A Superior Court judge ruled Friday that the stepfather of 2-year-old Jahi Turner, who disappeared more than 14 years ago, should stand trial for murder.
After a weeklong hearing, Judge Charles Rogers said that prosecutors had presented enough evidence to hold Tieray Jones for a trial. Attorneys for Jones, who was questioned repeatedly by San Diego police in the days after the child vanished, insisted afterward that he was not guilty.
Jahi has not been seen since Jones, 38, reported him missing April 25, 2002.
"Something happened to Jahi," Deputy Dist. Atty. Nicole Rooney told the judge Friday, "and the defendant disposed of his body."
According to prosecutors, Jones lied to police about his actions after Jahi's disappearance in order to cover up the crime. A medical expert also testified that Jahi may have been a victim of child abuse, a conclusion based in part on Jones' journal entries.
An entry from April 23, 2002, read: "Today for some reason he hasn't been moving or really talking. Jahi is starting to act really funny he won't get up off the floor. He's not walking or talking when I tell him to get his cup he just looks at me.
"I know it's going to take some time. But I don't want him hating me for something I can't control. The bump on his head has gone down I put ice on it. It's gotten a little red."
Jones was living with Jahi's mother, Tameka Turner, who was in the Navy and had been deployed a few days before her son went missing.
During the preliminary hearing, investigators testified that Jones called 911 on April 25, 2002, to report that Jahi had disappeared. He said he had taken the boy to a playground that day and left him to walk to a vending machine several yards away. When he returned, Jones said, Jahi was gone.
He said he searched the area for 15 minutes before calling police.
In making his ruling, Rogers said he concluded the call was "fabricated." He noted that witnesses who were at the park said they never saw Jones or Jahi.
Jones was not arrested after Jahi disappeared, and the district attorney's office announced in 2004 that it was not planning to file charges against any suspect in the case.
Last year, Tameka Turner agreed to call Jones while police listened. The couple separated in 2004 and later divorced.
In that call, which was played in court, Jones said he often thought about the day Jahi disappeared and acknowledged that people blamed him. "I should have been paying attention," he said.
Authorities in April arrested Jones, who had been living in North Carolina.
The prosecutor said the cooperation of Jahi's mother and the 2015 phone call were two new elements that were not available in 2002, but they were not the most crucial.
"The most compelling piece of evidence we had was the fact that nobody ever saw Jahi Turner alive after Monday, April 25, 2002," Rooney said outside court. "We have numerous witnesses at the [apartment] complex, at the park, all around town who saw the defendant without Jahi Turner, and that's the most compelling argument."
The trial is set to begin in April.
Littlefield and Moran write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.