Following Tim Jones’ divorce when he was raising his children, ages 1-8, he hired a 17-year-old babysitter who became his live-in lover for several months until she fled, repulsed by his brutal child discipline and his strict Christian beliefs that women should do what men tell them.
Wednesday marked the 11th day of Jones’ death penalty trial for killing his five children in 2013, the most horrific crime in recent S.C. memory. A succession of defense witnesses told the jury some of the many sides of Jones’ dysfunction, including:
▪ Weeks before Jones killed his children, in late August, 2014, the S.C. Department of Social Services fumbled a complaint from another babysitter that Jones beat and starved his children — a complaint that had it been correctly acted upon — may have potentially led to an intervention that protected the children.
▪ Jones was a “genius” with math and computers, but his childhood and teen years were scarred first by an abusive mother who became a prostitute, then by years in a household of adult domestic violence and substance abuse, testified family members. After high school, Jones began stealing cars, forging his father’s checks and wound up in a prison boot camp.
▪ After prison, Jones graduated from college at Mississippi State University and landed a high-paying job at computer chip maker Intel in Blythewood. His then-wife Amber Jones, thought the job meant he would buy their growing a family a “big beautiful home,” testified Jones’ father, Tim Jones Sr. But after she found out in 2011 that Jones had bought a ramshackle trailer in the Lexington County countryside, she became enraged and their marriage fell apart, leaving him to raise their children.
Jones’ lawyers are trying to convince a Lexington County jury to spare Jones from the death penaltyand find him either “not guilty by reason of insanity” or “guilty but mentally ill.”
Prosecutors say Jones was perfectly sane and seek the death penalty.
Wednesday’s testimony showed that after Jones’ marriage began to break up in 2011, and his then-wife moved out, Jones hired a succession of babysitters to take care of his children while he worked at his job at Intel.
The first two babysitters, Jody Durney and her mother-in-law Ruby Durney, told the jury that Jones was distressed about his failed marriage but he kept an “immaculate” home and was a dedicated, attentive and “wonderful” father for his children, who loved him very much.
“I could see him as my child’s father,” Ruby Durney testified.
But then another former babysitter Crystal Ballentine took the stand. In the fall of 2012, she was a single mom who had just turned 17 and had an infant daughter. Jones, then about 30, hired her to babysit from about 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. during which she cooked, cleaned and did other chores for Jones.
“Tim really appreciated that,” Ballentine testified.
Soon she found herself in a sexual relationship with Jones and began spending the night. She started accompanying him to a fundamentalist Christian church, a place where people “spoke in tongues” and rolled “on the floor,” she said.
As the months went on, Ballentine became upset with Jones who insisted she adopt the ways of his church, a place that required women to wear long dresses, not cut their hair and be subservient to men. Moreover, he was beginning to beat the children as a way of discipline, “hitting them pretty hard” and “making them stand tippy-toe in the corner,” Ballentine testified.
Jones began to leave the house at odd night hours, drinking and smoking marijuana, she testified. Then one day she discovered Jones about to punish her infant daughter for some imagined infraction.
“The final straw was him trying to whip her,” Ballentine testified. “She wasn’t even 1-years-old.”
One of Jones’ last babysitters, Joy Lorick, told the jury she had accompanied Jones and his children to Myrtle Beach and then on a brief trip to Disney World in June 2014 — about eight weeks before Jones killed the children.
In the several months she babysat, Lorick became increasingly concerned about the mobile home’s disarray — including floors strewn with trash and dirty clothes and the presence of roaches — as well as Jones’ meting out brutal punishments to the children, and his habit of having them eat only oatmeal all day.
In Disney World, she found Jones had pulled down the pants of Gabe, 2, and Natahn, 6, and was beating them. She told Jones to stop, and he did, Lorick testified.
Once, just before she went home for the day, the children asked her, “Could you not tell daddy you just fed us because he might not feed us again,” Lorick testified.
In early August, she testified, she became so alarmed about Jones’ treatment of the children, after seeing Jones whip Natahn, 6, and Gabe, 2, with a belt, that she called DSS and reported that Jones was beating his children and not giving them enough food.
She did not know, she testified under cross-examination that in May, DSS had investigated a complaint against Jones and found he had manhandled Natahn. As a result, Jones had to make a written promise to the state agency that he would never spank or beat his children again.
When she called DSS, Lorick testified that she feared the agency, charged with protecting South Carolina’s abused children, would do nothing. As it turned out, that is what happened. The agency fumbled the investigation and missed a chance to intervene, a former DSS worker testified Tuesday.
Another witness, Jones’ stepmother Karen Williford, who married Jones’ father when Tim Jones Jr. was about 10, testified that Tim was raised in a atmosphere where his father physically abused her and abused alcohol repeatedly. One of Tim’s favorite uncles committed suicide, and a favorite aunt died of cancer, she testified.
The day’s last witness, Tim Jones Sr., was on the stand some two hours. Under direct examination by defense attorney Casey Secor, Jones Sr. portrayed his son as a math and computer prodigy whose unstable youth, dysfunction and erratic ways led him into a religious “cult,” a doomed marriage and eventually into murder.
“There’s a fine line between brilliance and insanity,” testified Jones Sr., who at times choked back tears, continually gulping water from a cup and lacing his plain-spokeness with four-letter words.
He tried to warn his son many times about choosing foolish, destructive ways. After Tim Jr. got out of the Navy, he got into trouble stealing cars, doing drugs and stealing checks out of his father’s check book. “I told him, ‘You do the crime, you do the time’,” Jones Sr. told the jury.
Tim Jr. eventually paid the price and was sent to a prison boot camp for a year. When he got out, Tim Jr. had taken up Christian fundamentalist beliefs. “I thought it was a damn cult,” Jones Sr. testified.
He tried to talk his son out of marrying Amber after only knowing her a week. “Date her for a while. See if you like her,” Jones Sr. told the jury. (Jones ex-wife, who testified last week, told the jury they married in haste because Jones’ fundamentalist church believed that men and women should get married quickly.)
“The religion thing was off-the-wall weird. I thought it was crazy,” Jones Sr. said of his son’s embrace of a sect of fundamentalist Christianity and its making women servants. “A modern women is not going to live with you like that.”
Jones Sr. told his son that the the doctrine of physically punishing children espoused by his son’s church was nonsense. “Spare the rod and spoil the child — that’s b.s., “ Jones Sr. testified. “You don’t need to hurt the kid.”
Once, Jones Sr. tried to read the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to his grandchildren, but Tim Jr. stopped him. “He told me, ‘That’s a lie’,” testified Jones Sr.
Speaking about the crime, Jones Sr. told prosecutor Rick Hubbard that it has devastated everyone.
“It ripped my whole family apart,” he said. “There is not a person in my life who’s not been affected by this.”
Summing up his son’s marriage, his lifestyle choices and the way he disciplined children, Jones Sr. told the jury, “It was a train wreck.”
The trial continues Thursday.