LAURINBURG – After days of uncertainty about what happened to 4-year-old Raul Johnson, the case of the missing Scotland County boy is pretty much solved.
On Saturday, authorities discovered a body of a child in a pond not far from where the pre-schooler went missing three days earlier.
But an end to the mystery brings little solace to law enforcement, the countless volunteers helping them or Raul’s family.
“It is with great sadness that we announce that we believe we have found the body of Raul Gonzalez Johnson in a pond off of Pea Bridge Road,” an emotional Scotland County Sheriff Ralph Kersey told reporters late Saturday afternoon. “For days, you have seen an enormous amount of work going into this search for little Raul. We have prayed, but this is the outcome everyone feared.”
The body has been sent to the state medical examiner in Raleigh for an autopsy, but authorities believe the death to be accidental.
As of Monday, tentative funeral arrangements were being handled by McDougald Funeral Home. Visitation is from 5 to 7 p.m. at 305 E. Church St. today. The funeral service will be held Wednesday at North View Harvest Ministries at 17760 Log Cabin Road, Laurinburg at 2 p.m.
“I ask all citizens of Scotland County to do what we do best in uncertain times like this and that is to come together,” Kersey said. “The family of Raul needs our prayer and support.”
When the news broke Saturday, residents began to do just that — sending condolences to the family and to those who searched.
“Please keep praying for the family and for all those that were involved in searching for Raul Johnson… My heart is so sad and broken,” Lori Vann wrote on Facebook. “We may live in a small town but the outpouring of support and love is overwhelming. Many came together as one. Sheriff Ralph Kersey was relentless in his job to leave no stone unturned.”
Flora Butler wrote, “This breaks my heart on many levels. However, in the midst of great grief I see a whole lot of good.”
Several groups made arrangements to help the family and others mourn the child’s loss.
Employees of the Scotland County Partnership for Children and Families organized a candlelight vigil and balloon release for tonight at the James L. Morgan Recreation Complex at 6 p.m. The family held a candlelight vigil for on Monday night at Good News Chapel Church on Pea Bridge Road. The church served as the command post in the search.
“It is a little personal for our office members, as he was a child who attended one of our local participating child care facilities,” said Haley Powell who is helping to coordinate tonight’s event.
Officials had been looking for the child since noon on Wednesday when he went missing from his home on Village Drive.
The last person to see Raul was an elderly neighbor he sometimes visited for cookies. She sent the boy home around 10:30 a.m. and said she last saw him headed toward his house.
Raul’s grandfather was babysitting him and his six-year-old sister while their mother, Annie Johnson was at work. He was fixing lunch for the children when he realized the child was missing. He looked for Raul on the property for an hour before calling 911.
The boy also went missing for 30 minutes on Tuesday.
Search teams concentrated their efforts on the pond because of evidence found there. Several sets of a child’s footprints were in the mud around the pond, Kersey said on Thursday. Detectives believed the prints to be fresh because rain on Monday night would have washed away any older prints. Five search dogs also repeatedly led rescuers to the pond.
Dive teams from Marlboro County swept the pond on Thursday, and Cumberland County’s Dive Team searched on Friday. Sonar equipment was also used on the water.
It was decided to drain the pond because officials believed it was possible that boy’s size could make it easy to miss his body in the depths of the water.
“It was determined that in order for us to determine the next course of action, we really needed to eliminate that body of water. And draining a body of water such as that, that really is the best way to determine if Raul’s body is in there,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent, Jason Kaplan.
While 150 ground search crews continued to canvass the neighborhood around the child’s home, another group began the work of draining the pond. At 10:30 a.m. Saturday, crews began to pump 8,000 gallons of water per minute into a nearby pasture hoping to locate the child. The man-made pond, used for recreation, is five feet deep at the edge and up to eight feet in the center.
“At approximately 1:45 p.m., they turned the pumps off seeing something in the water,” Kersey said.
Kersey said that he felt close to the child because he had met the little boy and held him during the course of an investigation last fall. He described Raul as a “timid, sweet child” with a love of life who considered his neighbors as family.
“I’ve had children that were that age at some point … they’re grown now. I just don’t know what to feel,” Kersey said. “We were hoping for the best, and that is not what happened today. It’s just a sad day.”
The sheriff called it a blessing to have met the child.
“I know that I gave my best,” Kersey said through tears. “It put a passion in me to do all that I could to bring him home safe.”
Reach Beth Lawrence 910-506-3169