Body of missing toddler found in Steele County

Published 8:08 pm Monday, March 18, 2019

BLOOMING PRAIRIE — The body of a toddler found in a ditch just north of Blooming Prairie Friday night has been preliminarily identified as that of a 2-year-old Milwaukee girl who has been missing, police say, since her mother was fatally shot this past week by her former pimp, according to law enforcement officials.

Noelani Robinson

In a statement released Saturday evening, Bruce Gordon, a spokesman for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said that the Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office had preliminarily identified the body as that of Noelani Robinson. The medical examiner also “determined the preliminary cause and manner of death to be homicide due to blunt force trauma to the head,” the statement said.

The discovery of her body came just hours after officials had put out a plea asking “the entire nation” to help find Noelani. Police had said the child could be anywhere because her parents had traveled through numerous states.

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Blooming Prairie is about 300 miles west of Milwaukee.

Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele said Saturday morning that the body had been discovered shortly after 6 p.m. Friday about a mile north of Blooming Prairie in a ditch on the east side of Highway 218.

“Obviously, we’re waiting for positive identification,” Thiele said, adding that the BCA will be the lead investigation unit on the case.

But in a 10 a.m. Saturday press conference in Milwaukee, Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales said it appears that the body found outside Blooming Prairie was that of the toddler.

“We believe we have found Noelani. We believe that currently this is going to be a death investigation,” Morales said in the press conference.

Morales said that the girl’s body was discovered after an off-duty Department of Public Works employee who was driving home saw something suspicious on the side of the road and called police to report it.

In its statement Saturday evening, the BCA confirmed that the employee reported what appeared to be a blanket with “possible remains” in the ditch.

“Law enforcement from the Blooming Prairie Police Department and the Steele County Sheriff’s Office responding to the scene located the child’s body wrapped in a blanket,” the BCA statement read.

The statement also said that the girl’s “appeared to have been at that location for a number of days.”

In addition to investigating the crime scene in Steele County, BCA agents and crime scene personnel also executed a search warrant for a hotel in nearby Austin, where investigators believe Dariaz L. Higgins, 24, stayed at one point during this past week, according to the BCA statement.

Higgins was Noelani’s father and the former pimp of Sierra Robinson, 24, Noelani’s mother.

The BCA statement Saturday evening did not identify the Austin hotel that investigators believe Higgins stayed in, nor did it say when Higgins might have stayed there. However, the window of time is very narrow for when he might have been in Minnesota in general and Austin and Blooming Prairie in particular.

Investigators say that Sierra Robinson was shot and killed on Monday, March 11, prompting first an Amber Alert in Wisconsin for Noelani and then a nationwide search for the girl and a manhunt for Higgins. Police believe Higgins killed Sierra Robinson.

Higgins was arrested on Wednesday and remains in custody in Milwaukee. He has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide. Higgins is also accused of wounding one of Sierra Robinson’s friends.

Authorities have not disclosed a motive in the death of Sierra Robinson. Police say Higgins was not only Robinson’s pimp but that they had been romantically involved but were no longer together. Robinson had left Noelani with Higgins when she moved to Las Vegas last month but wanted her back, authorities said.

The friend told police that Higgins had been living in Miami when he agreed to meet Robinson in Milwaukee to return Noelani to her. However, charging documents list a Milwaukee address for Higgins.

At Saturday’s press conference, Morales said that investigators did not believe that the death had occurred within the immediate past 24-hour period — something that would be consistent, Morales said, with what investigators believe about when Higgins was in “that area of Minnesota.” Morales said that the girl “had been there for quite some time.”

The chief did not elaborate on when investigators believe Higgins was in Minnesota, why he was in Minnesota and exactly where “that area of Minnesota” refers to. He did, however, say that assisting investigators at the scene, in addition to the Steele County Sheriff’s Office and the BCA, were the FBI, the U.S. Marshals and the city of Austin Police Department.

On Friday, Morales said that Higgins had been providing police with information on the whereabouts of Noelani, but that it all had “proven to be untrue.”

According to the charging documents, Higgins, Robinson and her friend spent time driving around together in Milwaukee doing drugs Monday, before Higgins took them to an apartment building where he told them Noelani was. Authorities have not said whether they believe Noelani was there at the time. Prosecutors said Higgins shot Robinson and her friend when they got out of the car.

The chief also did not say where it is believed that Noelani was killed, when she was killed or how she was killed. Those questions, he hoped, would be answered by the autopsy.

Autopsy reports are expected Monday at the earliest, Morales said.

Asked whether authorities believe Higgins was responsible for the child’s death, Morales told reporters, “That’s where the criminal investigation is shooting for. It’s just too early to tell.”

Morales had suggested Noelani could be in the hands of human traffickers, but declined to provide details for why investigators believed that, other than to say “that’s the world that these two individuals lived in, the victim and the suspect.”

The chief said Saturday that his department has sent two detectives to Minnesota.

“This is our job, and the closure is not the closure we like to find. But … it’s something that we have to come out and do,” Morales said.