‘I think she is dead or something,’ sibling of missing Florida girl tells investigators

After their mother was jailed for refusing to answer questions about her daughter’s whereabouts, Janiya Thomas’ siblings told investigators it had been more than a year since they had last seen their sister. They also described to investigators how their mother, Keishanna Thomas, would lock Janiya in a bathroom for up to a week at a time and beat and punch her.

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Child Protective Investigations Division last physically saw Janiya on June 9, 2014, according to a police report charging Thomas with aggravated child abuse for how she reportedly treated her daughter.

One of Janiya’s siblings told investigators on Saturday: “I don’t know where she is, one day we went to school and came back, she was just gone.”

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office’s Child Protective Investigations unit entered Thomas’ apartment Friday at the Village at Cortez, 4880 51st St. W., to remove her five children from her custody over a child abuse investigation concerning her 12-year-old son. Law enforcement could only find four of her children, and when Thomas refused to discuss the whereabouts of Janiya, she was arrested.

Two days later, relatives of Keishanna Thomas called authorities to report that Thomas had dropped a locked freezer off at their home Wednesday in the 5000 block of 21st Way East, Bradenton. After seeing news that Janiya was missing, they became suspicious, broke open the freezer and discovered a body inside, police said.

Bradenton police are waiting on the medical examiner to identify the body, but they believe it is Janiya. The medical examiner’s office has been unable to perform the autopsy because the process necessary to thaw the body has to be done in stages.

In addition to the aggravated child abuse charge, Thomas has been charged with child abuse for allegedly hitting and punching her 12-year-old son after he was caught shoplifting Sept. 23 at the Walmart Supercenter at 5315 Cortez Road W. The investigation into that incident prompted the removal of the children on Friday.

It was the 10th Child Protective Services investigation since 2003 concerning Thomas.

The sheriff’s office announced Tuesday afternoon that the Florida Department of Children and Families would be releasing reports dealing with prior investigations dealing with Thomas.

Keishanna Thomas remains in custody in the Manatee County jail without bond, after refusing again Tuesday morning to tell a judge what happened to her daughter Janiya.

Children describe abuse

After Thomas was arrested when she refused to talk with them, investigators on Saturday interviewed three of her other children, ages 15, 12 and 9, about Janiyah’s whereabouts. None of the children 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. Bradenton Police Lt. James Racky said Janiya had a medical condition that affected her digestion and bowel movements and could not always tell when she had to go to the bathroom.

The sibling told police that 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.

When police asked the juvenile what his gut told him about where his sister was, he said, according to the report, “I think she is dead or something.”

When was Janiya missing?

Prior to Friday, when Janiya was officially reported missing, Bradenton police had responded to her mother’s apartment five times since August:

On Aug. 15, police were dispatched to reports of a disturbance at the home and left 31 minutes later.

On Aug. 27, police were dispatched to respond to reports of a juvenile problem and left the home 59 minutes later.

On Sept. 23, police were dispatched twice and on Sept. 24 once, regarding the incident with her 12-year-old son.

The Department of Children and Families’ Critical Incident Rapid Response Team is working with the sheriff’s office’s CPI division to review all the details and prior involvement with the family.

Among the questions that might be addressed: Was there a breakdown in communication that delayed the girl being reported missing?

About 1:30 p.m. Friday, Thomas appeared before Circuit Judge Scott Brownell and refused to answer questions about Janiya’s whereabouts. He ordered her held in jail on a contempt of court charge.

Bradenton police say they were not informed that Janiya was missing until about 8 p.m. Friday, according to Police Chief Michael Radzilowski.

“We are looking at who knew what, when did they know and what did they do about it,” Radzilowski said. “The sheriff’s office is looking into their conduct to see if there is anything.”

Children are of the utmost importance, the chief said, adding, “We just can’t have our children missing for more than a year and nobody notice anything.

“I’m not accusing anybody of dropping the ball, but we are trying to determine if somebody did drop the ball,” Radzilowski said. “From the second we were notified about it, we jumped on it with both feet.”

Sheriff’s office spokesman Dave Bristow said they will be reviewing their procedures, as they do with any child death.

Thomas remains silent

Thomas appeared before Circuit Judge Diana Moreland on Tuesday morning to address the contempt charge.

“She is not going to be making any statements at all,” Assistant Public Defender Franklin Roberts said on behalf of Thomas, saying it was her constitutional right not to say anything.

Moreland said that once a contempt of court order has been enforced, there are very few reasons the law allows for the contempt to be set aside, all of which surround the Constitution. “Unless one of the grounds is raised, I have to continue to enforce it,” Moreland said.

Thomas was ordered to appear again before Moreland at 8 a.m. Thursday morning for another hearing on the contempt of court order.

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby