JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Remains believed to be of Lonzie Barton, the toddler reported missing nearly six months ago, were found Monday in a wooded area off Philips Highway near State Road 9B.
Sheriff Mike Williams announced the news that all signs had been pointing to all day: the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office "strongly believes we've found the remains of Lonzie Barton."
JSO's chief of investigations, Tom Hackney, who was the face of the search for the missing toddler for weeks, and State Attorney Angela Corey also spoke at the news conference.
"It is a very sad day that we find these remains that we believe to be Lonzie's, but it's the first step in justice," Hackney said. "Finding the body is a very large piece of that."
Corey said recent legal developments allowed the state to work with Ebron's defense team to find the body. She said new charges are now being considered involving Lonzie Barton's death.
"We will have more answers in the coming weeks," Corey said.
Williams confirmed reports that Ebron led police to the scene where skeletal remains of a child were found. News4Jax was told the remains were covered, but not buried.
"I mentioned several times that that little boy didn't need to be discarded like a piece of trash, and today we were able to take what we believe to be him from being disposed just like that in the hopes that he can spend his eternity in somewhere that's peaceful and not somewhere that is basically a garbage heap," Hackney said. "That's just wrong."
Williams wouldn't answer specifics about the case, but did say investigators believe Lonzie was dead before Ebron called 911 with a story that the toddler was strapped in the back of his car when it was stolen from his apartment complex. Lonzie's mother, Lonna Barton, was at work as a dancer at Wacko's at the time.
Mid-afternoon Monday, Baker County Sheriff Joey Dobson said Chris Barton, Lonzie's father, was briefed on the results of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office search earlier in the day. Dobson said Barton, who is in jail on drug charges, was being monitored by medical staff.
Other family members and those who had searched in vain for the toddler for several months were showing up at the Southside scene to share their feelings.
"I'm just shook up. I'm trying to hold my emotions together. I've been wanting this for six months, and I just didn't think it was going to be this hard," Sabra Rhue, a distant cousin of Lonzie said, choking back tears. "I've been preparing myself for this."
Ebron on Monday waived his right to a speedy trial on charges of child neglect, lying to police and tampering with evidence. Jury selection had been slated to begin Monday for that trial.
"You have to go back to the beginning of this case," attorney Rhonda Peoples-Waters told News4Jax during an extended noon newscast. "We saw that even then that he's a negotiator, so we can assure ourselves that he's negotiated something at this point to lead them, based on what we're hearing, to the possible remains. I suspect it's some kind of plea deal where he's not just said the death penalty is off the table, I suspect that he's put a term -- a number -- to any potential time that he may have to serve."
Lonzie's mother, who was dating Ebron when the boy disappeared, testified at a pre-trial hearing Friday that Ebron sold drugs every day she was with him, including when her children were around.
Peoples-Waters, who is not connected to the case, said Ebron likely considered that testimony against him on the child neglect charge, plus additional charges of tampering with evidence and escape charges he also faced in a second trial. Together, he would likely get 15-20 years in prison and could have still faced another trial if the state found sufficient evidence of Lonzie's death.
A neighbor said police had been in the area since Sunday night.
"One of the neighbors that lived on that dirt road informed us that a body was found and the medical examiner was coming in," resident Robert Richardson said. "Everybody is sad, not knowing if it's the toddler they've been looking for for months."
Police repeatedly searched the broader area of Philips Highway near Interstate 295, north of Bayard, in the first days and weeks after Lonzie disappeared last July. The area where the remains were found was just south of that search area.
Lonzie was reported missing July 24 by Ebron, who told police that his car had been stolen with the 21-month-old inside.
Police quickly announced that they believed Ebron's account was a lie and later released video evidence that investigators said showed Ebron ditching the car and then running back to his apartment before he called 911 to report the missing boy.
Searchers looked for Lonzie for weeks, and police had long said they believed the toddler was dead.
"Our goal from the beginning was to find Lonzie," Hackney said. "Unfortunately it turned pretty obvious pretty quickly that that wasn't going to happen with him being alive, but that didn't stop our efforts, and it didn't stop the interest of the public."
Lonzie's extended family is angry over his apparent death, but believes the remains are those of the boy, and the discovery does give them some closure.
"Just been praying every day," said Valerie Crews, Lonzie's aunt. "It was (like) hold your breath when your underwater and then you get the breath when you come up, take a deep breath. That's the way I felt."
Crews and her family watched the developments on television all day Monday.
"It wasn't what I wanted to hear, but it is closure in this part. We can bring him home and put him to peace, put him to rest," Crews said. "And now we can wait for justice for him."
Other residents of Macclenny, where the Bartons are from, were just angry at Ebron for whatever role he played in letting Lonzie die.
"Should have never happened. Never," Judy Barefoot said. "How would Ruben feel if it was one of his kids? Why wait six months later down the road. .... This baby could have been in the hospital. This baby could probably been saved."
Hand-maid signs posted around the site where the child's remains were found expressed support for the police for ever giving up on the search and pleas to not give Ebron a plea deal.
"This is a very emotional day, as you can well imagine," said Peg Moore, who helped in the search effort. "And with what we’ve been hearing about what’s been going on downtown with Ruben. And yeah, that’s not a good thing right now. So I’m asking people to keep their calm the next few days until this whole things works itself out."