BRADENTON -- More than a hundred friends and relatives gathered Saturday for a celebration of life to honor Janiya Thomas -- whose body was found in a freezer last month after being missing for more than a year -- and the girl's grandmother who died earlier this month.
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A poem was read in honor of Janiya during the service: "If tears could build a stairway, and memories a lane. I would walk right up to Heaven and bring you back again. No farewell words were spoken, No time to say goodbye. You were gone before I knew it, and only God knows why."
Janiya Thomas, 11, was officially reported missing to the Bradenton police Oct. 16, but it had been more than 16 months since there is any record of anyone seeing her. Her siblings told investigators with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office Child Protective Investigative division they had not seen her in more than a year and one of the children thought she was dead.
On Oct. 18, Janiya's body was found in a box inside a padlocked freezer at her relatives' home after they grew suspicious when they saw the media reports of her missing. The relatives broke the lock and called law enforcement to report what they had found.
The girl's mother, Keishanna Thomas, with her boyfriend brought the freezer to the home Oct. 14 under the guise she was being evicted.
Keishanna Thomas has refused to tell authorities anything regarding Janiya since the girl was first noticed missing Sept. 23, when Child Protective Investigations Division officials came to her home after the 12th allegation of abuse against her.
Thomas is being held on bonds totaling $200,000 at the Manatee County jail on charges of child abuse, aggravated child abuse and abuse of a dead body.
The celebration of life at Saint Paul Missionary Baptist Church, 525 Martin Luther King Ave. E., in Bradenton was held where Janiya grandmother Delores Williams' casket lay at the front of the altar, a picture a Janiya with an urn and a picture of Williams to the left.
The Rev. Edward Barthell of St. Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church, 629 Martin Luther King Ave. E., Bradenton, spoke of Keishanna Thomas who was a member of St. Stephen's.
"Things happen that we don't agree with. We have our way of pushing ourselves away from people but I still love her," Barthell said. "I'm going to pray for her. I'm going to pray for this family. I'm going to be here for this family. This is what this community is all about."
Barthell added: "We don't need no gossip. We don't need to know why or how."
A lot of people wanted to speak at the service, he preached, but he said if they wanted to they should go to the house and speak with the family, which needs support.
"We're living in a sick, sick world that needs to be healed," Barthell said. "God sees everything we do."
Barthell used the example of people who commit hit-and-run traffic crimes, and said someone who does that is a sick person. He also went on to talk about adultery, reminding them it is still wrong.
The preacher told those gathered: "Oh you thought you was coming here and I was going to talk about Keishanna. No, I love Keishanna," Barthell said.
Everybody sins, he said.
Barthell spoke about the media gathered across the street from the church. Asked how he felt, he turned the question around and asked how they felt.
"This family is hurting. They don't need nobody to talk about their family," Barthell shouted. "They need somebody to lift them up. They need somebody to embrace them."
Numerous other references to the media were made earlier during the service.
"I will caution those of you who go outside and talk to the press, because oftentimes they don't say what you say," Pastor James M. Roberts Jr. said. "I don't know why, but the press always has a way of bringing up the negative."
Glossy full-page programs at the service featured pictures of Janiya and her grandmother, along with other relatives. The program said the young girl loved school and listed her date of death as Oct. 18, the day her body was found.
The Medical Examiner's Office has not yet released a cause or manner of death nor how long the girl is believed to have been dead. The autopsy was inconclusive requiring additional testing.
Williams, who had been living in a nursing home died Nov. 1. Details regarding the cause of her death were not mentioned in her death announcement.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter@JDeLeon1012.