Tieray Jones has been charged with killing 2-year-old Jahi, according to San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman. His mother was deployed aboard a Navy ship at the time.
Hundreds of volunteers and police officers spent weeks searching for traces of the 30-pound toddler when he was reported missing in 2002. Law enforcement officers raked through 5,000 tons of garbage at the Miramar Landfill but came up with nothing.
"Jahi's disappearance rocked the community to its core 14 years ago," DA Bonnie Dumanis said. "It's without a doubt one of the highest profile unsolved cases here in San Diego County."
Dumanis and Zimmerman explained that U.S. Marshals arrested the boy's stepfather on a fugitive complaint Monday in North Carolina without incident and took him into custody.
"I have no doubt that the announcement of today's arrest and subsequent charges will jolt the community again and may reopen emotional wounds, but it will finally start the process of bringing some closure to those who were so deeply affected by Jahi's disappearance, especially his mother and family," Dumanis said.
Though new evidence has been uncovered in the case, authorities have not found Jahi's body or remains, police said.
Jones is charged with one count of murder and one count of felony child abuse causing death, authorities said. Both carry a 25-years-to-life sentence. It wasn't immediately clear if Jones has an attorney. Prosecutors will work on his extradition at a hearing Tuesday.
The arrest comes one week before the 14th anniversary of Jahi's disappearance. On April 25, 2002, he allegedly disappeared from a playground at 28th Street and Cedar Street in San Diego's South Park neighborhood.
According to police, Jones told officers he was with the toddler at the park when he left to get a drink. Jones said he returned 15 minutes later and Jahi was gone.
However, officials were unable to locate Jahi's fingerprints on playground equipment, prompting speculation the child never visited the area, authorities announced Monday.
Officials say the last reported sighting of Jahi was April 22.
SDPD Asst. Chief of Police Terry Mcmanus said he still remembers taking the call that Jahi was reported missing.
"I personally remember the day of Jahi's disappearance vividly, as I was then assigned as the watch commander receiving the initial information from our field units that Jahi was missing from the small playground in the South Park area of our city," McManus said.
At the time of the child’s disappearance, Jahi’s mother, Tameka Jones, was deployed aboard USS Rushmore.
A huge search for Jahi ensued, including a week-long police search of the Miramar Landfill, where authorities took the extreme measure of systematically raking through 5,000 tons of garbage.
Dumanis said officials could not file charges earlier because they didn't have enough proof, though they began uncovering new evidence in the case two years ago.
"We never gave up on finding justice for Jahi. In 2003, we assigned a prosecutor and full-time investigator to the case," Dumanis said. "Unfortunately at the time, we didn’t have the evidence required: proof beyond a reasonable doubt, to proceed with criminal charges."
Jahi’s family eventually moved to Frederick, Maryland.
Residents from across San Diego reacted to news of the arrest on NBC 7 San Diego's Facebook page on Monday.
"This hit so close to home for me back then and now. Little Jahi shares a birthday with my son and they would both be 16 today if he wasn't so tragically taken from his family," San Diegan Michelle Keperling posted to NBC 7's Facebook page. "I can't imagine what his family has been going through the last 14 years."
RK Hunt posted that he was happy to learn of an arrest.
"I remember when that happened because my kids were young and we visited that park often," Hunt said on NBC 7's Facebook page.
Officials said because this is a criminal case, they are not able to discuss any of the facts or the criminal evidence, including any new evidence they uncovered since the case went cold.