The search for a missing mother has now turned into a homicide investigation after a toddler's account of what happened led police to her body.
Wednesday evening, Essence Willoughby's family thanked the community for all their support and sent an important message to other women who refuse to leave a violent relationship.
"(She was a) dedicated mom, she loved her children, she wasn't wild, she wasn't running the streets," said Jesse Frazier, Willoughby's stepfather.
He said his stepdaughter was a sweet spirit and a loving mother who wanted to be a crime fighter.
"She was in school studying criminal justice. Her dream was to be a police officer," Frazier said.
But this weekend, Willoughby herself became the victim of a violent crime. On Sunday her 3-year-old son told the family that his father and mother got into a terrible fight.
Willoughby's family called police, and her church family started searching for clues after her 3-year-old gave the violent account of the last time he saw her Sunday.
Police found the body, later confirmed as that of the missing 21-year-old, in a creek bed near Van Brunt Boulevard and Leeds Road about 2 p.m. Tuesday.
"The officers and also family members were searching a wooded area, and that is when they found a body that resembles the missing person," Officer Darin Snapp said Tuesday night. "Based upon what she was wearing, we believe it is her."
Police confirmed Wednesday afternoon what her family suspected when the body was found.
It was a discovery that changed the mood from determined to distraught in those who spent all night Monday looking for clues in Essence Willoughby's disappearance.
"It is really hard to put it into words, because it is hard to understand why," said family friend Terri Harrison.
The details of that account, described by Willoughby's stepfather, match where her body was found, and police said the 3-year-old's account was crucial.
It was a detail that brings extra weight to the special care the two boys will now need, something an entire congregation will be working on.
"We've got to do that. We can't leave each other hanging. We live in a dark world, but there's still good people here. And we love each other. We're going to help each other," Harrison said.
"He knows. And we just say, ‘mommy is asleep and she's with Jesus' and leave it there," Jesse Frazier said.
Willoughby's paternal grandfather is a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and it's unclear if they will have their usual Wednesday service.
The father of Willoughby's two children, 42-year-old Ja Ray, is in jail on a warrant for unpaid child support out of Buchanan County.
Police said Ray appeared high on PCP when they arrested him.
Court records show Ray pleaded guilty to domestic violence assault in 2010. He received two years probation in place of a five-year prison sentence.
Ray violated probation in 2011 and had to go through a domestic violence program, then again in August. But instead of prison, Ray's probation was extended for two more years.
Willoughby's mother, Helen, said family and friends tried to convince her to leave the abusive relationship, but she had hoped things would get better.
"Essence believed love could change people and that's why she stayed in the relationship, in spite of what the end was going to bring. I'm sure there are other women that believe love will change someone," Helen Frazier said.
Police said they have a person in custody, but no charges have been filed yet.
Willoughby's family is holding a candlelight vigil Saturday and they want families to wear purple and bring a candle to take a stand against domestic violence. It will be held at Gilbert Memorial A.M.E at 3700 Topping Ave. in Kansas City, MO, at 4:30 p.m.
Those who wish to make contributions to help raise funds for the family and children of Willoughby can do so by clicking here.
Click here to read previous coverage on this developing story.
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