The main suspect in the case of missing toddler Lonzie Barton led the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) to skeletal remains Sunday night.
JSO made the announcement on Monday after combing the wooded area near Bayard for hours.
The medical examiner is working to confirm the identity of the remains that Ruben Ebron directed authorities to. Police said the remains were found in a “garbage heap” off Snyder Street late Sunday night, early Monday morning.
News4Jax Crime and Safety Analyst Gil Smith said weather conditions could make it very difficult for the body to remain preserved.
“With a skeleton you can tell if there are any broken bones or anything like that. But as far as bruising or that type of thing, you won't be able to tell,” Smith said.
Attorney Gene Nichols is part of the legal community that has been keeping a close eye on the latest developments of the Lonzie Barton case. Nichols said the prime suspect in the disappearance of the child most likely struck a deal with the State, but only if he told the truth about how the toddler died.
“If there’s going to be a determination that this child suffered what would be a heinous death, something violent, if we find that there have been tremendous skull fractures or something to that extent, the suggestion that this was accidentally done on Ebron’s part, potentially goes out the window,” Nichols said.
That determination could take some time. Until the results come in, investigators will continue to vet the area for nay supporting evidence that will lead them to the child’s cause of death.
JSO Chief of Investigations Tom Hackney said that Ebron, their prime suspect in the boy's disappearance, led them to the area Sunday night.
"That little boy didn't need to be discarded like a piece of trash," Hackney said. "That's just wrong."
“It would have been difficult to contaminate the area. It is a wooded area and you don't have people really walking through there because if someone had seen the body, they would have called in. It's not a place that’s frequently traveled by humans,” Smith said.
"That little boy didn't need to be discarded like a piece of trash," Hackney said. "That's just wrong."
A vigil is scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. at Julington Baptist Church, which is near where the remains were found on Snyder Street. The church is partnering with the Justice Coalition to hold the vigil and the public is invited.
"I believe he represents a child to this entire community," Julington Baptist Pastor Nat McLain said. "As a church, our regards to children goes even beyond that, as our Lord says to value children as we would the kingdom of God."
McLain said that's why he's offering his church as a place to begin healing.
"To get some closure that personally represents our position in Christ is beyond words," McLain said.
Ann Dugger, executive director of the Justice Coalition, said they began supporting Lonzie's family the morning he was reported missing and it's important that people stand up for him in court.
"That baby didn't deserve anything that he received. He deserved life," Dugger said. "He deserved to be able to grow up and play like any other little boy. To know what it's like to be in a ball game, to be able to go to school, to be able to learn. He was never afforded any of those opportunities because they were stolen and taken away from him."
The Local Station will have live coverage of the vigil on News4Jax.com.
Hardage-Giddens Town and Country Funeral Home has offered to donate the cost of funeral and burial. General Manager Roger Delaney said the remains deserve a peaceful resting place.
"It's extremely sad. It tugs at the heart of Jacksonville," Delaney said. "It is an innocent child. This child was not involved in what happened. He is not responsible for what happened. It is not the child's fault."
Delaney told News4Jax his company will pay all the costs necessary to lay the body to rest, just as they did for Cherish Perrywinkle, the 8-year-old kidnapped and killed in 2013 and a woman and three of her grandchildren killed in a house fire that same year.
"We live here. We go to church hear. We are a part of this; we are a part of this community," Delaney said. "And we hurt when this community hurts. When we want to be a part of that healing to help this community heal."
Father reacts to discovery of son's remains
The discovery of the remains of missing toddler Lonzie Barton not only shocked the community, but also the father of the toddler Monday afternoon.
According to his attorney, Chris Barton found out about his son after watching coverage on local news from the Baker County Jail.
“He’s kind of beside himself because he’s just I guess grieving,” Wesley Cassano, attorney for Chris Barton said.
Cassano has been representing Chris Barton since August. Cassano was brought on board for a dependency case involving Lonzie’s 5-year-old sister.
The attorney said he consulted with his client Tuesday and Chris Barton was shocked and almost caught off guard.
"Nobody, from Jacksonville from the criminal side of the case in Jacksonville notified him of anything that is going on," Cassano said.
Cassno said Chris Barton has now been given access to counselors and therapists in jail to help him grieve.
Community members were still grieving and doing what they could to remember Lonzie as the innocent child he was Tuesday night. They placed balloons, and signed posters with words of comfort at a makeshift memorial site created by the local community Monday in Bayard.
