The mother of a 2-year-old girl found submerged in a creek, strapped in her car seat and weighed down with a car jack, tearfully described to a jury Thursday how she learned of the girl's death, hours after her father angrily sped off with their daughter in his car.
Imani Benton testified that she called police to report Arthur Morgan III after he was four hours overdue bringing their daughter, Tierra Morgan-Glover, home from seeing a movie. Eight hours earlier, Benton said, Morgan had berated her, saying she wasn't a good mother and yelling that she was a whore as he drove off with their daughter.
When Morgan failed to return with the girl as planned, Benton said she called police, who arrived and took a report. Hours later, they returned, this time with an FBI agent who asked about a specific item of clothing Tierra was wearing, a pink Hello Kitty hat.
"I never told police about the hat," she testified during the second day of Morgan's murder trial. "When they asked, I knew something was wrong. I started hyperventilating, I had a panic attack and I would end up in the hospital."
At the hospital, an officer showed her a photo and asked if she could identify the person in it. The photo showed Tierra's lifeless body, her eyes closed, Benton said.
Authorities had retrieved her from a creek in a Jersey shore park about 20 miles from her Lakehurst home on Nov. 22, 2011, one tiny black and purple sneaker sticking out of the water. The child was still securely strapped into her pink car seat, which was weighed down with a heavy metal car tire jack, which prosecutors said was done to ensure it would sink.
"They told me they found Tierra and that she was dead," Benton testified, dabbing at her teary eyes with a tissue.
Morgan, 29, of Eatontown, is charged with killing his daughter in what prosecutors claim was a premeditated, jealous rage because the girl's mother would not get back together with him. Benton testified that days before the child's death, she broke up with Morgan for the last time, returning jewelry including an engagement ring to him.
Benton said Morgan would badger her with scores of harassing telephone calls. On the day Tierra died, Morgan started calling Benton at 6:30 a.m., calling 60 times before she relented and agreed to let him take her to see "Happy Feet II," a movie about a dancing penguin that the child wanted to see. Before leaving with Tierra, Morgan accused Benton of having a new boyfriend and wanting to drink instead of being a good mother — neither of which was true, she said.
Morgan's state of mind the day of his daughter's death will be a key part of the case. In his opening statement, defense attorney Ryan Moriarty indicated Morgan would not deny responsibility for Tierra's death. He told the jurors their task is to decide "what form of homicide applies to this defendant."
If convicted of "knowing and purposeful" murder, Morgan could get life in prison without parole. But if convicted of a lesser form of homicide, like reckless manslaughter, he could be freed in as little as five years.
Prosecutors allege Morgan tossed the hot pink child seat — with Tierra still in it — from a bridge into a creek in Shark River Park in Wall Township, went to a liquor store to buy rum for drinks that he downed with a friend, then fled to California.
On the way, he sent Benton a text message saying the child they both called "Teetie" was fine and that he was having problems with his cellphone. Later, he sent an email to Benton, again saying Tierra was fine. He ended it by writing, "Love you."
Prosecutors said Morgan gave a statement to authorities in San Diego, where he was arrested, indicating "he could have done it that way" when asked if he had tossed the child into the creek. When asked why he did not simply take the child and flee instead of killing her, Morgan replied that it would be better to live with the consequences of a bad decision he made than with one someone else made for him, prosecutors said.
First Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Marc LeMieux showed Benton physical evidence retrieved by authorities, including the car seat, and the clothing Tierra had been wearing, stained brown from the muddy creek water. One of the items the child was wearing when she left with her father was a necklace, Benton testified.
It had a pendant that read, "Daddy's Little Girl."