More arrests made in brutal slaying of 8-year-old girl, California AG Rob Bonta says

Dhante Jackson, the alleged killer of 8-year-old Sophia Mason, eluded capture for six months with the help of three accomplices who provided him with money, shelter and transportation, Merced police officials said Sunday.

Jackson, 34, was arrested Saturday in the Bay Area community of Newark and returned to Merced County where he is charged with second-degree murder and child abuse in Mason’s death.

Also arrested were Daberka Thompson of San Jose, Laronna Larkins of Merced and Mayra Gonzalez of Newark. Each suspect subsequently faces a charge of accessory to murder.

Jackson had outstanding warrants for homicide and child abuse for his arrest in Sophia’s death. The child’s body was found inside a Barclay Way residence in Merced on March 11, where Jackson lived.

He has been on the run since Sofia’s body was found. Details also emerged that Jackson may have physically and sexually abused the child before his death.

Co-accused in Sophia’s murder, her mother Samantha Johnson, 31, was previously arrested on charges of murder and felony child abuse shortly after the child’s body was found.

During a news conference Sunday at police headquarters, Merced police and Justice Department officials provided some new details about how Jackson was eventually arrested.

Lt. Joey Perez said that in the past six months detectives have executed 20 search warrants, interviewed numerous witnesses and family members, analyzed hundreds of hours of electronic data and spent hours on surveillance.

It all paid off, Perez said, when state DOJ agents and members of the Merced Area Gang and Narcotic Enforcement Team arrested Jackson outside a Newark home.

In a photo released by Merced police, Jackson is seen wearing a T-shirt that says “Tyson Tough.” He also grew a beard.

Detective Constable John Pinnegar, who delayed retiring until Jackson was caught, said his accomplices helped hide him and provided him with transport. At one point, Jackson tried to go to Las Vegas, where he has family, but was discouraged.

Pinegar was at Sunday’s news conference and was thankful Jackson is in prison.

“The motivation for me to stay was to make sure we get him into custody and get justice for Sophia and her family,” Pinegar said.

Dhante Jackson, left, is accused of killing Sophia Mason

California Attorney General Rob Bonda also attended Sunday’s news conference and applauded the work of Merced police, the Merced Area Gang and Narcotic Enforcement Team and the Department of Justice’s Special Operations Unit.

“As much as I’m thankful that Dante Jackson is behind bars, like so many of us up here, I’m also very angry,” Bonda said. “I am very angry that we are here because little Sophia should be alive, playing, learning and growing. She should be chasing her dreams, but unfortunately she isn’t. And those accused of her murder must pay a heavy price for their heinous crimes.”

Merced County Deputy District Attorney Katie Gates, the prosecutor in the Jackson case, expects the defendant to be arraigned Tuesday. Jackson remains in the Merced County Jail without bond.

A trial date for Samantha Johnson, Sophia’s biological mother, has not yet been set.

If convicted, Jackson and Johnson face a minimum of 15 years to life in prison. However, Jackson has a prior felony conviction and could have his sentence doubled to 30 years to life in prison.

A cousin of Sophia’s said Sunday that while she is grateful Jackson was caught, her death has changed her family forever.

“No punishment can be just for what he did to Sophia,” Melissa Harris said.

Police said Sophia was the victim of long-term abuse. When Merced police found her severely malnourished body inside a Merced home, she had been dead for about a month. Perez said she was forced to live in a shed in the backyard or inside a closet.

“In 20 years of law enforcement this case is the most disturbing and horrific I have seen,” Perez said. “Knowing what that poor little angel went through at the hands of pure evil breaks my heart.”

Harris’ family have spoken out since Sophia’s body was found, saying her death could have been prevented because they alerted multiple agencies that she was at risk, but their pleas went unheeded.

Harris says that when her family became suspicious that Sophia was being abused by Jackson, they notified Alameda County Child and Family Services, the Hayward Police Department and the Hayward Unified School District.

He said none of these services would help their family. The Sun-Star previously contacted those agencies, but they declined to comment on the family’s allegations. A Bay Area News Group investigation into the case also found deep deficiencies at Child and Family Services in Alameda County.

Harris also said that Sophia’s mother faces “developmental challenges.” Harris believes that Sophia and her mother were sexually trafficked by Jackson.

Harris also hopes systemic changes will occur to prevent cases like Sophia’s from happening again, particularly when the warning signs have been reported.

“(These agencies) had multiple opportunities to intervene and never did,” Harris said. “I hope those who minimized the distress of a young child will be fired.”

California Attorney General Rob Bonda speaks during a news conference announcing the arrest of Dhante Jackson, 34, and three others at the Merced Police Department in Merced, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022. Jackson is wanted on warrants for murder and felony child abuse in connection with the death of 8-year-old Sophia Mason.

California Attorney General Rob Bonda speaks during a news conference announcing the arrest of Dhante Jackson, 34, and three others at the Merced Police Department in Merced, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022. Jackson is wanted on warrants for murder and felony child abuse in connection with the death of 8-year-old Sophia Mason.

A news conference is held to announce the arrest of Dhante Jackson, 34, and three others at the Merced Police Department in Merced, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022. Jackson is wanted on warrants for murder and felony child abuse in connection with the death of 8-year-old Sophia Mason .

A news conference is held to announce the arrest of Dhante Jackson, 34, and three others at the Merced Police Department in Merced, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022. Jackson is wanted on warrants for murder and felony child abuse in connection with the death of 8-year-old Sophia Mason .

California Attorney General Rob Bonda speaks during a news conference announcing the arrest of Dhante Jackson, 34, and three others at the Merced Police Department in Merced, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022. Jackson is wanted on warrants for murder and felony child abuse in connection with the death of 8-year-old Sophia Mason.

California Attorney General Rob Bonda speaks during a news conference announcing the arrest of Dhante Jackson, 34, and three others at the Merced Police Department in Merced, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022. Jackson is wanted on warrants for murder and felony child abuse in connection with the death of 8-year-old Sophia Mason.

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