In a cramped apartment, a portrait of a little girl is propped up on an old TV set, framed by candles.

It is a darling picture, taken at preschool.

Jennifer Buchanan faces the makeshift memorial, saying she can’t imagine why anyone would have taken Nevaeh Buchanan, her 5-year-old daughter.

She begins to tell the story of the final moments when, she says, she thought Nevaeh went off to play with a friend.

And then was gone.

It’s a story Buchanan has not told in so much detail before. And it’s a story investigators are still scrutinizing.

Nevaeh’s disappearance, for now, remains a mystery — two weeks after she was last seen outside her Monroe apartment, just three days after a body, whose identity still is unconfirmed, was found encased in a concrete grave along a riverbank.

The search continues for the person who could have done this to a pretty girl who loved trucks and motorcycles, crayons and macaroni and cheese.

A girl whose life may have ended three days after she raced across a stage and — all smiles — grabbed her preschool certificate.

Down a flight of stairs, inside a dingy two-bedroom apartment, Jennifer Buchanan gave an account of her final moments with her daughter. She spent those precious minutes on a brown couch, watching reruns of “Jon & Kate Plus 8.”

In the story Buchanan tells, 5-year-old Nevaeh walked barefoot across the old brown carpet, worn and stained, and headed for the front door.

“Mom, I’m going upstairs to Austin’s house to play a game,” Buchanan remembers her daughter saying.

It was about 6:30 p.m. on May 24, the day before Memorial Day. Nevaeh walked out, the door shut and that was the last time Buchanan says she saw her daughter.

“I trusted her enough for her to actually go,” Buchanan told the Free Press last week in a 2 1/2 -hour interview, discussing everything from her relationship with two sex offenders to how it feels to be suspected in her child’s disappearance.

Austin Kuhn, 8, and Nevaeh lived in the same building in the Charlotte Arms apartments and played together nearly every day. A child could probably run from Nevaeh’s apartment to Austin’s door on the second floor in less than 10 seconds. (She was only 5. You at least stand there and watch your child safely go into the little friend’s house.)

She was wearing knee-length jeans and a baby blue, red-and-white striped shirt with a V-neck white collar. Potty trained, but with a habit of waiting until the last second to use the bathroom, Buchanan said, Nevaeh had just had an accident and changed her clothes.

Buchanan didn’t get up from the couch to make sure her daughter made it safely up the stairs. She sat there, she said, watching “Jon & Kate Plus 8.”

About 20 minutes later, a girl Buchanan described as a tattletale knocked on the door. (I wonder how long it would have taken for her to discover that her daughter was missing if it weren’t for the “tattletale.” Who calls a little girl a tattletale in the press?)

“She looked right at me and says, ‘Nevaeh is on her scooter in the road,’ ” Buchanan said. “She said the road, but I knew she meant the parking lot.”

Buchanan was angry at her daughter and said she looked for her flip-flops so she could go out to find her. A moment later, another girl knocked.

“Is Nevaeh home?” Buchanan remembers the girl asking. “And I said, ‘She has to be upstairs at Austin’s, but she is either out back, or out front, or upstairs at Austin’s.’ “

Buchanan said she poked her head out the building’s back door and glanced at the parking lot where Nevaeh used to ride the scooter. She wasn’t there. She looked at the sandbox where she often played. Not there. She glanced at the nearby school playground. Nothing. (Her search doesn’t seem very intense. she poked her head out of a door.)

“Nevaeh!” she said she screamed.

Buchanan planned to punish her daughter with a time-out. “I was going to yell at her and to tell her to stay out of the road,” she said.

She doesn’t believe in spanking. “I’m a time-out mom,” Buchanan said. (Not buying it. If she is a time out mom it’s because she is afraid of social services.)

She said she started knocking on doors. Nevaeh wasn’t in Austin’s apartment.

“I looked everywhere,” she said. “I spent at least 45 minutes looking.”

The panic started to grow.

She said she told the apartment manager her daughter was missing, circled the building and came around the other side, where she found the purple and green scooter Nevaeh often rode.

“My heart sank,” she said, “and my stomach went into knots.”

Somebody called the police, and an Amber Alert was issued. (She didn’t call police?)

