ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Two Blue Ridge Parkway rangers, expecting to investigate an illegal campsite, instead watched as a father plunged a knife in the chest of his 6-year-old daughter, according to federal documents released Tuesday.
Stabbed in the heart, Lila Pickering did not survive the stabbing Friday night despite immediate attempts to save her. Her father, Seth Willis Pickering, 36, of Leicester, faces a federal murder charge in the death of the first-grader.
After Pickering was arrested and taken to the Buncombe County jail, he told a detective that his daughter feared being taken from him, according to a federal complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S district court in Western North Carolina.
“Ten minutes before [the ranger] got there, my daughter made me promise that they would never take her away from me again. I reacted the only way I knew that she could go to sleep without having to cry, ‘Daddy, I want to come home,’” Pickering told Walt Thrower, a sheriff’s detective. “I knew as soon as they showed up, they would take her away from me and never let me see her again.”
The eight-page document, written by Agent James A. Anderson of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, offers new details on the events of Sept. 9.
About 5:20 p.m., Pickering took Lila from a home where she had lived for a month, placed there by the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services.
About 90 minutes later, the curly-headed girl with the bright smile was dead.
Social workers had placed Lila in the temporary custody of caretakers who live near Johnston Elementary, where the girl went to school. Pickering had rights to supervised visitation, but the federal complaint does not note why she needed protective care.
The caregivers have declined to comment, but Pickering’s estranged wife, Ashley Pickering, said Lila was placed in that home after her husband struck another woman.
The federal complaint does not note if Lila and her father knew the temporary caregivers, though Seth Pickering was allowed to have supervised visits.
He arrived at the home early Friday evening, but put his daughter in his gold Dodge Avenger, against the wishes of the custodian.
“Seth, please don’t do this, they will put you in jail,” the caregiver said, according to the complaint.
In response, Pickering shook his head, got in his car, and drove off.
Lila’s custodians called the Buncombe County sheriff’s department at 5:43 p.m., and a deputy responded to gather information for an Amber Alert, which would notify law officers and the public to look out for the missing child.
It would never be issued.
‘It’s going fine’
About 15 minutes after that call, Rangers Brian Ruh and Cody Marsh with the National Park Service noticed a Dodge Avenger in a grassy area near mile marker 393 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The area is a well-traveled cut-through for locals, and lies east of Brevard Road, but has no designated parking or pull-offs as many other sections of the tree-lined road do.
Down a steep embankment, one without trails or legal campsites, they watched Pickering carry a large cooler, Lila at his side.
The father cut underbrush and made a fire, and at about 6:50 p.m., the rangers approached, unaware that Lila was a missing child.
Marsh heard Pickering loudly say, “Don’t worry honey, we will when the cops leave,” and the ranger knew they had been seen.
He stopped about 25 feet from Pickering, identified himself and offered, “How’s it going tonight?”
Pickering responded casually: “It’s going fine, nothing going on,” his hands at this sides, apparently empty.
And then, what rangers thought was an illegal campfire became a homicide investigation.
“Without warning,” according to the complaint, “Ranger Marsh observed Pickering turn away from the rangers and make a lunging movement toward Lila who was standing a few feet behind him. Ranger Marsh heard an audible “thud-like” noise and a brief high-pitched wince or grunt sound coming from Lila, who then fell to the ground.”
Pickering turned and raised his hands.
“DID YOU JUST STAB HER?” Marsh shouted.
In the complaint, to emphasize the apparent shock of the ranger, those five words are written in capital letters.
Marsh and Ruh saw the girl lying with a knife protruding from her chest, drew their guns. Marsh handcuffed the father. Ruh tried to resuscitate a child with a blade piercing her heart.
She was declared dead at the scene.
Later, Marsh asked Pickering why he killed Lila.
“Now they will never be able to take her away from me,” he told the rangers, according to the complaint.
He added something like, “She’s happier now…it’s what she wanted.”
A matching knife
Pickering and his wife were amid a bitter split, according to Buncombe County court documents.
In 2015, he applied for and later won a restraining order against Ashley Pickering after alleging she threatened both him and the child.
Those allegations are untrue, said Ashley Pickering. She moved to Florida and said she had since been fighting to bring Lila to the state.
But she also credited Pickering with being a doting father with a daughter who idolized him.
Pickering was charged with first-degree murder by Buncombe County deputies, and that charge will remain in place for the time being, said Todd Williams, district attorney for the county.
“In deference to the pending federal procedures, such as a possible federal grand jury indictment, we are going to leave the charge in place until those procedures move forward,” Williams said.
In an affidavit of indigency, used to determine if he is eligible for a court-appointed lawyer, Pickering indicated he is unemployed and lives on a monthly income of $700, including food stamps and a disability payment.
Buncombe County Public Defender LeeAnn Melton, who represented Pickering in a Monday first court appearance, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Pickering served in the military from June 1999 until March 2002, according to Department of Defense records. People familiar with his service said he is a veteran of the Army.
The records do not specify the nature of his discharge, be it honorable, medical or otherwise.
He had moved to a Leicester duplex about three weeks ago, leaving the mobile home he and his wife had shared, located about 3.5 miles away.A neighbor of the duplex who declined to be named said Pickering often spoke of his child, though she was never around.
Inside that home, Buncombe County deputies found a block of kitchen knives, the handles silver and black, with a black oval-shaped peg near the joint between handle and blade.
One of the knives was missing.
On Monday, a medical examiner performed an autopsy on the child.
A knife with a silver and black handle, decorated with an oval-shaped peg, was pulled from her body.
It matched the set in the Leicester duplex exactly.
Follow Tonya Maxwell on Twitter: @factsbymax