Town builds park to honor Willow's memory

Town builds park to honor Willow's memory

Update: 6:01 pm WATSON -- The case is closed and the killer is behind bars, but for people here, they will never forget Willow Long.
Update: 6:01 pm
WATSON -- The case is closed and the killer is behind bars, but for people here, they will never forget Willow Long. 22-year old Justin DeRyke pleaded guilty to killing his 7-year old niece. Now, residents are looking to move forward. WCIA-3's Anthony Antoine finds out how they'll honor the little girl.

People are breathing a sigh of relief. The last few months have taken a toll on the entire community. With DeRyke admitting his guilt, they can finally shift their focus to remembering Willow. Driving to Watson, you notice a small memorial on the side of the road.

"The call came in and we treated it like any missing child. After a few hours, we realized it wasn't the same."

In September, Eric Loy was one of hundreds of people who spent days looking for Willow. Her body was found south of town.

"Stuff like that don't happen around here."

Tara Hagen would see Willow get off the bus everyday.

"I honestly though the little girl walked away and got lost."

DeRyke, who is Willow's uncle, was charged with her murder. DeRyke's father, Dale, spoke publicly in the days following his arrest.

"He's only 22. He thought she was dead. He was scared. He thought she was really hurt bad. He wasn't thinking correctly. He put her out of her misery and he got scared and hid her body."

Months later, DeRyke admitted killing her.

"I didn't think it would happen that quick. I thought the trial would go on and on and on."

But now, neighbors can finally focus on Willow.

"Right now, they're in the process of building Willow Memorial Park and all that's going to be dedicated to her. She's always going to be in every one of our hearts. That's something you won't forget."

The town has already broken ground and volunteers are building it; the same volunteers who searched for her body. A new basketball court and updated swings are in the works.

"I think the town was ready to move on and I think this will be partial closure."

The Assistant State's Attorney says there was enough evidence to convict DeRyke ten times over, but his confession has saved the county hundreds of thousands of dollars. DeRyke's initial claim was Willow fell on a pile of sticks and was bleeding heavily.

Willow's mother, Ciara DeRyke, also pleaded guilty to obstruction earlier this year for lying to police. She told them she had seen Willow when the girl was already dead. She was sentenced to 120-days in jail and 18-months probation.
Original: 5:04 pm
EFFINGHAM COUNTY -- 22-year old Justin DeRyke pleaded guilty to the first degree murder of his niece, 7-year old Willow Long. WCIA-3's Anthony Antoine has more on how the town where the little girl lived will remember her.

This is the Wisconsin Weeping Willow tree. It was planted and dedicated in the memory of 7-year old Willow Long. The seasons will change, but as long as it stands, it will always be a reminder of that little girl.

The town plans to make this part a permanent reminder of Willow. Neighbors say she would come here to play, so the town, along with supporters, will name the park after her. They're making upgrades like adding a basketball court and new swings. It's the town's way of moving forward.

"Right now, they're in the process of building Willow Memorial Park and all that's going to be dedicated to her. She's always going to be in every one of our hearts. That's something you won't forget."

"I think the town was ready to move on and I think this will be partial closure."

So far, they've raised more than $10,000 for the park. All of the work will be done by volunteers. The mayor says it will take about $40,000 to complete it. The dedication for the park will be held on Memorial Day weekend. Justin DeRyke was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
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