CANTON -- A 20-year-old maintenance worker is being held in isolation and without bond on a murder charge at a north Georgia jail in the beating death of 7-year-old Jorelys Rivera, authorities said Thursday.
Ryan Brunn, who lived and worked at the apartment complex where the child lived and was found slain, made his first appearance in Cherokee County Superior Court the day after his Wednesday arrest wearing an orange jumpsuit and bullet-proof vest. He did not enter a plea.
Sheriff's deputies screened everyone who entered the courtroom. Authorities did not say whether threats have been made against Brunn's life, but his relatives say they have received threats.
"I am unaware of any death threats against Brunn, but this crime has been highly publicized," said Lt. Jay Baker with the Cherokee Sheriff's department. "The sheriff's office is responsible for his safety and he will be kept separate from other inmates while in our custody."
Rivera was last seen last Friday evening walking to her apartment from a playground inside the complex. Authorities said they believe she was taken to an empty apartment nearby, where she was sexually assaulted, stabbed and beaten to death. Her body was found Monday.
Brunn's family has said he is innocent. His attorney, Daran Burns, said Thursday that his client is "very shaken" and "stunned" by the charges.
"It's obviously a very tragic case, a very serious case," said Burns, who was appointed by the court to the case after Brunn's arrest Wednesday afternoon.
During the brief hearing, Brunn answered "yes, sir" to most questions the judge asked him and told the judge he left school in the 10th grade. The maintenance worker moved to Canton from Dahlonega last month to take the job at the River Ridge apartment complex where Rivera was killed.
His family did not attend the hearing. Neither of Rivera's parents was at the hearing.
Blue Ridge District Attorney Garry Moss has not said whether he plans to seek the death penalty.
Meanwhile on Thursday, Rivera's mother, Joselinne Rivera, regained custody of her two other children who had been taken from her home over concerns she didn't properly supervise Jorelys, her oldest child. John Connolly, an attorney for Jorelys Rivera's father, Santos Torres, said the family is relieved to have the young children back home.
News footage Thursday afternoon showed Rivera's family being reunited.
"The children are safe," Connolly said. "They're doing well, as far as I know."
Connolly declined further comment and asked for the family's privacy to be respected as they try to recover and have "as much of a normal life as they can." He said the children are "very young" but he would not give their ages.
Residents in the small town about 40 miles north of Atlanta said they were shaken by the killing.
"People are concerned," said Donna Compton, whose family owns the R&M Sandwich Shop on the town square across from the courthouse. "You go home every night and watch the news and collect as much information as you can."
Brunn has no known criminal past and he cleared criminal checks by the company that runs the apartment complex where he worked. Authorities say Brunn had keys to the apartment and the trash compactor bin where Rivera's body was left.
According to a warrant obtained by The Associated Press, Brunn was arrested on suspicion of murder and making false statements to authorities. The warrant said he "did unlawfully and with malice aforethought cause the death of Jorelys Rivera by hitting her on the head with a blunt object." No other details are contained in the document.
Neighbors say Brunn helped search for Rivera after she went missing.
In an interview with Atlanta's WSB-TV, Jorelys' mother said through a translator that she wants Brunn to be sentenced to the death penalty if he is convicted.
Authorities said investigators focused on Brunn after being tipped off and had been watching him since Tuesday night.
Brunn's brother, Steven, said his brother "is great with kids" and is not violent. The family is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., he said, adding that Ryan Brunn and his siblings moved to Georgia with his mother several years ago.
Brian Staples, whose brother is married to Brunn's sister, said Brunn is "kind-hearted" and often gets faint at the sight of blood.
"Tell me how someone like that could stab a kid. No way," said Staples, who has known Brunn 10 years.
He said Brunn is outgoing and friendly, not the socially awkward, quiet maintenance man that residents at the apartment complex described. He said Brunn is "into helping people, not hurting people."