Authorities: Parents of 3-year-old Danbury, Wis., girl who drowned often let her wander away

Thomas Jay Williams, 42, and Jenna Elizabeth Danish, 33, of Danbury, Wis., had a habit of allowing their 3-year-old daughter, Reena, to wander away -- as she did on the day she drowned, according to a criminal complaint filed against them in Burn...

Renna Williams

Thomas Jay Williams, 42, and Jenna Elizabeth Danish, 33, of Danbury, Wis., had a habit of allowing their 3-year-old daughter, Reena, to wander away -- as she did on the day she drowned, according to a criminal complaint filed against them in Burnett County Circuit Court.

Reena's disappearance Aug. 14 sparked a massive search. Her body was found in a canal 25 yards from the family's home the next day.

Williams and Danish have each been charged with a single count of child neglect resulting in death.

The complaint in the case, filed Friday, alleges that Williams was a regular drug user who smoked synthetic marijuana shortly before Reena disappeared.

According to complaint, Wanda Sperling found Reena walking alone a half-mile from home, looking for her mother, about 5 p.m. on the day she disappeared. Sperling brought Reena to the Williams-Danish home, which is surrounded by water, and tried to find her parents.


"Ultimately, Williams walked up from the dam," of which he is the caretaker, the complaint said. "When Sperling told Williams she had found (Reena) all the way on Third Avenue, a half-mile away from the Williams-Danish premises, Williams did not seem concerned and in fact acted as it was 'no big deal,' in Sperling's words. Williams seemed incoherent to Sperling and seemed in fact to ignore what Sperling was saying."

After Sperling returned home, a neighbor told her that Reena was "missing again." Sperling returned to the Williams-Danish residence, where she found a dog soaking wet.

"Neither Williams nor Danish seemed upset and neither were looking for" Reena, the complaint said.

According to the complaint, witnesses reported seeing Reena wandering alone up to 1½ miles away from home several times in the months before her death.

On May 21, Reena drove her battery-operated four-wheeler to a bridge about a quarter-mile from home. She was there with two anglers for 30 to 45 minutes "before Danish came and retrieved her."

One witness told authorities that Williams and Danish " 'don't pay too close attention to their child,' that they are negligent parents, that (Reena) is dirty and neglected, and that it was not uncommon for (Reena) to wander off and go down to the lower dam," the complaint said. "She also remarked that Williams is a daily user of marijuana and other mind-altering substances."

Another person told authorities that he and Williams were smoking synthetic marijuana minutes before Reena disappeared, the complaint said. Danish told another person that she was sleeping at the time.

Searches of the Williams-Danish house found drug paraphernalia and synthetic and real marijuana. A sheet was hung over the windows facing the canal, "completely blocking the view of the canal from the inside of the house," the complaint said.


The family's home is on an island in the Yellow River about one mile south of the unincorporated village of Danbury and about 60 miles south of the Twin Ports. The property is bordered by a canal with a steep bank located less than 25 yards from the house.

"As one witness indicated, because of the surrounding water, the Williams-Danish Premises is a particularly hazardous and dangerous place to raise a 3-year-old child, especially in view of the complete lack of fences," the complaint said.

Reena was known to go near and even into the water, the complaint said. In mid-April "she dove into the water behind the house to retrieve her fishing pole which she had accidentally dropped."

She was saved that time by Williams, who dived in to save her, remarking later that Reena showed no fear of the water.

Reena was reported missing shortly before 7 p.m. on Aug. 14. Law enforcement, rescue personnel and volunteers searched the area that night, aided by K-9 units and a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter equipped with an infrared imaging system. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources searched the St. Croix and Yellow rivers. The search effort grew the next day, with more authorities and volunteers joining the effort.

Her body was found in the canal shortly before 5 p.m. on Aug. 15, "in an area that would have been plainly visible from the west-facing windows of the house, had they not been obscured by sheets," the complaint said.

Arrest warrants were issued for Williams and Danish on Friday. Burnett County Sheriff's officials say the two turned themselves in on Sunday. Bail was set at $25,000 each today, with the conditions that they maintain absolute sobriety, do not use or possess illegal drugs or substances, and continue to live in Burnett County or advise the clerk of court within 48 hours of moving. They are scheduled to make their initial appearances at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

If convicted, each faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Steve Kuchera is a retired Duluth News Tribune photographer.
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