MANATEE -- Investigators hope to confirm this week the frozen body found inside a freezer is missing 11-year-old girl Janiya Thomas and learn more details surrounding the death of the Bradenton child last seen more than a year ago.
Janiya was last seen by child protective investigators during a case management home visit June 9, 2014, during which her mother, Keishanna Thomas, reportedly became uncooperative. The case was subsequently closed as "non-compliant" after a joint decision by Manatee County Sheriff's Office's child protective investigators, Sarasota Family YMCA case managers and the Florida Department of Children and Family's Children's Legal Services, with the understanding court action would be appropriate if another complaint about Thomas was received.
No one outside the Thomas home apparently ever saw Janiya again after that day.
The girl was last enrolled in a Manatee County public school in May 2013, and as of August 2013, she was being homeschooled. One of Janiya's siblings told CPI
investigators, during an interview Oct. 17, they had not seen her in more than a year.
"I don't know where she is. One day we went to school and came back, she was just gone," the child said. "I think she is dead or something."
Investigators have been trying to piece together the circumstances surrounding Janiya's presumed death.
Thomas remains in custody at Manatee County jail on charges of contempt of court, child abuse, aggravated child abuse and abuse of a dead body. She has made a total of five court appearances, each time refusing to speak about Janiya's whereabouts or well-being.
The identity of the body found Oct. 18 inside a small cardboard box in a freezer at the home of a relative's home has yet to be confirmed. The cause of her death has also not been determined.
If, how and when Janiya died is still unclear. Many details surrounding the case, however, have emerged.
On Sept. 23, Thomas' 12-year-old son was caught shoplifting at the Walmart Supercenter where she works.
The boy later told police she repeatedly slapped and punched him on their way home and then abused him more.
The boy jumped out of the window of the apartment in the Village at Cortez Apartments, 4880 51st St. W., and ran to the complex clubhouse where he told someone about the abuse. Bradenton police were called. The officer reported the boy's injuries did not match his story, but sheriff's office investigators were called to investigate.
On Sept. 25, CPI took the boy to see a doctor for a physical exam, and concluded his injuries were consistent with child abuse. Investigators spoke with Thomas on Oct. 9, and she said she hadn't abused him but admitted to pulling over the car after leaving Walmart to strike the child.
Investigators said Thomas continued to give them the runaround by not producing all of her children for them to see.
On Oct. 16, when investigators arrived at the home to remove all five children, Janiya was nowhere to be found. Thomas refused to give investigators details about her whereabouts or even her well-being, and she was arrested.
About 1:30 p.m., the uncooperative mother was taken before Circuit Judge Scott Brownell in family court, and Thomas still refused to say anything about Janiya. Brownell ordered her held in contempt of court, and she has since been in the Manatee County jail without bond.
At about 8 p.m. Oct. 16, Janiya was officially reported missing by CPI investigators to the Bradenton Police Department.
On Oct. 17, before information was released to the media, investigators interviewed three of her children, ages 15, 12 and 9, about Janiyah's whereabouts. None of them knew where Janiya was and said they hadn't seen her in a long time, according to the report.
One child said Thomas would punish Janiya for soiling herself by locking her in the bathroom for long periods of time, typically about a week. BPD Lt. James Racky said Janiya had a medical condition and could not always tell when she had to go to the bathroom.
The sibling told police Janiya would have to sleep and eat in the bathroom, and Thomas would put a case in front of the door so she couldn't get out, according to the report. Janiya would try to sneak out sometimes, the juvenile said, so Thomas would sleep in the front room so she could catch her. If Janiya was caught sneaking out, Thomas would threaten to beat her if she didn't return to the bathroom, according to the report.
The child said Janiya spent her birthdays locked in the bathroom and the other children would bring meals to her there. Thomas would beat Janiya with a belt or punch her as punishment for soiling herself, he said.
Body found in freezer
Law enforcement was called late Oct. 18 to a relative's home in the 5100 block of 21st Place East near Oneco after discovering a body believed to be Janiya inside a freezer. Keishanna Thomas and a boyfriend, yet to be identified by police, brought the freezer to the home Oct. 14 under the guise she was being evicted from her apartment, according to police.
The frozen body of a small black child contorted to fit in a small cardboard box within the freezer, was found along with two boxes of baking soda. Nothing else was inside.
Thomas was questioned about why the freezer was locked and why she had been adamant about it being plugged in. She reportedly said she didn't want anyone to steal her meat or for it to spoil.
Racky said he has gotten emotionally involved in the case since he has children.
"We try to put on a calm face about it but it disgusts me," Racky said. "I've got children myself. Whoever the child is in that freezer, however they died, it's just not right and we need to find out who is responsible and hold them accountable. That child in there is somebody's child."
Because the frozen body had to be defrosted in stages to preserve evidence, the autopsy was delayed. The autopsy performed Wednesday was inconclusive and more testing was ordered to verify it is the body of Janiya and determine cause of death.
Last Monday, the Florida Department of Children and Families announced it would send a critical incident rapid response team to review the death since there has been a verified report and involvement between CPI and the family in the 12 months prior to the discovery of the body. They are working with the sheriff's office.
Thomas' four other children have been sheltered under DCF protection.
"The recommendation to close the 2014 Thomas case as non-compliant when Ms. Thomas refused voluntary services was a joint consensus among the Manatee County Sheriff's Office's child protective investigators, Sarasota Family YMCA case managers and DCF's Children's Legal Services. When this joint recommendation was made, all of the children were with the family," DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in a statement Thursday.
Thomas is next scheduled to appear in court at 1:30 p.m. Monday before Circuit Judge Scott Brownell regarding her contempt of court order.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.