According to Cassano this is a very difficult time for his client and he’s asking the public to give the family time to cope.
"He has been devastated by this news and he is grieving, his family is pulling together to get through this situation," Cassano said.
Bayard resident: 'Nothing happens here'
Ann Kopecinski lives in the house closest to the crime scene police still had roped off.
It's scary. You just don't expect (it.) This is Bayard. It's quiet. Nothing happens here," she said.
Kopecinski said Monday morning was the first time she saw investigators in the area. She says she doesn’t know if anyone still lives in the trailers near the search area, but that she wishes she had connected dots months ago.
"I had seen orange cars, like, supposedly, (Ebron) had turned down there, but this was during the daytime and it was more than once, so I didn't know that it would be that car," Kopecinski said of Ebron's Honda Civic.
"It's good that it's over, especially for the relatives not knowing. Now, they know," Kopecinski said.
The legal case
Ebron, the man who reported Lonzie missing nearly six months ago, sits in jail likely to face new charges. He is currently facing charges of child neglect, lying to police and tampering with evidence.
Jury selection for Ebron's trial on those charges was scheduled to begin Monday morning but was abruptly postponed.
As the events of the day unfolded, word came Ebron had made a plea agreement -- perhaps to plead guilty to aggravated manslaughter and serve 20 years in prison -- and an afternoon hearing was set, then canceled. Ebron's next court date is set for next Tuesday.
Lonzie was 21 months old on July 24 when Ebron, his mother's boyfriend at the time, called 911 to say the boy was strapped in his car when it was stolen from their Southside apartment. Police found the car a short distance away, but there was no sign of the child. Investigators at the time said Ebron was lying about the abduction and car theft, and he likely knew the child's whereabouts.
In the weeks after her son's disappearance, Lonna Barton, 26, was also accused of child neglect and lying to police. She pleaded guilty to those charges last week and testified at a hearing Friday that Ebron sold drugs every day she was with him, including July 23, the day she went to work as an adult dancer, leaving Lonzie in Ebron's care.
Working on a tip and evidence in the case, police repeatedly searched the broader area of Philips Highway near Interstate 295, north of Bayard, in the first days and weeks after Lonzie disappeared last July. The area where the remains were found was just south of that search area.
If the remains are confirmed as those of Lonzie, State Attorney Angela Corey said new charges are possible for both, and perhaps others with knowledge of what happened to the boy.
"The search led us to the body and now that changes things somewhat," Corey said. "We have to reevaluate and go from there."
Early last month, the State Attorney's Office released some discovery materials in the child neglect case against Ebron that included data from his cellphone showing maps of locations he had been. News4Jax is combing through those maps to see if there's any correlation to where the remains were found.
Ebron's attorneys and prosecutors declined to comment Monday. Barton's attorneys also said they could not yet comment on the developments.
Baker County Sheriff Joey Dobson said Chris Barton, Lonzie's father, was briefed on the results of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office search earlier in the day, but Barton said he had already seen search coverage on television.. Dobson said Barton, who is in jail on drug charges, was being monitored by medical staff.
Other family members and those who had searched in vain for the toddler for several months were showing up at the Southside scene to share their feelings.
Barton's cousin, Sabra Rhue, said she is not close to her cousin, but has been devastated by the toddler's disappearance.
"I'm just shook up. I'm trying to hold my emotions together. I've been wanting this for six months, and I just didn't think it was going to be this hard," said Sabra Rhue, choking back tears. "I've been preparing myself for this."
Lonzie's extended family is angry over his apparent death, but believes the remains are those of the boy, and the discovery does give them some closure.
"Just been praying every day," said Valerie Crews, Lonzie's aunt. "It was (like) hold your breath when your underwater and then you get the breath when you come up, take a deep breath. That's the way I felt."
Residents of Macclenny, where the Bartons are from, were just angry at Ebron for whatever role he played in letting Lonzie die.
"Should have never happened. Never," Judy Barefoot said. "How would Ruben feel if it was one of his kids? Why wait six months later down the road. .... This baby could have been in the hospital. This baby could probably been saved."
Hand-made signs posted around the site where the child's remains were found expressed support for the police for never giving up on the search and calling for no plea deal for Ebron.
"This is a very emotional day, as you can well imagine," said Peg Moore, who helped in the search effort. "And with what we've been hearing about what's been going on downtown with Ruben. And yeah, that's not a good thing right now. So I'm asking people to keep their calm the next few days until this whole things works itself out."
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