PEARLAND, Texas – A classmate confessed to beating a missing Pearland teen and trying to burn his body, police said Thursday.
Pearland police discovered the body of Joshua Wilkerson, 18, in a field along FM 518 near FM 521 at about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
"He was located in a heavily overgrown field with medium- to large-sized trees and waist-high and higher brush," Lt. Onesimo Lopez said. "It was not a location that was easily found."
Wilkerson, who was a senior at the Pearland Independent School District's PACE Center, was last seen around noon on Tuesday. Family members found his pickup truck abandoned in the parking lot of a strip mall in the 5000 block of West Broadway Street at about 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Investigators said they began focusing on Hermilo Moralez, 19, within hours of Wilkerson's disappearance when he was spotted near Wilkerson's truck. At first, he told detectives that Wilkerson had been left in a field, but the original location he provided was a phony one, police officials said.
"The info originally given by the suspect was that Joshua was assaulted and left in a field, and we worked believing that we would find him alive. There was no indication at that point that we wouldn't," Lopez said.
Police said Wednesday night, Moralez gave investigators another location near the abandoned truck and that is where they found Wilkerson's body.
Investigators said Moralez told them that he beat Wilkerson unconscious with a piece of wood at his father's home. When Wilkerson's body was found, his hands and feet were tied and he was partially burned, police said.
Moralez was charged with murder, a first-degree felony, failure to identify and attempting to take a weapon from a peace officer. Investigators said Moralez, while handcuffed, tried to pull a detective's weapon from his holster as they jumped a fence in a field. He was immediately restrained, police said. He also provided a false identity when he was questioned, officials said.
Moralez is being held without bond. A motive for the killing has not been identified, investigators said. An autopsy will determine an official cause of death.
Moralez knew Wilkerson for about five years and Wilkerson often gave him a ride home from school, officials said.
Police, fire and EMS personnel, along with hundreds of Texas EquuSearch volunteers, searched for Wilkerson for nearly 25 hours in undeveloped fields and pastures in southeastern Pearland.
"The Pearland community has shown an outpouring of support," said Wilkerson's mother, Laura Wilkerson. "It has been so encouraging for our family."
"The discovery of Joshua's body only ends the search, not the investigation," Lopez said. "The Pearland Police Department is committed to thoroughly investigating this crime and holding those responsible accountable."
Investigators said a fake Facebook page was created during Wilkerson's disappearance, and many disparaging remarks were posted on it. They are investigating to see if the fake page is connected to the killing.
Wilkerson was the youngest of three children in his family. Relatives said he was set to graduate soon.
"We will never understand this. But we are reminded by Josh that we need to trust in God," Laura Wilkerson said. "On Nov. 1, Josh posted his status on his Facebook page Proverbs 3, 4 and 6. 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all things, acknowledge him and he will direct your way.'"
"We will all miss Joshua. He was a polite, dedicated student. At school, he worked hard to accomplish his tasks, and each day he left with the same resolve to conquer any challenge that lay ahead," PACE Center Principal Julia Hall said.
Counselors were available to PACE Center students, faculty and staff who needed help to deal with Joshua Wilkerson's death.