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Jan. 16, 2008 | Murder charge filed in missing student case

The day after Stepha Henry went missing last year, her parents flew to South Florida to find her.

For months, they did all they could -- candlelight vigils, flier handouts, national media appearances, daily calls to detectives.

On Tuesday, almost eight months after the 22-year-old aspiring immigration lawyer disappeared, police announced an arrest in the case. They picked up Kendrick Lincoln Williams, 32, after finding him asleep in a car at a Brooklyn, N.Y., pier.

Henry's parents said they were relieved, but they were dismayed at the charge -- second-degree murder -- because they still hope she will be found alive.

"We've been looking for Stepha for so long, " her father, Steve Henry, said. "They say they have this guy. We are sad, but we are happy. Maybe he will lead us to her."

Henry's body is still missing.

Asked Tuesday night if she had a message for Williams, Sylvia Henry said, "Please let me know where my daughter is." She added: "I'm just still hoping I will find my daughter alive."

Investigators say that's unlikely.

In September, the same month Henry would have turned 23, police found the Acura Integra in South Florida.

Forensic tests revealed a large amount of Henry's blood in the car. The volume of evidence pointed to a homicide, police said.

"No one could survive with that loss of blood, " Miami-Dade Police Assistant Director Jim Loftus said.

Henry's disappearance over Memorial Day weekend gained national exposure as her friends and family remained adamant that she wasn't a runaway -- someone must have done something to her, they said.

A petite honor student with a flair for fashion, Stepha Trivene Henry was from a tightly knit family. Born in Trinidad and raised in New York, she attended a small Brooklyn high school and graduated last year from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

She got a job working in the school registrar's office while she studied for the law school entrance exam.

Henry came to South Florida with her sister, Shola, then 16, for the Memorial Day weekend and to celebrate Shola's birthday. They stayed with an aunt in Miami Gardens. The young women spent the first days of their vacation getting pedicures and going to a reggae concert.

At a barbecue on May 28, Henry chatted with Williams, described by relatives and police as an acquaintance but not a boyfriend. They made plans to go to the Sunrise nightclub Peppers Café later that night.

At 1 a.m. on May 29, Williams picked up Henry in an Acura Integra. Investigators said he bought the car in New York and drove it to Florida. The pair left Henry's aunt's house for the nightclub.

Henry and Williams were seen together in a video recorded inside the club, police said. Williams, whom police had interviewed after Henry's disappearance and said was not a suspect, told investigators he left the club at some point and Henry decided to stay.

Investigators released few details in the case for months, and Henry's friends and family were critical of the media for letting her disappearance slip from the spotlight.

In addition to the murder charge, Williams also faces a count of evidence tampering, but police did not explain that Tuesday.

Williams, who was born in the Virgin Islands and splits his time between New York City and South Florida, has no permanent address.

His short criminal record includes arrests for driving without a license in New York and trespassing in Broward County.

Williams was arrested at 8 a.m. Tuesday when members of the New York Police Department fugitive division and Miami-Dade detectives knocked on the window of a Nissan Maxima they found him sleeping in.

He woke up and opened the door, and they cuffed him, police said.

Investigators continued to question him in New York late Tuesday, and they did not say if and when he might be sent to South Florida.

Police aren't sure where Henry was killed, but Miami-Dade police took the lead on the investigation because it originated as a missing-persons case in Miami Gardens. Miami-Dade Detective Thomas Romagni was assisted by Sunrise police, the Broward Sheriff's Office, the New York Police Department and the U.S. Marshals Service.

Prosecutors say they will be able to litigate the case without finding her.

"I just got a conviction two months ago on a case without a body, so I'm confident, " said Assistant State Attorney Abbe Rifkin.

In New York, relatives and family friends shuffled in and out of the Henrys' home in Brooklyn, which her parents said hasn't been the same since their oldest daughter went missing.

"When she's home, there is a lot of life. Now, it's very, very quiet, " her father told The Miami Herald last year.

Henry's aunt Emris Jordan, who came to the family's house about 5 p.m. Tuesday, said she viewed the murder arrest as a mixed blessing.

"I'm happy because I've been praying all the time for them to arrest somebody, " Jordan said, remembering her niece as loving and smart. "I'm still praying for her to be alive. But it's sad, very sad."

And Sylvia Henry said she thinks her monthslong effort searching for her daughter in South Florida helped lead to Tuesday's arrest.

"It paid off, " Henry said. "The word went out."

Miami Herald staff writers Jennifer Mooney Piedra, Roberto Santiago and Trenton Daniel and New York-based correspondent Laura Isensee contributed to this report.

A TIMELINE OF EVENTS

Stepha Henry's South Florida trip and subsequent events, according to family and investigators:

* May 24: Arrives in Fort Lauderdale at 3 p.m. on a Continental flight from La Guardia Airport.

* May 26: Spends the day at her grandfather's house in Miami Gardens; goes to a salon for a pedicure.

* May 27: Attends Best of the Best Reggae Concert at Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami.

* May 28: Spends the afternoon in South Beach; attends a nighttime barbecue in Miami Gardens.

* May 29: Leaves her aunt's Miami Gardens apartment at 1 a.m. with a male acquaintance in a black Acura Integra; is later videotaped at Peppers Café in Sunrise.

* 4:13 a.m.: Checks voice mail on her cellphone in the area of the nightclub. No activity has been logged since.

* 8 a.m.: Henry's aunt and sister notice Stepha had not come home.

* 9:30 a.m.: Stepha's younger sister calls her parents in New York to tell them that Stepha is missing.

* 10 a.m.: The aunt notifies police about the disappearance.

* May 31: Stepha's parents arrive in Fort Lauderdale.

* Jan. 15: Police announce the arrest of Kendrick Williams, 32, who will be charged with second-degree murder.

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