ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Hours before her 6-year-old daughter was killed, Ashley Pickering said she chatted with a Buncombe County child protective services worker, who assured her the bubbly first-grader was doing well.
“I just spoke with her case worker yesterday (Friday) and she said she was happy and healthy and in a great home, and they were going to work on getting her back down here,” Pickering said from her Florida home.
But after nightfall, in an hour when a ringing phone rarely brings pleasant news, another Buncombe County official contacted Pickering.
“A detective called at 2 in the morning and asked if I was Ashley Pickering, wife of Seth Willis Pickering, mother of Lila Marie Pickering, and I said, ‘Yes,’ ” she remembered. “They said, ‘It is with heavy hearts we regret to inform you that your daughter’s deceased and Seth’s been arrested for first-degree murder.’
“What they said to me just keeps playing in my head like a broken record.”
Seth Pickering, 36, of Leicester was arrested by Buncombe County sheriff’s deputies along a well-traveled section of the Blue Ridge Parkway at about 7 p.m. Friday, according to an arrest report.
About an hour earlier, deputies learned Lila had been taken by her father, and were in the process of documenting the case to trigger an Amber Alert, said Capt. John Elkins of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office.
“We had a deputy at a home in west Buncombe County after we received a report that the father had taken the child without permission,” Elkins said. “As the deputy was there, we learned of the homicide.”
Elkins declined to discuss who reported Lila missing or how investigators learned the child was dead, deferring to a federal investigation.
The death occurred in the boundaries of the Blue Ridge Parkway and is expected to be transferred to the federal courts next week. Agents with the FBI are leading the case.
Shelley Lynch, FBI spokeswoman, declined to release further details about the homicide, including how the girl was killed, how she was discovered, or how authorities were able to locate her father.
Public records indicate Seth Pickering had recently lived in Brevard County, Fla., but according to his estranged wife, he brought his daughter to Buncombe County last year, beginning a custody dispute.
“My husband and I separated because he was abusive, and we were working on getting her back down here,” Ashley Pickering said. “She was in protective custody. I don’t know how he got near her. It’s been one nightmare after another after another. For 15 months, we’ve been fighting this.”
Lila had recently been placed in another home after Pickering had a violent dispute with another person, according to Ashley Pickering. But despite the conflict, she said she never believed Lila was in danger.
“He was the most loving father and Lila worshiped the ground he walked on. She loved her daddy so much,” Pickering said. “She would jump in his lap and smile and laugh and be so happy when he was holding her.”
Officials with the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services, which includes Child Protective Services, did not immediately answer questions about the case.
The death occurred near mile marker 393 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Lynch said.
Rangers with the Blue Ridge Parkway were also assisting with the investigation, said Leesa Brandon, spokeswoman for the agency.
Lila, born in Orlando, was less than a month shy of turning 7.
The outgoing girl wanted to become a veterinarian, her mother remembered through tears.
“She would go up and talk to anybody. We used to call her Rescue Ranger, because if somebody falls or something like that on the playground, she would want to go over and help them right away,” Pickering said.
Pickering said she suffers from a disorder of the connective tissues, one that makes carrying a child to full term in pregnancy unlikely and dangerous, but Lila defied odds.
“I had her and she was perfect. She was happy and healthy. She had no medical problems. She was absolutely beautiful,” she said. “She is absolutely beautiful.”