By: Claudia Rivero
Galveston, Texas, is a popular destination known for its beaches, its famous Seawall Boulevard, and the amusement park at Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier.
But, just over a mile away, on a quiet side of the island, is a growing memorial full of stuffed animals, toys, and a wooden cross with the words "You mattered, little guy," dedicated to a young boy whose death remains a mystery.
The toddler, whom investigators call "Little Jacob," was found dead on Oct. 20, 2017, by a woman walking along the surf just east of Stewart Beach. Months later, they still don't know the boy's name, who he belongs to, or how he died.
Galveston resident Wanda Grunwell has been following the case from day one.
"That little boy needs to be identified," she said. "He deserves a proper burial because he had value."
Grunwell watched from her balcony as first responders pulled the toddler's body from the water.
"I felt bad for the officers and for the woman who found him, it just broke my heart," she said.
Investigators believe "Little Jacob" was in the water 12-48 hours. Autopsy results released in January show he was underweight and had injuries consistent with long-term abuse and neglect.
According to the autopsy, "Little Jacob" did not have water in his lungs; therefore, he was likely dead when someone put him in the water. But the cause of death has not been determined.
Galveston Police Detective Jeff Banks is the lead investigator on the case.
"It’s taken a toll. It’s pretty much the only thing I've worked since Oct. 20. All day. Overtime. It’s a big case,” Banks said. "I can't imagine I'm ever gonna put it down until it's solved."
His hard work seems to be paying off. Detective Banks tells me they're following up on several promising leads and are still processing evidence, including DNA. It's a lengthy, complicated process but he remains optimistic about solving the case.
“Somebody knows him and we're gonna do right by him and find out who put him in the water,” he said.
It's taken investigators months to get to this point. They started with a sketch of the toddler done by renowned forensic artist Lois Gibson, the FBI offered assistance including a $10,000 reward, and Clear Channel Outdoor featured the case on electronic billboards from Texas to Kentucky.
Galveston Police received hundreds of tips at the time, but none of them panned out.
"We got 500 names," Banks said.
As the tips started slowing down, Galveston Police and the FBI looked for ways to keep the case in the public eye. In January they took the rare and gut-wrenching step of releasing an actual photo of the dead toddler as a last-ditch effort to identify him.
"I didn't want to put that out there but there was no better way to show what he actually looks like," Detective Banks told me. "I assumed we’d have a little more push back but people were supportive of it.”
Tough as it was to release the photo, Detective Banks feels it was the right thing to do.
"The tips that are coming in are promising, and I'm optimistic that we're gonna be able to identify him," he said.
Some of those promising leads have come from the West Coast and Northeastern U.S., and from as far away as Europe as well as Central and South America, according to Banks.
"We're gonna solve it, I'm confident, we're gonna solve it," he said.
To the person or people that know what happened to "Little Jacob," Detective Banks says this:
"Come forward, talk to me, let's get it figured out."
Little Jacob was found unclothed. He's Hispanic, about 3 to 5 years old, and still has all of his baby teeth.
If you know who "Little Jacob" is and how to contact his family, please call 1-800-CALL-FBI or 1-800-225-5324.
The FBI is offering up to a $10,000 reward in this case.
Claudia Rivero Investigative Reporter/Producer