Around 1 a.m. on a summer night in 2014, Timothy Ray Jones Jr. loaded the oldest of his five children, Merah, 8, into his Cadillac Escalade and drove to a nearby convenience store for cigarettes.
Back home, his second oldest child, 7-year-old Eli, waited in terror next to the body of his dead brother, Nahtahn, 6, for his father’s return. The two youngest children — Gabe, 2, and Abigail Elaine, 1 — were asleep.
“My life is f***ed,” Jones thought to himself, according to his taped confession.
Instead of calling police to tell them he’d accidentally killed Nahtahn, Jones returned to the family’s Red Bank mobile home on Aug. 29, 2014, and strangled his remaining children — two with his hands and two with a belt.
And three days before Father’s Day, a Lexington County jury sent Jones to South Carolina’s death row, where he joined 37 other condemned killers.
Today, the 37-year-old man wears a bright kelly green jumpsuit that marks death row inmates. The general population wears orange. He lives in a 6-foot by 14-foot cell, painted white, in one of the most secure areas of the state prison complex on Broad River Road in Columbia.
His cell door is a slightly deeper blue than “sky blue,” with a small window and a narrow slot for guards to pass food through three times a day, six days a week. On Sundays, he has two meals — brunch and supper.
A father methodically killing his five children, one-by-one, is among the most bizarre and demented killings ever in South Carolina, a state that has seen its share of grisly crimes.
At the time, Jones had it all: an $80,000 software job at Intel, faith in the Bible, five beautiful children and a bright future.
How could someone kill their five children? Jones’ defense attorneys argued that he is the poisoned fruit of a toxic family tree — rotted by severe mental illness, drug abuse, alcoholism, incest, multiple suicides, child abuse and parental abandonment. Gripped by insane delusions and fueled by synthetic marijuana, Jones fell apart under the stress of a broken marriage and the demands of caring for five young children.
More than a half a dozen mental health experts assessed Jones. Their findings ranged from insane to being mentally troubled but faking extreme symptoms he was said to have. One court-appointed psychiatrist testified that although Jones claimed to hear voices, they were probably “his own anxious thoughts” if anything.
Defense attorney Boyd Young summed up his client in these terms: “Killing children you love is insane.”
Or maybe Jones was an “evil” killer, who plotted out the murders, made plans to burn his children’s bodies and evaded the law for more than a week, as the 11th Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard said. Hubbard told the jury he didn’t believe Jones’ story that he killed little Nahtahn by accident, forcing the child to do extreme exercises until he died. Instead, Hubbard said, Jones killed Nahtahn in a “white hot rage” and ripped up his favorite Woody doll, which authorities later found in shreds.
“Folks, the bottom line is this: he knew what he was doing that night,” Hubbard said, calling Jones a “monster ... This man knew right from wrong. He chose wrong.”
The debate will rage on through the appeals process until the day Jones draws his last breath.
‘A broken brain’
If anyone was born under a dark star, it was Jones.
His mother, Cynthia Turner, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been living in a psychiatric facility for many years. She never wanted a fat baby, so she refused to feed “little Timmy,” as he was called throughout childhood.
She fed him laxatives to cleanse his body. She plunged him in baths of cold water, where he screamed and cried. She sat alone in a closet cutting up her clothes. Tim Jones Sr., who had his own issues with drugs, alcohol and domestic violence, felt his wife was unstable and he began sleeping with one eye open, according to court testimony.
Timmy watched as his mother’s mental health spiraled out of control, eventually requiring around-the-clock care. As a child, his mother left home to be a prostitute. His family didn’t tell him she was sick — she just wasn’t around.
Jones Sr., then 20 years old, moved with his son into his mom’s house, where the child was exposed to a world of domestic violence, drug and alcohol use.
But everyone could tell early on that Timmy had a gift. He was brilliant, and it could have been his salvation. He was skilled with numbers and decoded mathematical problems with ease.
Tim Sr. was proud to spend $2,000 on a new computer for his son. But he was puzzled when he found Timmy taking it all apart. Computer parts surrounded him as he sat on the floor, working on his new gift.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m fixing it,” Timmy responded.
The next day, the computer was reassembled into a faster, better machine, Tim Sr. said.
