Alone in his car on the side of the highway, Corey Jones made his tenth call for help. Tinny music echoed through the speaker of the 31-year-old drummer's iPhone. A streetlight shrouded the gray Hyundai Santa Fe in orange and highlighted bunches of trees along the I-95 ramp where the SUV had broken down as Jones drove home from a Saturday-night gig. It was almost 3 in the morning.
The hold music droned on and on. Jones, who had warm brown eyes and a wide, easy smile, switched to a second line to call his older brother.
Man, he said, I've been on hold for a half-hour trying to get a tow. And that was just the beginning: Neither his bandmate nor a Florida Highway Patrol road ranger had been able to start the SUV.
Jones had already been offered a ride home; now his brother extended another. But he refused. He had to play at church in a few hours and didn't want to leave his drum set. So there he sat, stranded.
Not that Jones let it get to him. When a young woman finally picked up at AT&T Roadside Assistance and introduced herself as Maddie, he was polite. He was telling her where to send a tow truck when, through his windshield, he saw a white Ford van swerve and turn the wrong way down the exit ramp, tearing toward him. The van parked perpendicularly in front of Jones' SUV and blocked two lanes of traffic.
Jones opened his door and stepped out, setting off a dinging sound. The van's driver, a man wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, and jeans, got out too. He headed straight for Jones, who stood up behind his open car door.
"You good?" the stranger asked.
"I'm good," Jones replied.
The man's response sounded sarcastic. "Really?" he demanded. "Really?" Then suddenly he was yelling. "Get your fuckin' hands up! Get your fuckin' hands up!"
Jones, gripping a new gun he was licensed to carry, barely had time to respond. "Hold on," he said, his voice rising as he began to run. "Hold on, man."
Three seconds later, as he chased after Jones, the stranger fired three rounds at him. The gunshots woke guests inside the adjacent DoubleTree Hotel.
Bullets tore through Jones' arms. He dropped his gun and kept running. The man continued to chase him, paused for ten seconds, and then methodically fired off three more shots. One ripped through Jones' chest, piercing his heart and both lungs. He fell into the tall grass.
Thirty seconds later, the shooter pulled out his cell phone and called 911. "Drop that fucking gun right now!" he yelled as Jones already lay dying on the ground, his weapon dozens of feet away. "Drop the gun!"
Jones almost certainly died without knowing that the man who fired the six shots at him October 18, 2015, was an on-duty cop. In the hours to come, Palm Beach Gardens Police Officer Nouman Raja would insist that he had identified himself as law enforcement, that Jones had been pointing a gun at him when he fired the fatal shots, that he had no choice but to shoot to kill.
Investigators and prosecutors likely would have believed him — except the AT&T Roadside Assistance call captured what really happened. With that rare, independent record of a fatal police shooting, Palm Beach County prosecutors did the extraordinary: They criminally charged an officer for killing someone in the line of duty.
Jones almost certainly died without knowing that the man who fired was an on-duty cop.tweet this
Across the nation, cops seldom face such consequences. Only 80 have been charged with murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting in the past 12 years, according to research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip M. Stinson. That's a tiny fraction — less than 1 percent — of the estimated 12,000 shootings in that time frame.
"You've got to wonder if all of these shootings are really justified," Stinson says. "If you and I went out and shot somebody, they'd start with the assumption we murdered somebody. When police officers do, the assumption is that it's justified, and they work backwards from there."
In Florida, nearly 25 years have passed since an officer has faced trial for killing someone in the line of duty. Convictions are even rarer. The last time a Florida officer was convicted for shooting a civilian was in 1989. And that decision was ultimately overturned.
With the Black Lives Matter movement shining a light on the lack of police accountability, the Corey Jones case is an important marker for the Sunshine State. For the first time in decades, a cop could actually face prison for killing someone and lying about it.
The six members of the jury filed into the courtroom in downtown Miami and took their seats. A middle-aged clerk with short blond hair stood up beside the judge. She slid on a pair of oversize glasses, and the room held its breath as she read the ruling: Guilty.
