MANATEE -- Three days after Janiya Thomas was reported missing -- and a day after Bradenton police found a freezer that may have contained her body -- neighbors in the tranquil Woods of Hammock Place community were shaken and grappling with the news.
"I couldn't believe it. I think I'm still in about as much shock as I was earlier -- last night," Maria Barger said as she stood in front of her home Monday afternoon. "To have this happen here ... it's not something you expect."
The 45-year-old woman lives across the street from the great-grandmother of 11-year-old Janiya, the child who was reported missing Friday night after the Manatee County Sheriff's Office Child Protective Investigations unit arrived at the apartment of Janiya's mother, Keishanna Thomas, in the Village at Cortez complex to remove her five children.
Only four were found, and 31-year-old Thomas was arrested when she refused to talk about Janiya's whereabouts.
According to Bradenton Police Lt. James Racky, family members called police Sunday night after they found a girl's body in a freezer at the girl's great-aunt and great-grandmother's house in the 5000 block of 21st Way East. The body has not been positively identified by the medical examiner's office.
Early Monday afternoon, a dark grey car was parked outside the home where police found the freezer. A thick palm tree shaded part of the tidy, light-colored home with burgundy trim.
No one responded to a knock on the front door.
"God bless this house and all who enter here" reads a blue sign to the right of the entrance.
"They're very private people. They're a private family," Barger said of her neighbors. "You kind of keep your home life, your home life."
According to Barger, the family across the street didn't understand why the locked freezer was brought over last week.
"It was something that was off," she said. "When they were able to, they looked at it."
Barger remembers meeting Janiya once, but said it was a long time ago. Many grandchildren and great-grandchildren come to visit regularly, she added.
"As a mom, it was devastating to find out. There's too many people that want children, can't have them," Barger said. "There's several neighbors in this neighborhood that would have been willing to take her, including us. ... These people don't realize the gifts of God that they have. They take for granted, and then you have loving husbands and wives that want children and can't have them."
Barger said she hopes Keishanna Thomas gets the help she needs.
Sam Casimir, whose sister lives in the neighborhood, said he was among others at the scene Sunday night. He recalled seeing two refrigerators and a short, white freezer in the garage.
"It makes me very sad," the 56-year-old said. "I got little kids, too."
Further down the winding 21st Way East lives 19-year-old Steve Hernandez, who said a crowd was building up around the home late Sunday night.
Curious about what was happening, Hernandez said he searched online and came across a news story about Janiya.
"I was astonished, really," he said, adding there were no words to describe finding out about the death of a young girl. "It makes you just wonder what's happening around in this neighborhood and every neighborhood."
Jose Perez, a pastor who lives nearby, said he came home from church Sunday night to find his street blocked. He soon found out about the discovery of a girl's body inside the freezer.
"I felt extreme sadness -- extreme sadness," the 51-year-old said in Spanish. "As parents, we should be protecting our children, and when a defenseless child dies in a manner such as this, it's very saddening."
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.