Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. Smith County, Mississippi: Police conducting a routine traffic checkpoint pull over a black Cadillac Escalade. The driver is erratic and combative; the deputy suspects that he’s intoxicated. When the deputy gets closer to the vehicle, he can smell chemicals — and, as he puts it, “the stench of death.”
A search of the vehicle turns up synthetic marijuana, along with some more troubling items: bleach, muriatic acid, and children’s clothing. Then, in the back of the SUV, they find evidence of something far worse than DUI: a large puddle of blood and bodily fluids, crawling with maggots.
Their search also turns up hand-written checklists that include phrases like “melt the bodies” and “grind the bones to sand.”
The driver, 32-year-old Timothy Ray Jones, Jr., is arrested. When they run a check on him, police discover that Jones is wanted in South Carolina over a welfare concern regarding his children. In fact, Jones and his five children — Merah, 8; Elias, 7; Nahtahn, 6; Gabriel, 2; and Elaine, 1 — have been reported as missing three days earlier.
Back at the Smith County jail, after two days of questioning, Jones eventually tells police what happened to his children. He claims that Nahtahn had broken some electrical outlets, and he had made the boy do sit-ups, push-ups, and squats as punishment. He also admits to “smacking” the boy before sending him to bed. When Jones went in to check on him later that evening, he says, the boy was dead.
Jones says he pondered what to do for several hours, even leaving leaving the surviving children alone with Nahtahn’s body to go buy cigarettes. He says that a demonic voice told him to “kill the kids,” and told him that they were going to chop him up and feed him to the dogs. So, one by one, he strangled them — Merah and Elias, with his hands; Gabriel and Elaine, with a belt, because their necks were too tiny for him to get a good grip on.
He then placed each child’s body in a garbage bag and loaded them into the back of his Escalade. He drove around for nine days with his children’s bodies, eating fast food and buying synthetic cannabis, covering 700 miles across three states. During this time, his cell phone records show he called the babysitter to say that he was taking the kids and moving out of state. He also went online to research ways to disintegrate a body faster and which countries wouldn’t extradite him for murder charges. He made lists of steps to dismember and hide the bodies, as well as other ways to cover his tracks. He was captured on camera at a Walmart buying saws, muriatic acid, a dust mask, goggles, and a five-gallon plastic bucket. However, he says, he could not go through with dismembering his own children.
When the bodies started to decay, he poured bleach over them to try and mask the odor.
Once Jones finishes his confession, he leads police to an isolated area near the Alabama town of Pine Apple, about 25 miles west of I-65. There, the children’s badly decomposed bodies, wrapped inside garbage bags, are found just off an abandoned dirt road.
On the surface, Jones seemed like a success story — a devout, fundamentalist Christian, he graduated with honors with a degree in computer engineering from Mississippi State University. He held a well-paying job with the tech giant Intel and was raising five small children on his own.
But scratch the surface, and a very different picture begins to emerge.
Jones, originally from Illinois, had served in the Navy, but was discharged in 2000 over substance abuse issues. He ran into the wrong side of the law the following year, when he was only 19, when he was busted for possession of cocaine. After serving six months in jail, he went on a crime spree that included car theft, burglary, and passing forged checks. This time, he was handed a longer sentence.
Once he got out of prison in 2003, he did seem to change his life around. He converted to Pentacostalism and went to college to earn his degree in computer engineering. He met 19-year-old Amber, and, just a few months after they began dating, they were married. Following his fundamentalist beliefs, the couple began having children very quickly, and Amber stayed home to care for them.
When Jones was hired at Intel in 2009, the family moved to South Carolina. Despite the fact that he was making over $60,000 a year — a good salary in that area — he moved his family into one dilapidated trailer house after another.
A long trail of red flags
The family’s frequent moves and apparent poverty weren’t the only thing about the Joneses that seemed odd. Neighbors said that their yard was piled with filth and trash, and the kids looked dirty and weren’t in school. They said Timothy was extremely argumentative and carried a gun to confront them. At one point, he threatened to shoot their dog.
In 2011, the Joneses were brought to the attention of the Lexington County Department of Social Services, when someone reported Timothy’s unstable, potentially violent behavior, and the fact that he had been trying to purchase a gun on the black market.
