AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – LaTania Janell Carwell reportedly celebrated Easter Sunday 2017 with her mother, sister, stepfather and a friend of the family with a cookout before becoming a missing person media frenzy. Her mother, Tanya Tripp, told NewsChannel 6 during one of our first interviews on April 28, 2017 that around 1:30 a.m. her 38-year-old husband and 16-year-old daughter, LaTania, left the family’s home on the 3100 block of Tate Road to help a friend with car trouble in Clarks Hill, SC. Tripp told us that her husband, Leon Tripp, took their daughter, whom the family often calls Janell, because he needed her skills using the cell phone’s GPS. Leon Tripp also told her that he took Janell because Tanya was not feeling well.
“I got her because you’re sick and he said I didn’t want to bother you so I asked our daughter would she go and help me find Maurice,” Tripp said, adding that she had cancer and a few other illnesses.
Note: Tanya told me that she is living with brain cancer. She also told me that she had to attend treatments for her illness.
A police report from Richmond County Sheriff’s Office corroborates Tanya’s story, which means it’s the same story she told deputies when she called in her husband and daughter as missing.
Tanya Tripp made a case report with the sheriff’s office on Monday, April 17 around 8:50 p.m. The 35-year-old wife and mother said the two left home around 1:30 a.m. after Leon received a call from a friend named Maurice claiming he was broke down in Clarks Hill. He took LaTania because he didn’t want to ride alone, the report stated. Tanya told the deputies the same thing she told me, that she spoke with Leon and LaTania by cell phone a short while after the two left. The report stated that was around 2:00 a.m. She told us more though. She said she called Leon after her youngest daughter said Janell is gone. She claimed both heard the door slam. After making the call, she said before she could complete the sentence asking where Janell is, Leon broke in to say before you say anything I took Janell because you know I don’t know how to work these cell phones. Tanya agreed. She even added that Leon passed the phone to Janell and she told her she loved her. That is the last time Tanya told me she remembers speaking with her daughter.
Note: Tanya told me that Leon took her phone and left his phone with her. She also stated that the phones Leon and LaTania had were missing and that she had her phone’s number ported to a new phone because that was the only number her daughter had to call her.
We spoke with LaTania’s uncle, Charles Carwell too.
Carwell is Tanya Tripp’s brother and he said he isn’t sold on the reason why Janell and her stepdad left.
“It’s almost as if it was premeditated because this girl goes missing on her 16th birthday. How she was brought out the house just doesn’t sit well with me.”
On April 20, Tanya Tripp reported her 1990 GMC Sierra C1500 white pick up truck was either with her husband and daughter or stolen. That truck was found April 26 about a mile from the home on Old McDuffie Road. That truck was back in Tanya Tripp’s possession during our next interview.
On May 1, a dramatic shift happened in the case. A kidnapping warrant was issued for Leon Tripp.
NewsChannel 6 spoke with Tanya Tripp for a second time on May 2. In that story, we dug deeper into the night of the pair’s disappearance. However, Tripp was not on board with investigators.
“In my heart, in my mind I feel like he didn’t kidnap our daughter,” Tonya Tripp said of the incident.
At this point, national media began talking about the missing teen’s case. Talk shows such as The Michael Baisden Show and The Rickey Smiley Morning Show were all interested in where LaTania might be and shared her story.
NewsChannel 6 noted that many people following the case believed LaTania may have been in a relationship with her stepfather. We brought up that hypothetical synopsis to Tanya and she quickly shut it down.
“Really,” Mrs. Tripp stated in disbelief. “He married to all this prettiness and he gon run away with our daughter? Come on now. That’s stupid!”
After speaking with LaTania’s uncle Charles Carwell, as I often do to stay abreast of the case and let him know I have not given up as a reporter, he shared that he received a tip that someone had seen his niece. I drove to the area where she was allegedly seen and reported it during the May 2 story.
A tipster contacted the Carwell family stating they saw Janell just two days after she left with her stepfather. They said they saw her in Clearwater, SC, off Belvedere – Clearwater Rd. between Lakeview Drive and Irene Street. It was about 1:30 in the morning and she was wearing a backpack, but when they asked Janell if she needed a ride she said no because she needed to meet someone.
I have also been in constant contact with the investigator and he informed me that he had not received the same tip.
