DA: Sharena Nancy only suspect in Nalani Johnson abduction, homicide | TribLIVE.com

DA: Sharena Nancy only suspect in Nalani Johnson abduction, homicide

Police found the body of 2 year-old Nalani Johnson on Tuesday near Pine Ridge County Park near Blairsville.
Allegheny County Police Department
Nalani Johnson

A Penn Hills woman already in custody is the only person thought to be involved in Nalani Johnson’s suspected kidnapping and death over the Labor Day weekend, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Thursday.

Nalani’s father, Paul Johnson, isn’t implicated in the case, has cooperated with authorities and is grieving the loss of his daughter, Zappala said.

Sharena I. Nancy, 25, of Penn Hills is being held without bond in the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh on kidnapping-related charges. Zappala said Nancy is suspected of killing the girl as well. Homicide charges won’t be filed until Indiana County Coroner Jerry Overman completes his investigation, something Overman said could take at least six weeks.

Nancy and Johnson were in the beginnings of a romantic relationship, authorities have said.

Nalani was clothed, still buckled into her car seat and had no visible signs of trauma when she was found dead Tuesday in a wooded area near Pine Ridge Park in Burrell Township, Indiana County, Zappala said.

“There’s a lot of questions that still need to be answered,” Zappala said.

Nalani would have turned 2 on Sept. 15.

The cause and manner of Nalani’s death haven’t been decided, Overman said.

“It’s clearly a homicide,” Zappala said. “As soon as the coroner is done with his work, we’ll take care of our end.”

Nalani likely died Saturday, and there’s no evidence she died of exposure, Zappala said. She was found by a Westmoreland County deputy coroner and a search dog in a wooded area just inside the Indiana County line near Blairsville about 37 miles from Penn Hills.

“There’s a lot we have to figure out about this woman’s psyche and why she did what she did,” Zappala said of Nancy. “It’s just senseless right now.”

Nalani spent Saturday at Kennywood Park with her father, Paul Johnson, one of Johnson’s friends, Justin Rouse, and Nancy, Zappala said.

By about 5 p.m., they were in Nancy’s car in Penn Hills, and there was an argument among the adults in the car, Zappala said

He declined to say what the argument was about.

Johnson and Rouse got out of the car, and Nancy drove away with Nalani before they could get the toddler out of the car, Zappala said.

Johnson has cooperated with authorities, and neither Johnson or Rouse is thought to be involved in the crime, Zappala said.

“The only evidence that we have right now is that the defendant, the person who is under arrest right now for the kidnapping charges, is responsible for taking the baby and, ultimately, the homicide,” Zappala said.

Officials met Wednesday in Greensburg to decide how to proceed with the case. It will be prosecuted in Allegheny County, Zappala said.

“This is one of our children,” he said.

Allegheny County Police are leading the investigation with the help of state police from Westmoreland and Indiana counties and the FBI, Zappala said.

A lot of people are angry about what happened to Nalani, Zappala said.

“We’re a very strong community,” he said. “This is the exception and not the rule.”

Neighbors reeling

Penn Hills residents are reeling over the news of Nalani’s death. Stacey Hines, who lives in an apartment duplex near where the toddler’s family lived, said, when he followed the story on TV news media, his heart sank.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, that could be my child,’” he said.

Hines, who has lived on the Penn Hills street for five years, said he never noticed anything strange at Nalani’s house.

Nalani spent her short life living in Penn Hills’ Laketon Heights neighborhood, a “pretty quiet” area bustling with young children, according to neighbors.

“It’s a pretty quiet street for the most part,” Hines said.

Anitsha Allen, a neighbor close by, said she was acquainted with the family but that she didn’t really know them.

“It’s crazy,” Allen said, adding she has two children under the age of 10. “If they were taken, I wouldn’t know what to do. I would go crazy.”

Another neighbor, Al Lutz, said the whole story is terrible.

“Everyone’s really upset about it,” he said.

He took a little solace, however, in the fact that Nalani’s abduction did not seem to be random.

Mayor Sara Kuhn also released a statement regarding the abduction and death.

“There are no words to express the heartbreak and sadness in our hearts in the tragic loss of Nalani Johnson, one of our very own,” Kuhn said, adding she is a grandmother to a young girl. “To handle this type of grief would be unbearable.”

She continued: “To Nalani’s family and all who loved her, our prayers go out to each and every one of you that your faith will be in some way helpful to you.”

Nalani’s mother, Gladys Duarte, 20, of Penn Hills, declined to comment.

A group of family and friends gathered at the Johnson residence Wednesday afternoon. The family declined to comment and deferred questions to the Allegheny County Police Department.

Vigil held Thursday night

On Thursday night, more than 500 people gathered at the Blairsville Amphitheater in her honor. They lit candles, sang, prayed and released butterflies in solidarity for Nalani’s loved ones, including her dad, who spoke briefly at the event.

“I have no words for it,” Johnson told the crowd of the gathering. “It’s astonishing.”

The vigil was organized by six women who didn’t now Nalani or her family but “wanted to do something special for her memory and her family and loved ones,” Trib news partner WPXI-TV reports.

“A lot of people contributed to where we’re at right now,” Zappala said of the official response to the case, which involved people from several agencies in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Indiana counties along with the FBI and volunteers who searched three days for Nalani.

“I don’t think any effort that was undertaken after Saturday would have saved the child’s life,” Zappala said.

Tom Davidson, Dillon Carr and Tawnya Panizzi are Tribune-Review staff writers. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter @TribDavidson. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter @dillonswriting. You can contact Tawnya at 412-782-2121, ext. 1512, [email protected] or via Twitter @tawnyatrib. Staff writer Natasha Lindstrom contributed to this report.

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