Woman Who Drove Somer Thompson to School Recalls Monday, Oct. 19

Clay Today 

Oct. 29, 2009

By Christina Leach Phillips

Correspondent

ORANGE PARK — Monday, Oct. 19, the day Somer Thompson disappeared while walking home from school, started as a typical day for Anna Braddy, who lives two doors down from Somer’s home.  She got up, got ready for work, and then drove her daughter, Kayla, 9, and three of the Thompson children to Grove Park Elementary School like she does every morning.

“They were all fighting over the seat like they always do,” she said.  “There were four kids, and they’re fighting over sitting in the back or sitting up front.  So they fight about who is going to sit where, and that’s every morning.  That is a ritual with the kids,” she said. 

On that particular morning, she said Somer sat in the back seat behind “Sammy” (Samuel, Somer’s twin brother,) who was in the front.  Kayla and Abby, Somer’s 10-year-old sister, also sat in the back.

“She was in a good mood that day,” said Braddy.   “The child was always happy – she could have a temper though I’ll tell you that – but she loved everybody, and she wasn’t afraid of anybody.  She hugged everybody, and she did not know a stranger,” she said. 

“She loved to talk.  She could carry on a conversation with people that some adults couldn’t even do.  She had a very good vocabulary.  She loved animals, and she loved to swim.  She was a typical 7-year-old,” she said.

Braddy said she dropped the children off at school around 7:45 a.m. and made sure they got behind the gate and that they were safe.  “And then I went to work as usual,” she said.

Later that day, Braddy learned that Somer disappeared while walking home from school and a search was under way to find her.  Two days later, Somer’s body was found at a landfill in Folkston, Ga.  Her killer has not yet been found.

“I’m really devastated because those kids are like my own,” she said. 

Braddy, whose daughter is picked up after school by a babysitter, said she was shocked to learn that the area has so many sexual offenders and predators. Mary Justino, Clay County Sheriff’s spokeswoman, said in a recent news conference that there are 161 registered sex offenders living within a 5-mile radius of Somer’s home.

“I had no clue – I know you can go on the website and look, but I had no clue.  And there’s so much traffic going through that neighborhood, and you don’t know who is going through.  It’s not like a cul-de-sac – It’s a main thoroughfare through Orange Park,” she said.

“There are a lot of children who walk home with no parents.  There’s a lot of woods, and you’ve got the Orange Park Athletic Association.  There are kids all the time in the park – a lot of kids by themselves,” said Braddy. “We’ve got to do something. We can’t continue with this happening.  And if we don’t do something, it’s going to happen again.  We have to protect our children.  If this doesn’t open people’s eyes, I don’t know what will.”

Other neighbors expressed the same concerns.

Jimmi Newbury was shaken when she talked about Somer.  Newbury said that her girls are too young to let out of her sight. “But now I can’t even imagine that people would let their older kids out of their sight,” she said.

Newbury, who moved to the neighborhood about a year ago, said, “You hear about this stuff all the time, but you live in Orange Park because it’s supposed to be safer than Jacksonville.”

On Gano Avenue, close to the area where Somer disappeared, Trazarra Sweet and Tiera Chisolm sat on a bench at a small tree-shaded park at the Orange Park Athletic Association

“It’s sad – that’s all I know,” said Sweet.  “I’ve got kids, and I got up late that night and came out looking with everybody.”  Sweet said her 4-year-old son attends Pre-K at Grove Park Elementary School, and she walks him to school. 

Chisolm said she used to live in the area, and her daughter, 10, walked to school.

“I’m just not understanding how a child can walk from here to there with all these houses and with all these people around, and nobody could see or hear her.  It’s crazy …,” Chisolm said. 

Tina Justyna said her family recently moved into the area, and her daughter became friends with both Abby and Somer.  Justyna said they made her daughter feel welcome in the neighborhood.

 “This woman (Diena Thompson) raised her kids right because they were so nice to my daughter. She’s a good mother.  You expect your kids to be able to walk home.  And I just want people to know that she did nothing wrong.”

Justyna said they moved from Jacksonville to Orange Park because they thought it was a safer neighborhood. “I told my daughter it’s a safe neighborhood,” she said.

“I took her to the vigil on Tuesday night because I want her to know that not everybody is bad, and everybody can come together.”