Five little lives snuffed out suddenly. Violently.
And at the hands of their own father, according to police.
Timothy Ray Jones Jr. faces the death penalty in a trial scheduled to begin Tuesday in a Lexington County court room. There, lawyers, witnesses and experts will attempt to sort out the senseless.
Jones, 37, is accused of killing his three boys and two girls on the night of Aug. 28, 2014, putting their bodies into garbage bags and driving around for more than a week. His black Cadillac Escalade serving as a horrific hearse, he aimlessly rambled through four states before stopping in rural Alabama. It was there, police say, Jones piled the bags off a red dirt road.
Most in Red Bank — the little Lexington County community where authorities say the killings took place — did not know Jones. A college-educated software engineer, he had moved his family into a faded mobile home three years earlier for a job at Intel, a computer chip-maker in nearby Columbia.
There was no family in South Carolina to arrange the children’s funeral — their father behind bars and the mother ruptured by grief and without money or comprehension.
Instead, Jones’ father, Tim Jones Sr., organized a memorial service at his Mississippi church. Bowed over in a pew on Sept. 12, Pawpaw sobbed and gripped friends who also had no answers. At the service’s end, pastel-colored balloons, bright as Easter eggs, rose high above the dark suits.
Jones Sr. was left to explain to the TV cameras the paradox that his son and namesake had become.
“We do not have all the answers and we may never have all of them,” he told reporters as he stood in front of his home a couple days before the funeral. “But anyone who knows Little Tim will agree that he is not the animal that he will be portrayed through the media.”
The children’s names were clustered in one shared obituary Sept. 19. Passing childhood interests, meant for a mother’s scrapbook, unnaturally swelled into the summation of five whole lives.
There was Merah, 8, who called her long chestnut brown ponytail her “Rapunzel hair. ” In an accompanying snapshot, the little girl sits at a restaurant table and beams at an unseen photographer, proudly displaying a missing front tooth.
Listed next is Elias, 7, who loved the outdoors. There’s a photo of him, too, in the restaurant, wearing a miniature tie with a pile of waffle french fries in the background.
Elias once surprised his first-grade classmates by pulling a live turtle out of his pocket during “share time.” He had found the turtle the day before and slept with it overnight, recalled Beth Houck, the principal of Saxe Gotha Elementary School, in an interview with The State in 2014.
“They were great, happy kids as far as when they were at school,” she added.
Next in the family was Nahtahn, 6, who called himself Tator and loved to fish with his big brother, Elias. The first grader went nowhere without Charlie Mouse, his favorite stuffed animal, according to the obit.
“I miss his voice a lot. I miss his freckles on his nose,” said Amber Jones, the children’s mother, during a 2017 interview with WIS TV — the only time she has spoken publicly since her children’s death. Divorced from Tim Jones, she reported her children and ex-husband missing after he failed to drop them off for a scheduled visit Sept. 3.
The two youngest in the family weren’t old enough for school yet.
Sweet-natured Gabriel, 2, named for the archangel, loved blocks and Care Bears.
And lastly, the baby of the family was Elaine, 1, who insisted on her juice and blankie, according to the obit. She thrilled at giving high fives and kisses, according to the funeral program.
“They loved going to the park. They loved swimming. They loved chocolate cookies ...” said Pastor Derrick Maranto to the 150 people attending the children’s memorial service.
“They all loved wrestling with dad.”
A messy life
They were happy at school.
And apparently happy at Pawpaw’s and Mawmaw’s in Mississippi.
But life at home was messy.
On Sept. 22, 2011, two caseworkers knocked on the door of the Jones family’s Russell Rowe home in Leesville. The S.C. Department of Social Services was following up on a complaint from an unnamed person that the children were dirty, not enrolled in school and likely living in squalor.
As caseworkers drove up, they took note of piles of junk in the yard. A notice from Animal Control dangled from the door handle. In the back, a dog was tied on a leash with a crate of four puppies nearby. Other pens held chickens, ducks and rabbits.
No one was at the mobile home that sat deep in its two-acre lot of pine and oak trees. A brilliant sand road connected it to dozens of other trailers and, on the corner, a junk yard, overflowing with car and bus carcasses.
The workers returned a couple of weeks later. This time, Amber Jones, pregnant with her three small children in tow, invited the caseworkers inside.
She tried to explain the mess, according to DSS records.
Tools were laying around because her husband, Tim Jones, was fixing up the home in the evenings after he got off work, she said. As far the piles of clothes, toys, books and clutter that filled the rooms and lined the hallways? They were doing the best they could, she said.
