HAYWARD, Calif. (KRON) — Sophia Mason’s family knew the eight-year-old Hayward girl’s life was in grave danger living with her biological mother and mother’s boyfriend. The girl’s grandmother and aunt made repeated pleas to Alameda County CPS to investigate abuse and neglect. But time and time again, CPS did nothing, according to a newly-filed wrongful death petition.

Sophia lived seven years of her short life, happily, with her loving grandmother, Sylvia Johnson, at her grandmother’s house in Hayward. Everything changed when Sophia’s mother, Samantha Johnson, reappeared in her life and took her daughter back in January of 2021, according to the petition.

Sophia’s extended family members were concerned because they knew Samantha Johnson was mentally ill, worked as a prostitute, and didn’t have a place to live. They asked about why she suddenly wanted her daughter back.

“The only thing that (Samantha Johnson) said was that she had a new boyfriend, Dhante Jackson, and that he wanted to meet Sophia. This guy specifically asked for Sophia,” the girl’s cousin, Melissa Harris, said.

sophia mason
Sophia Mason’s last school photo before she stopped going to school. (Photo courtesy Melissa Harris)

Jackson, 34, was on the run for six months until he was arrested last weekend in Newark in the East Bay. He was booked into jail on murder charges. Sophia’s mother is also behind bars and charged with murdering her daughter.

The last month of Sophia’s life at Jackson’s house was horrific, according to evidence uncovered by the Hayward Police Department and the Merced County Sheriff’s Office. She was forced to live in a backyard shed. Jackson sexually and physically abused the young girl until she was ultimately found dead on March 11 in a bathtub, investigators said.

Even before Sophia was brought to Jackson’s house, life for Sophia with her mother in Alameda County was marred with severe abuse, states a petition filed by attorney Carly Sanchez on behalf of the girl’s grandmother.

“Sophia Mason was subjected to extreme mental, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse and severe neglect while in the care of her biological mother,” the petition writes.

Samantha Johnson
Samantha Johnson’s mug shot (Merced County Sheriff’s Office)

According to Harris, Samantha Johnson worked as a prostitute, suffered from mental illness, and cycled between living in motel rooms and homeless shelters. Sophia stopped going to school.

“In early 2021, Sophia’s mother, Samantha Johnson, reappeared in her life and took Sophia into her care and custody. Almost immediately, the County of Alameda began receiving child abuse hotline referrals alleging that Sophia was the victim of abuse and neglect while in her mother’s care. Agents of the County of Alameda … failed to take necessary action to protect the minor’s safety, health, welfare, growth, and development. Rather, they knowingly allowed Sophia to remain in the home with her mother, who suffered from untreated mental illnesses, and her mother’s abusive boyfriend. The County of Alameda received seven emergency hotline referrals between January 2021 and Sophia’s death just 14 months later. It did not even bother investigating five of those referrals, and simply evaluated them out.”

Dhante Jackson is handcuffed by police officers in Newark on Sept. 10, 2022 and arrested.

A spokesperson for the Alameda County Social Services Agency could not be reached for comment on Monday.

The petition accuses Alameda County CPS of 33 failures in protecting Sophia. The petition states, “Beginning in January 2021, Alameda received referrals alleging that Sophia’s mother hit her, choked her, and covered her mouth to subdue her screams. The County further learned that Sophia had multiple bruises on her arms, torso, and thigh, and that she had not been to school in weeks. When social workers interviewed Sophia, she confirmed that her mother had grabbed her neck while mad at her and had covered her mouth.”

Samantha Johnson’s sister, Emerald, tried to gain legal custody of Sophia by filing a report with Alameda County CPS. CPS met with Johnson and Sophia in a park in Hayward. “It was the first time (Sophia) had been seen since she was taken. Her legs were filled to bruises and scabs. She said, ‘they are hitting me with belt buckles,’” Harris told KRON4. The meeting in the park concluded with Sophia staying in her mother’s custody.

“The County of Alameda concluded that the allegations of physical abuse were ‘inconclusive'” the petition states.

Sophia was reported missing on March 8 after her grandmother received a disturbing phone call from Johnson, who said she was planning to visit the grandmother without Sophia. When the grandmother asked about Sophia’s whereabouts, “Samantha said, ‘I got rid of her. I was tired of her,’” according to Harris.

Three days later, Sophia was found dead. Investigators said they believe the girl had been dead for one month before her body was found.

The manhunt for Dhante Jackson

Johnson was arrested in March and she pleaded not guilty to murder. Jackson went on the run.

The Merced Police Department held a press conference Monday and revealed to reporters how Jackson was able to evade arrest for nearly seven months.

Police Lt. Joseph Perez said “Detectives acted on evidence quickly to track Jackson’s location, but he had the help of several people to elude his capture.”

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Three women — Deburka Johnson, 40 of San Jose; Larona Larkins, 42, of Merced; and Mayra Gonzalez, 33, of Newark — helped Jackson hide from police, according to Perez.

“He had the help of several female acquaintances during the investigation they learned that several of these females had assisted Jackson by providing him with money, shelter, and transportation,” said Lt. Perez.

“Investigators worked diligently on this case in an effort to locate Jackson and hold those assisting him accountable. Hundreds of hours were spent conducting interviews, chasing down leads and serving nearly 100 search warrants,” the Merced Police Department wrote.

Jackson was apprehended outside of a Newark residence on September 10 by agents from the Merced Area Gang, Narcotics Enforcement Team, and the California Department of Justice Special Operations Unit. He was booked into a Merced jail in lieu of $100,000 bail.

The three woman are facing charges of accessory to murder after the fact.

Lt. Perez said the Sophia Mason case was one of the worst cases of child abuse he’d ever seen. “To know what that poor little angel went through at the hands of pure evil breaks my heart,” he said. “I will never understand how this could happen to a beautiful child who just wanted to be loved.”

Lt. Perez postponed his retirement from 27 years in law enforcement to ensure justice for Sophia.

“Detective John Pinnegar was the lead investigator on the case. Pinnegar said that he held off on his retirement because he wanted to see the case through until the end,” MPD wrote.

Sophia Mason (Image courtesy Melissa Harris)

Petition calls out Alameda County CPS

Sophia’s family filed the wrongful petition against CPS with hopes that no child will ever suffer the same fate.

“I thought that the one thing that we could do in honor of Sophia’s legacy is change the law, or at least change the system, so this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Harris told KRON4 on Monday.

Samantha Johnson’s sister, Emerald, loved Sophia. “(Emerald) is not the same. There’s a huge Sophia-shaped hole in her heart that can never be filled,” Harris said.

Child abuse attorney Carly Sanchez said Alameda County CPS has the worst track record in the state for following up on reports of child abuse.

“What happen to Sophia is tragic … and unfortunately, common. It’s very clear that the County of Alameda — more so then any other county in the state — is not investigating referrals that come in,” Sanchez told KRON4.

Harris has a heartbreaking memory of the last time she saw her young cousin alive. Sophia had a bruise on her hand, and when Harris asked if she was OK, Sophia said yes. The girl had learned by that point that voicing her experiences of abuse only led to more beatings.

Harris said, “Calls and complaints and anonymous tips went either uninvestigated, unanswered, or were (deemed) unfounded. Because of all of these previous calls that went ignored, she had learned not to complain. When she complained, she was punished.”