LEXINGTON, S.C. — May 15
Born that day in 2006, it would have been Merah Jones’ 13th birthday. Instead it was the first day of witness testimony in the trial of her father, Timothy Jones Jr, for her murder and the murder of her four siblings — Elias, Nahtahn, Gabriel, and Elizabeth — in Lexington County in 2014.
Jones, through his lawyers, is arguing that he's not guilty by reason of insanity. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty again him.
Among those who testified on day one was the family babysitter, a gas station attendant in Alabama who says she saw Jones after the killings, and several law enforcement officers.
Here's a look at who took the stand for day one of testimony on May 15, 2019.
Teachers say he picked the children up from daycare, didn't show back up later
The state’s first two witnesses were former educators at Saxe Gotha Elementary School, where the three eldest children attended classes and participated in the after school program.
Testimony centered around who had authority to sign out the children and pick them up from school.
Jane Wise was in charge of the after school program and was responsible for checking IDs of persons arriving to pick up children and making sure that only those authorized to do so signed the daily log sheets for each child.
Wise testified that only Jones was authorized to pick up Mera, Elias and Nahtahn; the two younger children had other day care arrangements. The attendance log for the week of August 25 shows Tim Jones signing out his children and surveillance video from August 28 shows Jones picking up the three children at 6:15 p.m.
When the three Jones children did not show up on Friday, Aug. 29, or Monday, Sept. 1, the absence was noted but, because it was Labor Day weekend, did not raise any alarms.
When the children were still absent on Tuesday, Sept. 2, both Wise and Saxe Gotha’s assistant principal Janet Ricard became alarmed.
Ricard reached out to the two people Jones had listed on his emergency contact list: Kevin McKinney, an Intel coworker; and Roberta Thornsberry, the children’s great grandmother.
Ricard said that neither McKinney nor Thornsberry had seen Jones or the children. She said that McKinney had been out driving around looking for Jones and that Thornsberry was concerned because Jones never showed up for a preplanned weekend visit.
Ricard next contacted the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office to request a welfare check at the Jones residence in Red Bank.
Arriving before law enforcement officers, Ricard descried the Jones home as “eerily quiet” for a place where five small children lived. There was no response at the home and was told by officials at the school district that missing persons reports would have to be filed by a family member.
Defense lawyers asked the educators about the children, specifically about disciplinary issues that they may have had. Ricard said that they were normal children; Elias was a bit mischievous but not out of the ordinary for a 6-year-old. She did think that some of the requests Jones made as far as disciplining his children seemed not age-appropriate.
When Mera was a second-grader she stole a cookie and Jones wanted her suspended or made to clean the cafeteria. When Elias was in kindergarten, Jones wanted him to be made to go to jail for a day or have the resource officers talk to him after he stole some pencils or brought Tim’s pocketknife to class.
Ricard said after that, she would still talk to Jones about his children but would withhold some details because she thought his recommendations were extreme. Her recommendation was to have lunch in her office instead of the cafeteria with the other kids or to restrict recess time.
The South Carolina Department of Social Services became involved when, as a mandatory reporter, Saxe Gotha school officials made a call to DSS concerning Nahtahn.
When educators or anyone working with children suspect any sort of abuse — whether it be mental or physical — they are required by law to report it to DSS.
Still, there was nothing in Jones’ behavior toward his children that caused alarm or raised red flags for Ricard and Wise.
Jones' former boss says he was 'good worker'
To help establish the case for Jones’ sanity, the state next called Jones’ former manager at Intel, James McConnell.
McConnell gave a brief work history for Jones: Jones was part of a four man team of engineers who had the responsibility of checking to make sure computer chips were communicating and operating correctly before being shipped to customers.
Jones had gotten satisfactory annual job performance reviews from 2011 to 2013, and was promoted and given a raise during his last annual review. In 2014 he was making $81,000 per year as a computer engineer.
According to McConnell, Jones was a good worker who took on additional work, was helpful to coworkers, enjoyed taking on challenges and was seeking more opportunities.
McConnell wrote Jones a letter of recommendation for Jones to enroll in classes at Georgia Tech in order to further his degree (Jones had graduated summa cum laude at Mississippi State).
Jones had even expressed interest in attending medical school.
Nothing would indicate to McConnell that Jones was anything more than an intelligent, driven employee.
McConnell did notice, around the time of Tim and Amber Jones’ divorce in 2014, that Tim Jones did start to look tired at work and started slowing down. He testified that he mentioned to Jones that he seek help through Intel’s Employee Assistance Program to find daycare or a nanny for his children and to talk to a professional about his divorce.
