SHORTER, Ala. — Aniah Blanchard has officially been found.
Auburn police officials on Wednesday announced that DNA testing of skeletal remains found in a wooded area of Macon County, Alabama, has positively identified the body as that of the missing college student.
"It is with heavy hearts that we announce that the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences has positively identified the remains as those of Aniah Haley Blanchard," Auburn police officials said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "At this point, the case will move forward as a homicide investigation, and additional charges are forthcoming."
Blanchard's remains were found three days after a third man was charged in the disappearance of the 19-year-old Southern Union College student, who vanished more than a month ago. WSFA in Montgomery identified the third suspect as David Lee Johnson Jr., who has been charged with hindering prosecution.
Johnson was arrested Monday by U.S. marshals, according to Montgomery County Jail records.
His bail was set at $7,500 and, according to The Associated Press, he posted bond the same day and was released.
Authorities from numerous agencies continued Tuesday to search the area near Shorter, a small town in Macon County, where Blanchard's remains were found the day before. Helicopters hovered overhead and a bevy of vehicles, including all-terrain vehicles and crime scene units, were brought in.
According to Auburn officials, those who pored over the wooded area included Auburn police and firefighters, agents from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency's State Bureau of Investigation, a team of anthropologists from Florida Gulf Coast University, the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, the Macon County Sheriff's Office and more than 100 first responders from the area.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey added her voice to those offering condolences to Blanchard's family.
"I am heartbroken for the family of Aniah Blanchard," Ivey said in a statement. "Like Alabamians across our state, I was praying for a much different outcome. I will be keeping them in my prayers and ask the people of Alabama to continue to do so as well."
She urged residents to remember Blanchard's loved ones, even as they celebrate the holiday season.
"I appreciate the diligence of the Auburn Police Division, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the many volunteers who were searching for Aniah," Ivey said. "She is indeed loved and will be remembered by us all."
Blanchard's mother, Angela Harris, told ABC 33/40 in Birmingham Tuesday night that she lost her best friend. The mother and daughter shared a birthday.
"She was my heart," a tearful Harris said at a candlelight vigil held in the family's hometown of Homewood, an affluent suburb of Birmingham. According to ABC 33/40, the vigil was held in Homewood Central Park.
Harris said she would miss her daughter's smile and her laughter.
"Just her happiness, because she made life better for all of us," she told the news station.
She also urged young men and women to always pay attention to their surroundings. She pointed out that her daughter went to the store where she met up with her alleged killer simply to buy a bag of potato chips.
"And if you know Aniah, you know how much she loved to eat," the weeping mother said.
Hear from Angela Harris below, courtesy of ABC 33/40.
Blanchard disappeared overnight Oct. 23 from Auburn, where she was last seen by her brother, Elijah Blanchard Jr., a student at Auburn University. Authorities said Aniah Blanchard spoke to a friend on the phone just before midnight.
She was later seen on surveillance footage at a Chevron gas station on South College Street, where she stopped to buy a snack. Investigators allege she was snatched from the store parking lot moments later.
Her vehicle, a black 2017 Honda CRV, was seen traveling south on South College Street a few minutes later. Authorities believe she was not alone.
A snippet of the store surveillance footage was released in the days immediately after Blanchard vanished.
Johnson is accused of disposing of evidence and driving the primary suspect, Ibraheem Yazeed, from Alabama to Florida, the AP reported. Yazeed, 30, of Montgomery, was captured by the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force Nov. 9 in Pensacola, Florida.
Yazeed, who has a history of arrests for violent crimes, was out on bail on charges of kidnapping and attempted murder when Blanchard vanished, Auburn police officials said. According to AL.com, Yazeed is accused of holding two men, one of whom was 77 years old, in a hotel room against their will in January.
Court records obtained by the news site allege the older man was beaten until "unconscious, unresponsive, severely injured and near death." He was robbed of a Rolex, a rifle, handguns, his wallet and bank card, clothing and unknown amount of cash. The other man was also beaten and robbed of at least $40, the documents say.
Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes argued in the Blanchard case earlier this month that leniency by Montgomery County officials contributed to Yazeed's ability to harm Blanchard.
"The defendant was afforded bond and allowed to remain free by the least restrictive means possible, and he rewarded Montgomery County's allowance for bond by coming to Lee County and kidnapping Aniah Blanchard," Hughes wrote, according to AL.com.
Yazeed is being held without bail in the Lee County Jail. His attorney, Elijah Beaver, has sought to have him transferred to Montgomery County due to alleged death threats in the Lee County facility.
He is being held in solitary confinement in Lee County for his safety, AL.com reported.
Yazeed and a second Montgomery man, Antwain "Squirmy" Fisher, are charged with first-degree kidnapping in Blanchard's disappearance. Fisher, 35, was arrested Friday in Montgomery.
‘Human remains have been found'
News of Johnson's arrest came as authorities in Lee and Macon counties announced the tragic news that a body believed to be that of Blanchard was found in a wooded area of Macon County.
"I can confirm that human remains have been found, and we have good reason to suspect they are that of Aniah Blanchard," Hughes said Monday.
Auburn police officials said in an update on Blanchard's case that investigators received information that led them to the remains. They did not say where the information came from, or if any of the suspects indicated where her body could be found.
"At approximately 10:45 a.m., Auburn police, along with members of the task force, Lee County DA's Office, U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force, ALEA (Alabama Law Enforcement Agency) and Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, responded to a wooded area in the 38,000 block of County Road 2 in Shorter, Alabama," the statement said. "After a brief search by investigators, they located what appeared to be human remains several feet into the wood line."
WTVM in Columbus, Georgia, reported that authorities in Lee County, just over the state line in Alabama, have said everyone suspected of taking part in Blanchard's kidnapping or in the aftermath is in custody or has been charged.
