Latonya Baxter and her daughter moved south for a fresh start, but a few months into their new life, Latonya disappeared without a word, setting off a massive ground search in the Florida panhandle.
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- Online Public Records | Escambia County Clerk, FL
Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you the story of a woman who was thriving, who was looking forward to the future when everything was taken away. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.
In the summer of 2021, 40-year-old Latonya Baxter was ready for a change. She and her 21-year-old daughter Ja’Nay had been living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for quite some time, and Latonya felt like she needed a fresh start.
Latonya and Ja’Nay weren’t just mother and daughter, they were best friends, absolutely inseparable. So naturally, they decided that they would make that fresh start together. According to Ja’Nay, “We were looking for something new and different.”
As luck would have it, they had a relative who owned a house in Pensacola, Florida, and was willing to rent them some rooms, so Latonya and Ja’Nay packed up their things and headed south. The house on Warwick Avenue was just right – ten miles from the beach in a quiet neighborhood off Interstate 110. Latonya and Ja’Nay took two of the bedrooms; the third was rented by a family friend, 38-year-old Giles Jones.
Soon, Latonya and Ja’Nay settled into a comfortable routine. They had both been hired to work as nursing assistants at The Waterford at Carpenter’s Creek, a senior living community just three miles from the house. They both enjoyed the job, but Latonya really thrived in her role. She worked closely with the residents, helping them get dressed, escorting them to meals and group activities, and making sure they felt safe and cared for. Her supervisor, Nicole Bryant, said, “She was a stellar employee. She was just the sweetest, most giving person.”
For the next few months, Latonya and Ja’Nay enjoyed their new life in Florida. Latonya had started talking about going to nursing school, and Ja’Nay was encouraging her to pursue it. It seemed she had found her calling.
So when she suddenly disappeared, it was obvious that something was wrong.
On Sunday, September 12th, Ja’Nay was feeling anxious. She hadn’t talked to her mother in a while – two whole days, in fact – something that was completely out of the ordinary. They rarely went even a few hours without talking to each other; they had never been out of touch for a whole day, much less two. When Ja’Nay looked around the house, she realized that Latonya’s purse was missing. Had she gone to work and just forgotten to tell her daughter? Ja’Nay checked with the senior community, but Latonya wasn’t there, and her supervisor said she hadn’t seen her since her last shift.
Tired of waiting and consumed with worry, Ja’Nay called the Pensacola Police Department late that evening. Ja’Nay communicated her findings with the responding officers, making it clear to them that her mother would not just walk away without telling her. She told the officers about the missing purse, but even more strange – Latonya’s air mattress was missing. It seemed like such an odd item to vanish, but the officers made a note of it – perhaps Latonya had taken it with her wherever she had gone. The officers took Ja’Nay’s statement and promised to file a report.
The next morning, Ja’Nay called the police department again to follow up on the report she had made the night before. She told the detective on the phone that their roommate, Giles Jones, had gone into Latonya’s bedroom that morning and cleaned it – something that was very out of character for him. Detective Keith Tourney immediately responded to the house on Warwick Avenue and, with Ja’Nay’s permission, conducted a thorough search of the home.
It quickly became clear that this was no ordinary missing persons case. When Detective Tourney entered Latonya’s bedroom, he discovered a small amount of blood spatter – strange that it hadn’t been wiped up during Jones’ unexpected cleaning spree. There was also a blood smear on the back door of the house, and even more blood found in the storage shed. In his report, Detective Tourney noted that there were tire tracks in the dirt leading away from the back door.
It was obvious that police needed to talk to Giles Jones, but Ja’Nay said that he had left the house that morning right before Detective Tourney arrived, driving his gray 2009 Nissan Maxima. Within a few days, the Pensacola Police Department caught up with Jones at the local bus station and took him in for questioning.
During his interview with police, Jones said that he often loaded things into his car from the storage shed, so the tire tracks leading away from the house were not a big deal. But the police had already begun forensic testing on the vehicle, and what they found was damning – a large amount of blood soaking the carpet in the trunk. They were sure that the blood would be linked to Latonya.
