Update: A suspect in the case, James McGowan Jr., turned himself in to authorities Thursday and has been charged. The story has been updated to reflect that.
A driver suspected of fatally striking an 11-year-old Mississippi girl and injuring her mother before leaving the scene has turned himself in to authorities.
Hattiesburg Police were dispatched to a possible hit-and-run around 8:30 p.m. Saturday. A juvenile girl and adult woman were found on the roadway. The young girl was pronounced dead at the scene.
“The driver in the incident did not stop,” police said in a statement.
Authorities didn’t release the name of the deceased child but local school district officials and community leaders identified her as 11-year-old Leighton Hill.
“It is such a tragedy what happened to Leighton,” Forrest School District Superintendent Brian Freeman told Oxygen.com. “She was enjoying riding her bike and making memories with her mother when someone took her life. Our prayers are with the family as they struggle through the loss of such an innocent child. Her smile and enthusiasm for life will be missed by all those she touched.”
On Thursday, 27-year-old Hattiesburg resident James McGowan Jr. turned himself into authorities and was charged with two counts of leaving the scene of an accident causing death/disfigurement, police said, according to the Hattiesburg American. He's being held in the Forrest County Jail as he awaits his first court appearance.
Hill was a fifth grader at Earl Travillion Attendance Center in Hattiesburg.
"She was the sweetest, sweetest child I know," Principal Kristina Pollard told the Hattiesburg American. "She was always smiling. She was happy. She loved coming to school. She loved to give hugs."
Pollard, who said Hill was her student for five years, said the 11-year-old was a “hard worker” and was admired by her peers and teachers, alike.
"She would ask a lot of questions,” Pollard added. “She liked clarity. She was really well liked by the students. The staff loved her. We're all really broken up about this."
“She was the bomb,” Abigail Lenz-Allen, 50, the program director for the Hattiesburg Arts Council's smART Space, told Oxygen.com.
Lenz-Allen, a nonprofit art instructor, said that she visited Hill’s class once a week for the past three years. She described Hill as a kind, “enthusiastic,” and “loving” child who was constantly wearing a smile.
“She was everything that is bright and beautiful about a child,” Lenz-Allen said. “This kid was literally a one-in-a-million kid. She’d always hug us when we arrived. She always wanted to do her absolute best. She was special and she was warm and she was going to do something great.”
Before McGowan turned himself in, Lenz-Allen expressed hope that a suspect would soon be in custody.
“It’s so devastating — never mind that there’s somebody driving around hitting people with their car,” she added. “It’s so heartbreaking.”
Anyone with additional information related to the fatal hit-and-run is urged to contact Hattiesburg Police or local Crime Stoppers at 601-582-STOP.
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