Corey Jones, the musician killed by a plainclothes Palm Beach Gardens police detective alongside Interstate 95, never fired his weapon and was struck three times, his family’s legal team said Thursday.
The revelations came after Jones’ relatives met privately with the county’s top prosecutor, and just before the family took to the stage at a spirited, yet somber, rally outside city hall in this affluent town some 80 miles north of Miami.
The killing of Jones, a 31-year-old drummer who was waiting for a tow truck after his car broke down early Sunday, has sparked national media attention in the wake of many other fatal encounters between police and black men across the nation.
Detectives and prosecutors are now investigating Palm Beach Gardens Detective Nouman Raja, who is believed to have fired six times after encountering Jones, killing him on a grassy swale near the PGA Boulevard exit.
Police say Raja, on a burglary detail, stopped his unmarked white van near the on-ramp after spotting Jones’ broken-down silver Hyundai just after 3 a.m., Palm Beach Gardens’ police chief has said. Raja believed the car was abandoned and was suddenly “confronted by subject.”
Jones likely never knew Raja was a cop, and may have thought the man was going to rob him, his family’s lawyers said at a press conference outside the Palm Beach County courthouse on Thursday.
“He never displayed a badge to Corey,” prominent civil-rights lawyer Benjamin Crump told reporters, suggesting that Jones might have believed he was being robbed, possibly by a police impersonator.
Jones, at some point, was running away, though there was no evidence that he was shot in the back when he was gunned down between 80 and 100 feet away from his car, Crump said.
Said the slain man’s brother, C.J. Jones, a former NFL player: “We know he would not ever, ever, ever pull a gun on a police [officer]. This is not like him. We need answers and we will get them.”
Jones’ loaded .380-caliber pistol was found near the broken-down car, its original box and the paperwork from the purchase still inside the car.
Jones had just returned home from a gig in Jupiter with his band, Future Prezidents, when his car broke down. He called a friend, who came by and helped him call a tow truck, then left. He owned the weapon to protect himself, especially because he worked in a business that dealt with a lot of cash, Crump said.
“He would have thought it was proper and appropriate for his own protection,” Crump said.
The lawyers also said phone records showed that Jones called his older brother at 2:52 a.m., but the stranded musician told him he was OK and didn’t need any more help. The brother called back at 3:19 a.m. and got no answer.
Jones had a state-owned concealed weapons permit. His only brush with the law came eight years ago in South Beach, when an officer stopped a car he was riding in and arrested him for carrying a concealed pistol and knife. Prosecutors dropped the charges after he completed a program for first-time offenders.
As for the Palm Beach Gardens detective, he gave a tape-recorded statement to investigators, which so far remains unreleased to the public or Jones’ family, Crump said.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the case, while local prosecutors will ultimately decide whether Raja broke the law in discharging his weapon and killing Jones. State Attorney Dave Aronberg on Wednesday declined an offer to have state agents conduct an outside investigation.
Aronberg met Wednesday privately with the family, sharing some details of the investigation.
“If he used excessive force we want him to be held accountable,” said Crump, who has represented the families of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford in Central Florida, and Michael Brown, 19, shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
After speaking to the media, Crump and the family took to the stage at the rally at a park outside Palm Beach Gardens City Hall, shaded by towering oaks.
A stage was set up for the speakers. Next to it: A smaller tent for a local radio station. Organized by the Urban League and other activist groups, with the help of Palm Beach Gardens police, the event drew more than 1,500.
Politicians, spiritual leaders and Jones’ relatives asked for answers but also preached forgiveness. The classic song Lean on Me blared. Drummers played as rally-goers danced, a sharp contrast to the often contentious tone of rallies held for other police-shooting victims in Missouri and New York.
Before a hushed crowd, Melissa Jones, the slain man’s sister, stood on stage and said: “My brother's name will reign. His character will not be destroyed.”
State Rep. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach, told the crowd that he wanted body cameras for all police. The crowd swayed with signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Cops are the problem.”
The only tense moment came when Palm Beach County Mayor Shelley Vana took the stage to say “all lives matter,” drawing a chorus of boos. Jones’ family members quieted the crowd and defended the mayor.
“We're looking for transparency. We're looking for truth, and we're looking for justice,” Powell said.
Some in the crowd, like Century Village resident Jose Saavedra, said the single most important issue is not being discussed: The easy availability of guns.
The politicians “don't want to tackle the NRA. The whole political system is corrupt," he said.