Skeletal remains found Saturday in a rural Florida area have been identified as belonging to teen Jabez Spann, missing since September of 2017.
“Saturday afternoon at approximately 4:30 p.m., skeletal remains were found in rural portion of Manatee County, west of I-75, [by] an individual working in the area on a fence line,” Sarasota Police Department Deputy Chief Pat Robinson said at a Tuesday press conference. “It’s unknown how long those skeletal remains were at the location where they were located, or if they were transported there from somewhere else.”
Jabez was last seen in his hometown of Sarasota, about 30 miles south of Manatee County. Deputy Chief Robinson refused to specify the location as it’s still considered a crime scene.
A Manatee County forensic dental expert identified the “fully skeletonized” remains through dental records, Chief Deputy Robinson said, and the Sarasota County Medical Examiner verified the match.
While Sarasota Police Department Public Information Officer Genevieve Judge said in a Tuesday press release that it’s unknown if foul play is involved, Chief Deputy Robinson said the area where Jabez’s remains were found is not an area he was known to frequent.
“We do not believe [Jabez] left Sarasota on his own volition and went to Manatee County, where his body was found,” he said. “Although this closes one chapter in the investigation, we’re opening another chapter in this investigation -- which is a death investigation. We’re pivoting off of one foot and leading right into an active investigation.”
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Authorities says “hundreds upon hundreds” of hours of investigative work has gone into this investigation, including what Chief Deputy Robinson called “incredible support” from Jabez’s family and the community.
“Many of our detectives have children of their own. I’m a father, as is the sheriff. I can’t imagine having that information broken to me about my son,” Chief Deputy Robinson said. “There have been highs and lows in this investigation when there have been sightings and tips and things we’ve followed up on. And every time it’s a peak and a valley, they’ve stood with us and our investigation team this entire way.”
In December of 2017, Jabez’s mother, Tawana Spann, told Dateline she last spoke to her 14-year-old son on the night of September 4, 2017. She didn’t sense anything out of the ordinary, she said, but the next morning, Jabez’s maternal grandmother, with whom he lived, grew worried when she learned Jabez hadn’t gone to school.
“He was a teaching assistant and a star football player,” Tawana told Dateline. “His career and football was what he really thrived off, so when he didn’t go to school, that’s when she got worried.”
After contacting Jabez’s friends and learning no one knew his whereabouts, Tawana reported her son missing. Now, with the news of her son’s death, Tawana expressed her grief in a Facebook post.
“Somebody knows what happened. Look at his face and see that he needs your help,” she wrote Wednesday. “This is not over its just changed from missing case to a death. What a beautiful child that you took.”
Chief Deputy Robinson spent time with the Spann family before Tuesday’s press conference.
“I’m sorry if I seem a little choked up,” he said Tuesday night, “but we are talking about someone’s son here. We just spent a significant amount of time with the family. [This] was somebody’s child that people cared deeply about. So if you’ll bear with me, I apologize.”
Initial reports speculated a connection between Jabez’s disappearance and the local homicide of Travis Combs, but Chief Deputy Robinson said Tuesday that police “are not speculating at this moment as to the connection to any other crime” and Jabez’s death investigation is going to be “handled on its merits alone.” The primary goal now, Chief Deputy Robinson said, is to bring justice for Jabez and peace to his family.
“We’ve always felt that there are individuals in our community who are scared to come forward. The folks that did it, we believe are in our community,” Chief Deputy Robinson said. “This isn’t a sprint, it is a marathon. We need the community’s support and their help – their eyes and ears – to find out what happened to this young man so that we can further this investigation. It’s through our community that this will be solved and we’ve said that since the beginning.”
Chief Deputy Robinson urged people with information to come forward even if they don’t feel comfortable going to the police.
“Bring it forward in any way, shape or form,” he said. “Call in, call the tip line, call Crime Stoppers, tell a pastor, tell a friend, if you don’t feel comfortable. We will follow up on anything and everything that’s brought to us.”
Anyone with information on the circumstances surrounding Jabez’s case is asked to call Detective Megan Buck or leave an anonymous tip with Crime Stoppers by calling 941-366-TIPS or online at www.sarasotacrimestoppers.com.
Bianca Hillier covers missing person and homicide cases for NBC News.