VANCLEAVE, Miss. – An Alabama man who told authorities he dumped his two dead children in the woods, then covered them with twigs, was charged Wednesday with two counts of murder after investigators found remains believed to be his 3-year-old son, police said.
Mobile Police Officer Chris Levy said the discovery of a boy's bones about 50 feet off a highway in rural Mississippi gave authorities enough evidence to file the murder charges against John DeBlase, who had been held for child abuse and corpse abuse.
Tests are pending to confirm the identity.
"We believe at this point that he did in fact kill his son" and daughter, Levy said.
John DeBlase and the children's stepmother were arrested last week on lesser charges, and authorities searched for the children's remains in Alabama and Mississippi over the weekend. Neither child had been seen for months.
An investigation into their disappearance didn't start until late last month after their stepmother, Heather Leavell-Keaton, sought a protective order against DeBlase in Kentucky, Levy said. She said in the Nov. 18 filing that DeBlase "may have murdered his children," and that she feared for her life because he was abusive. The couple just had a child together this summer.
"I am afraid that he is going to do something to harm our daughter because of what he has done to the other children," she wrote.
DeBlase has blamed her for his children's deaths, and police say they're both responsible.
DeBlase, 27, has been assisting police in the search for the bodies. Remains of his 5-year-old daughter Natalie haven't yet been located, but DeBlase told police he dumped her body in the woods north of Mobile in June.
He told investigators he dumped the boy's body in March.
"Everything we found is absolutely consistent with the information he gave to us on what to look for," Levy said.
Levy said the bones were found under twigs and brush in an area known to have bears, coyotes and vultures. The same area had been searched over the weekend.
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd, whose deputies conducted the search Wednesday, said the bones were scattered over about a 10-foot wide area. No clothing was discovered with the remains. Byrd said DeBlase told authorities his son was wearing just a diaper when he put his body in a black plastic trash bag and dumped it in the woods.
"It was concealed pretty well. If you didn't walk up on it and look, you wouldn't have seen it," Byrd said.
Byrd said DeBlase told him he couldn't remember exactly where he put the body because he was high on sleeping pills at the time.
Leavell-Keaton is jailed in Louisville, Ky. on child abuse charges and awaiting return to Mobile, where she, too, could soon be charged in the children's deaths.
Reached Wednesday, DeBlase's father, Richard, said he had no comment on the grim discovery.
"We're doing all right," he said.
The children's biological mother, Corrine DeBlase Heathcock, was "devastated" by the news Wednesday, said Rob Willmann, her pastor and a family spokesman.
In a statement released by Willmann, Heathcock called Chase "a little gentleman" and said Natalie "loved everyone she came in contact with."
"I love my children, and I will remember to the day that I die their laughter, love, and smiles," said Heathcock, who was divorced from DeBlase.
Leavell-Keaton's mother, Helena Keaton, said Wednesday after the body was discovered that the whole situation is "horrid."
"It pains me for these little kids," Keaton told The Associated Press. "There is nothing they could have done to deserve this, and to be cast away like this."
DeBlase was arraigned earlier Wednesday on the lesser charges. A judge set a preliminary hearing for Jan. 4. DeBlase's newly appointed lawyer, Jim Sears, said Wednesday he had only spoken briefly with his client and declined to comment on the discussion.
Levy said witnesses have told authorities both suspects beat the kids on numerous occasions.
"We have some incidents where people observed them striking the children with objects," Levy said, adding investigators are disturbed no one came forward sooner. "The children had some injuries that warranted medical attention which they never properly received."
DeBlase and Leavell-Keaton had been together since 2008, but they were not legally married. The couple met on the website MySpace while DeBlase and his children were living with his parents and Leavell-Keaton was attending nearby Spring Hill College in Mobile.
Her mother said her daughter was legally blind and dependent on DeBlase.
"She does not know really what happened to the kids. We suspect he poisoned them," Keaton told the AP before the discovery of the boy's bones.
"They had the same symptoms. They were not eating, they were not drinking. They were beginning to use the bathroom on themselves although they were potty trained," she said. "John would not take those children to get medical care."
In the spring, Keaton said, DeBlase forced Leavell-Keaton to go on a long ride. DeBlase finally stopped and got something out of the vehicle, Keaton said, but Leavell-Keaton — who was pregnant at the time with DeBlase's third child — was unsure what it was. However, Leavell-Keaton made no mention of this in her filing for protection from DeBlase.
Keaton described DeBlase as a controlling, "habitual liar."
"She has tried to get away from John before, and he has tracked her down," Keaton said.
The couple moved to Kentucky without the children this summer, and Leavell-Keaton had DeBlase's child in August.
DeBlase's parents gave a very different account in an interview before the bones were found. They say Leavell-Keaton controlled the relationship, wouldn't allow DeBlase to take his children to church and forced him to move out of their home with the kids.
The grandparents last saw the children in February when they tracked down their son and Leavell-Keaton at a trailer park in the rural Alabama town of Citronelle.
They told the AP they suspect Leavell-Keaton killed the kids during a fit of rage while DeBlase attended night classes to become a personal trainer, then manipulated him into getting rid of the bodies.
Still, they're not excusing their son.
"I can't believe John is responsible for this, but I know he could have prevented it," Deblase's mother, Dorothy, said. "But if Heather told him to go jump off a bridge, he would go jump in a river."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.; Kendal Weaver in Montgomery, Ala.; and Janet Cappiello Blake in Louisville, Ky.