On a Wednesday morning, Quinton Simon’s mother reported him missing, telling police she feared the 20-month-old wandered out of his home in Savannah, Georgia.
The 5 October report by 22-year-old Leilani Simon kicked off a massive search - but with a sinister twist. For an entire month, FBI agents and local law enforcement dug through mountains of trash at a Chatham County landfill.
The case captured national attention as authorities announced their belief that Quinton’s body had been taken to the landfill after being placed in a dumpster. Ms Simon was the only suspect on the investigators’ radar.
In Savannah, protests persisted for days outside the Simon home after the mother was spotted drinking at a bar with her own mother Billie Jo Howell on the first day of the landfill search. In her only media interview during the search, Ms Simon sobbed about being a victim of harassment and expressed hope that Quinton would be found safe.
The search came to a tragic close on 18 November. Quinton’s remains were recovered among the rubbish, and Ms Simon was charged with murder.
Quinton’s grandmother Ms Howell reportedly tipped police off about her daughter’s alleged involvement in Quinton’s death. Ms Howell, 45, has since been arrested herself on charges not related to the case.
‘It was loveless’
Leilani Simon was no mother of the year to her three children, babysitter Diana McCartha said, but her relationship with Quinton was especially devoid of affection.
“It was loveless. To the other kids, she showed love. She showed concern,” Ms McCartha told WSAV last week. “To Quinton, it wasn’t concern and love.”
Ms MsCarta said she was supposed to babysit both Quinton and his three-year-old brother on the day he went missing but was eventually told not to come at 5.30am on 5 October.
At 9am, she got another text asking if she knew where Quinton was, and decided to go to the family’s home to help search for him.
Ms Simon eventually phoned the police at about 9.40am.
A dispatch call by emergency service, which has been obtained by local media, suggested the front door to the family home was found open and that Ms Simon told 911 she “thinks someone came in and took him.”
Ms Simon told investigators that Quinton was last seen at about 6am that day at an address in the 500 block of Buckhalter Road.
She told police her son was playing in a playpen when he was last seen, although earlier reports suggested Quinton had wandered off, CNN reported.
He was wearing a light blue Sesame Street shirt and black pants, police said at the time, as posters with his picture and a tipline number began to circulate.
“You wonder what he had to endure from the time that he left my house, to the morning when I got the text,” Ms McCartha tells WSAV.
“I can’t even imagine and I don’t want to think about it because it drives me crazy.”
‘They were having a great time, like they didn’t have a care in the world’
Before being arrested on 12 December, Ms Howell told local news station WTOC that she was trying to move her daughter’s potential trial to another venue as the case had garnered the media and the public’s attention in Chatham County.
During the course of the search for Quinton, three people were arrested while protesting outside the home where he disappeared.
Three protesters blocked the driveway, preventing someone from being able to leave. They were subsequently charged with disorderly conduct after ignoring officers’ orders to move, WJCL reported.
The arrests in late October came after Ms Simon and Ms Howell were seen drinking at a local bar. As the FBI continued to search for Quinton’s body, local news station WSAV first reported that the mother and daughter were at Sting Ray’s, a bar in the neighbouring Tybee Island.
A server also told the New York Post that Ms Simon and Ms Howell “downed tequila shots” and stayed at the bar for hours on 18 October, despite other customers’ voicing that they were upset the pair were drinking in public in the middle of an investigation into Quinton’s likely death.
“They were having a great time, like they didn’t have a care in the world,” a server told the Post. “They were drinking Patron shots in the deck area, being loud and laughing. It’s almost like they were trying to draw attention to themselves.”
‘I will take myself to that police station’
Ms Simon spoke to local news station WTOC on 24 October, making shocking remarks that she hoped Quinton was found ‘happy and healthy.’
“I’m here. I’ve been here every day since this. I’m not running and I’m not hiding,” she told the outlet.
“And if something does come up that I am at fault, I will take myself to that police station.”
At the time, she said she was the target of constant harassment.
“It makes it hard to even process what’s going around us. We get to the point where we have to barricade our own home in order to even feel safe in our backyard because we can’t even process what is happening everywhere else, or even have the time to do so,” she continued in her interview with WTOC.
“I can’t even walk out and appreciate my own son’s memorial or put down gifts that I got for him. I can’t even go out there and do that without harassment and negligence and everything. It’s just devastating to see that this is how the outside world reacts.”
On 8 October, Quinton’s grandparents shared that the boy’s mother “hasn’t always done the right thing.”
“Sometimes she does really great, sometimes she doesn’t,” Ms Howell told ABC30. “I don’t know what to think right now...I don’t know if I can trust her or I don’t. I just know I’m hurting and I want this baby home. He’s my baby.”
Ms Howell reportedly lived at the same address as Quinton and Ms Simon along with her husband Thomas Howell, and her daughter’s boyfriend, WJCL reported.
