FREEHOLD, N.J. — A man accused of tossing his toddler off a bridge to her death later told the girl's mother that their story would make a good TV movie, the mom testified in court Thursday.
Arthur Morgan III was captured in 2011 after a weeklong manhunt almost 3,000 miles from where his daughter's body was found. In a letter from the San Diego County jail where he was awaiting extradition, he told his daughter's mother about his idea.
"We're famous, infamous," said Imani Benton, reading from Morgan's letter as she testified on Day 2 of his murder trial. "Don't just let anyone play me in the TV movie. Write the book, baby. I love you."
Children playing in a creek in Shark River Park in Wall Township, N.J., discovered the body of Tierra Morgan-Glover on Nov. 22, 2011. Benton had reported her missing late the day before after Morgan did not return with Tierra from a court-approved visit. Prosecutors contend that Morgan strapped Tierra in her car seat, tethered a metal car jack to it and tossed the contraption into the creek the day he was supposed to take the 2½-year-old to see Happy Feet Two.
While in the California jail, Morgan apparently saw a video of his daughter's funeral, mentioning in his letter to Benton that he saw her trip as she left the church and calling the service "my wife's wedding day." They weren't married.
Under a picture that Morgan drew to accompany the letter, he wrote the words "Daddy's Girl," Benton said. Earlier in the day, Benton had testified that Tierra was wearing a pendant that said "Daddy's Little Girl" for her visit with her father.
"You should have come with us," Benton said Morgan wrote in the letter. "It could have been so different, I'm sure. That was the plan — for us to go as a family."
But Benton didn't think that Morgan planned for the three of them to see a penguin movie.
Marc LeMieux, first assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, asked Benton what she thought Morgan's words meant."If I was to go to the movies, that we wouldn't have gone to the movies," Benton said. "But we all would have died."
Benton, who lived with her mother in Lakehurst, N.J., at the time, said she had turned Tierra over to Morgan around 2 p.m. in the parking lot of a Dollar General store.
She sent her daughter off with snacks, diapers, baby wipes and a LeapPad computer, and she said she even bought a soda for Morgan and withdrew $20 from an automated teller machine at a nearby convenience store, giving it to him so he could show his daughter a good time.
"I told Tierra I would see her later, that I loved her. And I told Arthur I'd see him later," she said.
Benton remained composed on the witness stand as LeMieux displayed each article of clothing she had dressed Tierra in that day.
At least one juror was seen wiping an eye, and tears welled up in some courtroom spectators' eyes when the prosecutor pulled up a photograph of Tierra strapped in her car seat after her body was found.
Benton had suffered a panic attack during the investigation into her missing daughter before detectives first showed her the picture.
"I was in the hospital, and the detectives asked me who this was in the picture. And I told them it was Tierra," Benton testified.
"They told me that they found Tierra and that she was dead," Benton said. "I got upset, and they gave me medicine to calm me down."
Morgan, 29, showed no emotion when the photograph of his dead daughter, dressed in a bright pink pea coat and still strapped in her pink flowered car seat, was displayed on a large, flat-screen television in the courtroom of Judge Anthony J. Mellaci Jr. of Monmouth County Superior Court.
Morgan was supposed to return Tierra to Benton at 6 p.m. on the same day of his visitation. When he hadn't brought the girl by 11 p.m., Benton said she called the police to file a missing persons report.
Morgan had called her around 6:30 p.m. to tell her he was running a little late and that he would drop off Tierra after stopping for gas, Benton said.
When Morgan didn't show up at the arranged meeting spot, Benton said she repeatedly called his cell phone. But the calls went immediately to his voice mail, so she eventually called police.
"It was really late, and I was worried," Benton said. "I didn't think anything bad happened to this extent, that maybe they had gotten into an accident or maybe he ran out of gas."
Instead, Morgan was leaving New Jersey for California. He had last been seen between 7 and 8 p.m. at a train station in Asbury Park less than 5 miles from Shark River Park.
He was arrested at a home in San Diego a week after his daughter's death. Morgan had become the subject of a nationwide manhunt and been featured on the website of America's Most Wanted.
Benton testified she knew that her daughter's situation was far worse the day after her disappearance when detectives came to her house with an FBI agent to ask questions about Tierra's Hello Kitty hat. That's when Benton had the panic attack because she realized she had not told police earlier that her daughter was wearing it.
LeMieux pulled out each article of clothing Benton had dressed Tierra in that day and asked the mother to identify them.
Each was wrapped in plastic to preserve them as evidence and included Tierra's pink pea coat, purple shirt, purple barrettes and black and purple Nikes. LeMieux also asked Benton to identify the car seat that he accuses Morgan of turning into a murder weapon.
During her testimony, Benton described abusive behavior from Morgan: He followed Benton in his car that day after getting Tierra, hurled insults at Benton, accused Benton of having a boyfriend and claimed Benton wanted to party instead of going with him and Tierra to the movies.
In addition, Morgan made incessant phone calls in which he argued with Benton, she said.
Earlier Thursday, jurors viewed a video of Morgan walking calmly through a liquor store minutes after prosecutors say he killed Tierra.
The video showed Morgan with a friend entering the store at 6:24 p.m. Nov. 21, 2011. LeMieux said he then selected a bottle of rum and left the store about 3 minutes later.
On Wednesday, Morgan's lawyer told the jury that Morgan did not toss his daughter in the creek but simply placed her there to let God decide her fate. Ryan Moriarty, deputy assistant public defender, said Morgan may have acted recklessly when he put Tierra in the creek, but he did not necessarily intend for her to die.
Morgan's mind was clouded with worry over losing his job and a lack of sleep, Moriarty said.