It was painful for Robert Sawyers to talk about his daughter — the little girl nicknamed “Baby Grace” — who was brutally murdered, stuffed in a box and dumped in Galveston Bay.
He choked back tears repeatedly as he remembered her Thursday, but he told TODAY it was important that people knew what kind of person she was, and how he will always remember her.
“I wanted to get her story out, to let everybody know she was loved, very loved up here in Mentor, Ohio,” he told co-host Meredith Vieira. “She was just a darling little girl that something this tragic shouldn’t happen [to] nowadays.”
It was Sawyers’ first one-on-one interview since the body that Galveston police recovered on Nov. 7 was identified as that of Sawyers’ missing daughter, Riley Ann Sawyers. On Saturday, police in Texas arrested Riley’s mother, Kimberly Trenor, 19, and husband, Royce Clyde Ziegler II, 24, and jailed them on $350,000 bond in connection with the death.
“I never thought she could do anything like this,” Sawyers said of Trenor. “She loved Riley. You can’t look at that little girl and you can’t not love that little girl. It’s heart-wrenching to think that she might have done this to such a beautiful little girl.”
The 20-year-old Sawyers and Trenor had begun dating when both were 16-year-old high school students. When Riley was born on March 11, 2005, in the Northeast Ohio town of Mentor, the couple moved in with Sawyers’ mother, Sheryl Sawyers.
Two years later, the relationship came apart, and Sawyers told Vieira he still doesn’t understand why.
“She really didn’t give me a reason,” he said. “She told me one day that she didn’t want to be together anymore, gave me back the ring that I gave her for our engagement and just got distant after that.”
There was an argument at that time between the two over where she parked her car in the driveway. According to police reports, Trenor accused Sawyers of grabbing her by the throat. Charged with domestic violence, Sawyers eventually pleaded guilty to a disorderly person’s offense and was ordered to stay away from Trenor.
“It was just an argument that me and her had,” Sawyers said. “I never hit her beforehand. I didn’t even hit her then. It was an argument that got blown out of proportion.”
‘Hard for people to understand’
Even after he and Trenor broke up, he spent a lot of time with his daughter along with his mother and his new girlfriend, who he has since married; he and his wife have a 3-month-old son.
Sawyers would later learn that Trenor had moved to Texas in June to move in with and marry Ziegler, whom she had met on the Internet.
After her arrest last week, Trenor told police she and Ziegler had beaten Riley with a belt, held her head underwater, and Ziegler had thrown the toddler against a wall sometime during the summer. When the child died, they stuffed her body in a plastic trunk and put it in a shed. After a couple of months, they threw the trunk in Galveston Bay.
‘A beautiful, loving little girl’
The trunk and body inside were discovered on Oct. 29 and the dead girl, then unidentified, was nicknamed Baby Grace. When police artists created a sketch of what the girl would have looked like, Sheryl Sawyers recognized it as her granddaughter and called Galveston police.
On Monday, the remains were finally identified as those of Riley Ann Sawyers.
Sawyers couldn’t talk about his daughter without choking up. Asked to describe her, he said, “She’s very fun, extremely hyper and she loved acting.”
“How do you want her to be remembered?” Vieira asked.
“As a beautiful, loving little girl — there’s nothing more else to her than that,” he said, fighting back tears. “She’s beautiful, loving and touches your heart the second you meet her.”