Gravesite for Fayetteville child draws visitors - WRBL

Gravesite for Fayetteville child draws visitors

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -

Here in this quiet, tree-lined patch just off busy U.S. 301, Shaniya Davis is far from forgotten.
    
Visitor after visitor stops by the granite marker that identifies her grave to place a stuffed animal, a flower, a ceramic angel.
    
"That little face," said Cindy Elkins, office manager at Fayetteville Memorial Cemetery, "she's like a celebrity."
    
Here, Shaniya will always be a pretty 5-year-old, smiling for the camera. Safe. Unharmed. Wearing a frilly white dress and pink shoes.
    
The well-known photograph of her that accompanied news stories after her rape and murder in November 2009 is depicted on her headstone.
    
The company that carved the stone wasn't satisfied with its initial effort, so it tried again. The first, discarded attempt now sits on a shelf in the cemetery office, often drawing remarks from visitors.
    
"I recognize her," someone will say.  "I remember that little girl."
    
It's difficult to find any flaws in either depiction.
    
Mario McNeill, 33, is being tried in Cumberland County Superior Court on seven charges, including the first-degree murder and rape of Shaniya. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
    
Prosecutors say Shaniya's mother, Antoniette Nicole Davis, 28, gave her daughter to McNeill to settle a drug debt. Davis will be tried on similar charges but doesn't face death.
    
NBA star Shaquille O'Neal helped pay for her funeral, which drew 2,000 people to Manna Church.
    
Since the trial began five weeks ago, visitors to Shaniya's grave have become more common. Last week, a fresh white carnation had been placed on the front of the marker. A small, stuffed bunny and stuffed duck were left soggy from recent rains.
    
The cemetery has a rule asking visitors not to place more than one flower arrangement on each grave. But it often waives that rule.
    
"We know that it's part of the grieving process," Elkins said. "I try not to take it away. It's hard to take it away when it's part of the grieving process."
    
Office administrator Becky Sasala said over the years, visitors have left seashells, costume jewelry, figurines of all sorts and artificial flowers at Shaniya's grave.
    
"I bet we've collected a bag full of stuffed animals by now," she said.
    
Neither Elkins nor Sasala is sure of what happens to the items after they are collected. Elkins said she guessed that some may have been donated and others, in bad shape, would have been thrown away.
    
Shaniya's father, Bradley Lockhart, who moved to Alabama a couple of months after his daughter's death, will call the office to ask them to order flowers for his daughter's grave on special occasions. He returned to town for McNeill's trial.
    
It is a solemn job, tending to the grave of one who died so young and under such horrific circumstances. But it's an important job, nonetheless.
    
"I think it helps in dealing with the horror of what happened," Sasala said. "There's a community caring. It's like that could have been any of our children."
    
And day after day, they'll help see to it that a child's memory is honored.

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