father is under investigation for also inappropriately touching Sophie while Thrash was still waiting for his day in court.
“This is one of those cases that makes you regret because I did everything, she did what she was supposed to do, she went and told somebody, told an adult, The wheels were set in motion,” Sheppard said, somberly. “ I went back, I go through my notes, is there anything I could have done differently? Is there anything I could have done faster? Is there…you know. Yeah, this is a case that I will take with me for a long time.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Sophie had her baby just days shy of her 11th birthday. State authorities in Indiana have placed the child in foster care.
Sophie is now in a mental health facility, according to her grandmother. She said the now-12-year-old has tried to take her own life several times.
“Shows even though the wheels are in motion, they're turning, sometimes, they just don't seem to turn fast enough for the victim and with everything we did, and all that we could do and everything within the power of the law and staying within the letter of the law. To me, we weren't fast enough,” Lt. Sheppard said.
Thrash and Sophie’s mother are both in prison. Thrash was sentenced to 160 years. Sophie’s mother took a deal and pleaded guilty to neglecting, aiding child molestation and assisting a criminal. She'll be in prison for about 20 years.
As for the other systems that failed Sophie, her grandmother says two DFCS workers were fired for dropping the ball in this case and allowing Sophie’s mother to flee to Indiana. DFCS doesn't comment on its cases so 11Alive has not been able to confirm that claim.
The Hogansville investigator said he's working to make sure Thrash never gets out of prison through any legal loophole.
He's keeping his case here open -- just in case.
The Reveal, a show dedicated to investigations that make an impact, airs Sundays at 6 p.m. on 11Alive.