Community members gathered Thursday night to search for answers surrounding the tragic death of a 3-year-old boy named Dakota.
Most who attended didn’t know the toddler, but nevertheless shed tears over his loss.
“I am reminded that we do live in a sinful world that is very dark at times,” First Baptist Church Pastor Buddy Hunt told the crowd of more than 70 people, who gathered for a vigil in honor of Dakota. “Let us remind ourselves that as children of God, we are the light of the world.”
Dakota was found dead Tuesday morning at the Stepping Stones Rooming House. His mother, Jeri Danyce Sanders, and her common-law husband, Bufford Ellison, were later arrested on complaints of first-degree murder.
Detectives learned Dakota had been living in “deplorable” conditions before he died, according to court documents. Some neighbors told authorities they had suspected the boy was being abused. There’s no record any reports were made to authorities, however.
Marsha Taylor and Cassie Vance helped organize Thursday’s candlelight vigil. Taylor didn’t know the young boy, but said the story of his death moved her to action.
“This event started because a few of us wanted to honor Dakota, and to give him in death what he did not get in his short life,” said Taylor. “I’m humbled by the support of this amazing community. We are not defined by tragedy, but by the love and strength we show every day.”
Vance, who did know Dakota, shared memories of a happy child who would often tell exciting stories.
“Dakota was kind of a free spirit,” said Vance. “He had no boundaries. He played all the time, was a joyful kid. He would sometimes just run and jump in my lap and smile at me. When he was telling a story, he was into it. He was just so happy, he’d go on and on about it.”
Tahlequah Police Chief Nate King encouraged the community to fight for the city and its children. He acknowledged the community isn’t bullet-proof, but said it’s necessary to take a stand.
“There really are no words to describe the feeling many of us are going through right now,” said King.
“The senseless death of Dakota has us scratching our heads and questioning humanity as a whole. However, I look out and see all of you, and I know humanity is still good. Tahlequah is still good. Most of you did not know Dakota; I didn’t know Dakota. The thing is, we don’t need to know Dakota to care for what happened to him. We don’t need to know about each other to care about someone being wronged.”
King said it is unfortunate Dakota lost his life before others knew of his situation.
“Could any of us have stopped this heinous crime if we had known Dakota beforehand? We’ll never know,” said King. “But I challenge each and every one of you to be more perceptive about your surroundings, to notice what’s going on and not be afraid to step up for the weak. Sometimes that may be the only voice they have.”
King read from the New Testament, quoting Matthew 5:21, which speaks of murder and judgment. He also quoted Romans 12:14-21, which says to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
“I’ve seen many things in my time in law enforcement that don’t make sense,” said King.
“We’ll never find those answers as to why. Our anger will not bring Dakota back to life, and it won’t punish his murderers any more. These people will be accountable for their actions both on Earth and before God.”
King encouraged the community to turn its sadness into motivation.
“We must use it to make us better parents, better husbands and wives, better brothers, sisters and friends; better people,” said King. “We will never forget Dakota; we mourn for him. Help make this tragedy something positive not only in our life, but in our community. We cannot give up.”
Community members can donate to the “Benefit Fund for Baby Dakota” at any BancFirst location in Tahlequah to help pay for burial costs and a headstone.