Given respect in the mournful rituals of death that she never got in the horror of her life, little Erica Parsons was buried Saturday – this time with reverence, kindness and in a proper grave.
Parsons, who died at age 13 after a lifetime of cruel abuse, was now with God, said Kenneth Lance, pastor of First Baptist Church of Salisbury, "and suffering no more."
In eulogizing the girl who stared with hollow eyes from billboards and TV screens after her disappearance triggered a national search, Lance said that the purpose in her life – and death – could be found by awareness and action against child abuse occurring "at the hands of the wicked and foolish."
Also speaking at the service was Kevin Auten, the Rowan County sheriff whose detectives spent years on the case.
When she was reported missing in 2013, he said, authorities believed they would find her. But as the years went on, hope faded.
"This is the most difficult case I've seen in my 30 years" in law enforcement, Auten said. "It's horrible we lost a young child but heaven gained an angel."
No one has been charged in the girl's death, but Auten said there were developments he couldn't discuss and urged patience.
"This is a priority for us," he said.
Erica, diminutive for her age when she died at 13, went to her rest Saturday in a small, white casket covered with spring flowers of vivid pink, purple and white.
Her birth mother, Carolyn Parsons, watched from the front row as the coffin was slowly rolled out of the church, her face twisted in tearful anguish.
Erica loved angels, relatives have said, and an inscription on her donated headstone made reference to them: "Protected By Angels Forever More."
Nearby sits a solemn granite angel, with an empty spot next to her on a stone bench bearing Erica's name. She was buried a day after what would have been her 19th birthday.
Though authorities suspected from the beginning that Erica’s adoptive parents had something to do with her disappearance, a national hunt for the girl went on for three years while Casey and Sandy Parsons stuck to their story – even on a nationally televised appearance on the “Dr. Phil” show – that Nan Goodman, the girl’s maternal grandmother who they met through Facebook, had taken the girl to live with her.
Erica was reported missing in July 2013 by James Parsons, her adoptive older brother. He said late 2011 was the last time he saw Erica, who was developmentally disabled.
He testified in his parents' sentencing hearing for financial fraud – they had continued to cash Erica’s disability checks – that Erica was frequently punished, sometimes with beatings, was made to stand in the corner for a variety of infractions and made to eat dog food while the family's other children were served cooked meals.
When authorities searched the Parsons' home, they found a closet where the girl would be imprisoned and found her DNA – either from saliva or urine – on the floor.
In the summer of 2016, Sandy Parsons led investigators to a shallow grave near his mother's house in rural South Carolina. Investigators tugged her bones from the soil her adopted father said he disposed of her a week before Christmas 2011.