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Missing 3-year-old Tampa boy found in care of babysitter

Jaiden Henry, 3, is reunited with his mother, Sasha Earnest, on Monday after he was missing for several hours. It turned out the boy was with a babysitter. Investigators are still sorting out how and when Jaiden disappeared from his apartment.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Jaiden Henry, 3, is reunited with his mother, Sasha Earnest, on Monday after he was missing for several hours. It turned out the boy was with a babysitter. Investigators are still sorting out how and when Jaiden disappeared from his apartment.

TAMPA — Many questions remain about how Jaiden Henry vanished and how he ended up in the care of a babysitter seemingly without his mother's knowledge.

But for a moment Monday afternoon, all that mattered was that the 3-year-old was safe. When a sheriff's deputy put Jaiden in his mother's arms, she closed her eyes and squeezed.

"It feels good," she said.

For five hours, Sasha Earnest didn't know if her little "J.J." was alive or dead. Perhaps he was wandering busy streets by himself or had been abducted by a stranger.

The worst fear was that he had walked about 100 yards from their apartment, climbed through the gaping hole in a red picket fence and fallen into the Hillsborough River. Jaiden can't swim.

But about 1 p.m., the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office got in touch with the woman who takes care of Jaiden and his infant sister occasionally while Earnest runs errands or looks for work.

Yes, she had Jaiden, the woman told deputies. They were out shopping at a store up the road.

The woman had no idea of the hunt that had started shortly after 8 a.m. when Jaiden's mother discovered him missing and the apartment door wide open.

Jaiden's grandmother, Angela Allen, said the morning's drama began with a shower.

Earnest got her two children ready for the day, then stepped into the bathroom, leaving a door cracked so she knew when her infant daughter cried.

When she heard the baby, she called Jaiden to find the pacifier.

"J.J., put the Binky in the baby's mouth," the mother said.

It worked once. But the next time, the baby kept crying. Jaiden didn't answer.

Once reunited with her son, Earnest reflected back on those frantic first minutes: "I just tore everything up," she said. "I just wanted to find my baby."

Earnest even ran to the riverbank to see if he was in the water. She then used a neighbor's phone to call 911. Helicopter units, police dogs, divers and at least 30 deputies combed the area.

But it all ended with a phone call to the babysitter. It took only a few minutes for the woman, whose name was not released, to drop off Jaiden at the Riverview Landing apartments across the street from King High School.

Sheriff David Gee said the investigation is not over.

He wants to understand why deputies didn't know about the babysitter until hours into the search. And it still wasn't clear where or when she picked up Jaiden and why the mother wasn't aware.

Then there is the surveillance video from Monday morning showing a boy that resembled Jaiden playing alone outdoors. Gee said he wasn't sure where it came from, possibly a recreation center across Sligh Avenue.

If the boy in the video is indeed Jaiden, that creates another wrinkle in the timeline of his disappearance, Gee said.

Those answers will come. But in that moment when the boy was reunited with his mother, no questions were asked.

Also there to greet him was Octavius Johnson, the man who has helped raise Jaiden since he was 6 months old and is the only father he's ever known. Jaiden's grandmother and a great-aunt wept at the sight of him while family, friends and a gaggle of media surrounded them.

At first, the boy appeared startled at all the attention. But then he put his head on his mother's shoulder, gripped the arm where she has a tattoo bearing his name, and smiled.

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Missing 3-year-old Tampa boy found in care of babysitter 04/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 1:08am]

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