At the defense table, William Lozano, a 30-year-old Miami Police officer who'd fired the single shot that killed two unarmed black men, blinked a couple times but otherwise sat blank-faced. His attorney, the fabled Roy Black, let his head drop. Lozano's wife and brother, also city police officers, embraced and wept.
Outside the courthouse that day in December 1989, rallies erupted in Overtown and Liberty City, where leaders had feared the city would once again burn with riots. "I can't tell you what a relief it is," one woman told the New York Times. "Justice has been served — finally."
To this day, that December 7 verdict remains the last time a Florida cop was convicted for killing in the line of duty — but even Lozano's verdict was overturned on retrial four years later. Prosecutors say it's extraordinarily difficult to pursue charges against cops in the Sunshine State, where the law gives wide latitude to police to defend themselves. The law requires only that an officer feel threatened, even if that threat later turns out to be unfounded. "As we say, sometimes [a shooting] was awful, but it was lawful," says Miami-Dade Chief Assistant State Attorney Don Horn, one of the prosecutors in the Lozano case.
Critics, though, say that a pro-law-enforcement bias is built into the justice system and that prosecutors like Horn apply a nearly impossibly high standard in deciding whether to bring a case to a jury if it's an officer who fired the shots.
"It ought to work for police officers just the way it works for everybody else," says Jeanne Baker, a criminal defense attorney who chairs the Police Practices Committee of the ACLU's Miami chapter. "But it doesn't."
Miami has a long, racially charged history of divisive killings by police. In May 1980, the acquittal of four Miami-Dade cops who had fatally beaten a black insurance salesman, Arthur McDuffie, sparked fiery riots in inner-city neighborhoods. Three days of rage killed 18 and injured 400.
"As we say, sometimes [a shooting] was awful, but it was lawful."tweet this
That violence seems to have had an effect, though: Over the next decade, prosecutors aggressively pursued charges against police. Cops involved in at least five fatal encounters with black men in Miami-Dade were charged. Two cases — Lozano's and one against Miami-Dade County Police Officer Robert Koenig, who shot a 22-year-old man to death — ended in convictions. Only Koenig's stuck. And after Lozano's case, Miami-Dade prosecutors stopped charging police.
The record has been much the same across the state. Before Broward Sheriff's Deputy Peter Peraza was indicted in 2015, no Florida officer had been charged in an on-duty slaying since 1993 (and no Broward officer had been charged since 1980). The 1993 case, in which Palm Beach County Sheriff's Deputy Vincent Tuzeo fatally shot a fleeing suspect, ended in an acquittal.
Police shootings aren't tracked by any official body, so it's impossible to know how many have been cleared in Florida over those years. The Washington Post, which began its own tally in 2015, reports 60 people were shot dead by police in Florida that year, followed by 60 in 2016. That's a small sample size, but if 60 a year is roughly average, that would mean about 1,000 fatal police shootings in the 22 years Florida went without charging a single officer.
Among those slayings, more than a few stand out as questionable. In 2009, then-Miami Beach Police Officer Adam Tavss shot and killed unarmed tourist Husien Shehada in South Beach eight seconds after encountering him. Just four days later, Tavss fatally shot an unarmed, semihomeless man, Lawrence McCoy Jr. (Tavss did later lose his badge — for running a marijuana growhouse. He was cleared in both killings.)
In 2012, Seth Adams returned to his Loxahatchee Groves home late one night and found an unmarked SUV idling in the parking lot. Palm Beach County Sheriff's Sgt. Michael Custer stepped out of the vehicle and almost immediately shot Adams four times. He said he thought Adams was reaching for a gun. An investigation found no firearm, but Custer was cleared.
Most infamous of all, 12 officers blasted a volley of 116 bullets at a fleeing motorist who was driving erratically on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach during the busy 2011 Memorial Day weekend, seriously wounding four bystanders. No cops were charged.
So why are prosecutors statewide so gun-shy in police shootings?
