What Happened to Khaleesi Cuthriell? Searching for Justice in Case of Missing Toddler Presumed Dead by Sheriff
Three-year-old Khaleesi Cuthriell hasn't been seen in nearly a year. A couple caring for her face child abuse charges, authorities say.
There are a great many unknowns in the heartbreaking case of Khaleesi Cuthriell, a sweet-faced toddler with wispy blonde hair and a shy smile, whose mother went to jail last year for a probation violation.
Yet there are sobering details in the 3-year-old's disturbing odyssey since her mom went behind bars. No one has seen the child in 11 months. And the local sheriff investigating her disappearance says she is most certainly dead, though he has not found her body.
"It keeps me awake at night," Augusta County Sheriff Don Smith told Inside Edition Digital. "Because I can't find her."
Smith has searched the home and surrounding property where Khaleesi last lived. He has brought in cadaver dogs and rescue parties but has found no trace of her, he said.
The little girl was reported missing in September by her incarcerated mother, Amanda Arey, who told jail guards, and then Smith, that she had entrusted her daughter's care to a friend, Candi Jo Royer. And she had just seen news reports on the prison television that Royer had been reported missing the day before.
Arey said she had been afraid for months because she couldn't reach her friend, or the woman's boyfriend, Travis Brown, both of whom had been looking after the little girl, Smith recounted.
"The mother was talking to Royer and Brown from the jail," the sheriff said. But, "they stopped communicating with her, stopped taking her calls, stopped taking her text messages. Everything went black."
Smith opened his investigation Sept. 4, the day he spoke with Avery. He quickly learned that Avery's family had not seen the child since last January. Relatives said they had been told a succession of stories from Royer, including that Khaleesi had gone to stay with her grandmother, and then an aunt, and finally, that Khaleesi had been picked up by social workers from Virginia's Child Protective Services.
None of those statements were true, Smith said. After entering Royer's information into law enforcement databases, Smith learned that Royer was not missing, but was with her boyfriend and both were wanted for a series of crimes, including stealing a car, passing bad checks and drug-related offenses, he said.
The couple was arrested at a motel in Pennsylvania on Sept. 12 by state police and members of the U.S. Marshal's Office. Methamphetamine, drug paraphernalia and stolen checks were found in their room and "Khaleesi is nowhere to be found," Smith said.
The sheriff filed felony child abuse charges against Brown and Royer that month and traveled to Pennsylvania several times to interview them as part of his investigation into Khaleesi's disappearance.
"They agreed to see me without an attorney present," Smith said. "They're no strangers to the system."
To protect the integrity of his investigation, Smith said he couldn't divulge details from those conversations. But in statements he publicly released about those interviews, and to Inside Edition Digital, he said he has no doubt that Khaleesi is dead, and has been for several months.
"I can confirm that Khaleesi is not alive. I can confirm to you that she died at the address where Royer and Brown resided," he said.
Just before Thanksgiving, Royer and Brown pleaded guilty to all charges against them in Pennsylvania, including possession of methamphetamine and stolen checks. They were sentenced to two months to one year in prison, and extradited to Virginia in December to face the child abuse charges involving Khaleesi.
Smith's investigation is still open, he said. He is still looking for the little girl. Royer and Brown are in custody, without bond, awaiting trial. He said he couldn't discuss any further details of the ongoing case.
"I want to make sure that these two people are held responsible for what they did to this child," he said. "There's a lot of information that they've withheld and I've really tried to keep the integrity of this case together."
Another thing he wants to stress: He will never stop searching for Khaleesi.
"Frankly, the system failed this kid in every way," he said. "From the caretakers, to social services, to the courts, to the people around Royer and Brown."
Roadblocks in a Difficult Journey to Find Khaleesi
There were a great many things working against Smith from the beginning of his investigation into the little girl's disappearance. The worst was time.
Royer's family reported the woman missing on Sept. 3, Smith said. The sheriff put out a photo of Royer, and a missing person flier. Local news stations ran stories about Royer's disappearance.
