Stepdad of Missing Toddler Must Face Murder Trial

SAN DIEGO (CN) – A weeklong preliminary hearing showed “significant discrepancies and compelling evidence” that Tieray Jones should stand trial for the murder of his 2-year-old stepson Jahi Turner, a San Diego judge said Friday.

Superior Court Judge Charles Rogers shook his head and sighed as he explained why he found that evidence presented by prosecutors showed that Jones had fabricated most of the story he told police after Jahi disappeared in 2002, and that Jones must stand trial for murder next year.

“The evidence is compelling that the 911 call to police was fabricated. I find those were false statements. It did not happen the way he says it happened,” Rogers said. He set a trial date of April 3, 2017.

Jones reported the toddler missing in a frantic 911 call that was played in court on the first day of the five-day hearing last Monday. Jones told dispatchers his son had disappeared from a Balboa Park-area playground after he’d left him playing with two other children and went to buy a drink from a nearby vending machine.

But multiple witnesses testified last week they never saw Jahi or his stepfather at the park that day.

Judge Rogers cited perhaps the most compelling evidence presented by Deputy District Attorneys Nicole Rooney and Bill Mitchell: expert testimony from a pediatrician and certified child abuse expert who said journal entries Jones wrote days before he contacted police showed Jahi may have been abused or severely injured.

It was testimony Jones’ defense team moved to strike, but Rogers found admissible, saying that doctor “was right on the money in testifying what I think are relevant opinions.”

Dr. Jennifer Davis testified Thursday afternoon that journal entries Jones wrote the week Jahi went missing referred to the child as lethargic and not moving, talking or eating.

“Jahi is acting funny. He won’t get up. I wish I knew what was wrong,” the entry stated.

Davis said that Jahi’s medical records showed he was a healthy 2-year-old – something his mother Tameka Jones testified to Monday – and that his lethargic behavior should have been cause for concern for Tieray Jones to take him to the doctor.

The pediatrician also noted multiple “stressors” Jones wrote about in his journal entries to his wife that week, including Jahi’s bed-wetting problem and the severe financial strain the couple faced after having to travel to Maryland unexpectedly the weekend before to get Jahi.

All those factors were “red flags” for the increased likelihood of child abuse, Davis said, though she acknowledged she had seen no medical records that indicated Jahi had a history of being abused by anyone.

She testified this is the first case in which she has been retained as an expert where there are no medical records on physical abuse or body to examine.

Jahi has never been found.

Judge Rogers surmised that only someone who had something to hide would not take a child to a doctor if the child were unresponsive.

“You take that child to the doctor unless you’re afraid of what might be disclosed,” Rogers said.

In his closing statement, Jones’ attorney Alex Ozols said investigators did not pursue other leads from people who claimed to have seen Jahi in the hours after his stepfather reported his disappearance.

“They had their suspect at this point; they had their guy,” Ozols said.

Jones was brought in for questioning for hours immediately after Jahi went missing, and again the next day, and didn’t get to sleep or even change his clothes, Ozols said.

“Police spent years on this investigation and every officer said he was very cooperative and in no way hindered the investigation,” Ozols said.

Ozols said the defense presented no “smoking gun” tying Jones to the possible murder of his stepson, and no blood or DNA evidence linking Jones to a possible crime.

Outside the courtroom, Ozols reiterated that Jones has never admitted to killing Jahi since the child disappeared nearly 15 years ago. He said there was no new evidence in the cold case, apart from a controlled call in Tameka Jones cooperated with detectives to contact Tieray in March 2015.

During that call with his ex-wife, Jones said, “accidents happen,” and that “everyone thinks I’m the guy.”

Prosecutor Rooney told reporters she believes the most compelling evidence is that no witnesses saw Jahi at the military apartment complex to which he had just moved, and no one saw him at the park to which Jones claimed to have taken him.

Jones’ attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss, claiming their client’s due process rights were violated by the 14-year delay in bringing charges against him. The motion will be considered after discovery is completed, Ozols said.

Jones was arraigned after Roger sent the case to trial. He pleaded not guilty to murder and infliction of child abuse resulting in death.

The next pretrial hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20.