Corey Jones was last seen around 1:45 am this past Sunday. He called a bandmate following the conclusion of a gig an hour earlier, to say that his SUV was broken down and he was in need of help. He was stranded on I-95 north of West Palm Beach, Florida. His friend arrived and realized Mr. Jones’ vehicle was beyond his ability to repair it.
So Mathew Huntsberger called for roadside assistance for Corey Jones, 31, and left him to head home as Mr. Jones waited for the tow truck. Forty-five minutes later, Corey Jones was dead, becoming another young black male shot and killed by police. What happened exactly remains a mystery.
Police, in statement released on Monday night, claim that Corey Jones had a handgun at the scene that he bought three days earlier. At 3:15 am, a Palm Beach Gardens Police Officer, Nouman Raja, was on duty in plainclothes capacity in an unmarked police vehicle.
He stopped to investigate what he thought was an abandoned vehicle on the southbound exit ramp of I-95 and PGA Blvd. As the officer exited his vehicle, “he was suddenly confronted by an armed subject.” During the confrontation, “the officer discharged his firearm resulting in the death of the subject, Corey Jones.”
Officer Raja is on paid administrative leave and an independent investigation is underway, being conducted by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
By Tuesday night, the New York Times reports, Police Chief Stephen Stepp said Officer Raja had been on the job for six months, and that Mr. Jones’ handgun was recovered on the ground outside his car. The new box it came in was inside the vehicle.
The Times writes, “In a brief news conference Tuesday night, Chief Stepp addressed the swelling questions about how a respected church drummer and housing inspector wound up dead in the middle of the night off Interstate 95, a half-hour from his home. The case, another focused on the shooting of a black man by a police officer, had begun to gain attention on social media, and the department was sharply criticized by a county police union official for not coming forward with facts sooner.”
“No matter what the circumstances turn out to be, his is a tragic loss of life that affects us all,” Chief Stepp said.
The Times reports that the Chief did not say “whether Officer Raja identified himself as a police officer.” It added, “It is not clear whether the two men exchanged words or if Mr. Jones pointed his weapon.”
Calling the encounter a “confrontation,” the chief said the officer “discharged his firearm, resulting in the death of Mr. Corey Jones.”
“He did not say what prompted the officer to fire. He did not clarify whether Mr. Jones had a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The chief said the officer’s unmarked vehicle was not equipped with a dashboard camera, and the department does not use body cameras,” the New York Times reported.
“We are allowing the investigation to determine the facts of this case, rather than speculating or giving out unverified information,” he said.
The Times reports that the family has hired Benjamin Crump and Daryl Park, civil rights attorneys who previously worked on the Trayvon Martin case as well as the Tamir Rice case.
Family and friends are skeptical of the account. Mr. Huntsberger described Corey Jones as a mellow, church-going musician. Other friends have described Jones as a well-known and well-liked church drummer at Bible Church of God in Boynton Beach.
Mr. Huntsberger told the Washington Post, “They’re saying he was armed, but I don’t know if I believe it… Of course they’re going to say that. If I was there, maybe it’s a different situation. I just don’t know what happened.”
“He was a good kid, just coming home from a gig,” Mr. Jones’ cousin Frank Hearst, 36, of Nashville, Tenn. told the Washington Post. “He was just an all-around good guy who never got into any trouble, never had any record. It’s just an unfortunate situation.”
The family released a statement Tuesday describing Corey Jones as a “God-fearing man who dedicated his life to doing the right thing.”
“He lived every moment to the fullest and was an inspiration to many; the kind of son, brother and friend people could only hope for,” the family said. “Rest assured, we are working diligently with our legal team to determine exactly why this plainclothes police officer in an unmarked car would approach Corey.”
Earlier Tuesday, the local police union sent out a tweet accusing the department of a lack of transparency. John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Patrolmen’s Benevolent Assn., told the Los Angeles Times that “the department’s hesitation to release information would only stoke public suspicion that the officer used excessive force.”
“We’re very concerned that the police department is continuing to be silent,” Mr. Kazanjian said. “The inferences out there are that they’re covering up, or that the officer did something wrong. We need to come out and quell those.”
Mr. Kazanjian told the paper he wants to avoid a situation like the one in Ferguson, which experienced unrest after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man, was fatally shot by a police officer last year.
“They took so long out there to address the public on what transpired,” Mr. Kazanjian said. “All the playbooks say don’t do that, and I don’t know why the chief here in Palm Beach Gardens has taken two or three days to respond.”
“For this to happen to a good person — he is not a thug. He is not what everybody would imagine a black man to be in this judgmental system that we have,” Erica Gordon, a member of the Boynton United Community Choir, said at the vigil, according to a video interview with The Palm Beach Post. “He is a good person, and this should have never happened to him.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting