JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The discovery of human remains believed to be those of missing toddler Lonzie Barton could mean new charges against Ruben Ebron, the prime suspect in the boy's disappearance last July.
Ebron is already facing charges of child neglect, lying to police and tampering with evidence. That trial was slated to begin Monday but at the last minute Ebron waived his right to a speedy trial Monday morning, essentially postponing the trial indefinitely.
After Ebron appeared in court Monday, Jacksonville police confirmed that human remains were found in woods off U.S. 1 in Bayard. Sheriff Mike Williams later confirmed in a news conference that police were led to the area by Ebron and that they believe the remains are Lonzie's.
Hours after the remains were found, there were rumors that Ebron had reached a plea agreement with prosecutors. The rumblings were that Ebron would plead guilty to aggravated manslaughter and would serve 20 years on the charge.
It appeared a plea hearing was set to take place, but reporters in the Duval County Courthouse were later told no hearing was happening.
“Any kind of plea agreement at this point would be a little premature, even if there's something structured in place,” said attorney Randy Reep, who is not connected with the case.
Reep said Lonna Barton's plea agreement last week set the pieces in motion for Lonzie's remains to be found.
Barton, Lonzie's mother, who was Ebron's girlfriend at the time of her son's disappearance, pleaded guilty to charges of child neglect and lying to police. She has not yet been sentenced.
As part of her plea agreement, Barton waived her Fifth Amendment right not to testify and pledged to testify truthfully if called in Ebron's trial. She was called to the stand days later in a pretrial hearing and testified that she had witnessed Ebron repeatedly conduct drug deals, sometimes with her children present.
“The noose, as I had said, was tightening around Ebron and he was going to run out of options. His last card to play is a bit of a mitigation, 'Hey, I'll deliver the body to you. I'll close this out. I'll let you know how this happened,' in exchange for possibly saving his life in a death penalty kind of context,” Reep said. “When Lonna pleaded last week, he was out of games. He was out of cards. I think he's probably been playing a game the whole way, trying to find a way to find freedom out of this, and I think that noose just snapped on him.”
At the news conference Monday, State Attorney Angela Corey said new charges are being considered now that the remains had been found, but she declined to say how many or who they would be filed against.
“When a child is in the custody of multiple adults and we don't have a way to time the injuries, it's been a historic problem for us,” Corey said. ““It's very difficult when there is more than one person involved and the cause of death is not immediately known.”
Ebron reported Lonzie missing July 24 and at first claimed that the toddler was abducted when his car was stolen with Lonzie inside.
Police said Monday that they believe Lonzie was dead before Ebron made that call.
Chief Tom Hackney with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office countered the story Ebron told by releasing home surveillance video that investigators said showed Ebron ditching his car in the same spot where it was found less than a mile from the apartment complex before he called 911 to report Lonzie missing.
Police quickly charged Ebron with child neglect and lying to police. Later, charges of tampering with evidence were added after police said they found images had been deleted from Ebron's phone.
Ebron had long maintained that he did not know where Lonzie was, but late Sunday he led police to a wooded area on the Southside where a child's remains were found.
“The search led us to the body and now that changes things somewhat,” Corey said. “We have to reevaluate and go from there.”
Reep said the decision on what charges might be filed against Ebron could come down to the toddler's cause of death.
"If he ultimately gave them the body but he lied about how the death occurred, you can bet that this prosecution team, which is as talented as any in the world and is interested in justice ... is not going to give him any consideration," Reep said. “He's going to be spending the vast majority of the rest of his life in prison."
For Ebron's parents, who have been in court for every hearing, since his arrest, Monday's events were emotional, but they said they encourage their son to tell the truth and they'll support him.
"We are a strong family; we are a Christian family, so we are going to rely on God," William Ebron said.
A pretrial hearing on the child neglect, lying to police and tampering with evidence charges is scheduled for Tuesday.
Ebron also faces charges related to a planned escape from jail, but those were split into a separate trial last week by Judge Mark Borello. It's unclear what will happen with that trial if a plea agreement is reached.