Leon Tripp was actually caught on camera.
Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Investigators stated in a wanted poster that Leon Tripp was spotted at a Stop N Shop Grocery on Lee St. SW in Atlanta four days after he left his Augusta home. Janell, which is the name family called her, was not with him, though it’s believed both are in Atlanta.
What we did uncover after giving this story airtime again was Leon Tripp’s extensive criminal history.
Leon Tripp’s Criminal Past
Tripp’s lengthy criminal history stretches back to 2001 in various Georgia counties. His charges include Cruelty to Children in the third degree, Armed Robbery, Aggravated Assault and Battery.
I spoke with Tanya Tripp about her relationship with Leon Tripp, before she became Mrs. Tripp. She informed me that the two met when they were teens initially. She said they reconnected when he was behind bars and became pen pals. She said after a series of conversations, the sparks began to fly and the two married in 2011. She stated he was released on parole in 2015 and moved in with her, her children and mother in Augusta.
My mom met him and if you met her, you will know she’s like a snoop out, hound dog. She will tell you, he ain’t no good. She fell in love with him too,” said Tripp whose mother is now deceased.
Note: Tanya Tripp’s mom, Faye Carwell, passed away in January of 2017.
Tanya still believed at this point her husband did not kidnap their daughter. She told me Leon was the only father LaTania and her younger daughter knew and that their biological father was from Texas and deceased.
I corroborated her story with her brother. He though LaTania’s biological father was still in Texas, but stated I should listen to Tanya because he was not sure. He did, however, state that the timeline for when his sister met Leon seemed a bit off. He said they were in Texas as teens, so she could have not me Leon until much later in life. Tanya added that LaTania’s biological, paternal grandmother and the rest of the family were all deceased.
Another bit of information that changed the story was that the investigator informed me that the story about meeting Maurice to help him with car trouble in Clarks Hills was not true.
Prayers for LaTania
The next story NewsChannel 6 aired about the disappearance of LaTania was on May 7. I actually came in on my day off to head to Greater Young Zion Baptist Church, off Sand Bar Ferry Road in Augusta, where a prayer vigil for LaTania Janell Carwell was held. It is her home church.
We had the opportunity to speak with Tanya Tripp again after her pastor spoke and the congregation lifted her up in prayer.
“We empathize with her,” Pastor William Blount said. “We have compassion for her and I think she needed to feel that in a more tangible way.”
Tripp sat down to talk with us and give a plea to her daughter just in case she was watching.
“Mommy loves you baby and if you can get to a phone, call me. Let me know where you are and I will come get you personally. I promise you I would come get you,” she stated passionately in tears.
Probably the most thrilling time and saddest time of the case happened Tuesday, May 23. The Tripps were arrested, but there was still no LaTania.
The U.S. Marshals Office arrested Leon Tripp at a business in DeKalb County, Ga that Tuesday morning. He was charged with aggravated stalking, although we are not sure who he was stalking. He was detained in DeKalb County jail.
We spoke with Uncle Charles again shortly after Leon’s arrest. He told me the arrest was only half of the story and the other half was bringing LaTania home.
“At this point, I would think that if he is caught in Atlanta she would be in the Atlanta area also,” he said. “I wouldn’t think she would be around here and just stay away like that. That would make no sense. It’s possible, but unlikely I think at this point.”
A few hours later, Leon’s wife was behind bars too and charged with Hindering the Apprehension of a Criminal. Investigators found out she had been in contact with Leon and that she had moved from her Augusta home to live with him in Atlanta. She was booked in the the Atlanta Detention Center.
Note: We did not speak with Charles Carwell on the record about his sister’s arrest as to not muddy the waters and keep the focus on finding LaTania.
No really, where is LaTania?
Despite Leon and Tanya being in police custody, LaTania was still missing. Meanwhile, less than 24 hours after Leon was arrested, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office sent the Crime Scene Unit to the Tate Road home, which had become a neighborhood eyesore due to an eviction on Monday, May 22. All of the family’s items inside the home were strewn about the lawn. Inside, the Criminal Investigations Division worked with the windows covered to find evidence.
The same day, a company had come to clear the items from the front yard. There was no word on what was found inside the home.
