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Death penalty trial upcoming for father accused of killing 5 kids in Lexington County

November 26, 2017 GMT

Down a dirt road, toward the back of an overgrown lawn strewn with children’s toys and garbage, a warning sign once hung above the doorframe of a mobile home.

“Is there life after death? Trespass here and find out,” read the message, accompanied by an illustration of a handgun.

Three years ago, this trailer captured the interest of reporters and locals alike in Red Bank, a small community 15 miles west of Columbia. Visitors clogged the dead-end road, vying for a peek of the home where Timothy Ray Jones Jr. lived. Stunned onlookers wondered what could have driven him to kill his five kids, as authorities alleged.

The murder case against Jones, 35, has since inched forward with little action or fanfare following his arrest that made national headlines in 2014. And now, with his death penalty trial tentatively scheduled for February, residents of the Lexington County community that mourned the Jones children say the public has all but forgotten about the case and the five youngsters.

After the news trucks packed up, people seemed to move on “almost immediately,” said Heather Gates, a resident of South Lake Drive, where Jones lived with his kids, aged 1 to 8.

“It felt like, wow, just that quick, something so tragic can be forgotten so quickly,” she said. “I don’t think people want to remember that kind of stuff. As long as they can bury their head in the sand, they’re good.”

As another neighbor, Louis Zeibert, put it: “Pretty much everyone forgot the guy’s name.”

Jones continues to spend his days behind bars awaiting trial. New tenants, a family from out of state, moved into his former mobile home several years ago, neighbors said.

The trailer is where investigators said Jones strangled four of his kids and beat the fifth child to death. He reportedly drove their bodies across four states for nine days before dumping them in a wooded area in rural Alabama. Warrants later revealed that Jones said he feared his kids were going to kill him, cut him up and “feed him to the dogs.”

His ex-wife, Amber Jones, who is the children’s mother, in August filed a lawsuit against several businesses she alleges sold him synthetic marijuana, or spice. The lawsuit states Timothy Jones was under the influence of the drug at the time of the killings.

She also filed suit against the state Department of Social Services last year, claiming the agency received multiple reports of child abuse and knew Timothy Jones was a threat but failed to protect the kids. He had primary custody of the children.

Amber Jones’ lawyer in the lawsuit against DSS, Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, said she is looking forward to getting her ex-husband’s criminal prosecution over with “so she can move on to the extent possible with her life.”

A gag order has prevented all potential trial participants from speaking out about the murder case.

The children’s obituaries referred to them earning their “angel wings.” The oldest, Merah, 8, had long chestnut brown hair and a big smile, absent a front tooth in the photo that ran with her obituary. Elias, 7, was remembered as a lover of the outdoors who collected critters. Six-year-old Nahtahn was a prankster who wanted to be a sheriff when he grew up, like the character Woody from “Toy Story.” Gabriel, 2, boasted a “contagious” smile and big blue eyes. The youngest, 1-year-old Elaine Marie, was a sweet baby who loved attention.

The kids are never far from stone carver Ron Clamp’s mind at Memorial Design in West Columbia, where a framed illustration of a statue that was to be dedicated to the children hangs in his office. Clamp planned to create a 10-foot granite statue of an angel protecting five children after a motorcycle club approached him to design a memorial to draw attention to child abuse in 2014.

Fundraising for the memorial has been postponed because prosecutors and others worried the statue, proposed for a park across from the Lexington County courthouse, could lead to a mistrial in the murder case if the defense claimed it unduly influenced jurors, Clamp said.

He hopes to one day create the statue to raise awareness.

“It was a sad part of the community’s history,” Clamp said.

On a Sunday afternoon, while serving bottles of beer to regulars at Charlie’s Sports Break, bartender Kim Cornett said it still pains her to think about the Jones children, whom she described as innocent victims robbed of a “chance to live their life.” But their deaths aren’t something people in her social circle discuss anymore. For some, it’s too painful.

“There for a while, it was just like Dylann Roof,” said Cornett, referencing Roof’s ties to Red Bank. The self-avowed white supremacist lived in the Red Bank community as a teen and attended White Knoll High School until 2010. Five years later, he returned to Red Bank to stay with friend Joey Meek before carrying out the mass shooting of nine black worshipers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

“We talked about that for a little while, but we don’t discuss it no more. We just deal with it in our own way,” Cornett said.

Gates, the South Lake Drive resident, is often reminded of the Jones children, who were always quiet and polite when they played with her boys. She thinks of the family when she spots a black Cadillac Escalade, like the SUV Jones drove, and when families with young kids move into the neighborhood.

The case is still bewildering. Jones appeared “normal,” Gates said. He was the type of neighbor to wave back when neighbors said hello.

Gates’ eyes filled with tears as she explained how the killings changed her worldview, causing her to be more suspicious of others.

“I hope with all my heart it never happens again here, or anywhere for that matter,” she said, “but definitely not so close to home. I pray for that all the time.”