Again, when questioned, McConnell saw nothing in Jones’ behavior before Aug. 28 to cause him any alarm.
Babysitter says Jones said he needed 'fresh start'
After a short break, Christina Ehlke took the stand. Ehlke was the nanny for the Jones children during August 2014.
She lived next door to Tim and the children and cared for all five of the children during the day while Tim was at work and continued to care for the youngest — Elaine and Gabriel — when the other three returned to school on Aug, 15.
She testified that Jones reached out to her about caring for his children from an ad she had placed on Craigslist and on the recommendation of his former nanny Joy Lorick.
Lorick worked for Jones but the two parted ways because of money issues. It was Lorick that accompanied the children on a trip to Disney World.
Jones would drop off the younger children on his way to work and would pick them up after he had picked up the three older ones from Saxe Gotha. She even allowed Jones to take her daughter to Saxe Gotha school along with his three older children while Ehlke was ill.
She described Jones as “weird,” socially awkward, intelligent, a good father. Nothing in her mind would suggest that he was a danger to his kids.
Ehlke testified that she thought Jones was struggling with being a single father with five kids, so she made arrangements to get paid for childcare services when he got behind in his payments.
On Aug 25, Jones sent Ehlker a text: “left $150 with (her oldest daughter), will have to bite the bullet on Mondays.”
She testified that everything was normal on the evening of Aug, 28 when Jones picked up the kids.
It was only on the morning of Friday, Aug, 29, that she texted Jones because she was under the impression that the children were to be under her care, as normal.
Ehlke texted Jones if kids were coming when they didn’t show up and he texted back “no.”
Prosecutors then entered into evidence screen grabs of Ehlke’s contact list from her phone and text messages between Ehlke and Jones about children on Aug 29, Sept. 1, and Sept 2.
From Aug. 28:
EHLKE: “Just wondering if the kids r (sic) coming”
JONES: “Don’t worry about this morning. I’ll see you later next week”
EHLKE: “So are they coming Monday or when?”
EHLKE: “ Ok, well have a good Labor Day”
Nothing happened next door over Labor Day weekend.
Ehlke sent a reminder to Jones on Monday to bring diapers for the babies when he dropped them off on Tuesday.
Jones texted Ehlke minutes later:
Jones then called and talked to Ehlke for 17 minutes, 13 seconds.
According to her, Jones told her he had left South Carolina and needed a fresh start, would not be returning. She said he knew he owed her money and told her she should take anything she needed from his home to compensate her.
During the conversation, Ehlke said she never thought the kids were in jeopardy, she didn’t think anything was wrong; and, to her, Jones seemed normal.
Ehlke said Jones asked her to clean up his residence because Jones needed his deposit back; he told her she could have the washer and dryer, his computer and any of the kids clothes. She said he told her that he had taken all he needed.
Jones didn’t tell her of any future plans.
On Sept. 2, Ehlke texts Jones that, because both rented for same landlord, she wanted Jones to send a text to their landlord that would give her permission to go into his house and clean. Jones responded 4 minutes later that he would and asks “Everything is going ok?”
She msgs “K” and “I haven’t done anything bc I want 2 make sure you have everything”
She makes arrangements for His House to pick up remaining stuff and messages Jones. He, instantly he re-texts “ok,” wishes her well.
Ehlke testified that Jones may have mentioned his ex-wife on occasion, and seemed bitter toward her and the separation, but she thought he seemed to be longing for Amber.
To her, Jones was very private, just talked a bit about the kids; had no family or friends that visited that she knew of.
Nothing in her mind set up alarms. Ehlke even allowed Jones to offered to take Ehlke’s daughter to school since they all went to Saxe Gotha, and she allowed it.
Ehlke became aware kids were missing when officers knocked on door around 3 am on Sept. 3.
Before that, she had no concerns about kids, thought Jones intelligent, and there was nothing to suggest he was not of sound mind. He did not seem to be scared of children.
The missing persons report
Lt. Jessie Lantz, in the Major Crimes Unit with the Lexington County Sheriff, testified next.
He said Wednesday, Sept. 3, is the first time Lexington County law enforcement was made aware of the missing family.
Saxe Gotha’s Ricard and another assistant principal requested a welfare check, which Lexington County deputies conducted around 4 p.m.
Finding no one at the residence, deputies attempted to contact Tim Jones’ father, Jones’ ex-wife Amber, and other relatives in order to find out if anyone knew where the family might be.
A missing persons report filed with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department by Tim Jones Sr via phone around 6 p.m.
