On the 16th of June, 2009, 2-year-old Jada Justice was reported missing by her 18-year-old cousin, Engelica Castillo, who had been babysitting the toddler. She claimed to investigators that she had left Jada in the car outside Glen Park Ridge Road in Lake County, Indiana, as she went into the gas station’s convenience store to purchase some milk. She said that when she went back out to the car, Jada was gone.1 Jada lived in Portage with her mother, Melissa Swointek, and her two brothers. She had been staying with Engelica because Melissa had plans to go out of town with her boyfriend.
Jada’s uncle, Mike Valdez, immediately sought the help of the community in searching for Jada. Missing person fliers were printed and distributed throughout the area. They described Jada as an African American toddler standing at 2 feet 2 inches tall, weighing around 35 pounds. She was last seen wearing an orange skirt and striped shirt. Since there was no evidence that an abduction had taken place, an Amber Alert could not be issued.
Jada’s cousin, Engelica, was taken into custody as a person of interest and it was announced that she may be charged with neglect. According to family members and investigators, they were suspicious of Engelica’s version of events. Furthermore, when Engelica was brought in for questioning, she was evidently under the influence of drugs. She had attempted to hit one of the investigators and had ominously said: “God is taking care of Jada. God is watching over her.”
“Why are you going to park on one side of the building while it’s raining outside, pouring rain, if you got to go in the store and get some milk? Why wouldn’t you park in the front and run in and grab the milk? Why would you leave the doors unlocked so somebody could grab a child out of the car?” questioned Jada’s father, Clarence Justice. Mike also questioned why Engelica would take Jada with her to run errands instead of leaving her with her boyfriend and couldn’t understand why she had driven past several other convenience stores before stopping at the one in Gary. Moreover, it would be revealed that sniffer dogs did not pick up Jada’s scent at the scene, including in the car.2
On the 24th of June, 11 days after Jada vanished, her body was discovered encased in concrete in a swampy area in rural Westville. She had multiple skull fractures and her death was ruled a homicide. It was announced that in addition to Engelica, her boyfriend, Tim Tkachik, was also arrested. Both of them were charged with the murder of Jada as well as neglect of a dependent, battery and false informing.
According to the affidavit, Tim had told investigators that he had awoken on the 13th of June to find Engelica pulling Jada’s hair and hitting her. The night before, they had taken heroin. He said that Jada was not crying so Engelica hit her even harder. He further said that Engelica then hit Jada with such force that she fell and hit her head on the table. She then ordered Jada to stand in a corner but when Jada cried, Engelica started hitting her in the head with closed fists.3
Later on, they noticed that Jada wasn’t breathing when they drove to buy more heroin. Tim allegedly said to Engelica: “I told you to stop. I told you enough is enough.” Tim claimed that they had tried to perform CPR on Jada but to no avail.4
They drove back home with the body of Jada and then decided that they needed to get rid of her. Tim confessed to putting Jada’s body in garbage bags and taking her to a wooded area in LaPorte County. Here, he attempted to burn Jada’s body to ashes. However, the fire caused an explosion which burned him on the face and required medical treatment. When this attempt was unsuccessful, Tim and Engelica placed Jada’s body into a tub filled with concrete. When the concrete dried, they drove Jada to a rural area near Westville and threw her into a swamp. As a matter of fact, it had been Tim who led investigators to Jada’s body.
Both Tim and Engelica would plead not guilty to all of the charges and they were ordered to stand trial.
In early July, Jada was led to rest. Around 300 people packed into the Calvary Tabernacle Church of Griffith to pay their final respects to the little girl. Her father, Clarence, said that his daughter had provided two years of nothing but love, adding: “She gave me the strength to start loving again.” Her mother, Melissa, said: “I’m glad a lot of people came and showed support.”5
A couple of days later, Clarence would seek custody of his two sons who were under the care of Melissa. He said he felt as though he and his wife could provide a safe environment for his two sons. “I just feel my boys are safer in my arms than with anybody else,” he said.6 He would be awarded custody.
In fact, Melissa would later be charged with neglect of a dependent resulting in death. According to prosecutors, Melissa had put her daughter in a situation that had resulted in her death. Back in summer of 2006, Tim was dealing cocaine and marijuana when he started dating Engelica. Then around Christmas time, Engelica introduced Tim to her family, including Melissa. The couple later moved in with Melissa and she knew that they were both dealing drugs. She told them not to keep large quantities of drugs inside her home but accepted marijuana from them for her own personal use. She also left Jada and her young son in their care frequently.
When the couple moved out, Melissa continued to leave her children in their care despite the fact she knew that they were drug dealers. In fact, she often left her children with them for long periods of time and wouldn’t arrive to pick them up at the arranged time.7 Tim was making thousands of dollars a week selling marijuana, cocaine and prescription pills. The couple often took heroin together but didn’t sell it.
Tim would ultimately strike a plea deal with prosecutors to avoid a death sentence in return for his testimony against Engelica. During her murder trial, he would reveal that Engelica had beaten Jada to death after she dumped a drink mix and spilled a container of syrup. He admitted that he had held Jada down while Engelica repeatedly hit her with a belt. He also revealed that he often took Jada along to drug deals when she was in their “care.” He claimed that he hadn’t abused Jada, other than the day of her death, but said that Englica “would go crazy.”8
Engelica’s defence lawyer, however, would try and place the blame directly on Tim. He depicted Tim as so impatient with Jada that he threw her into the bathtub at least twice during her stay with the couple. He also mentioned the couple’s heavy drug use, and claimed that there was no intent so there was no murder.9
During closing arguments, Prosecutor David Urbanki said to the jury that when Engelica was first arrested, she was secretly recorded telling Tim to claim it was an accident: “They can’t prove we did that,” she said. The jury would only deliberate for around two hours before finding Engelica guilty of Jada’s murder.
Tim Tkachik would be sentenced to 40 years for his role in the murder while Engelica Castillo would be sentenced to a minimum of 65 years in prison. The charges of neglect against Melissa Swiontek would be dismissed.10
- The Times, 17 June, 2009 – “Police Search for Missing Toddler”
- Associated Press, 18 June, 2009 – “Family Suspicious About How Ind. Toddler Vanished”
- News & Politics Examiner, 28 June, 2012 – “Babysitter’s Boyfriend Led Police to Jada Justice’s Body”
- Associated Press, 26 June, 2009 – “2 Charged in Death of Missing Ind. Toddler”
- News & Politics Examiner, 4 July, 2009 – “Indiana Toddler Jada Justice Laid to Rest”
- News & Politics Examiner, 14 July, 2009 – “Dad of Murdered 2 Year Old Jada Seeks Custody”
- The Post-Tribune, 23 July, 2011 – “Mother of Jada Justice Charged with Neglect”
- The Times, 25 June, 2013 – “Tkachik Takes the Stand in Case Against Mom of Jada Justice”
- The Times, 5 August, 2010 – “Several Testify as Jada Justice Case Begins”
- The Times, 19 July, 2013 – “Judge Gives Man Who Helped Kill Jada Justice 40 Years”