Detective in Johnathan Quiles case reads defendant’s texts from brother, Snapchat messages with victim

Quiles, 38, accused in death of 16-year-old Iyana Sawyer in December 2018

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Among those who testified Tuesday in the trial of a Jacksonville man accused of impregnating and killing his niece in 2018 was Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detective Billy Abbott, who said the missing persons unit exhausted all leads and thought Iyana Sawyer, 16, might be dead or “fell off the face of the earth.”

Abbott testified he went to Quiles’ house the day he was assigned the case and talked with Quiles and his wife. Abbott said Quiles told him the 16-year-old missing girl only packed Victoria’s Secret underwear and bras. Abbott said that was a red flag and he asked for Quiles’ DNA.

Abbott also testified Quiles told him he was at work all day on Dec. 19, 2018, the day Sawyer disappeared, and that he never left the property. Abbott said the case turned from a missing persons case to a homicide case after JSO got a call from Joseph Quiles, Johnathan’s brother.

The state also showed text messages between Johnathan Quiles and his brother, Joe. Abbott read the message aloud in court.

“This is Jan. 8, 2019, to Joe, ‘You can’t even talk to me really? I never did anything to that girl and now you put me through this and you call me your brother? After this is over I’m all the way done with you. You’re a real piece of (expletive) for what you’ve done,’” Abbott read.

A message from Joe to Johnathan read: “I can’t talk to you right now. I have to stay firm on my decision. What you told me isn’t a joke or something. So yeah I told the police because they need to know. If you was lyin’, then you will be cleared and free, but if you wasn’t, then you won’t. I’m sorry I have to do the right thing for that girl and her family. Not the right thing for you and your selfishness. I hate to lose you, but I’d rather that girl’s family have some peace. If you’re innocent, then you don’t have anything to worry about. They won’t find her body. But if you are not, they are going to find her. And in that case, I’ve already lost my brother. I’m sorry.”

Text message between Johnathan Quiles and brother shown in court Sept 19, 2023 (Copyright 2023 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Abbott also read and described Snapchat messages between Quiles and Sawyer from August 2018. In the messages, Quiles wrote about how they were to be together when she turned 18, but also how he was heartbroken and angry with her. Abbott’s testimony is expected to continue Wednesday.

Belkis Plata, a lawyer with Jacksonville law firm Plata Schott Law, said much of the evidence is circumstantial since Sawyer’s body was never found.

“So the state, they carry the burden solely, and it’s proven beyond the exclusion of every reasonable doubt. So they have a very high burden that they have to overcome. And for people when you don’t have a body, it’s difficult for them to convict because they just don’t know,” Plata said.

Plata said it’s up to the defense to poke holes in the testimony.

“I’m very interested to see about this informant,” Plata said. “If, in fact, he wore a wire and Quiles admitted to certain things, I think that could be a huge turning point for the state.”

Plata thinks the testimony from Quiles’ brother could potentially sway jurors.

“I think the jury will really hold on to what his brother’s saying because I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a brother to be called to testify against his own brother, but because of the nature of these charges, I think it will hold a lot of weight for the jurors,” she said.

It’s not clear what the weight of those Snapchat messages will hold just yet. The reading of those messages was cut short Tuesday with the plan to pick up where they left off Wednesday morning.

Sister testifies about abuse

Sawyer’s sister took the stand early Tuesday afternoon. The court referred to her as S.S. She quietly recounted inappropriate contact and sexual abuse by Quiles when she was 13 years old.

S.S. testified she didn’t tell anyone because she was embarrassed and didn’t want to upset her sister or make Quiles mad.

The defense questioned the timing of the allegations and reminded S.S. that she told police and her family that Quiles never did anything to her. S.S. admitted not telling anyone and said it was something she didn’t want to keep thinking about. Her mother found out about the sexual abuse while her sister was missing.

Quiles, 38, was indicted for the first-degree murder of his niece, Sawyer, and her unborn baby, believed to be his child, in addition to having sex with a minor because Sawyer was only a teenager at the time. Quiles was married to Sawyer’s aunt and they are not biologically related.

Quiles’ defense is arguing that prosecutors don’t have enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he murdered his niece, or that she is dead at all -- because her body has never been found.

The defense said the state can’t prove that Quiles was indeed the father of Sawyer’s unborn child and there is no blood or crime scene. They said that DNA evidence presented by prosecutors does not prove Quiles is the killer.

Iyana Sawyer

The state was expected to play a two-hour recording Monday between a jail informant and Quiles, but the defense argued there were inaccuracies with the transcription given to jurors. They said Quiles wasn’t properly identified by the state in portions of the recording. In the end, the transcript will be allowed, and jurors will possibly hear the audio recording on Wednesday.

Jurors could also hear from a firearms expert on Wednesday and possibly even Quiles’ own brother. Detectives believe that after killing the teen, Quiles admitted it to his brother.