Jack Scarola, a former Palm Beach prosecutor, says there's reluctance to attribute wrongdoing to cops, beginning with the investigation and continuing all the way to the courtroom, where jurors are loath to convict an officer. "We want to believe that we are being protected by people who always act carefully and in good faith," says Scarola, now a defense attorney.
Problems often start in the investigation. Typically, police probe their own cases. In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department found fault with the Miami Police Department's investigation of on-duty shootings. Investigators asked leading questions, didn't follow up on answers, and didn't look closely into important details. The Justice Department said it had "reasonable cause to believe" the police had a pattern of excessive use of deadly force and insufficient investigations.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, unlike many of its counterparts across Florida, investigates every officer-involved slaying, publicly laying out its conclusions in extensive closeout memos. But those memos always exonerate the cops, even in incidents where prosecutors' doubt the officers' stories.
In 2014, for example, prosecutors said they could not clear ten Miami-Dade cops who fatally shot three men during a botched 2011 sting in the Redland. "These [are] some of the most unsettling and troublesome decisions we have ever made," they wrote in a memo. But prosecutors still didn't file charges. Because the officers were the only witnesses, Horn says, the State Attorney's Office had to accept their accounts. "Unless I've got evidence to prove that something else happened — a criminal act — there's nothing I can do," he says.
Critics say that's nonsense. The ACLU's Baker points to similar cases where an appeals court found it was up to the jury to decide whether a killing was self-defense or a crime when it was a civilian who pulled the trigger. If the shooters in the Redland case had not been police officers, she argues, Horn's office would have tried them.
"I believe that upon losing [the Lozano case], he became very wary of bringing a case that he didn't feel absolutely there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt, no questions asked, we're going to win this one," Baker says of Horn.
Indeed, winning cases of police shooting seems as difficult as ever. In July 2016, a judge dismissed the charge against Broward Sheriff's Deputy Peter Peraza, the first Florida cop charged in 20 years. Peraza had killed an air-rifle-toting man after he allegedly ignored orders; a witness' photo showed he was wearing earbuds. But the judge cleared the cop under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. The state Attorney General's Office has appealed; so far, no decision has been made.
The total lack of prosecutions in recent decades has had real consequences, critics say. Without accountability, there's no incentive for cops to use de-escalation tactics. And distrust between police and the community rises.
"Not every time a police officer shoots is it a mistake and something that should be prosecuted," Baker says. "There are obviously many instances where it's appropriate. But not all of them. Not all of them."
One day, when Corey Jones was around 4 or 5 years old, he vanished. Frantic, his parents turned their Boynton Beach house upside down looking for the funny, good-natured boy. Fear gripped Anita and Clinton Jones. Had he somehow gotten outside?
"Then I went in the kitchen, opened up the cabinet," Clinton Jones recalls today, chuckling at the memory. "He was inside the cabinet, under the sink there, beating on pots and pans."
That was Corey — a musician practically from birth.
After years of beating on whatever he could find, by 2015 he was starting to come into his own in the music world, where his skill on a drum set never failed to turn heads.
But if he was known for his musical talent, Corey was just as renowned for his character. He was warm and compassionate, slow to speak but quick to laugh. Nothing really riled him: Bandmate Boris Simeonov remembers Corey shrugging off a racial slur by walking away, looking at the guy who'd said it with a kind of pity.
In his spare time, between working as a home inspector and playing the drums, Corey had begun volunteering, teaching kids how to play the drums. He never told anyone about that — it wouldn't be like him. His family found out about the kids he'd worked with, including one boy born without arms, in the outpouring of grief that followed his death.
"He had a gift, and he wasn't selfish with it," says Clinton Jones, who like his son is soft-spoken with an easy laugh. "He shared it."
Born February 3, 1984, Corey Lamar Jones was the second of three children for Clinton, a home renovator and pastor, and Anita, a guidance counselor. Corey and his siblings, C.J. and Melissa, were raised in a large, tight-knit family; their mother was one of 12 children born to a preacher.