We reported the activity at the home on our late shows. We also aired an interview with Cathy Rhodes, the founder of Bring Our Missing Home Inc. Rhodes runs a local non-profit organization with a national reach to help missing and exploited children. She disclosed that her organization has been working closely with investigators to help find LaTania.
“No tips. No leads. Nothing,” Cathy Rhodes said of the case she’s been working on since just a few days after the teen’s disappearance.
Rhodes shared with me off camera that she spoke and texted with Tanya from the time she reached out to her until she was arrested. She stated that she was told by Tanya that she relocated to Atlanta Friday, May 19. She said that Tanya stated she rented a Uhaul to move and returned it on Tuesday, May 23. According to Tanya, as she was driving to the Uhaul, she spotted Leon walking down the street. She said she yelled to him where is LaTania, but he did not answer that question. She said he told her that they ran out of gas and that the walked to a gas station, but the cell phones were stolen out of the truck. She then said that Leon took LaTania to the train station in Atlanta to take the bus back home.
I’m not sure how true this is because Tanya has not had a good track record for truth telling, but it is what she told Rhodes.
Note: Rhodes initially told me this information off the record, but she later approved my sharing it after she shared it with a podcast.
Rhodes created a flyer that she said would be distributed statewide to places such as businesses to help find the teen. It displays a $1,000 reward.
Tanya Trip returns to Richmond County, Leon Tripp remains in Atlanta. Where is LaTania?
Friday, May 26, Tanya Tripp was booked into Charles B. Webster Detention Center in Richmond County. Leon Tripp was moved from DeKalb County to Fulton County where he went to jail court. He remains there without bond until his next appearance on June 1.
According to investigators, the parents are not talking about where their daughter is located. However, rumors and theories about where she is and what happened are flying around social media. Facebook groups and blogs are popping up with everyday people concerned about where LaTania is and how she can be brought home. One group, called Help Find LaTania Carwell, was started by two women who live out of town, but are passionate about finding LaTania. It’s a good source for support, possible leads and weeding out information that really does not make sense with this bizarre case.
I received many tips on this teen’s whereabouts and mostly all of them are reported to the investigator on the case.
I wanted to do a story the focuses more on where LaTania was last seen. Getting that information was difficult, but the Richmond County Board of Education spokesman was able to confirm that LaTania did not arrive to school on April 17, which was her birthday. Her last day at school was the week prior.
Tanya, Leon and LaTania all have what appears to be Facebook pages. LaTania’s current page has her listed with the last name of her stepfather instead of her mother’s maiden name.
LaTania also has SnapChat and Instagram pages. I requested her on both, but she has not updated any accounts.
More on LaTania’s life
In the midst of week six, we are still trying to find out all that we can about LaTania and where she might be located. To do that, we thought we might get a glimpse of her life in school and church. In this follow-up story, we were able to obtain yearbook photos of LaTania.
But it’s not the photos that stand out in this follow-up. It’s what we don’t find. LaTania is not found anywhere else in the yearbook. No sports. No clubs. No organizations. While we know that the last people who truly may have laid eyes on the teen are her teachers, the school district would not allow NewsChannel 6 to speak with anyone. We have tried over and over again to learn more about this beautiful child. Who did she date? Who were her friends? What did she talk about? Did she have hopes and dreams?
The community cares more than ever. A local church even put out a call to action for Christians.
“Just to remind the congregation that as Christians, as believers we have a responsibility,” Senior Pastor Harold Harris told us. “And we do believe that faith does change things. Prayer changes things.”
NewsChannel 6 covered a variety of stories surrounding the arrest of both Tanya and Leon Tripp. We filed our story from the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta and uncovered more news in the search for the teen. The shocking part of this story is the realization that the couple joined forces and moved into an abandoned area of town, known as Oakland City.
I walked this neighborhood while in Atlanta and what I can say is that it is sketchy. The houses are all abandoned with boarded up windows and overgrowth. The home Tanya was taken into custody at had several leaves and debris around it. The doorknob on the storm door was broken, but I’m not sure if that happened when she attempted to move in or when police came.
Leon Tripp’s last known address was about a mile from the home. And the grocery store he was spotted at is also with in a mile.