They had no family in the area. A neighbor and church friends were their whole support network. They were thinking of moving back to Mississippi, where Tim had family who could help out once the baby arrived.
The caseworkers ordered that the house be cleaned and the construction equipment moved out of the children’s reach.
Conditions were not so bad that Merah, Elias and Nahtahn were removed from the home. All three seemed happy and free of any signs of physical abuse, noted the workers. Each had their own bed while mom and dad slept on pallets in the living room. And the kitchen was stocked with food, even though parts of the stove lay on the floor.
During subsequent DSS home inspections, Amber Jones appeared open to caseworkers’ continued cleanup requests.
But not Tim Jones. His temper flared during a October 2011 inspection.
“... while speaking with (Tim Jones) he became very hostile and telling (the caseworker) that she was ruining people (sic) lives,” wrote the DSS worker. “And (caseworker) stated she wasn’t doing that but just make (sic) sure the children were safer and he stated that they are. He stated that he talked to an attorney and he was told that DSS couldn’t do anything and that he didn’t have to let DSS in the home ...”
Alarmed by Tim Jones’ aggression, the worker called a Lexington County Sheriff’s deputy for backup. Later, a calmed down Tim Jones agreed to send his family to a hotel overnight while the house was put in order.
The home was brought up to standards in late 2011 — “VERY VERY VERY CLEAN” a caseworker noted —and the DSS case closed.
But by then, the children had been thrust into deeper trouble.
A messier divorce
Amber and Tim Jones separated and a custody battle was raging by summer’s end.
On one side: Tim Jones, who accused his wife of being unfaithful with a next-door neighbor. According to divorce papers, Tim Jones returned home unexpectedly to find the other man, 19, hiding in the closet of the master suite.
“I am looking into moving to Mississippi with the children, where I have a large family support system,” Tim Jones wrote in a 2012 affidavit. “I will search for a job in Mississippi. I am employed and I am capable of caring for my children ...”
On the other side: Amber Jones, who was now six months pregnant with the couple’s fifth child. Several months earlier, she had walked into the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department and reported a string of threats made by her husband, including one to snap her neck. She declined a DSS caseworker’s referral her to Sistercare, a nonprofit for survivors of domestic abuse.
Tim Jones had the upper hand in the court case, including his $71,000 job at Intel, a divorce attorney and a glowing affidavit from his therapist who described him as a “highly intelligent, responsible father who is capable of caring for his children as the sole custodial parent.”
Amber Jones had none of those things — only an isolated existence along a lonely stretch of road and the pressures of caring for four young children in cramped quarters.
The divorce papers displayed her supposed sins.
But not Tim Jones’. There is no mention of his 2002 prison stint in the Big Muddy Correctional Center in Illinois, where he served time for cocaine possession, car theft, burglary and passing forged checks on his father’s account. The 20-year-old paroled out in about a year in a case of a“typical teenager doing stupid stuff,” according to Tim Jones Sr. in a 2014 interview with The Associated Press.
And so it was ordered on Oct. 14, 2013 by a family court judge. Tim Jones was granted physical custody of all five children, including baby girl Elaine, who would be born in December. Amber Jones reconciled herself to every other weekends and holidays.
The court issued one final judgment on supposed misdeeds: “In no event will the parties permit any paramour ... to be present during overnight visitation.”
It was all a moot point. In less than a year, there would be only heartache to share.
Life with their father
Perhaps looking for a fresh start, Tim Jones and his children moved to another mobile home park, this one cut into a Red Bank hillside off S.C. 6.
It would be the children’s final home.
Each evening after work, Tim Jones, in his Escalade, would descend into the hollow neighborhood, throwing a friendly hand up to passersby, said his neighbors.
For the children, it must have seemed a less isolated environment than the Leesville home. There were other children to play with. Nearby was a Hardee’s, a Publix, a Walgreen’s, a Mexican restaurant and other small-town amenities.
And they went to school — the three oldest to Saxe Gotha Elementary School just a few minutes away and the younger two to a day care.
Principal Beth Houck remembers the three enrolled at her school as polite, sweet kids. “It was always manners galore. It was always please and thank you. They loved everyone,” she told The State in 2014.
She cradles many sweet memories of them: Mera helping a teacher braid the hair of a special needs student at recess; Nahtahn serving as the role of class greeter and excelling in art; and Elias, intent on learning to tie his shoe strings.
But school officials soon became suspicious of the children’s home life, alerting authorities in May.
A circular mark was discovered on the neck of one of the boys, who shyly revealed to investigators that his father spanked him with a belt and made him do exercises for punishment.
Jones was ordered to avoid using corporal punishment. And follow-up DSS visits during the final summer of the children’s lives show a curiously happy home life.