When Corey was in elementary school, his parents divorced. He and his siblings stayed with their mom but often spent time with their dad, who moved to Pompano Beach, remarried, and had two more children.
Corey spent hours fishing with his old man in the Boynton Inlet and the ocean, where they reeled in bass, snapper, and catfish. "They used to be out there fishing all night long," says C'Evon Jones, Clinton's youngest daughter. "They didn't come home until 4 in the morning."
"When Corey got behind a kit, the whole night just kind of changed."tweet this
The siblings were unusually close — especially C.J. and Corey, who despite their four-year age difference were like twins. In 2003, C.J. was signed by the Cleveland Browns after playing football at the University of Iowa and Santaluces High, where Corey also played. Corey followed his older brother to Ohio and enrolled at the University of Akron, where he studied music and business administration. He lived with C.J., his wife, and their baby girl, which gave his brother peace of mind when he traveled with the team.
The family grew even closer in 2006, when Anita died of breast cancer at the age of 48. Corey moved back to South Florida and landed a job with the Delray Beach Housing Authority in 2007. By 2009, C.J. was home too, and Corey spent much of his time with his brother's young family, which had grown to include another girl.
He continued playing the drums at church and began going to open jam sessions at a coffee shop in Delray Beach. One night in 2010, owner Eric Perna introduced Corey to his friend Chris Michaud, a singer and guitarist whose band needed a drummer. Michaud stuck around to hear him play. He still remembers being floored.
"When Corey got behind a kit, the whole night just kind of changed," Michaud recalls. "There were two halves of the night: before he played and after."
There was something about the speed of his hands, his complete lack of fear, and the joy he so clearly got out of playing. It was clear he loved what he was doing.
Michaud, Perna, Jones, and two other friends later formed the blues and soul band Michaux. Every Tuesday night, the group set up in Perna's living room and later took a break for barbecue, cigarettes, and small talk.
In early 2014, they caught the ear of David Lucas, a producer who had worked with bands like Blue Öyster Cult. He's the guy who came up with the idea to add a cowbell to "Don't Fear the Reaper," spawning the infamous Saturday Night Live skit. Lucas brought the band into a studio to record. He was excited about their potential, especially Corey's. "He was extremely talented," Lucas says. "He had his own way, his own style."
Corey took music seriously, showing up to band practice sessions so prepared he was almost bored. One night in 2015, he filled in as drummer of the local reggae group Future Prezidents. Frontman Simeonov was impressed. He asked Corey to join the band, and Corey accepted, thrilled that the group had toured in the past and planned to tour again.
Future Prezidents spent the fall of 2015 recording new songs and prepping for a tour in the Midwest. Simeonov, who'd started the group four years earlier, felt like things were really falling into place with Corey as the drummer. He just had a way of communicating without words, Simeonov remembers: "The first thing I noticed when I started playing with him is that he spoke through his drums."
One Saturday night — October 17, 2015 — Future Prezidents played into the early-morning hours at Johnny Mangos in Jupiter. Some friends of Simeonov's from Ohio were excited to meet the new drummer who'd studied in Akron. The group chatted for a little while after the show, but soon Corey said he had to leave; he had an early morning at church.
Simeonov, still on a high from the show, hugged him, told him he'd done a nice job and that he loved him. Then Corey packed his drums into his SUV, and was gone.
A little after 8 a.m. October 18, 2015, Officer Nouman Raja stood on the exit ramp trying to collect himself. Orange cones dotted the roadway and the grass, and crime scene tape stretched across the entrance to PGA Boulevard.
Almost five hours had passed since the police officer had squeezed off six rounds at the stranded driver. Now, in a sworn reenactment with a detective and a sergeant from the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, he was trying to explain why.
"It's just like, you know, your family flashed in front of you, your kids flashed in front of you, and you're just like, fuck, and immediately I drew down," he said, choking on the words. The sergeant told Raja to take a deep breath. He was having trouble keeping up.
