An eviction notice remains posted on every door at 3103 Tate Road, where 16-year-old LaTania Janell Carwell and her family once resided. The house just across the street from Terrace Manor Elementary School is now vacant and the news about the missing Josey High School student took a darker turn Monday.
Richmond County authorities are now calling the case a homicide investigation more than two months after Carwell was reported missing. Sheriff Richard Roundtree said at a Monday news conference that his office has already begun working with police investigators in Atlanta to find the teen’s body.
“Our primary focus this week is recovering Miss Carwell’s remains,” Roundtree said. “We had a search team in the metro Atlanta area come out this weekend and conducted multiple searches in the area, and we will be out again this week conducting additional searches based on forensic evidence that we gather in, but we have not yet located the particular area where we think the remains are.”
The sheriff said the change in status of the case was made after interviewing a “subject connected to this investigation.” Carwell’s mother, Tanya Faye Tripp, and stepfather, Leon Lamar Tripp, have been arrested in connection with her disappearance.
The girl, who had just turned 16 on April 17, the day she disappeared, was last seen with her stepfather when they left their residence in the 3100 block of Tate Road.
Thales Elliott, an Army veteran who lived next door to the family, said that the family had been there for more than two years and that he frequently talked with Carwell’s grandmother, who died just after the Christmas holidays.
“That’s the one I was most familiar with, but the girl she was always quiet,” he said. “Sometimes her mother and her and her little sister, who was really friendly, would sit out on the porch there. Her little sister would speak all the time, but LaTania, she would never hardly say anything.”
Elliott said he talked cordially with Leon Tripp but did not know he was the teen’s stepfather until after the disappearance.
“They were there like two years before he ever came, and I never asked him where he came from.” he said.
Tripp, a convicted felon, married 35-year-old Tanya Tripp while he was still in prison. When Carwell disappeared, previous reports stated that he told his wife that he and his stepdaughter left together to help a friend with a stranded vehicle.
District Attorney Natalie Paine said at Leon Tripp’s bond hearing June 5 that he took Carwell from her Tate Road home April 17 and that there is no evidence to suggest that she went voluntarily with him. Tripp was denied bond.
U.S. marshals searched for Tripp for three weeks before finding him and Tanya Tripp in DeKalb County, Ga., on May 23. Both have been returned to Richmond County to face charges. Tanya Tripp is charged with hindering the apprehension of a criminal, and Leon Tripp is charged with aggravated stalking and kidnapping.
Mary Rhaney and her granddaughter Shequila, who live a couple of doors from where Carwell and her family lived, said they didn’t notice that a teenager lived at the home – which they said would occasionally have toddler toys in the yard – until getting calls from concerned family members about the girl’s disappearance.
“People move in and out so much that you really don’t get a chance to know them,” Rhaney said. “We didn’t even know she stayed there until it was on the news. It’s scary and sad at the same time.”
Now that the case is being considered a homicide, a woman who tried to make people aware of it said she wishes she could have helped move the investigation along.
“I know they can’t give all the investigation details in the case, but they could of at least do something so we can help,” Laura Green said. “I think a press conference should have been done before hand, and this has just been prolonged for too long. As the public, when it comes down to kids, we should be notified immediately.”
Angela Harden, who held a prayer vigil for the teen and her family Friday, offered her sympathies for the family after the news conference.
“We definitely didn’t expect to hear that,” she said about the case now becoming a homicide investigation. “We prayed Friday at the prayer vigil that God would bring those answers and that the family and the community deserve closure.
“I’m saddened, of course, but I’m still hopeful because there’s not a body. But like Sheriff Roundtree said, it’s no longer a missing person’s case but a homicide, and they do have information and we definitely don’t want to hinder that so at this point we continue to pray for her family, especially for her little sister.”