“She could’ve been anybody’s daughter,” said Bianca Cummings, a child safety advocate in Canton who has befriended Rivera’s mother. “She really was just a very beautiful, very sweet, big-hearted 7-year-old girl that loved butterflies and rainbows and unicorns like all 7-year-old girls.”
Rivera, a Canton Elementary School student, was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered Dec. 2, 2011, by Ryan McCabe Brunn, 20, of Canton, a groundskeeper at the River Ridge at Canton apartment complex where the child lived.
Brunn hanged himself in prison two days after pleading guilty to the child’s murder in January 2012.
After Rivera’s disappearance, dozens of investigators descended on Canton and were working the case trying to find the first-grader who was last seen on the playground at her apartment complex, before her body was found in a trash bin at the complex Dec. 5, 2011.
Brunn later admitted to putting her body in the trash after the murder and assault.
“I still get sad when I think about it,” said Stacy Yawn, who taught Rivera in kindergarten. “She was a very sweet little girl, very kind and just full of life. Everybody loved Jorelys.”
The case drew national media attention and struck horror in the hearts of residents in Canton and Cherokee County, making it clear that such crimes don’t just happen in other communities.
“It was kind of a wakeup call that said ‘This can happen in your neighborhood,’” said Canton Mayor Gene Hobgood. “It was a tragedy that could’ve happened anywhere in this country. Unfortunately, it happened here.”
Part of that wake-up call hit the Canton Police Department, which received widespread criticism of its handling of the case, leading to Police Chief Jeff Lance’s resignation and a rewrite of the department’s procedures for missing person cases.
Canton Police Chief Robert Merchant, who was hired to fill the vacant chief’s position in May 2012, said when he took the job he found the Canton Police Department had been very much changed by the Rivera case.
“I interviewed all the employees when I came on here,” Merchant said. “It was obvious some people here were affected by the case and the negative publicity that was brought onto the police department as a result of leadership’s failure to do what you would expect.”
As a result of the case, Merchant said the department has taken time to reconsider its policies on missing person cases, and even before he came onboard, the procedures had seen sizable revisions.
So far, Merchant said he’s been pleased with the results. He cited a recent missing person case in one of Canton’s subdivisions, where officers responded quickly and the person was found after a short period of time.
“It just showed that what we had put in place would indeed work,” Merchant said, adding that the improvements were made because of Rivera.
While changes have been felt throughout Canton and Cherokee County since Rivera’s death, few can truly know the pain felt by the child’s family, those close to the situation say.
“That’s a devastating loss she’s going to have to deal with the rest of her life,” said Amy Turcotte, who befriended Rivera’s mother, Joselinne Rivera-Ruiz, after the 7-year-old’s death.
Turcotte went to visit Rivera-Ruiz on Monday to see how she was handling the two-year anniversary and found the mother quietly taking in the grim milestone at her home in the apartment complex where her daughter disappeared. Rivera-Ruiz still lives there with her other two daughters, 3 and 6.
As has been the case for two years, Turcotte said a candle burned in front of pictures of Rivera in the apartment Monday afternoon.
Turcotte said she has kept in touch with the mother every so often and she appears to mostly be learning to live with the loss of Rivera, as are her young sisters.
“Overall, I think she’s doing good,” Turcotte said. “The younger girls are happy and doing well. Joselinne has done a very good job providing for them as far as making sure they’re happy and protected. She really is a good mom.”
While Rivera-Ruiz told Turcotte that she would rather not talk much the anniversary, Turcotte said the mother remains hopeful that somehow her daughter’s memory will carry on.
Rivera-Ruiz’s friend Cummings said the child’s memory and legacy are living on as well.
Cummings teaches a class named for Rivera for Canton-Cherokee radKIDS at the YCMA in Canton. The class started after Rivera’s death and instructs children how to stay safe and deal with strangers.
“So far, we have 125 children that have the skills to stay safe,” she said. “These children have all been taught in Jorelys’ name and because of Jorelys.”
In that, Cummings said Rivera lives today.
She hopes that’s a comfort to the girl’s family.
“I think it’s still really important to (Rivera-Ruiz) and (Jorelys’) sisters and the family to know that the community hasn’t forgotten about Jorelys, that we still remember her, that she matters,” Cummings said.