After Raja composed himself, he laid out a classic case of self-defense. He swore that he'd identified himself, that he'd ordered Corey Jones to drop his weapon, that Jones had been pointing a gun at him when Raja fired.
But unbeknownst to Raja, his story wasn't the only account from that night. Just days after the officer's tearful roadside interview, investigators from the three agencies probing the shooting — the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, the State Attorney's Office, and the FBI — would obtain a copy of the recording that showed things hadn't unfolded as he said they had.
By June 1, Raja, who had once told a panel of interviewers he would hope not to have to use deadly force but "would not hesitate" if it was necessary, had become just the second Florida cop in nearly 25 years to face charges for an on-duty shooting.
"There is sufficient evidence and probable cause to conclude Nouman Raja continued to discharge his firearm at Corey Jones after Raja realized Jones no longer possessed a firearm," prosecutors wrote in charging documents. "The intent of discharging his firearm was to kill Corey Jones."
Inspired by a grandfather who was once a chief in Pakistan, Raja had gotten his first job in policing in 2008. He briefly attended the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York but didn't finish, instead moving to South Florida. He drifted from job to job before graduating from the police academy at Palm Beach State College and landing at the tiny Atlantis Police Department.
On the 13-member force, he racked up praise as an active traffic enforcement officer. But in 2013, his supervisors realized he hadn't filed a report with prosecutors or stored evidence after a narcotics arrest. And while searching for that report, the chief discovered two others that hadn't been filed, including the battery of a hospital employee. Because of the delay, the case couldn't be pursued. Raja received a reprimand.
The young cop also showed a tendency to resort to forceful tactics. Faced with patients who'd been placed under the Baker Act at JFK Medical Center in Atlantis, he repeatedly turned to his Taser or his fists. In a three-month period in 2014, he punched two women in the face after each attacked officers.
Despite those troubles, Raja was promoted to sergeant within a year. A year after his promotion, he joined the larger Palm Beach Gardens Police Department.
The 38-year-old Raja was six months into his new job and still on probation in October 2015, assigned to road patrol on the midnight shift. That fall, his department had seen a spike in vehicle burglaries, so officers went undercover with decoy cars. Normally, the tactical unit handled that assignment, but other cops participated, including Raja, despite an internal policy barring probationary officers from undercover jobs.
"I need to know — why? Why my son is gone today? Why?"tweet this
That's why he wasn't in uniform or in a police cruiser when he happened upon Jones' Hyundai Santa Fe alongside I-95. Almost immediately after Raja called 911 the morning of the shooting, a signal went out on the police radio. Squad cars rolled up to the scene. A sergeant asked Raja to show him where he'd last seen Jones, and together they walked along the guardrail.
Then they saw the body. After getting no response to verbal commands, they approached slowly. Raja flipped Jones over to see if a weapon was underneath him, getting blood all over himself in the process. There was no weapon.
Around the same time, officers went to Jones' dad's house but found no one home: Clinton Jones and his wife were in Jamaica, celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. Just before 5 p.m., police reached C.J. Jones, who had been calling his brother again and again since hanging up with him just after 3 in the morning. He cried as he called his father. "I couldn't believe it," Clinton Jones remembers, his voice quiet. "It just didn't seem real. Not Corey."
Many of the phone calls went like that. "I just threw my phone," C'Evon recalls. Says Simeonov: "I just immediately knew something was wrong and it wasn't Corey's fault." No one could understand what had happened. What little detail police had released — that Jones ignored orders from the officer, pointed a gun at him — didn't square.
On October 22, the family met with Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg. Alongside their new attorney, Benjamin Crump, they found out for the first time that Raja had fired six times and that three of the shots had hit Jones.
Afterward, the family stood in front of a bouquet of microphones and gave a news conference. "I need to know — why?" Clinton Jones cried out, tears shining on his cheeks. "Why my son is gone today? Why?"
Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw brought in the FBI, whose agents tracked down more than a hundred people who'd stayed at the DoubleTree that night. Investigators interviewed Raja's boss, who said he had instructed the new recruit to wear his tactical vest and identify himself as an officer during confrontations. "He knows better and he knew better than to be out in plainclothes and not with his gear on," the sergeant told investigators.
