Four years ago, on Oct. 18, 2015, the Bradenton Police Department announced a grisly discovery: The body of a girl later identified as Janiya Thomas, who had been reported as missing two days earlier, had been found in a freezer at a relative’s home in Bradenton.
The find ended a desperate search that started after the girl’s mother, Keishanna Thomas, who had been investigated several times for possible child abuse, refused to tell a judge about her daughter’s whereabouts.
Subsequent investigations lead to not only a murder charge for Keishanna Thomas, but scrutiny of the local child protection system and the rules governing the home-schooling of children.
On Aug. 9, 2017, Keishanna Thomas pleaded no contest to charges of second-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and abuse of a dead body. She was sentenced to 65 years in prison.
She could have faced an automatic life sentence had she been convicted of first-degree murder at trial. Thomas also pleaded no contest to child abuse in a 2015 case related to her then 12-year-old son that prompted the search for Janiya.
“I am doing this, your honor, because I feel this is in my best interest, and I don’t want to put my kids through a trial,” Thomas said.
She did not mention Janiya, nor offer any details about how or why she killed her daughter.
The following is the story about the day Janiya’s body was found, Oct. 18, 2015.
Missing Bradenton girl Janiya Thomas may have been found dead in freezer
MANATEE -- 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.
“I have been notified that a child’s body was found, and it is suspected she is the missing 11-year-old girl,” Police Chief Michael Radzilowski said.
At 11 p.m. Sunday, during a hastily called news conference in the parking lot of the Royal Palm 20 theater, police spokesman Lt. James Racky outlined when, where and how the body was found.
“At 7 p.m. Sunday we received a phone call from a family member of Janiya Thomas telling us the location where she possibly might be located,” Racky said. “We went to that location, and were told there that the body of the child may be in a freezer.”
The house where the child was found is occupied by Janiya’s aunt and grandmother and is in the 5000 block of 21st Way East, in the Woods of Hammock Place subdivision just north of 51st Avenue East, Racky said.
“We were able to locate a body in a freezer, but we have yet to confirm that it is the missing juvenile, Janiya Thomas,” Racky said.
On Sunday night, crime scene tape was placed around the house and investigators were seen inside taking pictures of a freezer, which Racky said was a stand alone unit, five-foot by four-foot. Neighbors gathered outside along the darkened street lined with well-kept homes, as well.
“A medical examiner will have to confirm the body’s identity through fingerprints and DNA and dental records before a conclusive report on the identity can be given,” Racky said.
“But the location of the freezer was in a family residence so we are pretty sure it’s going to be her, but we are not positive,” Racky added.
This past Wednesday, Janiya’s mother, Keishanna Thomas, with the help of a man, moved the freezer to the home, Racky said.
“She had help from an unknown black male who we are still trying to identify,” Racky said. “If anyone knows who he is, we would like to talk to him.”
The aunt and grandmother who received the freezer never looked into it until they saw the news reports about the missing child, Racky said.
Racky said they broke a lock on the freezer and made a grisly discovery.
“At that point they looked in it, saw what they thought was a body and called us,” Racky said.
Police would not say what condition the body was in or how it was placed in the freezer.
Racky said Janiya’s mother, Keishanna Thomas, 31, still hasn’t talked to police. She is in jail.
“Hopefully, now she will want to talk to us,” Racky said.
Child Protective Custody indicated to police that Janiya has been missing since August 2014, Racky said.
Janiya had health conditions
Racky said Janiya had a condition that impacted her digestion and bowel movements.
“She could not always tell when she had to go to the bathroom,” Racky said. “That’s one of the reasons the mother was frustrated with the child and kept the child in the bathroom at her residence. That medical condition is the same one that killed Janiya’s father.”
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.”
“I believe we have a body in a freezer,” Racky added. “I believe Keishanna brought that freezer to the residence. Whether or not we can prove she knew what was in there remains to be seen.”
Girl not in mom’s apartment
Janiya was not in her mother’s apartment in the West Bradenton apartment complex Village at Cortez, 4880 51st St. W., when Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Child Protective Investigations arrived Friday to remove her and four siblings from the home, according to Racky.
Investigators only found her four siblings -- ages 15, 12, 9 and 2 -- when they arrived.
Suspect Keishanna Thomas, 31, was arrested and brought before Circuit Judge Scott Brownell, yet she refused to divulge the missing girl’s location.
Brownell ordered her held in contempt of court at the Manatee County jail.
Police first learned the child was missing from CPI officials Friday night, Racky said. They waited to release information to the public until they could confirm some details, he said.
Keishanna Thomas’ arrest history include charges of violation of probation and prostitution.
The children were removed as the result of an investigation by Child Protective Services, but Racky said he could not provide any more details.
Anyone with information on this case is asked to call Bradenton police detective James Curulla at 941-747-3011, ext.. 2224, detective Adrian Meridan at 941-932-9326 or remain anonymous and eligible for a cash reward of up to $1,000 by calling Crime Stoppers at 1-866-634-8477 (TIPS) or send an anonymous e-tip to manateecrimestoppers.com.