"This is a horrific case for our community. It also gives us a wake-up call. It's an opportunity to learn. Prevention is always better than reacting."
PENSACOLA — A community is grieving the loss of 12-year-old Naomi Jones.
The would-be sixth-grader was missing for five days before her body was found Monday. An Alabama man who is a registered sex offender has been arrested and charged with kidnapping, homicide and disposing of her body.
As more details of the case emerge, it presents the opportunity to learn about the dangers of children and social media.
"This is a horrific case for our community," said Brad Dennis, founder of Called 2 Rescue and national search director for KlaasKIDS. "It also gives us a wake-up call. It's an opportunity to learn. Prevention is always better than reacting."
The end of the search
A massive community effort was mobilized in Pensacola shortly after Naomi went missing May 31. That search ended Monday just four miles from her home at Aspen Village Apartments when fishermen in Eight Mile Creek discovered her body.
On Thursday morning, 38-year-old Robert Letroy Howard of East Brewton, Alabama, was arrested and charged with the young girl's murder.
"We've found our monster," Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said during a news conference Thursday morning.
Morgan declined to answer questions about how Naomi was killed, saying he wouldn’t comment on whether she was sexually assaulted or if she put up a fight before she died, but preliminary autopsy results indicate she was suffocated.
Investigators came into contact with Howard as they canvassed the neighborhood after Naomi was reported missing, Morgan said. He added that Howard gave authorities “false information” that he was in Alabama when the child disappeared.
According to Morgan, surveillance video from residents captured Howard’s vehicle by the creek where the young girl's body was found. Investigators put him under surveillance and took him into custody soon after. He was booked into the Escambia County Jail at 4:26 a.m. Thursday.
Morgan said the apartment of Howard's girlfriend is “very close” to the Jones family's unit and that he was known to the child.
Records show Howard was convicted in 1999 on two counts of sexual assault and rape and served 15 years in an Alabama prison.
Howard’s first court appearance will be today. Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille said his office will request that no bond be set. Marcille added his office will review the evidence, but likely will file first-degree murder charges and might also seek the death penalty.
Dangers of social media
It was reported that Howard had interacted with Naomi on social media, although the Sheriff's Office did not elaborate on the details. The case serves as a reminder of how vulnerable children can be online.
"Sexual predators use social media and other online applications and programs to remain anonymous," Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office Investigator Michael Evans said. "These individuals will befriend a child and groom them for contact. They will make a profile of a child and start to make contact with anyone who will talk to them."
Evans said predators will use applications that do not store data, making it difficult for law enforcement to find them. Predators are always looking for "new and better ways" to hide their identities, he added.
Parents should do their homework when it comes to the kind of apps their kids are on. Some programs and games may even have hidden chat functions. This is no easy task because information is constantly changing. According to news reports, Naomi was using an app called "Marco Polo," a walkie-talkie app similar to Snapchat that's only been popular for the last year or so.
There also are apps and programs parents can use to monitor their child's online activity. Evans suggests talking to phone providers about setting parental controls.
"Always keep in mind that children can and often will find ways around protection," Evans said. "Constant monitoring and vigilance is vital."
Jennifer Clark, victim advocate at Emerald Coast Children's Advocacy Center, said the details of Naomi's case are similar to many other missing children. Social media has become such a big issue that CAC is putting together educational programs to teach elementary-aged kids and their parents how to be safe online.
"This is very devastating," Clark said. "We work every day to protect children. Sometimes, this news is almost too much to take."
Dennis said Called 2 Rescue and KlaasKIDS will be "picking up the pace" with their training seminars as well.
Best defense? Be nosy
When it comes to online interactions, Clark said predators may ask for pictures of the victim's body, ask what they are wearing, what time they get out of school or if their parents are home.
"They want to know the (victim's) location," she added.
Sgt. Rich Aloy with the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office said the best defense is to be "nosy." If a parent does find suspicious or "remotely illegal" interactions, they should preserve the information and report it to local law enforcement.
"During these difficult times, it's also important to keep an open dialogue," he said.
Evans said it's important to remember that just because a child becomes a victim, it doesn't mean they have a bad parent. Unfortunately, there is horrific crime everywhere.
"The No. 1 thing the public needs to realize is that it can happen here," he said. "Just because this is not a metropolitan area ... we still need to be vigilant when it comes to our children. And it's not just online vigilance. It's knowing who your children are coming in contact with, from adults to other children."