MONCKS CORNER -- Alle Noland, a 9-year-old autistic girl, looks in vain for her dog, Toby. She goes from room to room, holds his collar, picks up his picture.
"We just tell her he's not here. She wouldn't understand. She doesn't understand what death is. She knows what absence is," said Kelley Noland, her mother.
Even adult brains have a hard time processing what happened to the American bull terrier that helped care for Alle for three years.
After being missing for nearly a week, Toby was found Sunday evening dumped like a piece of trash in the family's front yard on Gaillard Road. He was dead from blows to the head and jaw.
"It's just been a nightmare. Devastating, heartbreaking, " Noland said.
"We want to know why someone would target our animal and target our family and be so heartless."
Alle attends Whitesville Elementary School down the street. Toby had a calming effect on her. On Sunday night, she wouldn't sleep and threw a fit.
Meanwhile, the family struggles to make sense of the situation.
"We couldn't think of anybody who would have a reason to do this," said Lauren Altman, 21, Noland's stepdaughter.
Toby went missing Dec. 13. The daily morning routine was to let him out to go to the bathroom in some woods on the right side of the front yard.
The dog never came back. Some witnesses who are neighbors said they saw a white woman with blond hair coax Toby into a black Dodge Charger with tinted windows she was driving.
The Berkeley County Sheriff's Office is investigating.
"Hopefully we can figure out what happened here," said sheriff's spokesman Dan Moon.
The only lead is the description of the woman and car, he said.
"We don't have anything else to go on," Moon said.
Pet Helpers is raising money to offer at least a $500 reward for the dog's killer, said spokeswoman Carol Linville.
In the meantime, the family tries to help Alle adjust to life without Toby, whose body was tossed into the front yard sometime between 5 and 6 p.m. Sunday. The dog's face appeared to have been beaten with a blunt object like a baseball bat, Altman said.
In the home, a candle flickers next to a picture of Toby in a corner of the living room.
"We've been burning it since he left. That was kind of our light for him to find his way home," Noland said.
The family got Toby as a puppy from a friend. Although not trained as a service dog for the autistic girl, he was like another set of eyes who watched out for her safety. Toby jumped on the trampoline with her. He barked if she went out the door as a way to alert the adults. He was a vacuum cleaner who ate crumbs that Alle dropped on the floor.
"You can't just replace a best friend," Noland said.
A service dog trained to work with autistic kids is more than the family can afford, she said.
Noland thanked everyone who has helped with the situation, including a local crematory that offered its services for free.
Toby was dumped in the yard not long after being killed. His body was not yet stiff from rigor mortis, Noland said.
Brenden Mahon, her 19-year-old son, comes home Wednesday from duty in San Antonio with the Air Force. The family plans to relocate to a house nearby. The move was planned before Toby was killed, Noland said.
Toby was sweet, loving and always there for Alle.
Tears filled Noland's eyes as she struggled to describe her feelings.
"I don't understand why they did it," she said. "You feel like someone took a member of your family and flat-out murdered them."
To donate to the reward fund: Contact Pet Helpers at 1447 Folly Road, Charleston, SC 29412 or call 843-795-1110.