By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — It was a crime that left folks in the Falls shocked and heart-broken.
The grisly discovery of 5-year-old Isabella Tennant’s body in a trash bag, buried in a garbage can in the 500 block alley of Third Street. It left even veteran Falls cops shaken.
“It’s a terrible crime. It tears at your heart,” Detective Capt. William Thomson said at the time. “I have grandchildren that are the age of the victim.”
It didn’t take police long to identify and charge a suspect. Less than 24 hours after Tennant was reported missing from her great-grandmother’s home, detectives arrested a then 16-year-old family friend in connection with Isabella’s murder.
John Freeman Jr., was charged with second-degree murder. Freeman’s close friend, Tyler Best, 18, was charged, as a co-defendant, with tampering with physical evidence.
It was 6:20 a.m. on Aug. 26, when the tragedy began unfolding. Falls patrol officers were called to a home in the 400 block of Sixth Street for a report of a missing 5-year-old.
The child’s great grandmother told police the little girl had disappeared overnight. Freeman was the last person to be seen with Isabella.
Members of Isabella’s family told investigators that Freeman was a “close” and “trusted” family friend and that it was not uncommon for him to be in the great grandmother’s home and around the little girl without supervision.
Detectives quickly found Freeman and began questioning him about Isabella’s disappearance. At the same time, patrol officers began an intensive and frantic search for the child.
Officers flooded though the city’s South End and even brought in a search dog from the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office. Three hours after the search began, investigators got a huge, but sad break in the case.
“A party showed up at (police headquarters) and said he had information about the missing girl,” Thomson told reporters.
That person was Best. He told police he could lead them to Isabella.
The trail ended at a trash can behind a Third Street apartment building. Buried in the can, under several bags of garbage, police found Isabella’s body.
While Freeman, in a statement to police that has been sealed by a court order, reportedly offered several explanations for what had happened to Isabella, Best reportedly confessed to having helped his friend dispose of the little girl’s body.
Police credited Best for coming forward.
“It would have been very difficult to solve this without (Best’s) help,” Thomson said after the arrests. “I imagine his conscience was bothering him.”
Investigators said that, based on the statements made to them by Freeman and Best, they believe Isabella was killed in her great grandmother’s home and that her body was then taken to the trash can. Detectives said they believed Freeman was the killer and Best only helped to dispose of the body.
At a news conference, Thomson said there were some signs of trauma on Tennant’s body, but “no evidence of sexual abuse.” Investigators said they believed Freeman killed Isabella “with his bare hands.”
In October, a Niagara County grand jury indicted Freeman and Best. Freeman, who has now turned 17, was charged with second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence.
Best was charged with hindering prosecution and tampering with physical evidence.
Both have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
In an appearance in Niagara County Court a week ago, Freeman’s defense attorney filed paperwork that would allow him to present an insanity defense in the case.The Gazette is counting down its top 10 stories of the year through New Year's Day. The list: n 10: Tumultuous year for Falls air base n 9: Airport takes hit with Direct Air shutdown n 8: Lewiston Road's rough ride to repair n 7: Culinary institute opens in downtown Niagara Falls n 6: Gruesome mystery stuns Falls n 5: Child murder shocks the community n COMING TOMORROW: Change afloat on the Niagara