Vance DuPree, of Edgewood, planned to help his niece Maleigha Solonka celebrate her 15th birthday on Aug. 10, but instead he and his family filed a missing person's report with the Harford County Sheriff's Office that day.
Maleigha was found dead, nearly a week later in the woods off of Webb Lane in Havre de Grace. Her death has been ruled a homicide, and it remains under investigation by the Havre de Grace Police Department.
"It is devastating," DuPree said Sunday. "I would have never thought that this would happen to her, never would have thought it in my life."
He and his relatives are planning a funeral for a girl, of whom he served as a guardian, and loved like one of his own daughters.
"I loved her the same; I treated her the same," DuPree said.
DuPree and his wife, Darlene, had been Maleigha's guardians since May. She had been living with her grandmother.
"She was just so full of life, and she had a smile that would radiate," DuPree said. "People loved her because of her personality."
DuPree noted she had been close with his children since she was 5 years old. Maleigha and his youngest daughter, 15-year-old Cembra, played on the Churchville Glory travel softball team, and the girls have been playing softball in Edgewood recreation leagues since they were 7 years old, he said.
Maleigha played catcher, shortstop and left field, DuPree said.
The family was planning to enroll Maleigha as a freshman at Joppatowne High School in the fall, and the coaches there anticipated she would play softball for the Mariners, according to DuPree.
"She was excelling, and I was happy about her future," he said.
The Havre de Grace Police have not released any more information since last Thursday, when Maleigha was identified as the homicide victim.
Police found her body off of Webb lane the day before. The cause of death was asphyxiation, according to police.
Nothing further can be released "due to the integrity of the investigation," Cpl. Daniel Petz, a spokesperson for the Havre de Grace Police, wrote in an email Friday evening.
A relative reported that Maleigha was missing at 4:12 p.m. on Aug. 10, according to Cristie Kahler, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office.
"While we do not have a role in the investigation, we have assisted with information specific to her missing persons report," Kahler stated.
DuPree said he last saw his niece on Aug. 9. He noted he and his family had been planning a birthday party for her on Saturday.
An online fundraising campaign has been set up on GoFundMe to raise money for funeral expenses. Visit https://www.gofundme.com/please-help-to-lay-maleigha-to-rest to contribute.
"People reach out in tragedies, and I appreciate everything everybody has done, from the bottom of my heart," DuPree said.
DuPree, who is an assistant coach for his daughter's and niece's softball team, encouraged people to contribute to the Churchville Glory.
He said the team plans to retire her jersey, and he said he hopes people will see her picture with the jersey, and it will help raise awareness of violence toward children and "people in general"
"That was her life, that's what really made her happy," he said of softball. "It gave her purpose, and it gave her drive."