But everything changed as Timmy entered his teen years. He told a psychiatrist he first heard voices when he was 10. At 12, he started smoking marijuana. By high school, he was a heavy drinker.
At 15, he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash, an injury that left him with “a broken brain,” a doctor testified at his trial. A portion of his skull caved in, affecting the frontal lobe — the area of the brain that controls impulses.
His behavior became erratic. Interacting with Jones was like walking on eggshells. He grew overly jealous of anyone who had his dad’s attention.
And when Jones Sr. fell in love and married, Jones felt his dad had chosen someone over him. As he got older, he felt his dad didn’t love him. And he feared he would one day wind up like his mother.
As smart as he was, he lacked emotional intelligence, common sense and empathy. His dad often said he was 26 going on 16.
After high school, Jones had delusions of becoming a Navy Seal — despite the fact that only a small percentage of athletically gifted, mentally tough recruits make the cut. And as his family expected, Jones only lasted a few weeks in boot camp.. Others found him crying alone often. He was given a general discharge for substance abuse and depression.
On returning home in 2000, he started hanging with the wrong crowd — drinking, smoking and partying. One day the police showed up.
In addition to cocaine possession, car theft and burglary, Jones was caught writing checks in his dad’s name. The police told Jones Sr. that if he didn’t press charges against his son, he would be under arrest. The bank wanted someone held responsible.
In 2001, Jones was sent to an Illinois state prison work camp for one year, and returned a changed man. He had found religion, and he saw it as a road map on the right way to live his life. He memorized Bible quotes and used it to browbeat others during church services and in everyday life.
“I thought it was a damn cult,” Jones Sr. said.
A devout Christian
Jones met the mother of his children, Amber, while they worked together at the Chicago-based Enchanted Castle, a fun park similar to Chuck E. Cheese’s. He started to take her to his Pentecostal church. In 2004, they married within weeks — the church expected couples to marry right away. She was 19; he was 22.
In Jones, Amber saw an intelligent man, grounded in religion, who was building a life for himself. She didn’t have much, and he was going places. When Jones took a liking to her, she was hooked.
But Amber learned that Jones’ church was strict. Women were not allowed to cut their hair. They could not wear pants, make-up or jewelry.
“Tim’s motto was a woman is supposed to be fruitful and multiply,” Amber told the jury at Jones’ trial. “A woman is supposed to listen to her husband.”
Jones threw himself into the faith — praying in tongues in church and disciplining his children with beatings, as he believed the Bible clearly instructed in the 23rd chapter of Proverbs. Such punishment was good for children, he believed, for the Bible said, “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.”
He ignored what people had been telling him for years — he shouldn’t take everything in the Bible literally.
The family then moved to Mississippi, where Jones eventually graduated from Mississippi State University, the first in his family to attend college and finish. He graduated summa cum laude (Latin for “with highest honors”) with a degree in computer science and engineering — all while married with children and working several jobs. His family couldn’t be prouder. His dad thought he could do anything he wanted.
Everything was moving in the right direction when he landed his competitive job at computer chip maker, Intel, in Blythewood. For Amber, this was the family’s chance at a better life. After living in student housing at Mississippi State, they’d be able to raise the three children in a bigger house. She would have the help of a nanny.
Instead, Jones chose to buy a ramshackle trailer on a Red Bank dirt road off S.C. 6. In addition to his full-time job, he wanted to homestead and bought 30 chickens, three goats, two turkeys and three rabbits. Amber stayed at home with the animals and children. It was an isolated area, and she didn’t have a car or even know how to drive. By 2013, the couple added two more kids.
Medicine for their ‘sick bodies’
Jones wanted Amber to home-school the children, but she didn’t have a high school diploma. Amber felt inadequate and cut off from the world. She had no family nearby, and Jones’ family was in Mississippi.
Alone and overwhelmed, Amber eventually had an affair with a neighbor.
In 2012, when the marriage fell apart, Jones met with a Columbia therapist, April Hames. He impressed her as a smart, loving father who wanted the best for his children. Jones didn’t want Amber to be part of the kids’ lives, and he asked the therapist to write an affidavit for his divorce attorney, stating that Jones was fit to bring up the children alone.
