JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Lonna Barton, the mother of the toddler who disappeared over the summer and was never found, pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges of child neglect and giving false information to a law enforcement officer.
When Barton pleaded guilty, she gave up her Fifth Amendment rights, which means that if the prosecution or defense calls her as a witness in Ruben Ebron's trial, she can't say no.
"The only condition of her plea, the only concession of her plea -- she is testifying and will testify," Assistant State Attorney Rich Mantei said.
Barton and Ebron, who were dating at the time, were charged with child neglect and lying to police after Barton's son, Lonzie, disappeared in July.
Barton, 26, took an oath Wednesday that she will tell the truth if she is called to testify.
Barton will be sentenced Feb. 1. The child neglect charge, a third-degree felony, carries a penalty of up to five years in prison, and the charge of lying to police, which is a misdemeanor, carries a punishment of up to one year in jail. The sentences would run concurrently.
The neglect charges stem from before Lonzie disappeared. Prosecutors claim that Barton and Ebron didn't take proper care of the boy, didn't get him medical treatment when he was sick and exposed him to lifestyles involving drugs and other illegal activities.
Barton had been listed as facing two charges of child neglect, but Mantei said that's because there were two different theories of what happened and that at trial the two charges would have carried only one sentence.
DOCUMENT: Lonna Barton's guilty plea
"The first one was charged as a failure to provide supervision care and other things that are required," Mantei explained. "The second is failing to protect the child from someone else not supervising or treating or exposing the child to hazards."
Barton's lawyer, Kevin Carlisle, said after the hearing Wednesday that Barton pleaded guilty because she was ready to take responsibility for her actions. He did not go into detail about why she lied to police after Lonzie disappeared or what led to her change of heart. He said she does not know what happened to Lonzie.
She said she left Lonzie, who was 21 months old at the time, with Ebron on the night the boy disappeared and went to work as an exotic dancer. Police said that Ebron claimed that his car was stolen with the boy inside, but said Ebron was caught on camera ditching the vehicle near his apartment before he called police.
Ebron and Barton both say they had nothing to do with the toddler's disappearance.
Carlisle said Barton is still grieving over not knowing where Lonzie is and that despite rumors, she is not pregnant.
Carlisle said Judge Mark Borello will decide the length of Barton's sentence, which could be a maximum of five years or a minimum of time already served.
Carlisle said that no matter the sentence, Barton can expect to be a witness in Ebron's trial.
"Part of her agreement is that she will testify truthfully whether she is called by the state or the defense, and she's likely to be called by one or the other or both," Carlisle said. "That's part of the agreement. She's going to get up there and tell the truth. She's going to be placed under oath to tell the truth, under penalties of perjury, so it's up to her."
Legal analyst Gene Nichols, who is not involved in the case, said that while no promises were made, Barton could get a lighter punishment because she cooperates. She'll likely be a huge part in the case against Ebron.
"I don't think there is any question that this was not what Ebron wanted," Nichols said. "If you could have walked into a trial with the two of them for the different fingers, fingers at each other, away from each other, in different directions, reasonable doubt would be all over the place. Reasonable doubt would be all over the place if both of them had separate stories."
News4Jax had heard of discussions about a possible plea agreement for several weeks. Sources confirmed the agreement late Tuesday afternoon.
"Our family is just learning about this plea deal right now. I did not expect this. We are going to let this play out in court tomorrow before we comment on this development in Ruben's case," Wanda Ebron, Reuben Ebron's mother, said Tuesday.
Local attorney Rhonda Peoples-Waters, who is not affiliated with the case, shed light Tuesday on why the plea agreement might have been so important to the prosecution.
"We've heard from sources that it's likely that the state's case hasn't fallen into place as they thought it would," Peoples-Waters said. "They may have some difficulty locating other potential witnesses, so it looks like they have posed to Lonna Barton a sweeter deal than they had previously posed her and this is at a time where she's willing to accept it."
At a motion hearing Wednesday afternoon, Ebron's trial date was confirmed for next week.
Peoples-Waters also said that if Barton has any information that would implicate Ebron in the death of her son, her statements could help build a murder case against him. But she said Barton’s credibility could be questionable, since she pleaded guilty to lying to police.
"So the defense is going to be able to impeach her if she changes her testimony and say, 'We have you on videotape where you consistently said that you didn't know anything, so now all of a sudden you know something?'" Peoples-Waters said.
Barton still faces drug charges in Baker County that were not addressed in the plea agreement, because that is a separate case in another jurisdiction.
Ebron also faces additional charges related to tampering with evidence and planning an escape from jail.
No one has been charged with Lonzie’s death. His body still hasn't been found.
Searchers await answers after plea agreement
Many people in the area spent hours searching Duval County for Lonzie in the days after he disappeared.
Now, many of those people say they are surprised by the latest turn in the case.
Tiffany Haynes, who helped in the search, said she believes that the plea agreement is too little too late. She said she hoped Barton could have said the words that she’s expected to say on the stand when Lonzie first went missing.
“I am happy that we may get an answer,” Haynes said. “It's just six months too late.”
Haynes has been following the case closely, even months after she and others stopped searching Duval County for him.
She said it was bittersweet to see that Barton pleaded guilty Wednesday.
Haynes, a mother of two toddlers, said she wonders how the search would have been different if Barton had told the truth earlier, as she has now promised to do if she is called to testify against Ebron.
“We could have found this little boy. We could have found him six months ago, alive,” Haynes said. “We could have found a body at this point, honestly.”
She said that's been one of the hardest things to deal with, especially when her son asks about the missing toddler.
“It's so hard to watch my little boy every time Lonzie comes on that news screen. There's baby Lonzie,” Haynes said. “It's so hard to explain to a 4-year-old that you'll never get that chance, because I don't want to break his heart."
Haynes said that now it’s about getting the truth.
“I've always wondered the truth. It will be finally nice to have some closure,” Haynes said. “That's all I've wanted this whole time is closure for this little boy.”
The family of Chris Barton, who is Lonzie's father and Lonna's estranged husband, said Wednesday that they don't want to comment on the plea agreement. Lonna’s family also did not want to comment.