KANSAS CITY — Children danced and sang not far from a wooded area where a 3-year-old girl was found slain eight years ago.
Community members have said they want this site to move past the "dumping ground" image it has fought to shake in the years since Erica Green's death. The scene Saturday seemed a fitting start to their hopeful wishes.
About 200 people attended a unity march and prayer hour in memory of Erica, who was known for years only as "Precious Doe." The crowd included detectives and prosecutors who worked on the case, activists who kept attention on it, and residents whose connection to Erica grew out of their sadness and frustration over her killing.
"As we gather here today as family under that one creator, let's continue to not only keep our children in our prayers but to reach out to them," community activist Alvin Brooks said. "If there's someone in the neighborhood or on the block who we think is misusing a child, we need to say something about it."
For more than an hour, ministers prayed and community leaders spoke. A group of children performed a dance number. A boy the age that Erica would be if she had lived sang gospel.
"She was murdered and she was just a child," said the 11-year-old vocalist, Prince Johnson. "I wanted to come out and show my support."
Other children read the names of more than 40 youths, including Erica, who were killed in the last 10 years in Kansas City and Jackson County. Afterward, the boys and girls released balloons in memory of the young victims.
The event concluded with a dedication of a park honoring Erica and other slain, abused and missing children. Park officials have said they envision the park being up and running in 18 to 24 months, possibly sooner.
The site of the future park will be the same wooded area where Erica's dismembered body was found on April 28, 2001.
She went unidentified until May 2005, when her mother and the mother's husband were arrested in Muskogee, Okla., in the slaying. The couple, who married after Erica's death, were convicted last year in the killing.
"Once the trial was over, we hit the ground running on this," said Precious Doe Committee co-chair Marcie Williams of the park project. "We want to make this an area where kids can feel comfortable and safe. We hope Erica's death brings awareness and that people will step forward and get involved if they know about a child being abused."
Harrell Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole last year for killing Erica. While high on drugs, he kicked the girl in the head and left her to die on a bedroom floor in the Kansas City house where they were staying.
Johnson then decapitated the girl and dumped her remains in a wooded area.
Erica's mother, Michelle Johnson, helped get rid of her daughter's body. The woman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and testified against her husband. She was sentenced last year to 25 years in prison.
In the years after Erica's remains were found, the community refused to forget her, holding memorial services and honoring her birthday.
Kansas City-area activist Alonzo Washington got a tip in the spring of 2005 from Harrell Johnson's grandfather in Oklahoma, which led police to the Johnsons.
Erica's foster grandmother, Betty Brown, traveled from Muskogee, Okla., to Kansas City to attend Saturday's march and park dedication. She said it was heartwarming to see all the people whose lives Erica touched.
"I appreciate them naming the park in her honor," said Brown, 76.
She said it's still hard for her to cope with Erica's death. The girl had been staying with Brown before her mother picked her up to go to Kansas City in early April 2001.
"I keep thinking if she'd never gotten with her mother, this would have never happened," Brown said. "It didn't have to happen. She could have brought her back to the house to me. Or if she would've called, I'd have come and got her.
"Erica meant that much to me, because I loved her. My daughters loved her. We all miss her so much."