When a DSS caseworker visited the family, she only reported that the house was “very cluttered” and power tools were accessible to the children. So they put in place a “safety plan” to get the household clean and safe for the children.
DSS made three more uneventful visits to the Jones house to follow up. But when a caseworker made an unannounced visit Oct. 28, Jones became so hostile that the caseworker had to call the police. The caseworker determined that “the children were suffering from maltreatment and neglect that presented a substantial risk of physical injury … ”
So DSS developed a new “treatment plan,” but no action was taken to protect the children.
After the new year, 2012, DSS caseworkers returned to the Jones home, where they documented physical violence and neglect at the home, but again, no action was taken to protect the children.
In May of that year, Amber filed a domestic violence report with the sheriff’s office and DSS. She claimed that Timothy had threatened to “snap” her neck in front of the children and to shoot the neighbors. She also said he had played “chicken” with an 18-wheeler while she and the children were in the car — then head-butted and spit on her. DSS came up with another “safety plan,” but no other actions were taken.
A month later, Timothy alleged that he caught Amber having an affair with a neighbor, so he took the children to Mississippi to live with relatives. When Amber called DSS to report her children as being kidnapped, the caseworker told her that since they had no formal custody arrangement, there was no kidnapping. They told Amber to get a family lawyer. Since she didn’t have a job or even a driver’s license, that was impossible. Then Timothy stopped paying the utility bills at their South Carolina home, leaving Amber with no place to live.
By October 2012, DSS closed the Jones’ children’s case, ruling that “risk has been reduced and services are no longer needed.”
At some point Timothy came back to Lexington County, because in March 2013, a school teacher there contacted Lexington County DSS to report that one of the Jones children had head lice — and Timothy had considered using kerosene and a heat gun to treat it. Over the next two months, school officials made two more reports of suspected child abuse — including repeated spankings with a belt — to DSS.
After those allegations, Lexington County DSS did nothing to ensure the children’s safety, but instead drafted yet another “safety plan.”
That summer, Timothy filed for divorce from Amber. He cited her alleged infidelity as cause for the divorce, and her sloppy housekeeping, lack of employment, and “lifestyle” as reasons why he should get custody of the children. His criminal past, reports of domestic violence, and child-abuse investigations were not mentioned.
Amber, for her part, didn’t have any money for an attorney. She did not contest custody because she figured that since she didn’t have any way to support them, the children would be better off with their father.
Their divorce was finalized on Sept. 30, 2013, and Timothy was awarded primary custody of the children, with Amber getting visitation every other weekend and some holidays.
Amber’s trust in her now-ex-husband was tragically misguided: all signs pointed to continuing abuse. In April 2014, a teacher reported a handprint-sized bruise on one of the children, who said she had been grabbed and “pulled around the house as punishment.” DSS did not investigate this allegation.
In May, another report was made to DSS claiming one of the children was choked and thrown against a wall, leaving bruises on the child’s neck and jaw. Another child reported that her crotch area hurt. The children said they were beaten repeatedly with belts. They were also forced to do push-ups and excessive exercises as punishments.
When DSS asked Timothy about the markings, he reportedly told a caseworker that his child “was very clumsy and bruised easily.”
A month later, the children’s babysitter called DSS, reporting that she walked in as Timothy was “about to hurt” one of his children. She also stated that Timothy withheld food from them.
During a home visit, a caseworker noted bruises on one child’s face. Again, no action was taken to ensure the children’s safety.
A month after that, in July, a teacher called DSS to make yet another abuse report after seeing bruises “all over” three of the five children.
And yet despite all that, a DSS supervisor closed the file.
Then, Aug. 7, 2014 — just weeks before the murders — an anonymous caller reported physical abuse to DSS. When a caseworker and a sheriff’s deputy visited the Jones home, they found the child with a bandaged eye, which Timothy claimed was from his sister accidentally hitting him with a doorknob. But the caseworker found evidence that Timothy had been beating one of his sons and wasn’t feeding his children — her report stated Timothy sometimes fed all five children with one 20-piece chicken nugget dinner. Timothy also stated he didn’t want to send his kids back to public school “because he does not want the school to report the beatings.” The caseworker made a report noting “substantial risk of physical abuse” to the children, but, once again, no action was taken to remove them from the home.