According to AL.com, testimony in Yazeed's preliminary hearing last week indicated that the footage from the Chevron station in which Blanchard was last seen alive showed Yazeed at the store's counter, paying for alcohol, when Blanchard walked by.
Yazeed is seen looking at Blanchard over his shoulder as she passes him, Auburn police Detective Josh Mixon testified Wednesday.
A witness seen in the same footage was tracked down by investigators. The man told them a shocking story, AL.com reported. According to Mixon, the man, who entered the Chevron around the same time as Yazeed, told detectives he witnessed Blanchard's kidnapping in the Chevron parking lot.
"He observed Yazeed forcing Blanchard into her vehicle against her will," Mixon testified, according to the news site.
The man, who was staying at a nearby hotel, was afraid to come forward and his female companion, who he told about what he saw, urged him to not get involved. The witness told detectives his companion had since suffered a miscarriage, which made him regret not coming forward with what he knew about Blanchard's disappearance, Mixon said.
The witness wept as he told his story to authorities, Mixon testified, according to AL.com.
An unrelenting search
Blanchard's family reported her missing Oct. 24, prompting statewide and national coverage of the young woman's disappearance. She is the stepdaughter of UFC mixed martial artist Walt Harris.
A massive search effort was undertaken, with help from Texas Equusearch, a search and rescue operation often involved in high-profile missing persons cases. The group's cases included the 2005 disappearance in Aruba of Natalee Holloway, an Alabama 18-year-old who grew up less than 5 miles from Blanchard in Mountain Brook.
Holloway has never been found. Her mother, Beth Holloway, joined the search for Blanchard earlier this month.
Texas Equusearch suspended its efforts Friday due to the start of Alabama hunting season, which could have put its volunteers in danger.
"We will be in contact with law enforcement and our local volunteers to continue searching when it is feasible," a statement on the organization's Facebook page read. "Also be advised that many individuals are located by hunters, so keep sharing Aniah's information to get the word out. "Our hearts and prayers are with Aniah's family and friends, and if new information comes to light we will gladly return to help bring this precious girl home."
Over the course of the search, Ivey announced a $5,000 reward for information leading to the whereabouts of Blanchard. UFC president Dana White also put up $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the teen's disappearance.
A UFC heavyweight fighter put up another $25,000, as did Ali Abdelaziz, the CEO of Dominance MMA, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.The reward amount remains at $105,000.
Blanchard's damaged vehicle was discovered the evening of Oct. 25, tucked into the parking lot of an apartment complex in Montgomery. Blood was found on the passenger side of the vehicle.
Mixon on Wednesday reiterated what was reported in charging documents against Yazeed: that the blood evidence was "indicative of someone suffering a life-threatening injury," AL.com reported.
The Department of Forensic Sciences tested the blood for DNA and found that it belonged to Blanchard.
Assistant Lee County District Attorney Garrett Saucer said DNA evidence from a man was also found in the vehicle, AL.com reported. Over defense objections, a judge last week ordered Yazeed to submit a DNA sample for comparison to the evidence.
Fisher, who court records allege provided "material assistance to Yazeed by providing transportation to Yazeed and disposing of evidence," made his first court appearance Monday. According to the Advertiser, a Lee County judge initially ordered him held without bail.
Fisher's attorney filed a motion Monday requesting his client be granted $50,000 bond, the Advertiser said. Prosecutors did not object to the request, and ABC 33/40 in Birmingham reported Tuesday that a judge granted the motion.
Fisher is due for a preliminary hearing in the case Dec. 18.
‘A heart of gold'
Walt and Angela Harris, as well as Aniah's father, Elijah Blanchard, and stepmother, Yashiba Blanchard, were in court last week for Yazeed's preliminary hearing, AL.com reported.
The Harrises appeared on the "Dr. Phil" television show earlier this month in an effort to bring attention to their daughter's case. In that TV appearance, the couple said they didn't believe Blanchard's disappearance was a random act.
"There's a lot of things that don't make sense to us, as it would be just a random thing. It seems like it was actually set up and it was something that was planned," Walt Harris said during the appearance.
The girl's mother agreed.
"Personally, I feel like, if it was a set-up, it was someone that knew Aniah and that knew her well," Angela Harris said.
"That gave him the opportunity to get that close to her," Walt Harris said.
"And it's someone that would be running with those type of people," Angela Harris added.
The couple said they believed a mutual acquaintance of their daughter and the suspect may have played a part in her disappearance.
"I've had those thoughts. I still do," Angela Harris told "Dr. Phil" host Phil McGraw. "I have feelings that there may be somebody that she knows that set her up."
Watch Walt and Angela Harris on "Dr. Phil" below, courtesy of CBS 42 in Birmingham.
Auburn police investigators have not given any indication that Blanchard was specifically targeted.
At the time of their television appearance, the couple had a message for their missing daughter.
"I love you, baby girl. We're looking for you. We're doing everything we can," Walt Harris said, taking a deep breath. "We're going to get you. I promise. I won't stop until we do. We love you."
As Walt Harris put his head down, grappling with his emotions, Angela Harris spoke to her daughter.
"Aniah, you know Mommy loves you. You're my heart," she said. "I want you to be the strong girl that you are. Be strong, be tough, be smart," Angela Harris said.
About a week after Blanchard went missing, her father, Elijah Blanchard, described his daughter to the Advertiser as a nurturing person.
"She likes to make sure everybody is OK. That's what my concern is, that somebody has taken advantage of her kindness," Elijah Blanchard told the newspaper. "She's not a mean person. I've never heard her say anything bad about anybody. She was always a forgiving person, she has a heart of gold and would do anything to help anyone who needed it.
© 2020 Cox Media Group