JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Hundreds of people celebrated the life of Lonzie Barton Thursday night, just yards away from where police believe they found his remains earlier this week.
As investigators with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office continue to collect evidence from the area where missing toddler Lonzie Barton's remains were found, preparations continued Thursday for a memorial vigil in Lonzie's honor.
The vigil was held at the Julington Baptist Church on Snyder Street in Bayard. Many of the people who attended tonight's service included some of those who searched for Lonzie and others whose lives have been affected by crime.
Just moments before the vigil began, parents and children gathered to pay their respects at a roadside memorial, many hoping they would now have closure.
“I mean it’s just so sad,” said Brandy Smith, a mother in attendance. “I couldn't imagine if I lost one of my babies.”
Rachel Cook helped with the search. Cook spoke about a sign someone had left at the memorial sight that stated, ‘I wish I looked harder.’
“It makes you wonder did I missed this or how close we were, people driving by every day and you just had no idea how close it was,” Cook said.
Inside the vigil no one could think about the ‘what-ifs,’ only appreciation for prayers that had finally been answered.
Pastor Nathaniel McClain Julington Baptist Church helped preside over the vigil services.
“There was a brightness in his eyes. When he wore those little cowboy boots I could just only imagine that he was dreaming of one day when he’d be able to fill them,” McClain said.
But that will never happen and Thursday night people who have also been a victim of losing a child to a terrible tragedy came forward with a message for the Barton family.
UNCUT: Watch entire vigil service
Diena Thompson, mother of 7-year-old Somer Thompson, who was raped and murdered nearly four years ago knows this loss all too well.
“For the family who loved and cared for Lonzie, my heart and my soul and every bit of condolence that I could ever offer here for the family that loved and cared for him,” Thompson said.
Ann Dugger, executive director of the Justice Coalition has been extremely active in the search for the missing toddler.
“When it's all done and said, little Lonzie he is still going to have a voice and it's going to be loud and it's going to be clear and we're going to make sure of that,” Dugger said.
Investigators were out at the scene for the fourth day Thursday, gathering evidence.
Organizers were expecting the memorial, which was coordinated by the church and the Justice Coalition, to be a huge event, potentially with hundreds of people at the church, all gathering as part of the healing process.
“He has just been in my heart,” Alisha Charles said. “Every morning I prayed for this boy that they find him.”
“It is just hard to believe that somebody could do that to an innocent baby,” Joy Scott said.
The vigil started at 6 p.m. and was open to the public. Attendees arrived as early as 5 p.m. to sign a card for Lonzie.
Children from throughout the community performed and served as ushers and greeters at the event.
Chief Tom Hackney and members of his investigative team were in attendance Thursday night.
Everyone was asked to bring a long-stem flower to build a bouquet in Lonzie’s honor. The bouquet will remain at Julington Baptist Church for Sunday morning services.
Dugger said the memorial is all about giving the community a place to come and mourn, as well as to honor the boy's life.
A makeshift memorial continued to grow Thursday across the street from the church, just up the road from where the remains were discovered. People continued to come by with cards, balloons, flowers and stuffed animals, to pay respect to Lonzie.
The memorial has been a place for strangers to come together to mourn.
“It helps a lot. It brings peace,” Barbara Humphrey said.
Neighbors in the area asked people to light candles in their driveways Thursday.
“It is just a way of me saying that we love you. I hope (people at the vigil) see it, and I hope that they know we are there to support them,” Diane Brooks said.
Neighbors said all of the efforts from the memorial to the vigil to the candlelit driveways are a chance to show Lonzie's family that the community cares.
“I feel for the family, and I pray for the family. I just pay for recovery for the family,” Harold Green said. “It is going to be a hard road ahead. “
Finding the remains
On Sunday night, Ruben Ebron, the man police have long said is their prime suspect in Lonzie's disappearance, led investigators to the wooded area in Bayard where the remains were discovered Monday, according to JSO.
Ebron, who had maintained since his arrest last July on child neglect charges that he did not know where Lonzie was, reported the toddler missing early the morning of July 24. He initially told police Lonzie was inside his car when it was stolen from the parking lot of his apartment complex.
The car was quickly found a short distance away with no sign of Lonzie. Police later said Ebron's story was a lie and released home surveillance video that they said showed Ebron ditching the car in the area where it was found and then running back to the apartment complex before calling 911.
Ebron and Lonzie's mother, Lonna Barton, who was Ebron's girlfriend at the time, were soon arrested on charges of child neglect and lying to police. Barton pleaded guilty to her charges last week and testified Friday against Ebron in a hearing for his trial, saying she had seen him conduct drug deals around her children for months.
Jury selection for Ebron's trial was set to begin Monday but was abruptly halted when he waived his right to a speedy trial, essentially postponing the trial indefinitely.
Later that day, Sheriff Mike Williams announced the discovery of a child's remains in the wooded area of Bayard that police had been searching all day. He said Ebron had led them to the area off Philips Highway and 9B, and that they strongly believed the remains were Lonzie's.
State Attorney Angela Corey said after the remains were found that more charges were likely coming in the case, but she declined to say how many or who those charges would be filed against.
Laying Lonzie to rest
It could take weeks for the medical examiner's office to confirm that the remains found are Lonzie's and release them to his family to be buried.
But when that happens, a Macclenny funeral director has already arranged to bury Lonzie free of charge.
"As long as I've been in business, I've never charged for a child. Ever,” Todd Ferreira said. “This is no different."
Ferreira, the director of V. Todd Ferreira Funeral Services, said Lonzie's family and the community that searched for him deserve closure.
“It is heart-wrenching to see this happen,” he said. “As a person, I am around death all day long. All day, every day, 24 hours a day. But infants and children, when they pass away, either from a natural death or an unnatural death, it just touches me.”
Ferreira said he's there to serve Lonzie's family, giving them one less thing to worry about during a difficult and dramatic time.
“What is important to us is Lonzie and his family, and that's what we are committed to,” he said. “And to giving him a special goodbye. One that he deserves.”
Ferreira is working with Lonzie's family to plan the funeral and burial and said relatives from both sides are of Lonzie's family are involved in the process.
Ferreira said he believes that the funeral will be open to the community, so that all the people who poured their hearts and souls into searching for the toddler will get to pay their respects and honor him.
Ferreira said Lonzie will be buried in Macclenny, where many of his loved ones live, but that the funeral is likely weeks away.