SAN DIEGO (CN) — Former neighbors of Tieray Jones, who is suspected of killing his 2-year-old stepson Jahi Turner after the boy disappeared from a San Diego park in 2002, testified Tuesday in a preliminary hearing to decide if there’s enough evidence for the cold case to go to trial.
Jones was arrested in North Carolina and extradited to San Diego in April, nearly 14 years to the day after his stepson went missing, April 25, 2002. Jones is being held without bail.
Jahi was last seen at a Balboa Park-area playground. Jones left him with an unknown woman and other children while he went to buy the child some juice from a nearby vending machine. Jones said when he returned 15 minutes later Jahi was gone.
A massive search followed. Hundreds of police officers and military personnel scoured 10 million pounds of trash at the Miramar landfill, searching for a body or clues. The child’s body was never found.
On the second day of the weeklong preliminary hearing Tuesday, several women who lived near the Jones family in a military apartment complex in the Golden Hill neighborhood testified that they never saw Tieray Jones with a child in the days before Jahi disappeared.
Tameka Jones, Jahi’s mother, testified Monday. She is no longer married to the defendant.
She told Deputy District Attorney Nicole Rooney she gave birth to Jahi when she was 16 and still in high school in Maryland, and does not have a relationship with his birth father. Jahi’s mother eventually joined the Navy and married Tieray Jones when she was 18 and he was 22.
Tameka Jones testified that Jahi’s grandmother, whom he called “Nana,” took care of her son when she went to boot camp and later when she was stationed in San Diego. She said she and Tieray Jones planned to bring Jahi out to San Diego once they were settled, but their plans changed when they got a call from Child Protective Services saying Jahi would go into foster care if they did not get him. She flew back to Maryland the weekend before Jahi disappeared and was immediately sent on a week-long deployment when she returned to San Diego, leaving Tieray Jones to care for the toddler.
She said she learned something was wrong when her husband left frantic messages on the cellphones of her Navy friends.
The 911 call Tieray Jones placed was played Monday for Superior Court Judge Charles Rogers; it sounded like a frantic father whose son had disappeared.
Jones was out of breath as he told the dispatcher he went to get his son a juice at the vending machine, leaving Jahi playing on the playground. When he returned, Jahi was nowhere to be found. Tieray Jones said he left the park to search nearby streets and never found his stepson.
Jones wiped away tears as the tape was played in court.
Many of the San Diego police officers and detectives who worked on the case, and who testified Monday and Tuesday morning, are retired.
Officer Robert Rude, the first responder, said he volunteered to take the call. He said that usually in missing children cases a parent frantically waves down officers for help, but Jones did not call out to him, and he had to ask him if he had called police.
Rude’s partner Officer Lisa Davies said she was distracted when she made contact with Jones because “his tongue was pasty white and he was foaming at the mouth.” Davies did not elaborate, but her story was consistent with that of other officers: Jahi went missing after Jones went to a vending machine to get him a juice.
Davies was among a handful of officers who went to Jones’ apartment to look for a photo of Jahi to circulate to the media. She picked up and read a journal left on Jones’ dresser, though she never got his express permission to do so. She read back a few entries, in which Jones disclosed the financial troubles the family faced. Jones shared the journal with his wife and in it discussed his attempt to build a relationship with his stepson.
“What do you want to become of our family? That’s why we’re here, to keep a good home,” one entry stated.
The next entry was: “He is starting to like me a little more. He got scared last night and called my name.”
Another investigator, Robert Donaldson, testified about the evidence investigators collected from the apartment and the 16-page report he wrote about the state of the apartment. Donaldson said investigators scoured the four Dumpsters at the apartment complex and found Winnie the Pooh children’s clothes in one of the bins.
But defense attorney Alex Ozols said the clothing was for a 3-month-old infant and would not have fit 2-year-old Jahi.
Many of the Joneses’ former neighbors testified Tuesday that they never saw a child with Tieray Jones in the days before the child disappeared. Jahi had been in San Diego less than five days before he went missing.
Next-door neighbor Katey Higgins said she had talked to Tameka Jones only in passing and did not know her husband. She said the day before Jahi disappeared, she saw Tieray Jones take two full trash bags out but he did not drop them off in the Dumpster nearest to their apartments.
She said Jones “maybe looked a little nervous, but not really” and that they shared an “awkward eye contact moment” when he took out more trash later on. She said she never saw or heard a little boy.
Casey Daniel, however, told Judge Rogers she did see Jahi playing at the park in their apartment complex the Monday before he disappeared.
Daniel was 19 at the time and said she used to bring her 1-year-old daughter to play at the apartment playground nearly every day. She said she saw a little boy playing at the park by himself but never thought to contact authorities or try to find his parents.
“I was a young mom,” she said. “I was looking after my own child.”
Ozols suggested to Daniel that Tieray was nearby working on his car parked next to the playground, but Daniel said she had never seen him until Tuesday, in the courtroom.
Tieray Jones is represented by Vik Monder.
The preliminary hearing is expected to last all week.
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