Crime

Body found in freezer may be missing 11-year-old Florida girl

Video: Bradenton police say body of girl found in freezer

The body of a child believed to be missing 11-year-old Janiya Thomas was found in a freezer in a Manatee County home Sunday, Bradenton police said. Richard Dymond / Bradenton Herald
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The body of a child believed to be missing 11-year-old Janiya Thomas was found in a freezer in a Manatee County home Sunday, Bradenton police said. Richard Dymond / Bradenton Herald

Keishanna Thomas, the mother of the 11-year-old girl who has gone missing and is presumed dead, has been charged with aggravated child abuse for an incident last month involving her 12-year-old son, according to the Bradenton Police Department.

As part of the investigation of the case, deputies with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office's Child Protective Investigations unit Friday went to the family's apartment at the Village at Cortez, 4880 51st St. W., to remove Thomas' five children.

Only four were found, and Thomas was arrested when she refused to talk about her daughter Janiya's whereabouts.

"Following the incident in September, we were asking the mom for three weeks where her other children were, and she said the 2-year-old and 11-year-old were with relatives," said sheriff's office spokesman Dave Bristow. "She had the 2-year-old the next day, but then said the 11-year-old was with relatives in New Jersey and was out of state. She kept leading us on, so that's why we took her in."

Two days later, on Sunday, a girl's body was found Sunday in a freezer at the home of Thomas' mother and sister, but authorities have not confirmed her identity.

Lt. James Racky, spokesman for the Bradenton Police Department, said Keishanna Thomas was charged Monday with aggravated child abuse for an incident involving her son last month, which prompted the removal of the children on Friday. Judge Diana Moreland ordered a $75,000 bond on Thomas for that charge, but she is still being held without bond on a contempt of court charge for refusing to reveal the location of her missing daughter.

The arrest report for Thomas says her son was caught shoplifting Sept. 23 from the Walmart Supercenter at 5315 Cortez Road W. where she works. Loss Prevention turned him over to Thomas, who took him home and said she was going to "whoop him," the report states.

Thomas said she was holding him by the shirt and "lost her grip," which caused him to run into the dresser and shatter the attached mirror.

Thomas' live-in boyfriend told her to settle down, and the boy was taken to his room, where he climbed out the window and went to the apartment complex's clubhouse, where he told someone his mother had punched and slapped him during the entire car ride home from Walmart, according to the report.

The responding officer indicated on the original report that the boy had no marks or bruising on him, but he was removed by Child Protective Services due to history of the family. A physician later deemed that the boy's injuries were consistent with child abuse. Thomas told police on Oct. 9 she had only hit him once across the head with an open hand, according to the report.

Patrick Kane, assistant public defender, made references to a probable cause affidavit during Thomas' first appearance hearing in court that talked about her locking a child in a bathroom and hitting her.

Bristow, spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, said he had heard that is what Thomas had done to Janiya, but he was unaware of charges filed in that case yet.

Other charges are pending, Racky said.

On Sunday night, family members called to tell police that Janiya Thomas' body might be located in a freezer at the girl's aunt and grandmother's house in the 5000 block of 21st Way East. A man and Keishanna Thomas moved the freezer into the home on Wednesday, according to Racky.

Racky said police know who the man is and are currently looking for him, though they are unsure of his relationship with Keishanna Thomas.

"We should be able to talk to him today," Racky said.

A body was found in the freezer that police believe is Janiya Thomas, but Racky said they were still waiting on the medical examiner's office for confirmation. The medical examiner's office will also be able to speak to how long the body has been deceased. Janiya Thomas has been missing since August 2014, according to Racky.

Racky said he has no idea why it took over a year to get authorities involved in this case.

"Nobody told us until Friday night," Racky said. "Her mother pulled her out of school because of her medical condition ... and said she was home-schooling her in 2013."

Janiya had a condition that affected her digestion and bowel movements and could not always tell when she had to go to the bathroom, Racky explained. The medical condition killed Janiya's father and frustrated Keishanna Thomas.

Natalie Harrell, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Children and Families, said the four other children, ages 15, 12, 9 and 2, are in the department's custody now. She said they had an open investigation against Thomas but referred specific requests about the case to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office CPI division.

Bristow said the first time the sheriff's office heard Janiya was missing was on Friday, when they went to the home to remove the five children after the child abuse allegations made in September. He said people they had talked to since arresting Thomas said they hadn't seen Janiya Thomas for several months and up to a year, but that no official missing person report was ever filed.

Janiya last attended Manatee County public schools as a third-grade student at Manatee Elementary School in May 2013, said district spokesman Mike Barber. In August 2013, the district was informed that Janiya would be homeschooled, Barber said.

Homeschooled students and families must submit annual evaluations to schools district to maintain home school status, Barber said. When the district did not receive an evaluation in the year, a letter was sent out to the parent.

"The school district followed our protocol in this case," Barber said.

After sending the letter, the district was informed in January 2015 that the student no longer lived in the district, Barber said.

Barber said Thomas' three school-age children are enrolled in the district.

Thomas was convicted of prostitution in 2003 and has previously petitioned the state in both 2003 and 2004 for an injunction against the same man for protection from domestic violence. Both of those cases were dismissed for failure to show basis, the most recent one in 2006. Details on those cases are confidential.

Lori Trainer, the vice president of public relations for the Village at Cortez apartment complex, said Thomas has lived there since August 2013 and they've never had any complaints about her.

"She's been a peaceful resident, up until now," she said.

Thomas was a cashier for the Walmart on Cortez Road since May 2014, according to Brian Nick, spokesman for Walmart.

"Given the circumstances we have suspended her pending the results of the investigation," Nick said.

Obeitta Tarwoe, a neighbor of Thomas, said she has known the family for years and that it hurt her heart to hear the story.

"I cried all last night," Tarwoe said. "She seemed so normal, I would see her get in her car every day, and she seemed happy. I never saw any remorse."

Tarwoe said she remembered seeing other children of Thomas recently, but not Janiya.

"I honestly can't remember the last time I saw her," she said.

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