Police also had possession of Jones’ cell phone, which would prove to be the most valuable piece of evidence yet. During a search of the phone, Detective Tourney came across a picture of Latonya Baxter taken at 1:45pm on September 11th. In the photograph, it was clear that Latonya was dead; her body showed obvious signs of trauma.
Giles Curt Jones was arrested on September 15, 2021, and charged with first-degree premeditated murder. He was sent to the Escambia County Jail to be held without bond.
Jones was in custody, but Latonya’s family still needed answers. They needed to know where he had taken Latonya’s body. Investigators pulled surveillance footage from local homes and businesses, hoping to piece together a timeline of his movements, a timeline of Latonya’s last hours.
At 12:19pm on September 11th, a traffic camera spotted the Nissan Maxima passing through the intersection of Highway 29 and Highway 4 in the small town of Century, Florida. The town is on the border of Alabama and is about 40 miles north of the house on Warwick Avenue. The car passed through that intersection again at 3:09pm that same day. In that three-hour window, Jones took a picture of Latonya’s dead body, the one later found on his phone. Based on this information, police believed that Jones may have driven Latonya’s body across the state line into Alabama.
For two weeks, search teams scoured the area, deploying four-wheelers and drones to cover the heavily wooded landscape. The Pensacola Police Department asked the public to check their trail cameras for any suspicious activity around September 11th. A department spokesperson said, “Those trail cameras are out there for deer. If you see people on it, we want to know.”
Police Chief Eric Randall told the Pensacola News Journal that the search was taking a long time due to just how much land there was to cover. “We are really trying to narrow this search effort down because we really do have an expansive area to try and locate Ms. Baxter.”
Investigators acted on several tips that came in from the public, including the report of a horrible smell coming from under a bridge near Century, but it ended up being the result of a chemical that was sprayed on the railroad tracks. An area near the local high school was also searched, but the teams only found a bunch of rocks and dirt.
As each lead was tracked down, Latonya’s family became more and more desperate for answers. Ja’Nay was in contact with Pensacola Police every day; the wait for information was agonizing. She told the Pensacola News Journal, “I would just like help to find my mom. I would love to be able to bring her home so I can officially put her to rest. That’s all I want.”
Chief Randall continued to ask the public for help as the days passed. “Any information that you have is important for us to hear — no matter how small or how big it may be — because it could be that missing piece of the puzzle that we’re looking for… It is important for us to be able to find Ms. Baxter for her family. Yes, we made an arrest in the case. But that is only part of it. We still need to provide closure to her daughter and the rest of her family.”
On September 26th, a traveler was driving along Highway 113 in Alabama, about 8 miles north of the Florida state line. The driver pulled over to relieve himself, and as he stepped past the tree line, he discovered the decomposing body of a woman. He immediately called 911, and investigators responded to the scene. Their search was over – Latonya Baxter had been found.
Ja’Nay spoke to the Pensacola News Journal about the phone call she received from detectives. “I cried because it was real. It finally hit me that I would never see my mom again… (but) I also feel relief that I can finally have her, and she is not just lying somewhere anymore.”
The day after Latonya’s body was recovered, Giles Jones pleaded not guilty to first-degree premeditated murder. He was arraigned on October 7, 2021, and his case has been slowly making its way through the Florida court system. According to the public court records, the state has gathered dozens of witness statements, crime scene photos, and text messages that will be used to prosecute Jones when his case finally goes to trial. As of this recording, Jones has been assigned a public defender and will next appear in court on September 13, 2022.
Latonya was a bright light for those around her, especially for her daughter Ja’Nay. “I just want people to know she was very sweet… I just want them to know how good of a person she was.”
We may never know why Latonya was so cruelly ripped away from her family, why Giles Jones allegedly chose to take her life that September day. We can only hope that justice will be served, and that Latonya Baxter will never be forgotten.