This let me know that Leon Tripp pretty much was hiding in plain sight. He was right there evading U.S. Marshals in his old neighborhood. The one thing that concerns me is that there are a lot of empty homes in the neighborhood and apparently, there is not problem accessing them. Could LaTania have been or still be in one of those Oakland City abandoned homes?
If she comes out, someone is sure to recognize her in Atlanta or in Augusta. Several billboards have gone up with her likeness on them.
Parents in Richmond County jail, but where is LaTania?
Both Tanya and Leon Tripp were moved into the Charles B. Webster Detention Center in Augusta. But the search still continues unsuccessfully because neither one of them is saying anything. Tanya had her first appearance in court May 30. Leon appeared in court June 5. That is when the chilling news came from District Attorney Natalie Paine.
The District Attorney, Natalie Paine, said in court that LaTania is either presumed dead or unable to communicate.
She added, “Mr. Tripp and his wife who is the mother of Janell, their statements are in conflict although they seem to be working in concert with each other.”
We spoke exclusively to Makeda Kay, Leon Tripp’s ex-wife, in hopes of learning about his character and whether he’s capable of harming anyone.
Following that exclusive interview, LaTania’s teacher came forward exclusively and shared some chilling news about her student’s final day at school.
Sheriff Switches Gears
Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree announced during a press conference at the Law Enforcement Center that investigators were shifting from a kidnapping to a homicide. This means that now, investigators are looking for LaTania’s body, not a teen who is alive somewhere lost and unable to reach out for help.
How did the case upgrade to homicide just shy of two months since the teen disappeared? If you remember, DA Natalie Paine announced during Leon Tripp’s court appearance a week prior that LaTania is either dead or unable to communicate. Roundtree added that through forensic evidence and interviewing a “subject” close to the case, they made the determination that Carwell is dead. Now, the search is on for where the 16-year-old’s body might be buried.
I fired off a bunch of questions as soon as the Sheriff allowed media to ask them. Here’s what I was able to rule out or keep on the table:
- There was no physical evidence found in the home on Tate Road where LaTania lived with her mother and stepfather.
- LaTania’s body and the location where she was killed might be in two different places.
- Richmond County is working with metro Atlanta law enforcement on this case (which is key because LaTania was believed to be in Atlanta at some point due to Leon Tripp being spotted at a small grocery in the Oakland City area the first week of the kidnapping).
- One or more parties involved with the homicide are in custody.
Roundtree could not confirm a lot of questions:
- Whether Leon and Tanya Tripp is cooperating or provided confessions to their crime
- How LaTania died if this is a homicide
- Where they will begin searching
- Did LaTania’s cell phone ping anywhere in Atlanta
There was one answer I thought was interesting. When another media outlet asked whether family was notified, Sheriff Roundtree answered, but not in a way I thought that he would. Instead of saying the family has been notified, he said, “the individuals who are not connected to the case have been notified.” LaTania’s family, at least the ones we know at this point, are her uncle and younger sister.
While we were updated on the case from law enforcement’s perspective, I worked to find out who that last person was to truly see LaTania. Through sheer luck, I found out LaTania actually attended service at Greater Young Zion Baptist Church the day before she went missing. This is huge! Prior to this knowledge, we knew she was at school that Thursday, April 13. Many people following this story questioned whether anything happened after school that day, before she was reported missing. We have been able to narrow that window down to LaTania being OK and albeit alive Sunday morning, approximately 15 hours or so before her mother claims she left with Leon and less than 48 hours before she was reported missing to RCSO.
It took a lot of courage for LaTania’s Godmother and church member to come forward with information I’ve been searching for these past few weeks. The biggest detail was the strangeness of LaTania’s look to someone who knew her as a familiar face. It parallels her teacher’s description of how LaTania strangely moved to the back of the class weeks before she disappeared.
“When she looked me in my eyes honestly it was like I’d never seen her look like that,” Earnestine Mckie said.
Sheriff Roundtree stressed that rumors associated with the case only make it more difficult and there are a lot of rumors circulating. People also stressed in various groups online the desire to help with a search. I’m not sure if law enforcement would allow the community to join them, but we are awaiting an announcement of an organized search.
Blogger: Renetta DuBose
Contributing story writers: Katherine Wideman, Mike Lepp, Devin Johnson
Photojournalists: Renetta DuBose, Mark Gaskins