He was buried in a perfect casket under a perfect tree on a perfectly sunny day.
The effort to get to here, this final resting place, was not one in the traditional sense in which accomplishments and accolades accumulate over time, culminating in a life well-lived. For this was a short but difficult journey for a little boy who was dead before most of Northeast Florida knew his name.
A year ago today, when he was reported missing during a car theft, it seemed an entire region went looking for Lonzie Barton.
Just 21 months old when his life was snuffed out, the toddler captured the local imagination, prompting prayers and moving strangers to search for him. Most of the searchers didn’t know that a cadaver-sniffing dog had already alerted police — within hours of him being reported missing — that in all likelihood, the blue-eyed boy last seen wearing a diaper was already dead.
For 172 days police and the community looked for Lonzie. In January his body was found on Jacksonville’s Southside, dumped under some tires.
Lonzie’s mother, Lonna Lauramore Barton, a drug-addicted stripper, is in the Gadsden Correctional Facility near Tallahassee with a 12-year sentence: five for her role in her son’s death and seven years on a drug charge from Baker County. Her boyfriend, William Ruben Ebron Jr., is in the Desoto Correctional Institute in Southwest Florida for Lonzie’s death. He’s scheduled to be there until 2040 after cutting a deal with prosecutors and leading them to Lonzie’s body. Lonzie’s father, Christopher Arin Barton, who was never charged in the boy’s death, is in prison on drug charges.
Ebron told investigators in January that Lonzie drowned in a bathtub while he and Lauramore Barton were having sex. Police don’t buy the story, one told in an 11th-hour move as his trial date neared.
“His history of telling lies is so pervasive that I don’t believe anything that comes out of his mouth,” said Scott Dingee, an assistant chief with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. “If we can’t prove it independently, then I don’t believe it.”
He’s not alone.
OFFICERS GATHER TO REMEMBER
Last week Dingee was among 14 Sheriff’s Office employees involved in the Lonzie Barton case who gathered on the eve of the one-year anniversary of his death. It was the first time a large group of those on the front lines of the search assembled to share stories of the effort. The Times-Union and its news partner, First Coast News, spent 45 minutes with those in law enforcement most affected by and involved in the case.
They shared stories of what was called one of the longest nights they have ever had after the call first came about a missing boy last seen in a bright orange car. They shared stories of the sleepless nights spent wondering if all the creeks, ponds and mud holes across Jacksonville had been thoroughly checked for little Lonzie. They shared stories that surely there will be another Lonzie Barton-type case, because for reasons that they fail to understand, parents place drugs, alcohol and poor partner selection ahead of their children.
They shared how Ebron was a narcissist who liked to be in control.
“He kept telling lies after lies after lies,” said Tom Hackney, director of investigations and homeland security for the Sheriff’s Office.
Those lies were often easy to catch.
On July 24, 2015, Ebron called police about 2:20 a.m. and said his car, with Lonzie inside, had been stolen from his apartment building’s parking lot and he was unable to chase it down.
Not long after, a residential security video surfaced that police released saying it showed Ebron staging the car theft.
Ebron stuck to his story, and even demanded an apology when confronted about the staged theft by detectives.
‘HE BELONGED ALIVE’
As days turned into weeks and then months with no clear sign of Lonzie, frustration mounted, but the prayer vigils and searches continued.
It was “absolutely very frustrating when you know there is a person that you can talk to that knows exactly what happened and where this little boy was and he won’t tell you. That is frustrating,” Dingee said. “But it’s part of what we do. We deal with that, unfortunately quite a bit, so it is not so unusual for us, but it is absolutely frustrating when you have hundreds of people out there working and there is one person that can give you an answer right off the bat.”
When Ebron tried to wrest control of the situation back after learning Lauramore Barton was planning to testify against him at his trial, he took law enforcement officers back to the spot where he ditched Lonzie.
Time, heat and predators were so cruel to the tiny body in the trash heap that the autopsy was not conclusive on Lonzie’s cause of death.
Still, in April, what remained of Lonzie was placed in a perfect little casket and buried under a perfect tree on a perfectly sunny day, Hackney said.
“He belonged alive,” said Hackney, who attended the private funeral. “He deserved to live his life and that didn’t happen, but he certainly didn’t deserve to be left under a tire and for that to be his final burial.”
PRAYERS AND PORCH LIGHTS
The story of Lonzie Barton didn’t end at the Turner Cemetery in Glen St. Mary. Lonzie lives on for many who receive daily spirituals and wishes of peace and love on Facebook pages created when Lonzie was reported missing. Those pages now honor his memory.
“You made the world a better place for those whose lives you touched,” read a posting July 16.
“Tomorrow is July 1,” read another. “This month marks one year. We still think about you Lonzie. You’ll always be part of our lives.”
The Facebook page, In Memory of Lonzie Barton, has more than 16,000 followers. It is one of about a half a dozen Facebook pages created about the tow-headed toddler.
In Memory of Lonzie Barton was created by Will and Janet Clark of Perry, about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Jacksonville.
Not only did the Clarks create a page, they lit candles, said prayers and even left their porch light on for the little boy.
“It was real sad,” Will Clark said. “We didn’t know him, but our love for children is so strong.”
That love was ripped apart 10 years ago when Clark’s daughter, Ashyln “Blaire,” died in her father’s arms. She suffocated after the two of them fell asleep in a reclining chair. Blaire was just 25 days old.
“We wanted our child, and God took away our child and left Lonzie to suffer, to be killed and to be thrown out like he was nothing,” he said. “… I would have taken him and I’m sure other people would have, too. It’s sad.”
Eileen Kelley: (904) 359-4104