Search for toddler called a murder investigation, Jacksonville Sheriff's Office says
Hundreds of officers from 18 agencies join in search for Lonzie Barton
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In the five days since the search for missing toddler Lonzie Barton began, hundreds of law enforcement officers from 18 agencies are working to bring closure to a case that the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is now calling a murder investigation, WJXT reports.
The 21-month-old disappeared late Thursday night or early Friday morning while in the care of his mother's boyfriend, William Ruben Ebron Jr., who is now considered a suspect in the case and is facing child neglect charges.
Among those are deputies from Nassau County, who have supplied ATVs, and deputies from Baker County, who know the concerns of looking for a missing child.
Baker County Sheriff Joey Dobson said officers from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office helped Baker County search for missing 8-year-old Peyton Blodgett in October.
"It's called mutual aid. We have agreements with each sheriff's office, and JSO … has never refused us on anything," Dobson said. "We're somewhat smaller, but they've always sent anything we've needed, from dive teams to bomb squad, SWAT team or anything."
Peyton (pictured), who has autism, was found alive after about three days, dehydrated and with scratches, but otherwise safe.
"We're happy to assist JSO," Dobson said. "They certainly helped us with our missing child, Peyton Blodgett. I think they requested five deputies and a supervisor. They were down there all day yesterday and will be today, and we'll continue to assist them as long as they need us to."
As time slips away, JSO Chief of Investigations Tom Hackney said it's less and less likely that Lonzie's story will have the same happy ending as Peyton's.
"This is less of a missing persons investigation and more of a homicide investigation," Hackney said. "Those (search) efforts will continue until we have nowhere else to go and no puddle to get in, no tree to get under and no rock to overturn -- until we do everything we can to locate Lonzie."
Hackney has been the face of the search efforts, repeatedly holding news conferences to update the media and the public on the progress of the investigation. Noticeably absent has been new Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams (pictured), who has been a vacation that was pre-planned even before this year's election.
Undersheriff Pat Ivey said Williams has been in constant contact with the sheriff's office, despite his absence, and that even if Williams was in town, Hackney would remain the voice of the investigation to the public.
"Part of it is probably a misunderstanding. When we have an incident like this, we go to an incident command system, which is a tried and proven structure on the national level on how you address incidents such as this," Ivey explained. "It puts key people in particular positions to deal with your objectives and your top priority, which is finding this young boy."
Ivey said the command structure during an all-out search shifts so that instead of the sheriff being on top with the undersheriff and others falling into line, the head of the investigation is on top. In this case, that person is Hackney.
"That's the importance of appointing a good staff, people that can carry on whatever needs to be done at the sheriff's office if he's not here or even the No. 2 person is not here," WJXT crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said. "It seems like Tom Hackney is doing a good job."
Ivey said he's been in contact with the mayor and several City Council members, who have offered their full support during the investigation. He said the sheriff returns to town this weekend.
In the meantime, the investigation continues, and Hackney said JSO has received about 220 tips in the case so far, including offers from businesses along the route that JSO has been searching to look at their surveillance video.
Jacksonville Fire Rescue ladder trucks are also assisting in the search for Lonzie, along with a JFR ambulance.
Other agencies involved in the search include the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the State Attorney's Office, the Alachua, Clay, and St. Johns county sheriff's offices, the FBI, Florida Fish and Wildlife, and the Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach, Orange Park, Miami-Dade, Miramar and Duval County School Board police.
JSO also brought in 11 volunteers from Texas Equusearch, a mounted search-and-recovery team.
"The level of support that the men and women who are out searching for Lonzie have received is just touching," Hackney said. "All these agencies are not only helping us find Lonzie, but helping build a case against (suspect) Ruben Ebron."
On Friday, police searched dumpsters at the apartment complex where Ebron reported that Lonzie was abducted in a car theft. Police later said Ebron's original story was a lie and began retracing his steps, including searching a nearby laundromat (pictured) where Ebron washed clothes the night Lonzie disappeared.
As investigators have established the route that Ebron traveled that night, police have searched several more commercial trash bins for the missing boy or evidence.
Investigators also asked that several commercial dumpsters not be emptied until they are searched. One trash compactor was taken to the Trail Ridge Landfill so its contents "could be sifted through safely for clues to this investigation."
So far, nothing useful has been recovered.
Hackney said he remains frustrated that Ebron knows what happened and where Lonzie is, but isn't telling police the truth.
"He's the man that had the baby and he's the man who needs to give me the answers," Hackney said.
Hackney said citizen support for the searchers has also been overwhelming, including several restaurants and individuals who have provided food, water and supplies.
Police have said that any donations to help the searchers are welcome and can be coordinated with the volunteer liaison at 904-314-6940.
Hackney again asked for prayers that the search would come to an end.
"I'll be more than happy to take some divine influence with the locating of this child," he said.
For now, citizens are not being asked to help in the physical search for Lonzie. Smith said that's partly a safety and liability issue.
"If somebody is bitten by a snake (in the woods) or falls and breaks an ankle, the city may be liable," Smith said. "Also, if evidence is found, law enforcement knows how to preserve that evidence, not to move it, not to damage it and also to recognize what could be evidence that maybe the public would not be able to recognize."
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