BY AUSTIN L. MILLER
LEESBURG - Trenton Duckett was not abducted or handed off to someone else, Leesburg police said during a news conference Tuesday.
But Marion County Sheriff's investigators say they believe that Melinda Duckett may have given the boy to someone else before she committed suicide days after his disappearance.
Monday marks the one-year anniversary of the mystery that has haunted a bitterly divided family and stumped investigators.
Melinda, who would become the prime suspect, reported he was snatched from his bedroom at her Leesburg apartment on Aug. 27, 2006. She killed herself with a shotgun at her grandparents' home in The Villages on Sept. 8.
Police Department spokesman Maj. Steve Rockefeller said Tuesday, "The evidence doesn't suggest abduction. We continue to find no evidence of a handoff," he added.
And police Tuesday released photos of some evidence never before made public. The images showed trash bags and other containers loaded with items belonging to Trenton that were thrown away by either Melinda or a friend of hers.
The discarded items include clothing, frozen foods and vitamins. Rockefeller said most of the clothing was Trenton's that he had outgrown.
The items that were trashed have been a sore point with some, who wondered if she was trying to get rid of the things in an attempt to deflect suspicion or because she was psychologically cutting herself off from the child she knew she would never see again.
Melinda Duckett's grandparents, Bill and Nancy Eubank, dispute those theories, however. During an interview with the Star-Banner last Wednesday, they showed clothing, toys and a sonogram they said came from Melinda's apartment.
Nancy Eubank said some things were thrown out because when detectives came to the apartment to conduct a comprehensive search, they left a tremendous amount of black powder on the items. The powder, she said, was hard to remove.
"It was all over the doors, toys, everywhere. It was almost impossible to wash off," she said.
But there were other, deeply personal items that were thrown out that would seem to defy explanation, including a photo of Melinda and Trenton, a photo of Trenton as an infant and a Mother's Day card that read, in part: "For You, Mommy From Your Special Little Guy." There was also a freshly printed flier seeking information about his disappearance.
One reason for the speculation about her giving the child to someone else was because she had been locked in a bitter custody battle with her estranged husband, Joshua Duckett.
It's a theory that has been investigated by Marion County sheriff's detectives. It was discovered that cell phone towers picked up calls from Melinda in the Ocala area in the hours before she reported him missing.
Two employees at a Wendy's restaurant in Belleview reported seeing Trenton and his mother going through the drive-through on Aug. 27. One of the workers took and passed a polygraph test, making her a credible witness, Marion sheriff's officials said.
Leesburg police officials, however, have dismissed the Wendy's sighting and eliminated it from their timeline.
"We believe the witness was mistaken," Rockefeller said.
He said the woman at Wendy's told investigators she saw Melinda Duckett three times at the restaurant. Rockefeller said that couldn't be true because Trenton's mother was seen by her neighbor at the time of one of the reported sightings.
Maj. Chris Blair, head of Marion County Sheriff's Office major crimes bureau, said his agency believes in the handoff theory for several reasons. For starters, Blair said, Melinda Duckett's suicide notes were written in the present tense.
"The main reason I'm doing this is because even after my baby is found, I would not be a good mother," she wrote in one letter.
Second, he said, they have two witnesses who saw Melinda and Trenton at Wendy's.
In addition, after interviewing family and friends, they have no evidence indicating the young mother would harm her child. There also is no evidence to indicate Trenton is dead because there's no body and no sign of foul play, he said.
Rockefeller said the number of tips coming in has cooled off. Within the last six months, investigators have received 40 tips. He said resources have scaled back, but stressed that doesn't mean police have stopped looking. Rockefeller insisted his agency remains optimistic and officials are not viewing Trenton "as a statistic."
Joshua Duckett was absent from the news conference, but was represented by his mother, Carla Massero, who said the family continues to believe Trenton is alive. They celebrated his third birthday earlier this month.
"We're not going to give up hope," Massero said.
She said her family doesn't believe in the abduction or handoff theories because they have not seen any credible evidence.
The Eubanks, on the other hand, believe Trenton was abducted and he is alive. "I believe he's alive, and we pray for him everyday," Bill Eubanks said.
Anyone with any information about the case can call the Marion County Sheriff's Office at 732-9111 or the Leesburg Police Department at 787-2121, or go to the Team Trenton Web site, www.helpfindtrenton.com.
Austin L. Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (352) 867-4118.