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 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.