SAN DIEGO (CN) — A cold-case murder trial began Thursday in San Diego, with a stepfather accused of the murder of his 2-year-old stepson Jahi Turner, one week after what would have been the boy’s 18th birthday.
Tieray Jones was extradited to San Diego in 2016 to face charges of murder and child abuse resulting in death. His stepson Jahi Turner disappeared on April 25, 2002. Jones called 911 that afternoon, claiming the boy went missing after Jones walked away to buy him a drink at a vending machine in a park a mile away from their apartment in a Navy housing complex.
Hundreds of police and sheriff’s officers combed the San Diego Miramar landfill looking for a body, but Jahi has not been found.
As a picture of Jahi in a yellow striped shirt was projected in Superior Court Judge Joan Weber’s courtroom Thursday, Deputy District Attorney William Mitchell told jurors that Jones is the reason Jahi didn’t get to grow up.
“Last Saturday he should have turned 18, but he didn’t, and the reason why he didn’t is sitting in this courtroom,” Mitchell said.
Jahi had been in San Diego for just two days before he went missing. His mother, Tameka Jones, had flown out the weekend before on an emergency flight to Maryland to pick up her son, who was living with her mother.
Mitchell said Tameka Jones and her husband were not planning to bring Jahi to San Diego until that summer, after they had saved up money, but were forced to change their plans after Child Protective Services indicated it planned to remove Jahi from Tameka’s mother’s care.
Immediately after Jahi came to live with his mom and stepfather, Tameka was deployed on a Navy ship and Jones was left to care for the toddler on his own, “with no money, no diapers, and no support from family or friends,” Mitchell said.
The boy went missing days later.
In a panicked 911 call played for jurors, Jones was heard walking and breathing heavily. At times his voice cracked and he wept while talking to the dispatcher.
Mitchell said as the investigation ensued, Jones gave officers contradictory statements. He told the jury that neighbors who will be called as witnesses said they never saw Jahi with Jones and that they saw Jones carry out large “rounded” trash bags to a Dumpster.
In a phone call to Tameka and an entry in their shared journal, Jones described an accident in which Jahi hit his head and had a “bump.” Mitchell said the symptoms indicate Jahi had a traumatic brain injury.
“Today for some reason he hasn’t been moving or really talking,” Jones wrote. “He’s starting to act really funny; he won’t get up off the floor.”
The day Jahi went missing, Mitchell said, “No witness saw a caregiver or parent frantically looking for a lost child” at the park, and that earlier that day Jones had made five emergency phone calls to Tameka’s shipmates trying to get a hold of her.
Courtney Cutter, Jones’ attorney, said law enforcement officials saw Jones “through a filter” and immediately suspected him.
“This case is about how the disappearance of Jahi Turner turned into the prosecution of Tieray Jones,” Cutter said. “By the evening of April 25 he was questioned like a perpetrator and not a parent who lost a child.”
Cutter said Tameka and Jones had a “history of just getting by,” and that while their “family didn’t look to them like it looks to many of us,” they had plans for getting out of what they called their “hell hole” of a hometown.
The week Jahi went missing, he and Jones watched movies and played video games while Jones wrote in the journal to his wife.
The journal offered a glimpse into their relationship, Cutter said, in which Tameka wrote about getting bunk beds for their children and Jones wrote that he wanted Jahi to have his last name.
“I think of him as a son, too,” Jones wrote in the journal.
Cutter suggested Jahi was not injured when Jones detailed him acting strangely in the journal, but that Jahi was not used to his new home environment after being moved from Maryland days before.
“This was not a child that was in crisis, but a child that was missing his home,” Cutter said.
Cutter did not offer any insight into what happened the day Jahi went missing in the park, other than to say there are “more questions than answers.”
“Not knowing is hard, but not knowing is not murder,” Cutter said.
The trial is expected to continue into March.