Four years ago this month, the body of a missing 2-year-old turned up in a Liberty County drainage canal. He was face down in the water, but Jonathan Thomas Sturdy hadn’t drowned. To this day, authorities can’t say for certain what – or who – killed the child.
But Jonathan's mother is scheduled to appear in court Monday to answer charges related to his disappearance. A grand jury recently accused Kayla Ann Aubart, 32, of cruelty to children and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, charges that could send her to prison for five to 20 years.
Aubart, who has been jailed since Dec. 9, is not charged with killing her son. Still, her prosecution could bring resolution to a case that confounded law-enforcement officials while symbolizing the epic failures of Georgia’s child welfare system.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured Jonathan in a 2013 article about inadequate investigations by the state Division of Family and Children Services. As part of a series about Georgia's child welfare system, the newspaper reported that the agency’s secrecy and its lack of coordination with police and other organizations prevented crucial information about vulnerable children from getting to those who could prevent a tragic outcome.
“Before Jonathan Sturdy died, DFCS didn’t know what the police knew, the police hadn’t heard about what neighbors saw, and none of them had any notion of the concerns reported to social workers at a nearby military base.”
Neither Kayla Aubart’s court-appointed attorney nor the lead detective on the case responded to messages this week.
Jonathan was a baby when his family moved to Liberty County after the Army assigned his father to Fort Stewart. As a toddler, Jonathan played at the edge of the road with his half-brother, who was three years older, and neighbors saw them standing alone outside a nearby convenience store. A police officer once found Jonathan wandering through a field, wearing only a diaper. DFCS opened an investigation after the police found Jonathan and his half-brother locked in their mother’s car outside a grocery. Finally, a physician’s assistant at Fort Stewart told military social workers that Aubart might be taking too many prescription painkillers to care for her children.
Except for referring Jonathan’s parents to counseling, DFCS apparently did not intervene.
On Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, Aubart told police she awoke from a nap and discovered Jonathan was missing. Several hours later, a firefighter with a search dog found Jonathan’s body face down in 4 feet of murky green water, just a quarter-mile from home.
An autopsy could not determine how Jonathan died. But authorities ruled out drowning, accidental or otherwise.
Aubart has said the police suspected her from the beginning. In a 2013 interview, she said detectives and social workers were “railroading me at every … turn.”
“How dumb are these people, really?” she said. “Did I put my hands on his neck? No. Kids sneak out. It’s the Terrible Twos. They wander. This wasn’t the first time.”
By 2013, Aubart was living in Loughlin, Nevada. She had faced minor criminal charges three times, divorced Jonathan’s father, remarried, and had another baby. A month after giving birth, she spent a night in jail in Las Vegas after getting into a fight with her new husband.
“Kayla might not have been the perfect mother, but she would never have hurt those boys,” her mother, Cindy Aubart, said in 2013.
Cindy Aubart, a blackjack dealer at a Nevada casino, complained in that interview that authorities refused to even consider that anyone other than her daughter might have killed Jonathan and carried his body the quarter-mile to the drainage ditch.
“She’s lazy,” Cindy Aubart said of Kayla. “That is three football fields away. Like I told the detective: If there was a hundred dollar bill on the other end, she’d think about it.”