FREEHOLD, N.J. -- His mind clouded by worry and lack of sleep, Arthur Morgan III strapped his 2 1/2-year-old daughter into her car seat and placed her in a creek to let God decide her fate.
That is what a public defender told a jury that Morgan, who was without a job and living in his car, did on Nov. 21, 2011, the day his daughter, Tierra Morgan-Glover, died.
But Jordan Williams, an assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, painted a much different tale. He said Morgan tossed Tierra off a bridge in order to wrest control of the girl's life from her mother. When detectives asked Morgan if he had tethered a metal car jack to the child's car seat as an anchor, he replied, "Yeah, like a ball and chain," Williams said.
The competing versions of what happened to Tierra is the key question jurors must decide during Morgan's murder trial — and the key points both sides made during opening arguments.
Morgan, 29, may have acted recklessly when he put Tierra in the creek at Shark River Park, but he did not necessarily intend for her to die, according to Ryan Moriarty, deputy assistant public defender.
"Was Tierra thrown off a bridge, or placed there and left for God to determine the outcome?" Moriarty asked the jury in his opening statement.
Williams had his own answer.
"The state intends to show he didn't just leave her in that stream in shallow water so she could die," Williams said. "The state will show he threw her from the bridge 20 feet below."
Williams said Morgan, whose last known address was in Eatontown, planned ahead by pawning jewelry and cashing his last paycheck to finance a getaway to "sunny California."
Tierra wore a pink Old Navy pea coat on the afternoon of Nov. 21, 2011, when her father picked her up from her mother for an afternoon outing. Morgan was supposed to take his daughter to see a movie, "Happy Feet II."
"She was excited, of course," Williams said. "She was on her way to see her father — the father whom she loved, the father whom she trusted very much."
Tierra Morgan, 2, was found dead in a creek in Wall, N.J., in 2011.(Photo: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press).
Tierra carried with her a LeapPad that she played with in the back seat of her father's white 1995 Cadillac Deville as he drove around for hours instead of taking her to the movie, Williams said.
Several witnesses, including a Wall police officer, testified Wednesday that they saw a car similar to Morgan's in Shark River Park in Wall that afternoon. Some witnesses said the car was parked on the narrow bridge.
According to Williams, minutes after Morgan threw the child into the creek, he gathered her belongings into her "Dora the Explorer" bag, tossed them into a dumpster and went to a liquor store with a friend,.
Then, he called Tierra's mother, Imani Benton, to tell her he was running a little late to return Tierra home, Williams said.
Morgan's friend, Jamar Bass, dropped Morgan off that night at the Asbury Park train station, where Morgan began a journey that would take him across the country to San Diego, Williams said.
When Morgan hadn't returned Tierra by 11 p.m., Benton called the Lakehurst police to report the child missing, Williams said.
Jeff Emmons, who at the time worked as a Lakehurst patrolman, testified that he took the report. As a missing persons investigation was underway, police found Morgan's car outside Bass' apartment, Emmons said.
Emmons said he and Detective Brian Haggerty went there the next day and saw no sign of the child.
Haggerty testified that he and Emmons later learned that Tierra's belongings were found in a nearby dumpster. By then, they realized it was no longer a missing persons investigation they were working on, but a homicide, he said.
They went to question Bass, who told them he had taken Morgan to the train station, Haggerty testified. Later that afternoon, they learned that Tierra's body was found in the creek at the park.
The trial is scheduled to resume Thursday.