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Buried body found in Menifee believed to be missing boy’s

The desperate search for missing 11-year-old Terry Smith ended tragically Wednesday when investigators found a buried body on the rural Menifee property where he lived with his family and arrested a teenage family member on suspicion of murder.

After days of scouring the brushy terrain for the boy, investigators early Wednesday found a slight body believed to be the youth’s in a shallow grave. The discovery put a stop to a search that ended up covering roughly 55 square miles near Lake Elsinore.

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News that a body had been unearthed was a crushing blow to a tight-knit community and the roughly 1,000 searchers who’d been looking for Terry since his disappearance was announced Sunday.

“He was a very good kid, very nice and sweet, never did anything wrong,” said a sorrowful Dallal Harb, the owner of the Menifee Market, a convenience store near the Smith property. Harb, 31, said Terry attended the same school as her two sons, and she would sometimes pick him up after school and bring him to her store for a snack before sending him home.

Riverside County Sheriff’s Capt. John Hill, who announced the body had been found at an afternoon press conference, would not give the name of the arrested teenager, saying only that he was a family member. “This was a domestic issue within the residence,” he said.

During the search, investigators said one of the last people to see Terry was a 16-year-old stepbrother who lived at the house. The boy’s name was never officially released.

Investigators found the buried body near a tree not far from the beige-and-brown home where Terry lived with his mother, Shauna Smith. Hill said the body “fits the description of Terry Smith” but had not yet been positively identified.

Terry’s father lives out of state and has been contacted by investigators, who say they’ve ruled him out as a suspect.

Earlier in the week, searchers scoured the 2.5-acre property around the Smith home. Officials said Wednesday that Terry Smith’s family hadn’t stopped anyone from searching the property and had been cooperative from the start. A female volunteer searcher called the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department early Wednesday to say human remains had been spotted, according to Sgt. Lisa McConnell.

Before the body was found, investigators relied on statements from Terry Smith’s mother and older stepbrother to plan their search. Shauna Smith said she left him with the older boy while she went out for the night. The stepbrother told detectives that he went for a walk to a nearby market Saturday evening, found that his younger brother was following him and told him to go back home, according to Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Alberto Martinez.

Harb, whose Menifee Market became a staging area for searchers, said Terry’s family called shortly after he disappeared, asking her if she’d seen the boy. She had not.

She noted that she’d reviewed surveillance footage from her store, within walking distance of the Smith home, and concluded that the stepbrother didn’t come to the market Saturday night.

“I’m completely blank,” she said as she stood near a gate separating her store from the Smith property, where green tents were erected under a tree Wednesday morning to shield detectives and their work.

“It just feels like a total dream,” she said. “I just want to wake up from this dream.”

Harb’s devastation was echoed throughout Menifee, a southwestern Riverside County town of about 80,000 residents that is intersected by Interstate 215.

“This has been a test of the strength of the fabric of this community,” said Menifee Mayor Scott Mann. “Menifee stepped up to the plate in a big way. I just can’t possibly imagine anything more could have been done from the residents of this community.”

The small, blond boy was said to have last been seen wearing blue basketball shorts and was described by his mother as a “high-functioning” autistic. Starting Sunday, search crews fanned across the Menifee area, aided by bloodhounds, helicopters and horseback riders. There were fears that without his autism medication Terry could become overly sensitive and afraid of people yelling his name.

Aiding the search team — which included Riverside County sheriff’s deputies and FBI agents — were scores of volunteers, many of them offering assistance after finding out about the case on a Facebook site. The boy’s lack of medication was only one of the worries; temperatures hovered near 100 degrees every day during the search in the sparsely populated area.

On Wednesday, hope for Terry turned to deep sadness. With word spreading among volunteers that a body had been found, dozens arrayed in a circle, bowing their heads and praying.

“We will find a way to remember him in our hearts,” said Jenny Smith, who taught Terry for part of the day when he was in 4th grade. Smith remembered him as a little hyper, suffering from attention issues, but otherwise not too different from her other students.

Michelle George, who lives near the Smith home, said her 8-year-old son rode the bus with Terry, who would walk to the bus stop alone in the mornings and walk back alone in the afternoon.

“When it was super cold he would sit in the car with us, and they’d sit and look at Digimon cards till the bus came,” George recalled, her voice somber.

George said she didn’t know that Terry had a stepbrother and only saw his mother once, when Shauna Smith walked her son to the bus stop on the first day of school.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

emily.foxhall@latimes.com

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.


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