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Missing pregnant teen from New Bedford believed to be found dead in Florida

Jalajhia Finklea vanished from her home in New Bedford on Oct. 20. On Wednesday, authorities announced they found what is presumed to be her body in Florida. 

Photo from Instagram.
Jalajhia Finklea vanished from her home in New Bedford on Oct. 20. On Wednesday, authorities announced they found what is presumed to be her body in Florida. Photo from Instagram.

Thirty-six days after Jalajhia Finklea vanished from her home in New Bedford on the eve of her 18th birthday, authorities on Wednesday announced they found what is presumed to be her body in Florida.

Finklea, a bubbly member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, with a triangle-shaped scar on her cheek and a passion for songwriting, was last seen Oct. 20, entering a car rented by 38-year-old Luis Zaragoza. Her sudden and strange disappearance, which occurred as a pregnant Finklea was in the middle of a two-day medical procedure, prompted alarm among her loved ones and triggered a search that spanned at least a dozen states.

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Local authorities discovered her body in a field off of Route 95 in Fellsmere, Fla., a sleepy town near Vero Beach. An autopsy will be conducted in Florida to formally identify the body and the cause of death, but police suspect it was the result of homicide, according to a statement from the Bristol District Attorney’s office.

Three weeks ago, US marshals approached Zaragoza in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Crestview, Fla., where he is believed to have lived. But the encounter with police erupted into a shootout that left Zaragoza dead, never to be questioned about the teenager’s whereabouts and well-being.

Fellsmere is located roughly 490 miles from Crestview, and police throughout Florida and Massachusetts had been working the case in an attempt to locate the missing teen.

Jalajhia Finklea disappeared Oct. 20 when she was seen getting into a car in New Bedford with Luis Zaragoza.
Jalajhia Finklea disappeared Oct. 20 when she was seen getting into a car in New Bedford with Luis Zaragoza.Bristol County District Attorney

Finklea, who was five months pregnant at the time of her disappearance, spent the morning of Oct. 20 in a medical office undergoing the first surgery in an unspecified two-part medical procedure. She then returned to her New Bedford home where she lived with her mother, who left shortly before sunset to fill a prescription for her daughter and came back 40 minutes later to an empty house. Surveillance cameras on surrounding streets captured Finklea leaving her house without bags and in slippers.

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Nine days later, detectives found her black iPhone on the shoulder of Route 140 near the Freetown town line in Massachusetts. Finklea was nowhere in sight. The call log showed the last number contacted was linked to Zaragoza, who quickly became the lead suspect in the kidnapping case.

“She’s my best friend, and I knew something was wrong when I didn’t hear from her for an hour, never mind almost a whole day,” longtime friend Geana Fonseca, 18, wrote of the day Finklea disappeared, in a message to the Globe. “I could tell you that she’s strong, that she always wanted everyone in her circle to win. For the ones that she loved and cared about she would do anything for.”

Finklea was due back at the medical office on Oct. 21 for a follow-up appointment, but she never showed, according to a police report. She told no one in her family, nor her large web of friends with whom she corresponded regularly by text, Snapchat, and Facebook of any intentions to leave.

Finklea’s Instagram feed is sprinkled with photos and selfies of time spent poolside with friends, walking the streets of New York City, or celebrating her indigenous ancestry with the Wampanoag tribe. She last posted on Oct. 15.

The last call made on her phone on the day of her disappearance was to Zaragoza, who used to date Finklea’s aunt, police said. During the investigation, Zaragoza’s mother told a detective that her son suffered from severe depression accompanied by occasional suicidal ideations and that he had “the emotional capacity of a teenager,” according to a police report.

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Police used cellphone records and surveillance video to map an intricate trail of Zaragoza’s meandering trip south over the course of Oct. 21 to Oct. 23. His sedan — which was rented from Logan airport on Oct. 20 — darted throughout New Jersey, spending several hours at rest areas in Woodbridge and Cherry Hill. The car also traveled through the Lincoln Tunnel, according to surveillance video and phone records analyzed by police. There was no evidence of Finklea at these stops. By Oct. 23, Zaragoza’s phone had connected to the Wi-Fi of a McDonald’s in Jacksonville, Fla. Employees would later tell police the sole occupant of the car ordered “a small meal with one drink.”

US marshals attempted to take Zaragoza into custody on Nov. 5 when he was spotted again at a McDonald’s, again in Crestview, Fla. Zaragoza died from a gunshot wound at the scene. It is unclear whether he shot himself or was hit by the marshals.

During a three-day stretch in late October, roughly a week after Finklea’s disappearance, a Twitter account under the name Luis Diamondz and the handle @kingbarboza9 posted a series of pictures and videos that appeared to feature Finklea and Zaragoza. One showed the duo eating calzones and mozzarella sticks. Another is a screen recording of a FaceTime conversation with the sound stripped. The final showed Finklea at what appears to be a tattoo studio. A mask dangles below her chin.

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It is not clear when or where the images were taken. The account’s bio features several hashtags; among them is #jalajhia. The final tweet posted on Oct. 30 reads: “#IWALYJF.”

IWALY is a common acronym for the expression “I will always love you,” while Finklea’s initials are JF. The Bristol district attorney’s office said it is aware of the account, but declined to comment further when asked who it belonged to or the dates of the images.

All the while, Finklea’s friends and family continued to post photos of the magnetic 18-year-old with a megawatt smile and a melodic soprano voice in hopes that someone might spot her and help bring her home. Her mother organized a search party to canvass the area where her daughter’s phone was found by police. As the family prayed, they also fought off vitriol from online blogs and commenters baselessly claiming Finklea had eloped to Europe or the family had orchestrated her disappearance as a ploy for money. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe devoted the front page of the November edition of its magazine to a photo of Finklea.

“Sadly, the growing number of missing indigenous women across the country do not receive the attention that our Caucasian neighbors receive,” wrote Chairman Cedric Cromwell in a letter to tribal members published before Finklea’s death was announced. “It’s an ugly fact of systematic racism. The numbers are staggering. Our women and girls are being taken from us in at an alarming rate.”

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Indeed, multiple academic studies have found that the disappearance of white persons, specifically women and children, is covered far more extensively by the media than the disappearance of persons of color. Missing person cases involving people of color also go unsolved at a far higher rate. In 2016, African-American missing person cases appeared among the remaining older and open cases four times as often as the cases of white and Hispanic missing persons, according to a 2019 report by researchers at William & Mary.

Back in 2018, Finklea appeared on a community TV program, exuding confidence and poise as she described the importance of education and her dream of pursuing a singing career after graduation.

“I started [writing music] for my brothers and my dad because he passed away,” the then 16-year-old Finklea said of her musical inspiration. “I felt like I had to do something and I felt like music was the right spot because I can express how I feel in music and maybe people who listen will feel it the same.”

She finished the interview by singing a cover of “You Should Be Here,” a 2015 mixtape by young pop artist Kehlani.

“Don’t know where you went but you’re lost now,” Finklea crooned. “Don’t know where you went, but you’re gone now.”


Hanna Krueger can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @hannaskrueger.