Instead, Lexington County DSS referred the case to law enforcement. It is unclear what, if anything, law enforcement did to follow up on this referral. What we do know is that 20 days later, Timothy Jones, Jr., murdered all five of his children.
Jones stood trial for the murder of his children on April 29, 2019. He looked like a completely different person from the scruffy, strung-out man who had been arrested five years earlier. Clean-shaven, balding, bespeckled, and considerably chubbier, the transformation was worthy of Jodi Arias.
At his trial, he attempted an insanity defense, claiming he had undiagnosed schizophrenia. He claimed Amber “leaving” him to care for the children alone (despite the fact that he took them from her) had put undue stress on his mental state, which he self-medicated with alcohol and synthetic cannabis. His defense claimed he couldn’t tell right from wrong at the time he killed his children.
But at trial, Dr. Richard Frierson, a court-appointed psychiatrist who wasn’t representing or being paid by either side, disagreed. Frierson concluded Jones knew it was legally and morally wrong to kill his children and was faking and exaggerating the symptoms of schizophrenia. Frierson instead diagnosed Jones with substance-induced psychotic disorder caused by his escalating use of synthetic cannabis in the months before the killings.
His defense was also undercut by the fact that he changed his story. At one point, he claimed he was hearing voices telling him to kill his children, and that he thought they were going to chop him up and feed him to the dogs.
But at other times, what I believe is the truth slipped out: he said that he had gotten angry with Nahtahn for crying and saying he wanted to live with his mother, so Jones strangled him in a fit of rage — and when Merah walked in on him, he decided he needed to kill her too. He said he felt he had to kill the other children rather than let them go to live with their mother. This version has the ring of truth to it because as a well-documented abuser, Timothy was also a control freak who only wanted custody of the kids as a kind of revenge on Amber — and he would rather take their lives than let her have custody. In fact, on the stand, Amber testified that Timothy had told her he would “never” let her have custody of the children.
The details of the case were so gruesome and heartbreaking, the trial had to be recessed several times because jurors or witnesses broke down sobbing.
After deliberating for six hours, the jury found him guilty of all five murders.
The jurors have described their experience in this trial as traumatic, and many had to seek psychological counseling afterwards.
On June 13, 2019, Timothy Jones, Jr., was given the death sentence — either by lethal injection or electrocution, whichever he chooses. This makes it highly unlikely that sentence will be carried out. South Carolina hasn’t put anyone to death since 2011, and it lacks the proper drugs to do so. And Jones isn’t likely to choose electrocution.
Meanwhile, the children’s mother, Amber Kyzer (née Jones) is suing the South Carolina Department of Social Services for gross negligence. Her lawsuit claims that that agency’s repeated failures to safeguard the children from a well-documented child abuser was the cause of her children’s deaths.
In fact, the state’s dismal record on protecting its most vulnerable is itself well documented. The year before the murders, in 2013, several state senators formed the Department of Social Services Oversight Subcommittee and held hearings to hear testimony from parents with experience in the system. Many of them told of similar inaction when presented with evidence of neglect and abuse. One parent stated, “Phones calls, complaints, emails, contacts, subpoenas, all go unanswered.”
Two months after the Jones murders, the committee released its report. It found that South Carolina’s DSS employees are unqualified, their caseloads are excessive, and the DSS’ overall systems are inadequate. Because of its unreliable record keeping, DSS doesn’t even know how many children in its system have been killed as a result of abuse or neglect.
The criticism seems to have done some good. A DSS spokesperson stated that it has received increased funding for 177 new caseworkers and 67 new caseworker assistants. As for more training for its caseworkers and better record-keeping, that remains to be seen.
But there are larger issues here beyond just the incompetence of South Carolina’s DSS, such as how someone with enough money was able to prevail in custody court despite multiple credible allegations of abuse. I myself have had experience with this, as have family members and friends. The plain fact of the matter is that he won custody of those children because he had enough money for an attorney — and Amber, who followed her husband’s religious teachings and left the workforce in order to bear and raise five children, had none. (Libby Anne has a great analysis of this aspect of the case on her Patheos blog.)
Until we fix this shameful aspect of our custody system, where the parent with the most money wins, more children will be put in danger all over the country.