A NCIC alert was then put out. The nationwide computer data base would list Timothy Jones Jr and his five children as missing.
Lentz and Detective Creech then began tracking the movements of Jones and created a timeline of events through transaction receipts.
Gas station worker said he had 'awful smell'
Linda Watkins worked at Bypass Liberty gas station in Greenville, Alabama, in 2014.
A law enforcement officer stopped in at Bypass Liberty on Sept. 6 and asked to see who was working that day as he needed to know about a customer who was now being held in custody that had come in earlier that morning (a little after 8 am)
Watkins said the man was driving a black Escalade with black tinted windows. She noticed him when he pulled into the driveway and pulled to a pump and sat there 5 or 6 minutes without getting out. When he finally did get out, he pumped gas before entering the store.
When he came in, Watkins said she smelled an awful smell around him.
“It was him. It was awful. It was like the worse case of B.O. that I had ever smelled. It had a chemical smell that would burn your nose.”
Surveillance video from Bypass Liberty shows what appears to be Tim Jones wandering around the convenience store.
The man walked around the store, looking out the window at his vehicle, before bringing a Starbucks Double Shot energy drink and some water to the counter.
The man asked Watkins if there was a place out of town that he could camp and she gave him directions to nearby Sherman Lakes campground.
The man also asked for three cartons of Newport Red cigarettes.
She rang up his purchases, he paid with credit card, she asked for ID, he didn’t give one, she looked him over and he went back to his car.
“Jones Jr, Timothy R” was the name on the credit card.
Watkins said nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The man was polite, soft spoken. He wasn’t acting like he was under the influence of anything, just appeared real dirty and had an odor.
Watkins said that the man got back in his vehicle and sat there for a few minutes before pulling off in the direction of the campgrounds.
The traffic stop: the end of the trail
Jurors next heard from Charles Johnson, the investigator/deputy from Smith County's Sheriff's Department in Mississippi.
Conducting traffic safety checkpoint along Highway 18 East around 7 p.m. in Smith County, Mississippi on Sept. 6.
According to guidelines, to do safety checkpoint, there must be two deputies in separate patrol cars. You must stop every vehicle, check drivers license, check child safety restraints installed properly.
Around 8 p.m., the black Escalade approached the checkpoint.
Johnson thought he smelled the burnt smell of marijuana and asked for the driver’s license. Then Johnson caught a whiff of another smell. When asked by Johnson, the driver said the second smell was garbage.
There was no one else in the vehicle.
The driver was asked to pull to the side of the road and step out of the vehicle.
Johnson testified that he was constantly shining his flashlight in the man’s eyes. They were red and shiny, the male driver had slurred speech.
With the smell, eyes, and speech, Johnson asked to search the vehicle.
The man tried to follow Johnson, twice, to the back of the black SUV before another deputy stopped him. Johnson noticed a small bag of Spice (chemical marijuana). The man tried to convince Johnson that Spice was legal since it was synthetic.
Jones determined that the man, now identified as Timothy Jones, was under the influence and charged him as such, as well as possession of paraphernalia.
Johnson found another bag of Spice, along an empty Starbucks energy drink can — typically employed as a smoking device by marijuana users.
Johnson opened the back of the SUV and saw bottles of chemicals and thought the chemicals could be used in a meth lab.
At that point, Johnson called his supervisor Undersheriff Marty Patterson.
Upon arrival, Patterson asked about the smell coming from the vehicle. To Patterson, it smelled like blood.
Johnson smelled and saw bleach stains along the baseboard of the Escalade.
Johnson ran the license and plates. The numbers came back with a hit on NCIC indicating that there should be one adult male, Timothy Jones Jr., traveling with five children.
Patterson stopped the search and called dispatchers to contact authorities in South Carolina.
A wrecker was called and Mississippi law enforcement officers took the Escalade into evidence
Jones was arrested at the scene.
Jones said 'I don't have any children,' officer testified
James McClellan, a Deputy Sheriff Smith County Sheriff’s Department, Mississippi testified next.
At 9 p.m. September 6, he was on dispatch duty at Smith County Sheriff’s Department. He got the NCIC hit and notified deputies at the scene.
When he arrived at the scene, McClellan saw Jones in the back of a patrol car. Undersheriff Patterson asked McClellan to ask Jones about the whereabouts of his children that were listed on the NCIC alert.
Jones responded “I don’t have any children.”
Patterson sent him back and Jones said on the second occasion, “I have three.”
He then told officers the children were in South Carolina.
McClellan took possession of the evidence gathered at the scene by Johnson and transported the sealed bag to the evidence room in Meridian, Mississippi.
