HAYWARD, Calif. (KRON) — A Hayward mother appeared in a Merced County courtroom Monday and pleaded not guilty to murdering her 8-year-old daughter, Sophia Mason.

Samantha Johnson, 31, wore orange inmate clothing and a tattoo with the name “Sophia” was visible on her wrist above her handcuffs. She was escorted by deputies out of the courtroom and returned to jail with no bail.

The last time Sophia was last seen alive was in December while in the custody of her mother, according to the Hayward Police Department.

The girl was reported missing on March 8 by her grandmother after the grandmother received a disturbing phone call from Johnson.

Samantha Johnson is charged with murder her daughter, Sophia
Samantha Johnson is charged with murdering her daughter, Sophia.

Johnson allegedly told the grandmother that she didn’t have her daughter with her anymore. Alarmed, the grandmother asked where Sophia was.

“Samantha said, ‘I got rid of her. I was tired of her,’” Johnson’s cousin, Melissa Harris, told KRON4.

Detectives found Johnson in Newark on March 10 and questioned her about her daughter’s whereabouts. The mother gave inconsistent answers.

Investigators found Sophia’s body on March 11 inside Johnson’s boyfriend’s house in Merced.

Sophia Mason class photo
Sophia Mason (Photo courtesy Melissa Harris)

The boyfriend, 34-year-old Dhante Jackson, was still at-large on Monday morning. Police believe he is hiding in the East Bay or South Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Prosecutors charged Jackson with homicide, but he went on the run just before police served a search warrant in his house.

The Merced Police Department is offering a $3,000 reward for information leading to Jackson’s arrest.

According to Harris, Alameda County CPS failed to help Sophia and take her out of her mother’s custody despite numerous reports of suspected child abuse.

Johnson worked as a prostitute and was frequently homeless, Harris said.

Harris said when Alameda County CPS met with Johnson and her daughter in a park in Hayward last year, Sophia told CPS agents that Johnson and Jackson beat her with belt buckles. Her legs were covered with bruises.

Alameda County Social Services spokesperson Sylvia Soublet said the agency cannot comment publicly on child abuse cases because of confidentiality laws.

Sophia lived most of her life happily with her grandmother in Hayward, Harris said.

“Her grandma raised her, cared for her, enrolled her in school. They had such a strong relationship. Sophia loved her grandma and her grandma loved Sophia. And they were doing well until Samantha came last year and took her away,” Harris said.

Johnson said she took her daughter because her new boyfriend, Jackson, wanted to meet Sophia, according to Harris.

Dhante Jackson is on the run.

Sophia suffered escalating abuse in the months leading up to her death, according to a police report. Johnson told detectives that her daughter was forced to live in a metal shed in the backyard of Jackson’s house.

Sophia endured extreme cruelty at the hands of Jackson through physical and sexual abuse, the police report writes.

A Merced County Sheriff’s coroner has not yet released Mason’s cause of death.

“Hearing that she was kept in a shed and … treated in the manner that she was during her last month or so has left our family in a range of anger,” Harris said.

KRON4 asked Harris about what she would say to Johnson if given a chance to speak to her cousin.

“I don’t throw people away. We don’t throw people away. We have a hard time understanding why you did what you did when you know there are so many people who love you and Sophia and would have helped both of you,” Harris said.

Anyone with information about Jackson’s whereabouts is asked to call the Hayward Police Department, or call Merced Police Detective John Pinnegar at 209-388-7712.