JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The 32-year-old man who told police that his girlfriend's 21-month-old son was abducted when his car was stolen last summer pleaded guilty Friday morning to aggravated manslaughter in the death of that toddler, Lonzie Barton.
Ruben Ebron accepted a plea agreement offered by his defense attorney that will have him serve 20 years in prison for that charge, along with concurrent sentences for child neglect, lying to police and tampering with evidence.
Prosecutors said Ebron last month led them to the remains of a child in woods off Interstate 295 near Bayard. Those remains were tentatively identified as Lonzie, who was reported missing July 24.
Assistant State Attorney Rich Mantei said Lonzie drowned in a bathtub after Ebron and the boy's mother, Lonna Barton, locked the boy in a room while they had sex. Ebron said they found him face down in the water.
"The right thing to do would have been to seek medical attention for him, to call 911, to have rescue come out there, but also be responsible for the actions that he took," Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Chief Tom Hackney said.
Instead, police said Ebron dumped Lonzie's body and staged the boy's disappearance, which led to a massive, 10-day-long search by hundreds of law enforcement officers and months of continuing investigation.
In court Friday, the public defender read a letter from Ebron in which Ebron apologized to his family, Lonzie and Lonna Barton, who was Ebron's girlfriend when the boy disappeared.
"None of you deserved the public scrutiny that this brought,” he wrote.
... it happened and both Lonna and I were both involved. This was a tragic accident made far worse by our horrible decision making. All we can do now is pay for the mistakes we have made and hopefully learn from them." [Read entire letter by William Ruben Ebron Jr.]
Lonna Barton pleaded guilty in January to charges of child neglect and lying to police. She is scheduled to be sentenced later this month.
Ebron's father, William Ebron Sr., said he asked his son six months ago, "Did something happen and you panicked? If so, it can be rectified."
"They've got an ultimate judge they've got to answer to. They've got to come to terms with their maker," William Ebron Sr. said. "This child deserved better."
Judge Mark Borello sentenced Ebron to 20 years on the aggravated manslaughter charge, five years on the child neglect count, five years on the tampering with evidence charge and one year on the lying to police count. All sentences will be served concurrently, so the Ebron's total time in prison will be 20 years.
“In my 34 years as a prosecutor, child deaths have been the most difficult cases we can handle,” State Attorney Angela Corey said after the hearing.
Already receiving criticism that Ebron should have gone to trial and received a longer sentence, Corey said that after five months of searching without success for Lonzie’s body, “the negotiated disposition that we entered into today is the only way we could bring Lonzie home.”
Corey said she hears the community’s call for justice but had to honor the duties of law and balance it with getting justice for Lonzie.
“It’s bittersweet. I, too, believe bringing that child’s body back to the community was important,” Corey said. “We would not necessarily have made a deal like that if we had any hope of finding the body on our own.”
Corey said while the autopsy could not determine a cause of death, there was evidence of injuries inflicted during child's life, including healed injuries, likely meaning Lonzie had been abused during his short life.
"Had this baby been found earlier, would there have been a different result? Possibly, but we'll never know. So we deal with the facts and the laws we have then," Corey said.
Community reacts to Ebron's plea deal
From those in Baker County who knew Lonzie to the man running to unseat Corey, many in the community were quick to criticize the plea agreement announced Friday.
"I don’t think 20 years is enough," said Shirley Barton, Lonzie's great aunt. "(It) won’t bring the baby back, and I think that Lonna should get the same, because she was involved, and it’s her baby."
Lonna Barton and her ex-husband, Chris Barton, who is Lonzie's father, were caught doing drugs the evening after a custody hearing for Lonzie's older sister, while their son was still missing. Shirley Barton said that fact shows Lonna Barton was involved.
"A momma doesn't act that way. I could tell by looking at her," Shirley Barton said. "I never even saw her shed a tear. I saw her jumping on a bed in a hotel room, shooting up with Chris."
Tiffany Haynes, who helped in the search for Lonzie, also thinks that 20 years is not enough for what Ebron did.
"That little boy deserves so much more than that," Haynes said. "But on the other hand, I totally get the State Attorney's Office and their thought process behind it."
Mantei, one of the prosecutors in Ebron's case, defended the decision to make the deal.
"It's easy to go and speculate about what you might want to think happened and imagine a scenario when you think this should be a lot stronger and a lot harsher,” Mantei said. “The problem is that you actually have to go about building a case with evidence to prove it.”
Corey said she's seen comments from the community, saying Ebron deserves to be on death row.
“That’s what everybody wants,” Corey said. “I’ve seen the comments, 'He deserves the needle.” Well, anybody who hurts a child should. That’s not the way our laws are set up. That’s not the way they’re set up.”
What broke the case?
Hackney said the entire case changed the night of Jan. 10, just hours before Ebron's trial was scheduled to start. Ebron led a convoy of investigators to the property in Bayard, where he said he disposed of the Lonzie's remains.
"I described him many times in the media in an unfair light. The Ruben Ebron that I saw out there in the jump suit, a pair of socks, and a pair of slides, fighting through ankle deep water to find that little boy that night, that was the Ruben that I wanted to see from the first day," Hackney said.
Hackney, the man who became the compassionate and determined face of JSO's search for Lonzie was glad that there was closure, and the boy can finally be given a proper burial.
"The community fell in love with this little boy," Hackney said. "I wanted to find him, and I wanted to get whatever justice we could. ... The difference between what you know and what you can prove is frustrating. It is taxing on the mind and taxing on the body. The fact that we reached this plea and were able to find the body, I think, brings the answers that we, as the criminal justice team, wanted and what we, in the community, wanted."
Hackney said Lonzie apparently died locked in that bathroom while Ebron and Lonna Barton were having sex.
"This little boy lived a tragic, tragic life (and) died a tragic, tragic death," Hackney said.
What's next in the case?
The forensic findings of Lonzie’s death and Ebron's statement could present new legal challenges for Lonna Barton, who has said from the beginning that her son was alive when she went to work as an adult dancer the night of July 23. But Corey said it is unlikely that they could file additional criminal charges against Lonna Barton.
"It ends up a finger-pointing contest between two people who have lied," Corey said.
Lonna Barton currently faces up to six years in prison on the charges she pleaded guilty to after Lonzie's disappearance. She is currently in the Baker County jail, where she is facing unrelated drug charges.
According to court calendars, she is due at a hearing in Baker County Feb. 23 and scheduled for sentencing on the Duval County charges on Feb. 29.
News4Jax learned that charges against Ebron related to an alleged escape attempt after his July arrest were dropped as part of the plea agreement.
After a conviction and sentencing, a prisoner would normally be sent to the Florida Department of Corrections, but it's uncertain when Ebron will be transferred from the Duval County jail. Baker County has a hold on him for violation of probation on drug charges. If he does got to the state prison system right away, he'll go to an assessment center for three to five weeks before he is assigned to a prison where he'll spend the next two decades of his life, less 196 days he was credited for the time confined since his arrest the day he reported Lonzie missing.