Zoey Felix’s short life was filled with turbulence.
Before the 5-year-old Topeka girl was raped and killed, worried neighbors say they saw her wandering, dirty and hungry. Police were called to her home dozens of times. Teachers raised alarms when she missed preschool. Both parents alleged abuse. Zoey’s mom was jailed for a drunken car crash with Zoey in the front seat. State welfare officials were notified.
In September, Zoey and her father moved out, and neighbors believe they began camping in a nearby vacant lot. Weeks later, Zoey was killed — efforts to save her in a gas station parking lot were unsuccessful — and Mickel Cherry, a 25-year-old homeless man, was charged in her death.
Public anger over Zoey’s Oct. 2 death has focused on her parents. But child advocates are asking why police and the state’s embattled Department for Children and Families left the bubbly and curious girl in a dangerous environment.
“Our society’s collective failure to support and protect Zoey is heartbreaking and unconscionable,” said Shakti Belway, executive director at the National Center for Youth Law, which sued the state over problems with its child welfare system.
Cherry is charged with first-degree murder, rape and capital murder, and could face the death penalty. Cherry’s attorney, Mark Manna, of the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit, has declined to comment. Cherry’s family didn’t respond to messages.
Authorities confirmed that Cherry once lived at the same address as Zoey, but he was homeless when he was arrested.
The Associated Press examined dozens of court records and police reports that paint an image of Zoey’s chaotic home environment.
Court records show her father had a protection-from-abuse order to keep Zoey’s mother away. The mother told the AP in a Facebook message that she was married to Zoey’s father but that he had temporary custody. She declined to respond to other questions.
“I can’t talk to you,” she wrote. “I’m sorry.”
Neither parent responded to phone messages, and a person who identified herself as a grandmother declined comment. Zoey’s father worked at the gas station where rescuers tried to save her life, but its manager and corporate owner also declined comment.
Police say their investigation is ongoing, but it’s not yet clear that anyone else will be charged.
Laura Howard, the top administrator for the Department for Children and Families, described Zoey’s case as “tragic” during an Oct. 4 legislative committee hearing, but didn’t elaborate. The agency has yet to release any information.
“How was that child not removed? It doesn’t make any sense,” said Mike Fonkert, deputy director of Kansas Appleseed, whose group also sued the state over its child welfare system.
On the block where Zoey had lived, neighbor Shaniqua Bradley said the girl took to calling her mom. Bradley and other neighbors said Zoey sometimes wore the same outfit for a week. They bathed her and gave her clean clothes. When water and electricity were cut off at Zoey’s house, she asked them for water or a place to cool off. Bradley washed the girl’s matted hair, fed her, and said she called child welfare.
Bradley, who has four kids of her own, said she asked Zoey’s mother if she could help in her care.
“I want to blame myself so much for it, because I continuously told everybody, like: ‘I don’t want to send her back home. Like, I want her mom to sign her over to me.’ But her mom would not,” Bradley said.
Court records show Zoey’s mother was convicted in Nevada of disorderly conduct and violated a protection-from-abuse order there before moving to Topeka, and police reports show Topeka officers were frequently at the family’s home.
The turbulence came to a head in July 2022, when Zoey’s mom called police to report a disturbance. Police returned later that day after Zoey’s teenage sister said her mother had overdosed and that Zoey was home. The report says the mother appeared healthy. Still, Zoey’s mother was arrested and charged with misdemeanor domestic battery against her husband. Released on bond, she was directed to have no contact with him.
At this point, both parents sought protection orders against each other, but a judge rejected the requests.
In August 2022, Zoey’s mother was arrested for domestic battery, with her teenage daughter listed as the victim.
Amid the turmoil, Zoey sometimes showed up to preschool dirty, without socks, underwear or a coat, said Sasha Camacho, a paraprofessional in Zoey’s class who notified the school social worker.
Then in November came news that Zoey would miss school because she had been in a crash. A criminal complaint accused Zoey’s mother of driving drunk with an open container — and Zoey — in her car. Prosecutors later subpoenaed hospital records for Zoey.
Zoey’s father obtained a protection-from-abuse order against his wife ordering her to stay away from him through the end of December 2023. The judge gave him custody of Zoey.
Zoey’s mother remained in jail through March of this year, and a judge referred the case to the state Department for Children and Families, court records show. Camacho said Zoey met with child welfare officers at least twice that fall. Dad took over caring for Zoey, but she missed a lot of preschool and in March stopped attending entirely, Camacho said.
That same month, Zoey’s mom pleaded guilty to felony aggravated battery and driving under the influence, and was sentenced to probation. Aggravated child endangerment and two misdemeanor battery cases were dismissed.
The plea agreement said she could have no contact with Zoey and restricted her contact with her teenage daughter.
Court records show Zoey’s situation grew increasingly unstable when her father and his girlfriend were evicted from their apartment after falling behind on the rent. The couple broke up and neighbors said Zoey and her father moved back in with her mother, along with Cherry, a friend of Zoey’s teenage sister. Zoey’s mom called the police on July 22 to report that her husband had moved back in, despite his protection-from-abuse order.
The school district said Zoey didn’t attend kindergarten this fall.
Cherry’s presence heightened neighbors’ anxiety.
On Sept. 5, neighbor Desiree Myles called police, saying Zoey had been “home alone since yesterday with a strange man — there is no water or electricity at the home.” She said that when she asked Zoey who the man was, Zoey couldn’t tell her and didn’t know where her mother was.
City spokeswoman Gretchen Spiker said officers confirmed there was no electricity and were told by Zoey’s father that she wasn’t living there. Spiker said officers met with Zoey, saw she was in “good spirits” and made a report to child welfare. The home was temporarily condemned.
Fonkert, of Kansas Appleseed, said it would be a “huge failure” if no one from child welfare followed up to establish where Zoey was living.
Police returned Sept. 19, and Bradley said she heard Zoey’s mom saying everyone had to leave. A police report said Zoey’s mother had shoved her teenage daughter, and an officer later stood outside as belongings were retrieved from the house.
Police reports do not explain where Zoey, her sister, her father and Cherry went, but neighbors said they were living in a makeshift camp among trees in the vacant lot.
Just before 6 p.m. on Oct. 2, the first call — “5 yo unresponsive” — summoned emergency crews to the gas station.
A fire department incident report says Zoey’s father said her body was taken to him at the gas station, although it does not say by whom. A police report said a man and woman the same ages as Cherry and Zoey’s sister were present.
Emergency responders performed life-saving measures at the scene but Zoey was pronounced dead at a hospital. The police report doesn’t say how she died.
Crime scene tape surrounded a tent and tarp in the vacant lot, and a memorial for Zoey appeared nearby with flowers, balloons and toys.
“This is devastating,” said Sharon Williams, another neighbor who had called child welfare and has been answering her granddaughter’s haunting questions since her playmate died: “She asked, ‘Did Zoey go to heaven?’ And I said, ‘Yes, she did.’”
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. AP news researchers Jennifer Farrar, Rhonda Shafner and Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.