Malcolm Lambert was on the trolley recently when a young African-American boy pointed to the photo button pinned to Lambert's lapel. “Look, mom, it's me,” the little boy exclaimed.
Indeed, there was an uncanny similarity between the boy on the trolley and the boy in the photo. Lambert would have liked nothing more than for that boy to be the same one pictured on the button. A 72-year-old retiree who relies on public transportation, Lambert is never without a baseball cap embroidered with the words “Finding Jahi: By any means necessary” and the button with the smiling little boy's picture. He wears both to remind people that Jahi Turner, the toddler who went missing just over two years ago, is, indeed, still missing.
Lambert is a designated “field representative” for the Jahi Turner Foundation, a small group of San Diegans that organized when efforts to find the little boy stalled. While the group's primary focus is the search for little Jahi, they've also assisted in other searches for missing children in San Diego County.
When it comes to missing children, “People become frustrated if nothing happens,” said Lambert, who has a background in investigative social science research. “Pretty soon it becomes so frustrating that people don't lose interest exactly, but they have to get on with their lives; they literally can't do anything else.”
As the story initially went, Jahi's stepfather, 23-year-old Tieray Jones, took the boy, who was 2 years old then, to a Balboa Park playground on April 25, 2002. Jones says he left Jahi alone for 15 minutes to go buy a soda; a woman and her children were allegedly at the playground and Jones thought Jahi would be safe with them. Jones says that when he returned, the little boy was missing.
Subsequent investigations found that no witnesses could place Jones and Jahi at the park, and, in fact, the boy had not been seen since April 23. Jones' polygraph test, administered by the San Diego Police Department, was inconclusive. Jahi's mother, Tameka Jones, 18, a Navy sailor who'd been relocated to San Diego only a few days before her son's disappearance, was out to sea at the time.
Witnesses reportedly said they saw Jones leave his apartment carrying a large trash bag to a dumpster shortly before he reported Jahi missing. A search of the Miramar landfill yielded nothing, and police opted not to search a South Bay landfill, citing safety and cost concerns.
In November 2002, Tieray Jones was extradited back to Maryland on misdemeanor drug charges, and his wife was transferred out of San Diego by the Navy.
In January of this year, the San Diego County District Attorney's Office opted not to press charges against Jones, citing a lack of evidence. San Diego Police Assistant Chief Rulette Armstead told CityBeat no new evidence or leads have been uncovered since then, but “if we get any additional evidence, we'd immediately issue it to the District Attorney.”
When asked whether he has a theory about what happened to Jahi, Lambert quietly said he does. “I believe 100 percent that it involves drugs,” he said, “that there was some kind of drug exchange.”
He said that three months ago a man approached him on the street and said Tieray was using drugs at the time of Jahi's disappearance, “and Jahi was collateral in a drug deal.” The man promised Lambert he'd pull together more information, but hasn't contacted Lambert since. Armstead said the police hadn't received any information that would corroborate that allegation.
“I don't want to accuse anyone of anything,” said Lambert who's spoken to Jones several times. “I don't want to alienate anyone. Jahi is somewhere and someone knows where.... All we have to do is make them come forward.”
The Jahi Turner Foundation has set up a reward fund-something that no other agency or organization had done previously. “Money talks,” Lambert said. “Someone might suddenly remember something or be willing to come forward with some information.” If Jahi isn't found by April 25, 2005-the third anniversary of his disappearance-the money will be donated to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
This week Lambert is traveling to Frederick, Md. to visit Jahi's father and paternal grandmother, with whom he's become close. He said the father's side of the family is considering a lawsuit against Tieray and Tameka Jones, alleging child neglect. The point of the lawsuit, Lambert said, would be to draw attention to the case. “If anything at all is going on, people will keep interested and maybe remember something.”
Keeping Jahi in people's minds is key for Lambert. He said that it's not uncommon for several people to approach him each day on the street or on the trolley, point to the photo button of Jahi and ask how the case is going.
“How can a little boy just disappear and be forgotten?” he questioned. “That's unacceptable.”
Armstead said the police department appreciates the work the foundation is doing. “It helps to keep the case alive,” she said.
The Jahi Turner Foundation can be contacted at P.O. Box 500155, San Diego, 92150-0155.