NEW ORLEANS — Signs of severe abuse on a 4-year-old's body found during an autopsy contradicted the story of her caretaker and accused murderer, according to documents obtained by the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate.
Anfernee Steele is now the subject of a manhunt after investigators obtained a warrant for his arrest on charges of second-degree murder and cruelty to juveniles.
According to the newspaper, he was watching 4-year-old Jo'nyri Hawkins, his girlfriend's daughter, in his New Orleans hotel room on Oct. 3.
Steele told investigators he bathed Hawkins after she soiled her underwear, while other children he was watching slept.
The 21-year-old from Houma reportedly began feeling tired from the marijuana he had smoked earlier in the day and decided to take a nap, leaving the toddler alone in the bathtub.
Sometime later, Steele said he heard a thump and splashing. When he ran to the room and pulled Hawkins from the tub, he was worried that she had swallowed water and pressed on her stomach.
According to records cited by the newspaper, he said she was fine when he put her to bed.
But Jo'nyri Hawkins was dead. When her mother returned and found her, the toddler was limp and lifeless.
An autopsy didn't match Steele's account, according to the newspaper's report, saying she died from "massive internal bleeding" caused by blunt force trauma to her abdomen. The forensic pathologist in charge of the exam said the fatal injury -- likely a punch or kick -- was so hard it ruptured the child's liver and spleen.
The autopsy also noted previous signs of abuse, including bruises, scars, a healed rib fracture and human bite marks. The pathologist also noted "vaginal trauma" consistent with an object "similar to a finger" being inserted, the court documents cited by The Advocate showed.
After the autopsy, police tried to interview Steele, but he had disappeared. None of the people close to him seemed to know where he had gone.
That, plus other inconsistencies -- none of the towels in the bathroom were wet, a pair of Jo’nyri’s underwear found in the bathroom were clean and Steele's strange behavior immediately after the death was discovered -- prompted authorities to ask a judge to sign an arrest warrant, according to The Advocate.
The warrant was issued Tuesday, beginning the ongoing manhunt.
If convicted, Steele would face mandatory life imprisonment for Jo’nyri's murder.
Her funeral was held Friday in Houma.