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Four years after pregnant teen Morgan Martin went missing, a man is charged in her death (w/video)

St. Petersburg police have indicted Jacobee Flowers, 28, in the death of Morgan Martin, a pregnant 17-year-old who was wearing pajamas when she went missing outside her home four years ago. [Zack Sampson | Times; St. Petersburg Police Department]
St. Petersburg police have indicted Jacobee Flowers, 28, in the death of Morgan Martin, a pregnant 17-year-old who was wearing pajamas when she went missing outside her home four years ago. [Zack Sampson | Times; St. Petersburg Police Department]
Published Jun. 28, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Leah Martin worried when her 17-year-old daughter, Morgan, announced she was pregnant.

The girl was young, yet the way she talked about motherhood, with exuberance that belied her age, made Leah reconsider.

Morgan had just reached the exciting part of her pregnancy: ultrasounds, shopping lists, a name for the baby to come. Doctors said she was having a girl.

Shortly after midnight on July 25, 2012, Morgan left her home on 17th Avenue S to share the news with Jacobee Flowers, who she said was the baby's father. She wore pajama pants and fuzzy slippers, certain she'd be back inside soon. She never returned.

Leah spent four years struggling to accept her daughter's death even as police came up empty in the search for her body and her killer.

That ended Monday when, after a 13-month investigation by a cold case squad, detectives announced that Flowers faces a first-degree murder charge in Morgan's slaying.

"She was mine," Leah Martin said through tears. "She wasn't his to take."

A grand jury indicted Flowers on Thursday, police said. But the document detailing the case against him remained sealed Monday. Officials said little about the crime.

St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway said Flowers, who has long maintained his innocence, planned the murder and "duped" Morgan into meeting him before killing her and disposing of her body.

Asked why Flowers, now 28, did it, Holloway said only: "He knew that she was pregnant, that's all I can say at this time."

Flowers faces just one murder charge in Morgan's case, police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said, because Florida law at the time of her disappearance allowed for murder charges only if an unborn fetus could survive outside the womb.

Detectives still have not recovered Morgan's remains.

Flowers is being held at the Avon Park Correctional Institution on unrelated charges of fleeing and eluding a law enforcement officer in Pinellas County. He is scheduled to be released July 1. He has a history of arrests, according to state records, and has faced other charges for traffic violations, resisting an officer and theft. He will be brought to the Pinellas County Jail within the next few days.

Holloway said detectives knew it would be simpler to arrest Flowers while he was already in state custody, but they did not view July 1 as a hard-and-fast deadline.

"No matter what, we were going to continue to try to bring closure to this family," the chief said.

Leah Martin took deep, steadying breaths as she talked about her daughter at a podium in the basement of the police station.

"She was my tagalong," Leah Martin said. "She was my sidekick."

At sleepovers, Morgan would sometimes call for a ride early, just wanting to be home, her mother said. She would never end a call without saying 'I love you,' and if you forgot to say it back, she would keep calling until you picked up again.

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"She was a good kid, and she wanted to be a mom," Leah Martin said. "I know 17's not a good idea." But, she said, Morgan acted as if motherhood was all she ever wanted.

Months after Morgan's disappearance, police shifted the investigation from a missing persons case to homicide.

Leah Martin said she had "a pretty good idea" her daughter was dead before the indictment, but Flowers' arrest eliminated any uncertainty.

"She won't be coming home, so that's a little rough," the mother said. "But it's good to know that somebody's going to be held accountable."

When St. Petersburg police's cold case squad was formed last year, there were 212 possible unsolved murder cases before them. Morgan's case was one of the first they took up.

Detectives Jim Culberson and Amanda Newton led the investigation. Over the past year, the team interviewed witnesses, looked over evidence and traveled throughout Florida and into Alabama chasing leads. They requested 21 subpoenas, police said, and nine search warrants.

Computer, video and behavioral analysts, including some from the FBI's main office in Quantico, Va., helped on the case.

The detectives talked to Leah Martin often and learned everything they could about Morgan. A case file that once took up just a single envelope grew to several binders.

"It's so hard not to stand there and cry with them," Newton said of the Martins. "I feel like part of their family."

The detectives went to Avon Park, nearly 100 miles southeast of Tampa, to tell Flowers in person about the indictment.

He had for years denied involvement in the case, telling police and reporters he knew Morgan only from the neighborhood and he wasn't the baby's father. He asserted that he didn't kill her, even during a television interview.

From the moment Morgan went missing, investigators zeroed in on Flowers as a person of interest. That didn't change even as the case grew cold.

In prison, when the detectives told Flowers he had been formally charged with Morgan's death, Holloway said, he showed no emotion.

"He didn't say anything," the chief said. "He didn't deny it.

"He didn't say a word."

Times senior news researcher John Martin and staff writer Hannah Jeffrey contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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