At the end of court on Tuesday, the judge told the jury he expects the trial to go at least until the end of this week.

Former boss testifies

Monday’s testimony brought Quiles’ former boss at Ace Pick-A-Part to the stand. General Manager Gary Lindros testified that on Dec. 19, 2018, the day Sawyer was reported missing, Quiles clocked in at 8:08 a.m. and out at 5:09 p.m. On Dec. 20, 2018, he clocked in at 8:02 a.m. and out at 2:48 p.m. His time card shows he did not leave the premises on those days.

But the jury was shown surveillance video from the business and Lindros confirmed a red minivan left the lot around 11:17 a.m. on Dec. 19, 2018, and came back around 12:30 p.m. Quiles drives a red minivan.

Lindros said he did not give Quiles permission to leave, and Quiles did not clock out. Sawyer was last seen leaving Terry Parker High School on Dec. 19, 2018, around 11 a.m.

Lindros also testified that Quiles had access to unrestricted areas of the company property and to a large commercial dumpster.

During opening statements last week, prosecutors said Quiles made these statements related to the murder:

  • “I have to get rid of the body.”
  • “The dumpster is at my job. I control what gets dumped.”

The general manager also testified that on Dec. 19 or Dec. 20, he saw Quiles carrying duct tape, even though there is no typical duty on the company property that would require duct tape.

Quiles’ attorneys questioned Lindros, making the argument Quiles’ actions on Dec. 19 and 20 were not anything out of the ordinary.

Teen’s family testifies

Last week, several of Sawyer’s family members took the stand, including her mother, her grandmother, her aunt and her sister.

Sawyer’s mother, Kimberly Mobley, testified about her daughter’s pregnancy, Sawyer’s relationship with her uncle and her disappearance.

Mobley said the unborn child was a girl and her name was going to be “Hazel Michelle Mobley.” She said she found out Sawyer was pregnant just 16 days before she was reported missing.

Kimberly Mobley, mother of Iyana Saywer, testifies on the stand during the murder trial of Johnathan Quiles who is accused of killing her daughter and her unborn granddaughter. (Copyright 2023 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

During cross-examination, the defense had witnesses admit Sawyer never told anyone Quiles was the father. But Mobley said her daughter told her someone named “Jose” was the father.

Sawyer’s sister, who took the stand late Friday afternoon, testified that her sister was in love with Quiles and that he was “Jose.”

RELATED: Sister of Iyana Sawyer says she knew about relationship between sister, accused killer but kept it a secret

Her sister described the inappropriate touching, kissing and sexual encounters she said she witnessed between Quiles and Sawyer. She said she kept the secret about her sister and Quiles for at least two years to keep a good relationship with her sister.

She said she wanted to protect her and got emotional talking about her last interactions with her sister.

Sawyer’s sister said Sawyer and Quiles’ wife, who is their aunt, were both pregnant by Quiles at the same time and that Quiles wanted Sawyer to get an abortion. Sawyer refused, her sister said.

She also testified that Quiles gave her sister pills to try to prevent the pregnancy.

Sawyers’s grandmother testified that during Thanksgiving 2018, she saw Quiles intimately hugging Sawyer.

“He was hugged up, full embrace, when they seen me it startled him...Not a hug an uncle would give,” Winella Haynes recalled.

Haynes said she told Mobley to not let Quiles around her kids and to her knowledge she did that.

One of Sawyer’s close friends said the day Sawyer went missing, she told them she’d be going to stay with Quiles for two weeks.

RELATED: Prosecutors say Jacksonville man accused of impregnating, killing niece made incriminating statements to brother

Disappearance and investigation

It has been almost five years since Sawyer disappeared. On Dec. 19, 2018, Sawyer was seen on surveillance video at Terry Parker High School. She was never seen again, and no trace of her has been found.

Court records reveal Sawyer was on her way to Quiles’ job at a salvage yard on the north side the day she vanished.

RELATED: Jury selected in trial of man accused of impregnating, murdering teen niece

Police believe Sawyer, who was five months pregnant at the time, was shot and killed, then placed into a dumpster and taken to the Otis Road Landfill. Investigators looked through more than 5,000 tons of trash but never found her remains.

A former CSI detective and former K-9 officer testified last week about the 16-day search at the Otis Road Landfill that turned up items related to the case, but no human remains. The general manager of the landfill testified Monday, describing the police search as looking for a needle in a haystack.

The trial is expected to last about two weeks.

Quiles could face the death penalty if he’s convicted of Sawyer’s murder. A new 2023 ruling now allows a death sentence with only an 8 to 4 vote by the jury instead of the 12 to 0 previously needed.

About the Authors:

A Florida-born, Emmy Award winning journalist and proud NC A&T SU grad

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.