Amanda Arey saw those reports at the Middle River Regional Jail, where she had been sentenced to serve two years for a series of probation violations that included testing positive for methamphetamine while on probation. Arey had long struggled with addiction as a single mother and told a prosecutor during a March 2020 probation violation hearing that she had been using meth for about 15 years, the Staunton News Leader reported.
After seeing the TV reports that Royer had gone missing, an upset Arey told a jail guard that Royer had possession of her child. The next day, jail officials allowed Arey to call Smith.
"She explained that Royer had her child, and that she placed her child with Royer" in October, days before the mother was arrested for violating her probation, Smith said.
Royer was a good friend, the sheriff said, who shared an addiction to meth. "They're both addicts. I know that the mother was in a very bad situation and she was trying to get her child taken care of," Smith said.
Online court records show Royer, 41, has a long history of convictions on charges including drug possession, robbery and larceny.
Royer's Facebook page showed photos of Khaleesi in late 2020, with posts saying she was caring for the child. "Travis is always posting pictures of new automobiles or motorcycles as the newest addition to our family, but I would like to introduce the newest addition to our family," she wrote, alongside an image of Khaleesi.
After speaking to Khaleesi's mother in jail, and thinking both Royer and the child were missing, "we opened a full-fledged investigation," the sheriff said. "We were searching for both Royer and (her boyfriend) Brown. We couldn't figure out whether Candi (Royer) was in danger and whether Khaleesi was in danger," he said.
Then, after interviewing Royer's family members and relatives of Khaleesi, Smith realized how long it had been since anyone had actually seen the child. When he entered Royer's name into the criminal justice computer system, "we learned Royer and Brown were going across the state in a crime spree," he said.
He also learned that Brown was a fugitive who had been on the run since August 2021 and was wanted on several charges in other Virginia jurisdictions.
According to online records, Brown, 30, currently faces 14 unrelated charges in addition to the alleged abuse of Khaleesi. Those counts include strangulation, assault and battery of a family member, felony eluding, grand larceny, and breaking and entering.
"I don't know that this child should have ever been placed with them," Smith said.
According to the sheriff, Arey said children's services was involved when she placed Khaleesi in Royer's care. But when he reached out to the department, the sheriff said he was told case workers were not part of the arrangement.
"It doesn't help that CPS didn't do anything to find this child, who was removed from her mother in October 2020," the sheriff said.
Several interview requests containing a detailed list of questions from Inside Edition Digital were declined by children's services officials. Those questions included whether Khaleesi Cuthriell was known to social workers and whether the agency was aiding the Augusta County sheriff's investigation into what happened to her.
"We will not be able to answer questions regarding investigations we may have, or related information, due to confidentiality," the assistant director of Shenandoah Valley Social Services, Lisa Shiflett, wrote in an email to Inside Edition Digital.
Local reporters have also sought comment from social workers, including asking for the agency's protocols concerning incarcerated single parents who leave behind young children needing care. The Staunton News Leader reported Shiflett declined to answer its questions, citing the ongoing law enforcement investigation.
With the exception of Sheriff Smith, local officials have said little about Khaleesi's disappearance. The office of Commonwealth Attorney Tim Martin declined comment to Inside Edition Digital. An email sent to the prosecutor was not answered.
The child abuse case currently resides in the Augusta County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, and no public information is available, including the names of the defendants' attorneys and upcoming court dates, because of confidentiality laws protecting juveniles, the court said.
Meanwhile, the community of Waynesboro, where Khaleesi lived with Royer and Brown, has held services in her honor. A Facebook page seeking justice for the child has more than 4,000 members. The sheriff established a mourning site in December at the department's office, where people can leave items in the little girl's memory.
"We put the memorial up to let the public know we haven't forgotten this child," Smith said.
The sheriff still hopes to find Khaleesi, so she can be properly lain to rest and her family can have some small measure of comfort. He is working closely with the local prosecutor to find evidence that would support elevated charges against Royer and Brown.
But for now, he said, "I can prove that this child was in their care and that she isn't anymore."
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