Chicago police had always suspected that the man who raped and killed 12-year-old Jahmeshia Conner was part of the fabric of a small section of Englewood where she lived with her mother and four siblings.
But, with almost no leads, the 2009 case went cold, and the fifth-grader's family questioned whether police had done enough to investigate in the two weeks between when she went missing and when her strangled body was found in a South Side alley.
On Wednesday police revealed charges against a man who had once lived and worked in a church attended by Jahmeshia's family about a block away from her home.
Rene Valentin-Matos, 47, was arrested in a small town in central Minnesota, where he worked at a bakery on Main Street and won a reputation as a quiet, gentle man, according to his boss.
Police said a pivotal break in the case came early this year when DNA from Jahmeshia's slaying matched a rape in 2011 of a Pilsen woman. With the help of that victim and the dogged efforts of detectives, police suspected Valentin-Matos, though his largely clean criminal record meant investigators had no DNA of his to try to match up.
Complicating their efforts, he had moved away, but detectives tracked him down to Cold Spring, Minn. DNA taken from Valentin-Matos matched up with both victims, authorities said.
Valentin-Matos had been charged in January in connection with the 2011 rape, but he fought extradition. On Tuesday, Chicago police took custody of him in Minnesota and brought him to Cook County to face charges in Jahmeshia's rape and murder as well. He is expected to appear in bond court Thursday.
Outside her South Side apartment Wednesday evening, Jahmeshia's mother, Birdie Lewis, spoke about how happy she was that the arrest occurred days before Mother's Day. But her daughter's slaying has changed her life forever, she told a throng of reporters.
Though other relatives expressed frustration at how long the case had taken to solve, Lewis said she wasn't bitter about that.
"I'm not mad at the police. I'm mad at the person who did this," said Lewis, flanked by relatives. "How can I be mad at the police? It's not their fault. It's the person's fault who did this to my child. It's his fault. So he has to pay.
"I hope he don't never ever get a chance to see the light of day."
It was in January when the office of Area Central detectives received an email from the state crime lab. Officers were floored to learn that DNA gathered from the 2011 rape of the Pilsen woman matched evidence collected after Jahmeshia's slaying and sexual assault.
Detectives re-interviewed the victim of the 2011 attack, then used crucial information she provided to pinpoint Valentin-Matos as a suspect. Police then tracked him to Cold Spring, population 4,000.
Local officers there spent about two weeks on the lookout for Valentin-Matos after tips on his workplace and a home address didn't pan out, said interim police Chief Chris Boucher. He was arrested Jan. 18 after a patrol officer happened to spot him shoveling snow in front of the Cold Spring Bakery, where he worked.
"It was one of those things where it was dumb luck," Boucher said.
Lynn Schurman, the owner of the bakery, said Valentin-Matos was a model employee who worked for her part time as a cleaner -- changing light bulbs, sweeping, putting baking trays through the washer -- for about a year. Another worker had recommended him, and Schurman hired him after checking his references, including his landlord, she said.
"I am definitely shocked. He was a very quiet, gentle man ... and he just ... was very polite and kind, and I just have a hard time believing that he was involved in something like that," Schurman said Wednesday in a phone interview.
Concerned staff at the bakery tried to track down Valentin-Matos to give him his last paycheck when he didn't appear for work after his arrest.
"We were shocked he was arrested," Schurman said. "... We never (saw) any signs of violence. He never got angry. He didn't always agree with other employees. He never said anything mean or hurt anyone. He was just always helpful, very quiet."
Valentin-Matos once told Schurman that he was once married and had family back East but that he was divorced and now estranged from his grown children.
At the time of Jahmeshia's slaying, Valentin-Matos was living above the church, said Chicago police Lt. Ozzie Valdez. He did maintenance work for the church, where Jahmeshia had also picked up donated school supplies, Valdez said.
Jahmeshia, a cheerleader at O'Toole Elementary School, was last seen Nov. 15, 2009, after leaving her aunt's house to board a CTA bus at 63rd Street and Racine Avenue and ride home. Her mother did not report her missing until the next day, telling reporters at the time that because of a miscommunication she had assumed her daughter had stayed at her aunt's house and then gone to school.
Her family had criticized police at the time for Jahmeshia's being listed as an "endangered runaway" and failing to send out a missing-person alert to the news media. Police said that detectives had quickly begun their investigation but acknowledged that word of her disappearance had not been announced to the media. Police blamed a computer glitch for that but later altered their procedures.
Darnella Powell, Jahmeshia's aunt, said she was overjoyed after learning of the arrest but still wants to know what compelled Valentin-Matos to allegedly rape and kill her niece.
"He just destroyed the whole family over this," she said.
Powell said her granddaughter and Jahmeshia shared a birthday and used to celebrate with a cake that displayed both their names. But since Jahmeshia's death, Powell said her granddaughter, Jayla, now 12, doesn't want a cake on her birthday anymore.
"What's the point in buying a cake if Jahmeshia's name won't be on it?" Powell said her granddaughter has said.
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