Investigators don’t know what happened that day or how Nevaeh vanished. They’ve questioned Buchanan extensively, and the public has turned its attention to her, the choices she has made, the friends she chose.

Over the last two weeks, Buchanan says she has lived at the epicenter of a horror story.

“It’s like a nightmare,” she said Wednesday morning, starting to cry. “I can’t wait to wake up.”

She spent several days with friends searching all over Monroe County — in the woods, by the quarries, in abandoned buildings — sometimes returning to the same spot five or six times, whistling, stopping to cry, stopping to scream and wondering what was next.

She yelled her daughter’s name until she was hoarse.

On Thursday afternoon, fishermen discovered a body covered in concrete about a foot from the River Raisin in Monroe County.

Though it hasn’t been confirmed, the description of the child’s body fits Nevaeh.

A tomboy who loved motorcycles and trucks, Nevaeh, whose name is heaven spelled backward, didn’t like dresses and was content to watch “The Jungle Book” over and over.

“I’d get a headache from it,” said Sherry Buchanan, Nevaeh’s grandmother. “I’d say, ‘OK, that’s enough, Nevaeh.’ And she’d say, ‘Just one more time, Grandma.’

“I never had any trouble with that kid. She always called me grandma. Sometimes, she’d slip up and say, ‘mommy.’

“I’d say, that’s OK. Don’t worry. She was always a good baby.”

Sherry Buchanan was granted custody of Nevaeh after Jennifer Buchanan was convicted in 2006 on a first-degree home invasion charge. She had been breaking into homes to support a drug habit. (Why hasn’t Jennifer regained custody? Courts always love to reunite parents with their children, no matter unfit the parent is.)

For the last 2 1/2 months, Sherry, Jennifer and Nevaeh Buchanan have lived together in the two-bedroom apartment.

Nevaeh named all of her stuffed animals. The black Lab is Tank. Her favorite, a beagle, is named Harley.

“Harley went to school with her,” Sherry Buchanan said. “Harley went to bed with her.”

Harley still smells like Nevaeh.

When she disappeared, her grandmother got comfort in sleeping with Tank. Jennifer Buchanan slept with Harley.

“I’d give anything in the world to have her come running through that door,” Sherry Buchanan said.

In the eyes of some, Jennifer Buchanan quickly transformed from a sympathetic figure into a villain as word got out that she was friends with two convicted sex offenders.

The cable TV show “Nancy Grace” focused last week on 24-year-old Buchanan and her relationships with George Kennedy and Roy Smith, both of whom are from Monroe.

Court records show Smith, 48, was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct after a woman said he raped her twice in his car in 1991. Kennedy, 39, was convicted in 2002 of raping a 15-year-old girl behind a gas station. (Jennifer should have had nothing to do with these men. Not just for her daughter’s safety, but for her own.)

Grace interviewed Nevaeh’s father, Shane Hinojosa, 22, of Toledo, who hasn’t seen his daughter in three years. (He’s slamming Jennifer, but he hasn’t seen his daughter in three years. Nevaeh is only five, so he hasn’t seen her since she was a toddler. At least Jennifer was there trying to be a parent. She sucked at it, but at least she was there. Was he even paying child support? Shane is just another deadbeat parent. He could be there for a missing child, but was oddly missing when there was no attention.)

“What can you tell me about your daughter being exposed by her mother to a registered sex offender?” Grace asked incredulously. “In fact, more than one.”

“Oh, I’m furious,” he replied.

On another show, Grace asked a psychologist about the case.

“This is horrible,” the psychologist said. “The mother’s judgment is atrocious. How could she be with a sex offender and have a little girl in the home? It’s just horrible.”

A short time later, another guest slammed Buchanan: “Mom is a title of honor. She doesn’t deserve that honor. She was never a mother.”

The voices and opinions screamed an unsubstantiated accusation: Jennifer Buchanan was to blame. (Could Jennifer Buchanan be the killer? Yes, but this may just be a case of bad parenting leading to a child being vunerable to strangers.)
Back in Michigan, Buchanan said she was being attacked by people who had never met her.

“I feel like everyone has a lot of negativity about me,” she said. “They don’t personally know me. … I feel like everyone is putting me in the category of … parents who actually did harm their children. … It’s very frustrating.”

