JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Their beam of light. Their princess. A young woman “destined for greatness.”
Iyana Sawyer meant so much to her family, and they cherish the 16 years they had with her.
Because of Johnathan Quiles, that’s all they had. Because of Johnathan Quiles, they never got to meet Sawyer’s daughter. She was going to name her Hazel.
“I just can’t understand how someone who was loved and caring like herself can be thrown away as if they were trash, as if they meant absolutely nothing to anyone,” Sawyer’s sister said Monday as she shared a victim impact statement with the court. “Iyana was loved; Hazel was loved.”
A jury convicted Quiles, Sawyer’s uncle by marriage, last week of the first-degree murder of Sawyer and her unborn child and of sexual battery against Sawyer. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Quiles, and the sentencing phase of the trial began Monday.
Sawyer’s sister, identified in court as S.S., and her aunt, Paula Dixson, took the stand Monday morning to share how her murder has affected their family.
“She was my best friend. There is not a day when I don’t miss her,” S.S. said.
Sawyer’s time ended in a way that tore her family apart.
Her aunt recalled the anxiety of Sawyer’s disappearance in December 2018, saying they called and texted the teen, who was five months pregnant, for weeks with no response. It’s believed Quiles was the father of Sawyer’s unborn child.
“I can remember my mom walking through the door with bloodshot eyes,” S.S. said. “That was the night my brothers and I were informed of Iyana’s passing.”
S.S. and Dixson described life at a standstill for their family for nearly five years.
Sawyer’s sister called out the public criticism her family faced, saying even at school people would ask if her sister was “the dead girl.”
“Throughout the time Iyana has been gone, day by day, individuals have questioned my mother’s parenting. It’s very difficult as a teenager to see those who have only read about my mother question how she raised my siblings and I,” S.S. said. “Might I add, my mother was and is still an exceptional mother.”
Dixson became emotional on the stand as she described Sawyer as “the best big sister” who loved to dance, had a crazy sense of humor, and was ambitious and driven. She talked about the pain of not being able to have a proper homegoing memorial for Sawyer because her remains have never been recovered.
“I watched my family fall apart over the years,” Dixson said. “How do we heal? How do we trust? How do we live given all that we’ve learned? … Justice is just the beginning of our healing process.”
Some of that justice came last week with the conviction of Quiles, and the state is now working to convince the jury that Quiles should pay for his crimes with his life.
A 2023 ruling in Florida now allows a death sentence with only an 8 to 4 recommendation by the jury, rather than requiring a unanimous decision.
In a status conference on Friday, the judge and Quiles’ attorneys reviewed the aggravating factors jurors will consider in recommending life or death. Those include whether the crime was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel or was committed in a cold, calculated, or premeditated manner.
Attorney Gene Nichols, who is not affiliated with the case, said the jury only has to agree on one aggravating factor, but that decision on the aggravating factor must be unanimous. If it is, the jury can then move forward with deciding whether to recommend the death penalty — and that final vote only has to be 8 to 4.
After Sawyer’s family testified Monday, the defense called a doctor to the stand to speak about Quiles’ mental health and family members to testify on his behalf.
The judge said the goal is to have both sides close Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning to give the jury all day to decide.
The verdict last week came on the sixth day of a trial that included emotional testimony and an avalanche of evidence against Quiles, including testimony from his own brother and a jail informant that Quiles confessed the crime to them and a two-hour recording made by a pair of jail informants.
According to testimony from prosecution witnesses, Quiles admitted that Sawyer, who was last seen on surveillance video at Terry Parker High School on Dec. 19, 2018, met him at Ace Pick-A-Part, where he worked, because he’d told her they were going to run away together.
While Sawyer was sitting in a car in a back part of the property, Quiles tried to strangle her, but when he couldn’t, he shot her in the chest and then used a carpet to wrap her body and put it in a dumpster that he knew would be emptied that day and taken to a landfill, the witnesses said.
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According to testimony, Quiles had planned the murder for months because he believed he would lose his family if Sawyer had the baby. Quiles’ then-wife, Sawyer’s aunt, was pregnant at the same time as Sawyer in 2018.
In the jailhouse wire recording, Quiles and two other inmates can be heard talking about the landfill where trucks from Quiles’ work would dump their containers, about Quiles’ brother calling the police and about the sexual relationship Quiles had with Sawyer.
In the recording, Quiles described using a 9mm gun, one he said he shot at a gun range the same day Sawyer disappeared and dumped Sawyer and her backpack separately.
Investigators spent 16 days looking through more than 5,000 tons of trash at the Otis Road Landfill. The search turned up items related to the case, but no human remains. No trace of Sawyer has ever been found.
Because Sawyer’s body was never found and there was no blood or crime scene, Quiles’ defense argued that the state didn’t have enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Quiles murdered his niece, or that she was dead at all.
The jury disagreed, convicting Quiles of the murder of both her and her unborn baby, who family members said was going to be named Hazel Michelle Mobley.
Several of Sawyer’s family members took the stand during the trial, including her mother, her grandmother, her aunt and her sister. They testified to the inappropriate relationship they saw between Sawyer and Quiles.
S.S., Sawyer’s sister, testified that she was also sexually abused by Quiles when she was 13 years old.
On the stand, she said that Sawyer was in love with Quiles and that he was the father of Sawyer’s baby. She said she kept the secret about her sister and Quiles for at least two years to keep a good relationship with her sister and to protect her.
She said Quiles wanted Sawyer to get an abortion, but her sister refused.
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A Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detective took the stand during the trial and read disturbing text messages and Snapchat messages between Quiles and Sawyer. He said it was the details in their messages that led him to believe Sawyer and Quiles were in a relationship, but the missing persons case turned into a homicide case after JSO got a call from Quiles’ brother, who recounted Quiles’ confession to him.
After five days of prosecution testimony, the defense called three witnesses Thursday. Quiles did not testify in his own defense.
Sawyer’s family released a statement after the verdict, through their attorney John Phillips.
RELATED: ‘We are grateful’: Family of Iyana Sawyer expresses gratitude after ‘predator’ found guilty of her 2018 murder
“Today, a nearly five-year nightmare ends with another measure of justice,” the family said. “We thank the jury, law enforcement and judge, as well as all of our friends and family who reached out when we needed it most. Johnathan Quiles has now been found guilty of murder and will go back before a jury to determine his fate on earth, but he chose to end Iyana’s young life. He was a predator and the jury saw that with ease. We are grateful. Please keep our family in your prayers.”