The news outlet obtained court documents alleging an eviction dispute, with Ms Howell seeking to remove her daughter and her boyfriend from the property over alleged “damage” and a lack of “peace”.
The same documents also stated that Quinton’s grandparents had custody of the child, according to WJCL.
Ms McCarta also said in an interview on 11 October that she had previously reported the family to Georgia’s department of families and children services (DFCS) with concerns, but this was unconfirmed.
The department told The Independent: “DHS/DFCS is bound by both state and federal law to protect the privacy of the people we serve. As such, we are unable to comment on the specifics of any reported abuse or neglect cases nor confirm or deny the existence of any abuse or neglect records.
“We take seriously every report that might be made to the Department and work with law enforcement when appropriate to ensure the safety of Georgia’s children.”
Timeline of developments
Early into the search for Quinton, Chatham County police said they did not believe foul play was involved in his disappearance and that they hoped to find him alive, WJCL reported.
In the days after Quinton was reported missing, search warrants were carried out on a nearby pond, a backyard swimming pool and the house itself in the 500 block of Buckhalter Road in Savannah, police said.
Those areas were re-canvassed on 10 October when the pool in the backyard of the home was drained.
While it was unclear if any evidence was found or removed from it, police announced on 11 October the discovery of evidence “that we believe will help move this case forward”. That evidence went under analysis, police said.
On 18 October, police announced that Quinton was believed to have been buried in a landfill.
In a statement that was shared on Facebook, police said. “The CCPD and the FBI have notified Quinton Simon’s family that we believe he is deceased”.
His mother, Ms Simon, has been named a prime suspect.
Officials held the first press conference on the case on 13 October, where they reiterated the belief that Quinton is deceased.
“To the Chatham County community, our heart breaks along with yours trying to comprehend what we believe happened here. The FBI along with our law enforcement agencies have followed every lead, every tip and every piece of evidence to get to this point and we will continue to do so,” FBI Supervisor Senior Resident Agent Will Clarke said.
Officials did not disclose the nature of evidence suggesting Quinton is dead, or why Ms Simon is the main suspect.
The FBI supported the Chatham County Police Department in the investigation, with law enforcement spending 18 to 20 hours a day looking for the 20-month-old child.
FBI Supervisory Senior Resident Agent Will Clarke said during the press conference that “we, along with our law enforcement partners, go into this process with heavy hearts”.
Quinton’s body was found on 18 November.
‘I just don’t know how any mother could hurt their child’
On 21 November, police in Georgia’s Chatham County announced Ms Simon had been charged over Quinton’s disappearance and alleged murder.
“This afternoon Chatham County Police Department detectives arrested 22-year-old Leilani Simon and charged her with malice murder, concealing the death of another person, false reporting and making false statements in connection with the disappearance and death of her son 20-month old Quinton Simon,” said police chief Jeffrey Hadley.
“On Friday, our search teams at the waste management landfill found what they believed were human remains. This afternoon, the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, confirmed that they are in fact human remains. Additional testing including a DNA analysis, is being conducted and we have every reason to believe that this will confirm the remains are Quentin’s.”
He added: “This is a heartbreaking development for everyone who loved Quinton, for the many people who came to know him after his disappearance, and for our department.
“When we first received the call that Quinton was missing, we were hopeful that we would find him alive and unharmed. But as we have been telling you for weeks, all of our evidence pointed to his mother being responsible for his death and disappearance and his remains being found in the landfill.”
Ms Simon is currently being held at Chatham County Detention Center without bond. She was placed on suicide watch, her mother told WTOC.
She is due back in court for her next hearing on 11 January 2023.
Meanwhile, Ms Howell was booked into Chatham County jail on contempt of court charges and was placed in a suicide-prevention smock.
The details of the arrest are unclear but the charges are not believed to be related to her 20-month-old grandson’s disappearance and death.
Instead, records show that she was taken into custody as a result of a hold placed by Chatham County juvenile court. The juvenile court records are sealed.
Ms Howell had custody of Quinton and his older brother at the time of his disappearance. It was also Ms Howell who reportedly tipped off authorities about her daughter – leading to her arrest on murder charges.
Two months on from Quinton’s death, Ms McCartha said she is happy an arrest was made.
“I just don’t know how any mother could hurt their child,” she told WSAV. “I don’t know what could be going through their head for them to hurt their child.”
“I am happy that justice is going to be served, because Quinton needs that.”
Despite her fall-out with Quinton’s family in the aftermath of his disappearance, Ms McCartha has continued to talk about the little boy and share pictures of him on her social media.
Her comment section has been inundated with messages from people following the case across the country, who have thanked her for showering Quinton with love while he lived.
On Thanksgiving, Ms McCartha posted a reminder of Quinton’s presence in her life. At her dinner table was a picture of the little boy grinning and the affectionate nickname she seemingly used with him printed on the card.
“Happy Thanksgiving, monkey,” she wrote.