Jones was taken to a nearby hospital in order to collect blood and DNA samples and then transported to Smith County Detention Center and placed on suicide watch.
Deputy testifies what was found in Jones' car
Marty Patterson, the Undersheriff Smith County Sheriff’s Department, Mississippi, who's now retired was next.
An Undersheriff is equivalent to a Deputy Sheriff and is second in command in the department.
On Sept. 6, 2014, the Sheriff was out of town and Patterson was in charge.
Smith County Sheriff’s Department was conducting a traffic safety checkpoint along Highway 18 Eastbound, near Raleigh, Mississippi, with the permission of Patterson.
Raleigh is the county seat of Smith County and is where the Sheriff’s Department is located.
Patterson was called to the scene a little after 8 p.m. because deputies conducting the safety check thought that they had discovered the makings of a meth lab in the back of a black Escalade.
Patterson, a 30-year veteran law enforcement officer, noticed a strong odor and knew it wasn’t chemical like meth but the smell of decomposition, of death.
Walking around the SUV, Patterson saw articles of clothing, cans of bleach, charcoal lighter fluid, 5 gallon bucket with tape and a saw. He also saw a bleach stain and another stain that later proved to be blood.
Deputy Johnson told Patterson that there was a hit on NCIC on the driver and that Lexington law enforcement had been contacted.
Patterson said he talked to Lexington officials (Lt Lance) and that they were concerned about the whereabouts of the five children.
Jones said at first that he had no children and then that there were three children, at home with their mother in South Carolina.
With the bleach, smell of decomposition and missing children, Patterson shut down the search of the Escalade.
The Escalade was sent to a secure lot and placed under guard.
Jones was arrested.
Patterson walked Jones through the booking process and asked him again about the children.
Jones told Patterson that all he needed to know about the children was in the SUV.
On Sept. 7, Tim Jones Sr was present for Tim Jones Jr’s interview in Smith County.
Patterson’s main concern was for the children: Were they all dead, were one or more of the children alive and in need of medical attention.
Receipts found in the SUV from Athens, Ga, Sept 1; Augusta Road Walmart in Lexington, Sept. 3; an Advance Auto in South Carolina, Sept 3; a Dollar General Orangeburg, SC, Sept 3; a Federal Credit Union, Seot. 4; Bypass Food Mart, Camden, Ala, Sept 6; Taco Bell, Sept 6; Camden, Ala, Sept. 6 allowed law enforcement to track Jones’ movements during the period he and the children were missing.
Lt Johnson, the primary interviewer, began to read Jones Jr his Miranda rights. Jones Jr took the card and read the rights out loud, which Patterson found unusual.
Patterson testified that Jones was bouncing off the walls, everywhere, he thought that Jones’ attitude was as though Jones was superior to everyone in the room. According to Patterson, Jones wasn’t acting like someone on marijuana or meth. Jones was frothing at the mouth and sweating profusely.
Patterson has since observed others under the influence of Spice and behaving as Jones did that day.
Jones Sr also wanted to know where the children were and tried to get his son to disclose their whereabouts. Jones Sr asked “Son, what has happened to the children. Did you do something to the children?”
According to Patterson, Jones reached over and put a hand around his father’s neck.
The next day, Sept. 8, Lexington County law enforcement officials arrived in Mississippi.
On Sept 9, investigators say Jones told Smith County officials he would take them to the bodies of the children, about 200 miles away in Alabama.
On the journey, they only made one wrong turn — a little over one mile away from where the bodies would be found. Jones knew immediately where the correct turn should be and told the driver where to turn.
The bodies of the children are found along a logging road in rural area between Greenville and Camden, Alabama.
Officers from South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi were on the scene, processing evidence.
Jones was transported back to the Smith County jail.
During cross examination, the defense pulled up the inmate intake forms from Smith County and pointed out the different answers to two of the questions on the form over the course of Jones’ stay in the Smith County jail.
- Does the inmate seem to be under the influence? The answer changes from Yes to No over the period of Sept 6 to Sept 10.
- Does the inmate seem to have psychological issues? The answer changes from No to Yes from Sept 6 to Sept 10.
Smith County officials filled out the forms for each day Jones was in custody.
Patterson said that Jones stated during his interview on Sept. 7 that Jones said that his mother put voices in his head. That his children were trying to harm him.
Patterson, in his interview notes, indicated that Jones Sr and Lexington law enforcement officers were concerned for Jones Jr’s safety and that he might harm himself.
Testimony will resume Thursday morning.