Originally created 05/14/05

Mystery remains in pond deaths



Three weeks after two Warrenton toddlers drowned in a neighborhood sewage pond in a case that attracted national attention, there's still far more unknown than known about their deaths.

Georgia Bureau of Investigations Special Agent Gary Nicholson said authorities have yet to determine whether 3-year-old Jonah Payne and his 2-year-old sister, Nicole, were pushed or fell into the algae-covered water. Nor do they know the route and entrance they used to make it to the pond or if wrongdoing or neglect were involved.

"No one has been charged, and no one is expected to be," Agent Nicholson said this week. "We have had a good number of people call in, and we've re-interviewed some people. ... Nothing has really come up,"

On April 23, the children's mother, Lottie Kain, reported that her son and daughter had vanished while she was in the bathroom, prompting an intensive search that lasted nearly two days in the area around the family's home on Lake Drive.

Eventually, a rescuer came across their bodies in the sewage pond, several hundred yards from the house. Autopsies determined that Jonah and Nicole drowned and had no other injuries, officials said.

Talk around the small town in Warren County since the tragedy has frequently turned to the toddlers' parents, Ms. Kain and Dennis Payne, whom the Department of Family and Children Services had been supervising for two years.

Residents had speculated that one or both of them might face arrests in connection with the case - particularly because Jonah and Nicole were known to wander off - but the GBI agent said they are not considered suspects.

Still, at this point practically nothing has been ruled out, including an abduction, according to District Attorney Dennis Sanders, whose jurisdiction includes Warren County.

"We're still trying to determine if it was a homicide or not," Mr. Sanders said. "We don't really know yet what happened. ... We're just trying to exhaust all possible leads."

This includes returning to the lake to mentally go back in time and place all the relevant characters in their positions, he said.

Police also are checking with Warrenton's government to see if any city employees can shed light on the fence circling the sewage pond or whether any of them saw either child on the night of their deaths.

Agent Nicholson explained in his last formal media briefing three days after Jonah and Nicole went missing that the fence had several holes that the children's parents believed the youngsters could have climbed through.

It's unclear whether the holes were the point of access to the body of water, he said.

In coming weeks, Agent Nicholson said, investigators will be working to complete a report for Mr. Sanders, who will appear before the grand jury July 5.

"If there's some wrongdoing that's obvious, they'd issue warrants before then," Mr. Sanders said. "Otherwise, I'll present everything to the grand jury and let them decide."

The district attorney, who has been in his position for more than 30 years, would not elaborate on the possible charges the grand jury could issue.

The possibility exists that the GBI, local authorities and the FBI, whose help has been enlisted in the case, could still be tracking down leads when July arrives, which would mean further delays, Mr. Sanders said.

"This could be a case that goes unsolved for some time," he said.

Reach Dena Levitz at (706) 823-3339 or dena.levitz@augustachronicle.com.