JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As details unfold in the death investigation of toddler Lonzie Barton, it's clear the boy's mother and her boyfriend have been spinning tales of deceit from the moment the boy was reported missing last July.
From a fake abduction to the claims of Lonzie's mother, Lonna Barton, that she knew nothing about the boy's disappearance, authorities have now confirmed that Barton and her boyfriend, Ruben Ebron, have been lying from the beginning of the investigation.
According to a letter from Ebron that was read in court Friday as he pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter in the boy's death, Lonzie drowned after Ebron and Barton locked him in a bathroom while they were having sex.
Much of what Jacksonville Sheriff's Office investigators had to go on when Lonzie was first reported missing on July 24 was lies, and authorities have been working for months to separate truth from fiction in the case.
It's now known that Barton knew her youngest child was dead before she left for work as an exotic dancer the night of July 23. Ebron dumped the little boy’s body in a wooded area near Bayard and then called police shortly after midnight July 24 to say the child had been abducted when someone stole his car from their apartment complex.
Yet according to investigators, the couple maintained a charade for months that they didn't know what happened to the 21-month-old.
But as the months passed and their stories fell apart, investigators said they tore into each other
"When they're both lying and it's a finger-pointing contest, like these cases tend to be, what pulls out, what saves law enforcement and prosecution are the physical findings that refute what either of them are saying,” State Attorney Angela Corey said. “We did not have that in this case. There was not a shred of tissue left of this child's remains that could be analyzed with the types of things you're asking, like the drugs or injuries to the skull. No brain to examine. So when we have statements, those are tested by and compared to expert's findings."
Early in the investigation, police released surveillance video, refuting Ebron's claims about the car theft and abduction. The video showed what investigators said was Ebron running back to his apartment complex after ditching his car in a nearby neighborhood the night he called police.
Neighbors in the area where the car was found the next day said they had seen the same vehicle in the neighborhood the day before, leading to speculation that Ebron had tried a dry run before faking the abduction. Police now say that was not the case.
“The speculation of him doing a dry run, we have some thoughts on that ourselves, that he may have done his drug deals in that area, and if somebody had seen him there, that's what they saw,” JSO Chief Tom Hackney said.
Police now believe Ebron took Lonzie's body to the dump site on July 23, the day he drowned, and that Barton went to work at Wacko's that night, knowing that her little boy was dead.
In spite of these facts, to help persuade police of their ruse, the two put on a show during an interrogation session at the jail. In a video released in December, Barton pleads with Ebron to tell her where Lonzie is, and Ebron swears that he “did a lot of things, but I did not do this.”
“I just want to know where my kid is. I don't give a **** who done it. I just want to know where my kid is,” Barton said in the video. “You are the only person that can give me any kind of answer.”
“You think I know that then?” Ebron responded.
Can Ebron's account be believed?
Months after his conversation with Barton, Ebron led police to Lonzie's remains. They were found Jan. 11 in a wooded area of Philips Highway near State Road 9B -- more than five months after the toddler was reported missing.
“He had run out of cards. The game was over for him, and so he now had to work something out,” legal expert Randy Reep said. “What was the thing he could work out? 'I can tell you where the child is, and I can tell you how he demised.' Whether it's true or not, it's the only truth that's going to matter for the next 20 years.”
News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said that because of how Lonzie's remains were found, it would have been difficult to complete an autopsy or determine of Lonzie really drowned, because the medical examiner would not have had access to Lonzie's lungs.
“Right now, they have to take Ruben Ebron's word for it because the body was exposed to elements,” Smith said. “Lonzie wasn't buried, so the body was out in the open, exposed to heat, to rain, to sun and to animals that are there also. So a lot of evidence would have been gone by the time investigators located the remains.”
Randell Alexander, the chief of Child Protection and Forensic Pediatric, couldn't say if his office worked on the Lonzie investigation but did say his office has been involved in serious cases.
“It's hard on us sometimes, even if we're used to doing this sort of work,” Alexander said.
He said in cases when a body has decomposed, forensic anthropologists are brought in.
The medical examiner's report has not yet been released, but a prosecutor said Friday that Lonzie's body had several fractured bones, including injuries to his ribs that were healing. It appears Lonzie fell down some stairs weeks before his death.
Investigators said they don't believe those injuries happened while Lonzie was in Ebron's care.
The child also had skull fractures, which appeared to have happened after his death.
Now the question remains for investigators: How can they be sure Lonzie drowned in a bathtub, as Ebron now claims?
Police said the fact is they can't be sure. They just have to take Ebron's word on it, because the toddler's cause of death cannot be determined.
“Both of these individuals from the very second that they came into contact with the Sheriff's Office, both started down a long road of lies, so they're liars in my eyes,” Hackney said. “You have to take what they're offering in these plea agreements at face value, just because that's the way that this works.”
So what's next for Lonna Barton?
Lonzie's mother is currently in the Baker County Jail facing four drug charges there, stemming from an undercover drug bust.
Last month, Barton pleaded guilty to charges of child neglect and lying to police in connection with Lonzie's disappearance. She faces up to six years behind bars on those charges, and is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 29.
As part of her plea agreement, Barton waived her Fifth Amendment rights and agreed to testify if called in Ebron's trial. She was called for a pre-trial hearing days later and testified that Ebron sold drugs every day she was with him, including when her children were around.
Reep said that testimony likely changed the outcome of Ebron's case, setting in motion his plea agreement and bringing some closure on what happened to the boy.
“It was her coming forward and taking responsibility that had the cascade effect of bringing the child home and resolving these cases,” said Reep, an attorney not connected to the case. “She probably should be rewarded for that.”
Reep said it's possible Barton could see a reduced sentence on her Duval County charges.
“Ruben Ebron is not going to be a very good fact witness against anybody, because he's been called a liar by the state of Florida for so long,” Reep said. “It's going to be difficult to turn around and then say, 'Believe him now.'”
According to Ebron, Barton knew much more about what happened to Lonzie than she ever admitted.
“From the beginning we saw this as Ruben Ebron being more criminally responsible and Lonna Barton making bad decisions, bad choices,” legal expert Rhonda Peoples-Waters said. “This turns the table and it definitely makes us assess whether Lonna truly cared about her children and took enough interest in her children.”
Police said that instead of providing a thriving upbringing full of possibilities, the adults in Lonzie's life failed him, starting with the woman who brought him into this world.
“She was the one that birthed the child, so certainly, in many people's mindsets, she had more of an obligation than Ruben Ebron to protect and care for her own child,” Peoples-Waters said.
Now many are asking how else she might be held accountable in Lonzie's death. For now, Peoples-Waters said she expects Barton's plea agreement in Duval County to hold.
As a defense attorney, Peoples-Waters said she thinks Barton's focus now will be on her drug charges in Baker County.
“At this point, it is not going to benefit her to say anything more about the Duval County case,” Peoples-Waters said. “(She) really needs to focus her attention and her attorney's that she not get the maximum, if that's 15 years, in Baker County.”
Barton will be back in Baker County court on Feb. 23.