Grace, she said, “is completely wrong. … I didn’t leave her playing outside. She was supposed to be playing upstairs on that day at that specific time.”

Both Kennedy and Smith are now in jail on possible parole violations. Neither has been charged in connection with Nevaeh’s suspected death, but Buchanan said she doesn’t know what to think about them anymore.

“As for the guys, I don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t think it was a crime to have my child around someone. Honestly, no matter who you come across, you don’t know who and what they are. You don’t know if they are labeled as a sex offender unless you look their name up.”

Buchanan said she knew of Kennedy’s criminal past.

“I gave him a second chance. I was just befriending him. I confronted him about it. To my knowledge, he was honest to me about it,” she said.

“As for Roy, I only knew him for a couple of months. Because he knew George and they had some kind of classes together, I figured Roy had the same offense against him.” (Sex offenders are always a danger. Classes aren’t going to make them better. Jennifer was in as much danger as Nevaeh. These men raped older females, not tiny girls. Jennifer should have at least thought of protecting herself.)

She had known Kennedy a couple of years. “If George wanted to do that, he would have done it a little sooner,” she said. “That’s the way I feel. But I could be wrong.” (Child molesters will groom a family for years. And how does she know that these men hadn’t molested her daughter. Nevaeh isn’t around to tell her about it.)

Buchanan said she met with police and the FBI at least four times. One interview lasted about five hours.

“I feel like they are putting me under the spotlight,” she said. “I feel like they are pointing fingers at me, like I did something intentionally.” (That is the FBI’s job, to point fingers and dig under every rock.)

She doesn’t have a lawyer and says she doesn’t need one. (Yes, she does. If for no other reason than to protect her interests and protect her from prying eyes. If she was a middle class mom who couldn’t afford a lawyer, one would have come forward and volunteered to represent her. But Buchanan is an unsymathetic character, so nobody wants to help her.)

“I’m completely innocent,” she said. “I didn’t have anything to do with my daughter’s disappearance. I don’t do drugs. I hardly ever drink. I don’t owe anybody any money. I have hardly any enemies. I don’t understand who would come up and take my child.”

Last week, Buchanan gave police permission to search her home.

The detectives took part of her computer and, she said, they asked her what Web sites she has visited recently.

Buchanan also was interviewed by behavioral specialists from the FBI. “They were asking me about my background and what” Nevaeh “was like,” she said. “They went all the way back to how I felt when I was pregnant.”

Nevaeh didn’t trust strangers. And Buchanan said she didn’t think her daughter would have gone silently, without at fight.

Two weeks before her daughter’s disappearance, they were at a Relay for Life event at Bedford High School in Temperance.

“We were walking, and people were passing out candy. She would take no candy from anybody,” Buchanan said.

Nevaeh must have put up a fight or known the person who snatched her.

“I want to know what happened,” Buchanan said. “I’m racking my brains on how this could happen.”

Nevaeh’s beauty made strangers stop and stare. “Random people would come up to me and compliment me on how beautiful she is,” Buchanan said.

She said she has wondered “numerous times” whether her daughter was abducted for her beauty.

Nevaeh finished preschool three days before she disappeared.

“She was very excited to graduate,” Buchanan said. “She ran, literally ran like a track runner, across that stage to get her certificate. I was so proud of her.

“She meant the world to me. I adored her. It’s hard, just talking about her.”

Neighbors described Nevaeh as shy. “She was adorable, a cute little girl with a ponytail,” said Haley Jennings, 39, who lived on the second floor of Nevaeh’s apartment complex. “Kind of timid. … Her voice was real soft. She was real fragile, real precious.

“She kind of clutched close. She wasn’t one to wander.”

Everyone in the apartment complex has grown suspicious, Jennings said. She is upset thinking that the person who took Nevaeh is still out there. “It’s petrifying.”

On Friday morning, the day after the body was found, TV crews gathered in the parking lot, waiting for Buchanan to come out of her apartment.

Neighbors talked about their grief, sharing their fears, showing their anger as police searched for a killer.

At a makeshift memorial in front of the apartment, a candle flickered in the breeze and a pinwheel spun round and round.

Screams could be heard in the distance. Children ran around a school playground, yelling and screaming and laughing and clapping, so full of life. So full of innocence.

Little voices in the wind.

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