Candlelight vigil held for Hayward 8-year-old Sophia Mason

Friends and family of eight-year-old Sophia Mason of Hayward held a candlelight vigil in her honor Saturday night outside Hayward City Hall. 

Merced Police continue to investigate the circumstances of Sophia's tragic death, and what role the girl's mother and mother's boyfriend allegedly played in it. 

Sophia's mother, 30-year-old Samantha Johnson, was caught up in human trafficking, according to the Hayward-based nonprofit that works to combat human trafficking, Love Never Fails.

Family members of Sophia told KTVU the Merced County District Attorney is also investigating her murder.

Sophia's close relatives and Hayward classmates spoke through tears at Saturday's vigil.  

"I told her, don't worry eventually one day someone's going to help you, and it just didn't happen, and I just, I'm so sorry for that," Emerald Johnson, Sophia's aunt who painstakingly fought for custody of her, said.

Sophia Mason. Photo credit: Melanie Verlatti

Sophia was reported missing on March 8 when her aunt contacted Hayward police. Relatives told KTVU they hadn't seen Sophia in weeks. Then, a phone call in late February from the eight-year-old to her grandmother raised red flags about her safety. 

Two days after her aunt reported her missing, Merced police arrested Sophia's mother, on suspicion of murder.

Sophia's cousins also say it was known to authorities that Johnson was caught up in human trafficking and prostitution, and was in and out of hotels. She stayed in a San Leandro women's shelter last fall with Sophia.

"The shelter employees noticed that she was not feeding Sophia even at mealtimes," Melissa Harris, Johnson's cousin said, noting that the employees notified authorities about Johnson's abusive treatment of Sophia.

"That really gets us because a call was made outside of our family for help to notify," Harris said, "and they said there was nothing that they could do .as long as she had a roof over her head, that it was fine."

Sophia and her grandma

She added that she and other family members contacted Child Protective Services more than ten times after Sophia told them she'd been beaten and choked by her mother.

"Sometimes the police were involved, and every time they gave her back," Harris said.

Last year, Alameda County Social Services looked into at least one complaint, but determined it was unfounded,

Authorities say they were able to identify Sophia's body using dental records. Merced Police discovered her body on March 11 in a Merced home belonging to Johnson's boyfriend, Dhante Jackson, 34. He is also wanted for murder, and a manhunt for Jackson is still underway. Police are asking for the public's help in locating him, and noted that he frequents the Bay Area.

Hayward City Council members Mark Salinas and Angela Andrews have begun reaching out to city, county, and state agencies. They say Sophia was failed by government systems, and want accountability as well as improvements to save other children facing abuse.

"Adults failed her," Salinas said.

"I do have concerns," Andrews said. " This is something statewide that needs to be addressed immediately."