Amber had no such affidavit. She didn’t even have an attorney. Jones was given primary custody as the sole financial provider, while she was granted regular visitation. In their final months together, Jones knocked out her back teeth when he threw a phone at her. He head-butted her, spat on her in front of the children and head-butted her unconscious, according to testimony.
Mentally, Jones was spiraling out of control. He started using drugs and drinking again. He was wrestling with voices in his head, he later told psychiatrists. And as time went by, Jones became increasingly angry about little things.
He hired a succession of babysitters to take care of his children while he worked. Jones was distressed about his failed marriage, but he kept an immaculate home and was a dedicated, attentive and wonderful father to his children, two babysitters would later say.
Then he hired Chrystal Ballentine, who had just turned 17 years old and had an infant daughter. She soon became his live-in lover, accompanying him to a Fundamentalist Christian church.
But this relationship began to sour, too. He insisted Ballentine adopt the ways of his church — wear long dresses, grow her hair out and be subservient to him. And she saw how he punished his children — “hitting them pretty hard” and “making them stand tippy-toe in the corner.”
He believed spanking and corporal punishment was medicine for their “sick bodies.” The final straw was when she found him preparing to whip her infant daughter.
‘He might not feed us again’
Signs of trouble started becoming more apparent.
After Ballentine left, another babysitter, Joy Lorrick, grew increasingly concerned about the mobile home’s disarray. Trash and dirty clothes covered the floor and roaches had moved in. Jones continued with his brutal punishments and formed a habit of feeding the children nothing but oatmeal all day.
Once, before Lorrick left for the day, the children asked, “Could you not tell daddy you just fed us? Because he might not feed us again.”
In August, 2014, several weeks before the children were killed, Lorrick called the S.C. Department of Social Services to report the lack of food and physical abuse.
Lorrick didn’t know that teachers at Saxe Gotha Elementary School had already notified the agency about physical abuse months prior, and that the agency had already required Jones to make a written promise he would never spank or beat his children again. But when a Social Services investigator went to interview the babysitter, she interviewed the wrong babysitter, according to court testimony.
The children’s mother, who is represented by attorney Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, has filed a lawsuit against Social Services, seeking damages for the children’s alleged wrongful deaths by “a known child abuser whose abuse went uninterrupted” by Social Services. The deaths were “entirely preventable,” her lawsuit claims. The agency has denied the allegations.
During the trial, Saxe Gotha teachers, administrators and babysitters cried while testifying, describing Jones’ children as five of the most wonderful, innocent and loving children anyone could wish for — “five beautiful treasures,” as prosecutor Hubbard put it.
Life on death row
Jones seemed to have an idea he might wind up in prison when he took Merah to the store with him that fateful evening in 2014. He had downloaded and watched a clip of a prison rape scene from the movie, “American History X” as Nahtahn lay dead and before he killed his other children.
He was right. Today, Jones spends 23 hours a day in a narrow cell, slightly bigger than a walk-in closet, with only one window that looks out into a hallway.
A typical breakfast is grits, eggs, biscuits and juice. For lunch, her gets a meal such as turkey, rice and gravy, a vegetable and juice or tea. Supper is something like spaghetti with meat sauce, green beans, salad, bread, cake and juice or tea. Over and over and over.
Jones is a rarity on death row. None of S.C.’s 37 other condemned killers has murdered five children — and five of his own children, at that. Most of the state’s condemned killers come from the lower end of the social-economic strata. Few, if any, have Jones’ elite education or the prestige of working at a top technology company for high pay.
Jones might be there a long time. One inmate, Fred Singleton, 75, from Newberry County, has been on death row since 1983 — 36 years. And South Carolina hasn’t executed anyone since 2011 — it is almost impossible for the Department of Corrections to get the drugs necessary for lethal injections. Although state law allows executions by electric chair, a condemned killer must opt for electrocution.
There’s always the possibility a higher court could overturn the guilty verdict, or more likely, the death sentence. In that case, prosecutors would have to decide whether to retry Jones.
What does it all mean?
Perhaps the best description of Jones’s life was given by his father during the trial.
“It was a train wreck,” Jones Sr. said.
Editor’s Note: This story was written based on testimony and evidence presented at Jones’ trial. Death row information was provided by the S.C. Department of Corrections.