Neighbors held a candlelight vigil Friday night outside the apartment were Lilly Willover, 2, lived and died.
Police said Wesley Paul Canipe, 20, intentionally drowned his girlfriend's child Thursday night. Canipe is charged with murder and child abuse.
Shelby police said they were called to an apartment on Eaves Road shortly after 9 p.m. Thursday when Canipe reported that he found the child he was caring for unresponsive in the bathtub. Canipe is the boyfriend of the child’s mother and was watching Lilly Willover while her mother was at work.
Neighbor Laura Hamrick, who is trained nurse and mother, said Canipe came to her for help. She fought back emotion as she spoke.
“Absolutely heartbroken. That was the most beautiful baby,” she said.
She said she thought of Lilly as an adopted granddaughter.
“(Canipe) banged on my door and said it was Lilly and said she wasn't breathing,” she said.
Hamrick tried to revive the girl until Shelby police arrived, and they tried CPR, too.
Another neighbor, Sherry Pressley, recalled seeing an officer run out the door of the apartment carrying Willover in his arms.
“The officer, he was crying and saying, ‘I tried. I really tried. I couldn’t do anything, but I tried,’” she said.
Pressley said everyone was devastated, except Canipe.
“He wasn’t upset. He wasn’t crying. He didn’t even come out to the ambulance to see if the baby was OK,” she said.
Rescue crews rushed Willover to a local hospital, where she was later pronounced dead.
Neighborhood children have placed teddy bears in front of the door of the apartment in memory of Willover. Those who knew her said she was friendly and full of joy.
One neighbor brought a note for her mother and used a tiny angel pin to clip it to a stuffed animal.
“Remember your precious, sweet girl forever,” she said, reading it aloud.
Officers said that while Canipe reported Willover was taking a bath and he was not in the room when she drowned, they found through further investigation that Canipe was responsible for her death.
Arrest warrants for Canipe said officers found bruises on the child’s face.
Police said Canipe has been cooperative with them but they won’t say what he told them or elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Willover’s death other than to say she was killed.
Canipe is being held in the Cleveland County Jail. Prosecutors said if convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Anyone with further information for police is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 704-481-TIPS or the Shelby Police Department at 704-484-6845.
A fund has been set up to help Willover’s family pay for funeral expenses.
Money can be donated to Lilly Rae Willover and family in care of Marshall Bradley at the Wachovia at 231 South Washington Avenue in Shelby.