MENIFEE, Calif. - The father of an 11-year-old Menifee boy whose remains were discovered in the backyard of his mother's house -- where his older half-brother allegedly buried him after killing him -- will hold a public memorial service Thursday for those who turned out ``to search for and honor his son.''
``He just wants to thank the community,'' Michelle Page, a spokeswoman for Terry Smith Sr., told City News Service. ``Terry Jr.'s mom held a private service, and a lot of people who put their heart and soul into trying to find this little boy are pretty angry about that. Terry Senior wants to thank all the volunteers who did right by his son and perhaps give them a little closure.''
According to Page, the 62-year-old Smith had to sell his only car to fund the trip from his native West Virginia to Southern California.
``It's been very difficult for him to get out here,'' she told CNS. ``He arrived with very little clothing or means of support. We've collected donations to put him up in a motel and buy him some clothes.''
Page said the grieving father is not on good terms with Terry Jr.'s mother, Shawna, and the two have ceased communicating altogether since his son's body was discovered.
Smith was not in favor of a private memorial service, which his ex-wife held on Saturday in Menifee.
The pair have been twice married and divorced -- the last time in 2005.
With the help of Page and others, Smith organized a public memorial service, scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Lamb's Fellowship, 21901 Railroad Canyon Road, Lake Elsinore. Anyone can attend. The facility has chairs for 600, but attendees will be welcome to provide their own ad hoc seating arrangements at the outdoor facility, which has space to accommodate 2,000.
``This is to thank people who came out to search for and honor his son,'' said Page, who took part in the three-day effort to locate the 11-year-old.
The boy's mother contacted Riverside County sheriff's deputies on July 7 to report him missing. His 16-year-old half-brother, Skylor Atilano, initially told investigators that he had last seen Terry Jr. playing video games in his bedroom. However, two days later, the teenager changed his story, saying he had spotted his brother following him to a nearby market and directed him to return home.
Over the ensuing days, a phalanx of volunteers fanned out across the countryside to look for the boy. Searchers covered a 55-square-mile area, enduring triple-digit heat and wading through thick brush inhabited by snakes, calling for Terry Jr., whose mother described him as autistic with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old -- a claim disputed by his father.
Shortly after midnight on July 10, volunteers walking about 75 feet behind the family home in the 33000 block of Helen Lane stumbled upon a shallow grave under a tree and spotted partially exposed human remains that were later confirmed to be Terry Jr.'s.
Atilano was arrested and charged with murder. He is being held at Southwest Juvenile Hall in Murrieta and is scheduled to make his next court appearance on Sept. 17. Prosecutors intend to request that he be tried as an adult.
``This was a domestic issue within that residence,'' sheriff's Capt. John Hill said after the teen's arrest. ``There was no stranger in the city of Menifee who caused this to happen.''
According to Page, Smith Sr. had full custody of his son but agreed to let him stay with his mother in Menifee three years ago after suffering heart failure and undergoing two major surgeries in West Virginia.
``He had a limited income and was really ill,'' Page told CNS. ``He reached an understanding with Shawna. He never believed something like this would happen.''
Smith Sr. has adamantly denied that his youngest child -- he has nine living children from other marriages -- was autistic and alleges that his ex-wife made the claim to gain sympathy and perhaps obtain financial assistance.
``I have an autistic child myself,'' said Page, a mother of four. ``You can get help from the state because autism is considered a disability.''
The Riverside County Coroner's Office has control of the child's remains for investigative purposes, but as soon as they are released, he will be cremated, according to Page.