Timothy Ray Jones drove in and out of four states on a manic, drug-fueled journey while the bodies of his three sons and two daughters lay decomposing in the back of his SUV, investigators believe.
“We think the bodies were in there for somewhere around seven to nine days,” said Sheriff Charlie Crumpton of Smith County, Miss., where Jones was arrested Saturday night at a routine DWI checkpoint. “I guess he realized he made a horrible mistake and didn’t know what to do.”
Merah was 8; Elias, 7; Nahtahn, 6; Gabriel, 2; and Abagail Elizabeth, 1.
On Tuesday afternoon, investigators said, Jones led them to their bodies, stuffed inside garbage bags and dumped in a pile near a dirt logging road in rural Alabama.
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Though a former neighbor described the children as often unkempt, a display of heartbreaking photographs shows five little kids with big happy smiles.
Jones, 32, has waived extradition and is expected to be brought back Thursday to South Carolina, where authorities say they will charge him with five counts of murder.
He lived with the children in the tiny town of Red Bank, S.C., 20 miles west of Columbia. His single-wide mobile home sits at the end of a narrow, sandy road, surrounded by pine trees. On Wednesday, the yard was strewn with trash, truck tires and toys. A brown teddy bear lay in the dirt.
Court records show Jones earned $71,000 annually as a computer engineer for Intel Corp. He had been embroiled in a bitter divorce last year and had primary custody of his children.
At the time of the deaths, the local Department of Social Services was investigating an abuse complaint against him. A DSS case worker and Lexington County deputies visited Jones’ home Aug. 7. But a DSS spokesperson said Wednesday “there was nothing to show the kids were in any kind of imminent danger or peril at that time.”
Sen. Katrina Frye Shealy, a Lexington Republican and member of a special Senate panel looking into problems in the state DSS office, said she expects there will an investigation into the handling of the complaint. DSS caseloads have been an issue statewide, she said, and are especially acute in Lexington County where some social workers have had as many as 40 cases at one time involving up to 80 children.
Mom reports kids missing
The Jones children were last seen alive Aug. 28, when Jones picked them up from school and day care.
Lexington County Sheriff Lewis McCarty said he doesn’t know why or how they were killed, but he said they were killed at the same time. The fact that murder charges will be brought in Lexington County indicates that authorities believe they were killed there.
The children didn’t show up for school Aug. 29 or on Sept. 2, the Tuesday after the Labor Day holiday. On Sept. 3, at 6:11 p.m. their mother contacted the Sheriff’s Department to report them missing. She said he was supposed to bring them to her the day before.
On Saturday evening, Jones was stopped at the DWI checkpoint near the town of Raleigh in southern Mississippi.
“He was basically wired,” Crumpton said. “He was jittery, agitated, almost to an aggressive state.”
Inside the car deputies found what they believe is Spice, a synthetic form of marijuana, and chemicals to manufacture methamphetamine.
But what troubled deputies even more was the stench of rotting flesh, Crumpton said. They discovered blood, bleach and children’s clothes in the Cadillac Escalade. A background check revealed that Jones’ children were listed as missing.
Jones was arrested and eventually confessed to killing them, Crumpton said. On Tuesday, he agreed to take deputies to where he dumped them. They drove 185 miles to rural Oak Hill, Ala. Crumpton described Jones as “highly intelligent” and said that during the drive his “emotions were up and down, sometimes crying.”
Authorities pieced together Jones’ route to Mississippi through debit card purchases, ATM withdrawls and phone records.
McCarty, the sheriff of Lexington County, said Jones drove from South Carolina into North Carolina, then back to South Carolina to Lake City and Orangeburg. He drove next to Athens, Ga., then returned to South Carolina, before he made his way west to Alabama.
At night, Crumpton said, Jones slept in the SUV along with his children’s bodies. Friday night, Crumpton said, he dumped the bodies. Then he drove on to Mississippi, where he had graduated from college and where his father and stepmother live.
“His direction of travel absolutely made no sense,” Crumpton said.
Searching for answers
Jones’ father, Timothy Jones Sr., read a statement Wednesday to media outside his home in Amory, Miss. He referred to his son as “Timmy” and “Tim,” and described him as “a very loving father, brother and son.”
“We do not have all the answers, and we may never have them,” he said. “But anyone who knows Little Tim will agree that he is not the animal that he will be portrayed through the media.”
Amber Jones, the children’s mother, could not be reached.
“She’s a very nice person, a very sweet lady,” Sheriff McCarty said. “She is in shock and is extremely distraught.”
According to court records reviewed by The State newspaper in Columbia, the Joneses’ 10-year marriage ended in divorce last October. The court records included allegations that Amber Jones was having an affair with a 19-year-old neighbor and that she neglected the children. DSS investigated a complaint against her in 2011, The State reported.
During the divorce proceeding, a family therapist described Timothy Jones as a “highly intelligent, responsible father.” He was awarded primary custody. Records show that the parents agreed to change the name of their youngest daughter from Abagail Elizabeth to Elaine Marie.
The family had lived together in the town of Batesburg-Leesville east of Columbia. Johnny Hyder, a neighbor, said the children often were dressed in dirty clothes. He said Jones was always looking for a reason to argue.
Mandi Duncan, a neighbor in Red Bank, where Jones moved with the kids after his divorce, said she often heard him yelling at the older children. She saw many cars visit the house, as late as 2 a.m. but stay only a minute or two, and she said she wondered what was going on.
“He presented himself as a gangster ...,” Duncan said. “He often dressed in baggy clothes, and loud rap music often blared from his Cadillac Escalade when it rolled by.”
Other neighbors described Jones as a polite and friendly man who waved at them.
On the front deck of his weathered white mobile home was a school folder belonging to Elias, who was in second grade. A kid-size green plastic chair sat nearby. There was also a toy bin with a bat, balls and a child’s watering can.
“There’s no telling what those kids could have contributed to our society,” neighbor Dorothy Wood said. “And now we’ll never know.”
In stark contrast to the colorful plastic toys was a sinister sign above the front door. It pictures a handgun with a finger on the trigger: “WARNING!!” the sign reads. “Is there life after death? Trespass here and find out.”
The (Columbia) State, The Associated Press and Observer staff writer Fred Clasen-Kelly and researcher Maria David contributed.