They were enjoying birthday cupcakes, brought home by their father, during one visit. The home was messy with an “excessive amount of religious things,” noted a DSS worker, but it was safe.
“He’s a good father,” vouched a babysitter during another DSS visit, adding the family had just returned from a trip to Disney World and the beach.
But before the summer was out, another complaint was logged. This time, an unnamed person accused Tim Jones of regularly beating and bruising one of his sons and failing to adequately feed his children, once bringing home a 20-piece chicken nugget dinner for all five kids to share.
When DSS officials investigated in August, they found no bruises on the children, who recited dinner meals from the night before.
“Dad appears to be overwhelmed as he is unable to maintain the home but the children appear to be clean, groomed and appropriately dressed,” a DSS worker wrote on Aug. 13, adding that the agency would continue to check in on the family.
Finding little else to rebuke, they encouraged Tim Jones to upgrade the baby’s brand of diapers to help with diaper rash.
The final stop
And then they were gone.
On Sept. 3, following the long Labor Day weekend, school officials alerted authorities that the children had missed two days of school. A phone call to their worried grandmother in Mississippi revealed the family was supposed to visit over the holiday but never showed up.
Their mother phoned police, too. But no Amber Alert was issued since the children were with their legal guardian.
The upcoming trial will likely provide many details of the final moments of the children’s lives. Police believe Jones beat Nahtahn, the 6-year-old, to death and strangled the other four.
Investigators removed a long list of items from the mobile home in 2014 as they attempted to piece together crime details.
Five belts and two hair brushes were confiscated, according to a search warrant .
So was one pacifier.
Two sippy cups.
One set of Ninja Turtles bed linens.
After the killings, as if unsure what to do, Jones allegedly began a trek with the garbage bags in the back of the car. He rambled first to North Carolina, then back down into South Carolina to Lake City and Orangeburg, according to police who retraced his routed through debit card purchases, ATM withdrawals and phone records.
He next steered west to Athens, Ga., then circled back to South Carolina before tracking west to Alabama where he left his children’s bodies, shrouded in garbabe bags. Finally, he started for the familiar turf of Mississippi — where his father lived and where he had graduated from Mississippi State University,
“His direction of travel absolutely made no sense,” said Sheriff Charlie Crumpton of Smith County, Miss., where Jones was eventually arrested.
At night, he slept in the SUV with the children’s bodies in the back, police say. During the day, he stopped for food breaks.
Surveillance cameras show Jones at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Spartanburg on Labor Day, parked near a trash bin, according to reporting by The Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
“Every place he stopped, he parked near a dumpster to mask the smell,” Lt. Kevin Bobo, a Spartanburg Sheriff’s Office spokesman, told the paper in September 2014. “He was doing (the) same thing in other jurisdictions.”
And then on Sept. 6, police hit on a stroke of luck. It was the biting smell of bleach that first caught Mississippi police’s attention as Tim Jones eased up to a checkpoint in Smith County. Inside his car, they found blood, drug paraphanelia and synthetic marijuana, a drug known to cause hallucinations.
Most striking was Tim Jones’ behavior.
“He was basically wired,” Crumtpon said. “He was jittery, agitated, almost to an aggressive state.”
Taken into custody, Tim Jones was questioned for two nights, first claiming his children were fine and later confessing to fearfully killing them before they could “chop him up and feed him to the dogs,” according to his arrest warrant.
He then calmly led authorities to rural Oak Hill, Ala. — population 650 — near Camden. There, off a secluded road was a ravine that police had not yet checked. They recovered the garbage bags, two weighing no more than a pair of boots.
”God help me and God help my son,” Tim Jones’ father told NBC News shortly after the bodies were recovered. “... there’s something wrong with him. There’s no way he could’ve did this in the right state of mind.”
Tim Jones has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity — a defense rarely used because it is so rarely successful. Jones’ attorney, Aimee Zmroczek, hired by his father and stepmother, has said Jones was previously treated for mental health problems. But she declined to elaborate. Jones himself confided to his therapist in 2012 that his birth mother had been mentally ill.
In his mugshot, dark, sad eyes are framed by short, neat hair, just beginning to thin in front. The lips turn down, surrounded by stubble.
No one saw a child killer in the features, it seems, including his therapist, April Hames, who deemed him a loving father, heartbroken over the end of his marriage.
“When asked his biggest fear, Mr. Jones stated that he did not want to feel abandoned by his wife,” she wrote.
And then, some terrible foreshadowing.
“He did not want to feel unwanted and ‘tossed away without even knowing it.’”