MADISON, Fla. – A 44-year-old Jacksonville man has been arrested and charged with kidnapping and capital sexual battery in the 2016 abduction of a 7-year-old boy from a trailer park in a small town east of Tallahassee.
The boy, who News4Jax is no longer naming because he's the victim of a sex crime, was dropped off 12 hours later in a Westside Jacksonville neighborhood.
Authorities said the 7-year-old was playing outside near his Madison home on April 17, 2016, when a man, later identified as Jason Lenard Hayling, abducted him.
Investigators said Hayling was connected to the case after he was arrested in February in Richmond County, Georgia, on a warrant on a different Duval County child sex crime. His DNA also matched that taken from the Madison boy.
"After nearly two years, it gives me great relief to tell you we know who (the boy's) abductor is, that this dangerous predator is no longer a threat to this community," FDLE Special Agent Mark Perez said.
The boy was found the morning after his abduction more than 100 miles away in Jacksonville when he knocked on the door of a home on Hammond Boulevard about 7 a.m. The homeowner recognized him from an Amber Alert and called 911.
The woman who took him in said she heard a soft knock on the door and the boy asked if she could take him to his mother's house. She gave him cereal as they waited for authorities to arrive.
The woman's granddaughter said the boy claimed that he was taken by a man whom he'd seen before who took him to a house and made him take a bath and change clothes.
The boy was reunited with his family about three hours after he was found. He received counseling after the incident, which family members said changed his life and, at least initially, made him scared to go outside.
Asked Thursday how the boy was doing, Perez said, "He is an amazing young man who has been resilient. He's a fighter."
Hayling, who law enforcement called a dangerous predator, could face a life sentence if convicted of committing a sex crime against a child under 12 years old.
Investigators in the case praised the dedication of the detectives in Jacksonville, law enforcement in the city of Madison and the Madison County Sheriff's Office, FDLE and FBI, who never stopped searching for the kidnapper, even when the trail turned cold and tips stopped coming in several weeks after the kidnapping despite a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.
The break came when Hayling was arrested and charged with sexual battery on a child from an incident that took place last December. The victim told police that Hayling threatened to kill him if he told anyone about the incident.
After noting similarities between the cases, FDLE agents obtained a search warrant for Hayling's DNA and got a match in the Madison case. Detectives later learned Hayling, a long-haul truck driver who has family in Madison, used to live in the neighborhood where the boy was released.
“Observant investigators with unwavering dedication along with DNA helped solve this case," Perez said.
"I'm hopeful the people of Madison County, Jacksonville and everywhere in between can rest a little easier tonight knowing Jason Lenard Hayling is no longer an unknown threat to our communities," FBI Special Agent James VanPelt said.
Authorities said Hayling is not cooperating with investigators, remaining silent about what happened. He is next due in court April 26 on the Jacksonville charge. It is not know if or when he would be transferred to Madison County to be arraigned on the new charges.
FBI investigators said anyone who has information on other possible crimes Hayling might have committed should call 800-226-5630.