Investigators got their most important piece of evidence October 23. That's when they learned about the AT&T Roadside Assistance call.
Officials from the three agencies listened to the recording over and over again. "Oh my gosh," the call center operator said when the first volley of gunshots rang out. The FBI created a visual reenactment that combined the roadside assistance call with Raja's 911 call, layering it over animation of Jones' and Raja's vehicles. Prosecutors sent the recordings to Wilfred Daniel Libby, a police training expert in Georgia, who found Raja had failed to follow standard police practice.
"Officer Raja appeared to have never identified himself as a police officer," Libby wrote. "Officer Raja did not verbally announce who he was, why he was there, or indicate police authority."
Here's how Raja painted the scene: Jones had pointed a gun at him over the door of his SUV. He told Jones to drop the gun, but Jones ignored him, so Raja squeezed off a few rounds. When Jones took off running, Raja called 911, but then Jones stopped and turned around with a silver item in his hand. The officer said he fired three more rounds at Jones while still on the phone with 911.
That story was easily disproven by the roadside assistance recording, which revealed a 33-second gap between the last spray of bullets and Raja's call to 911. The recording also revealed a ten-second gap between the first and second volleys of gunfire, which a prosecutor wrote was "especially relevant" because Raja said at the scene he had seen Jones throw a silver gun near the back of his car.
Physical evidence also contradicted Raja. A gunshot wound on Jones' right arm showed the bullet was fired from behind. And Jones' gun was found 124 feet from his body — a distance medical examiners said could easily be covered within ten seconds by a "frightened, fleeing" man of Jones' age and stature.
Raja had lied, prosecutors believed. He never ID'ed himself, immediately began shooting, and then killed the fleeing Jones even after he'd dropped his gun.
On May 31, prosecutors presented the case to a grand jury. The next day, jurors concluded Raja's use of force was not justified. The officer was arrested the same day and held in jail overnight. He appeared before a judge for the first time June 2 and was released on house arrest after surrendering his passport and firearms.
The public didn't hear the recording until this past January. That was also the first time the Jones family heard it. Clinton Jones says it confirmed what they already knew: Corey didn't do anything wrong.
"The most important thing was that my son had a witness," his dad says. "If the line hadn't stayed open, they would have covered this up, so the truth would have never come out."
Beneath purple stage lights, Corey's older brother slid behind a drum set and picked up the sticks. Around him, Corey's old bandmates jumped up and down, strumming out the first upbeat notes of one of the songs their friend had liked best. Then C.J. started pounding the drums, bobbing his head to the beat.
The crowd — too many to count packed into the Delray Arts Garage — clapped along. Some danced. When the group reached the end of the song, Chris Michaud felt gratified in a way he'd later struggle to describe, especially when he saw C.J. smiling. He thought they'd done Corey proud.
"It's almost like we all knew in that moment when the music stopped and we all kind of looked at each other, we knew he would be proud," Michaud says. "And he would have absolutely loved it."
It was February 3, what would have been Corey's 33rd birthday, and the bandmates celebrated with a release party for an album they made from recordings of Corey's drumming. Tickets to the event sold out days in advance. When the group got the OK to release 30 more, they were all gone before the doors opened.
A year and a half has passed since Corey was killed, mourned by his community, eulogized by his grandpa and Rev. Al Sharpton, and buried with his drumsticks. Family and friends are doing what they can to keep his memory alive, by launching nonprofits, hosting benefit concerts, and fighting for police body cameras.
Meanwhile, two cases are winding their way through the court system: the manslaughter and attempted murder charges against Raja and the Jones family's civil suit against the officer and police department. The civil case has been put on hold until the criminal one is resolved.
A fair and successful prosecution against Raja could have a real impact.tweet this
Raja has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His attorney, Richard Lubin, did not respond to interview requests, and it's unclear what his defense will be. The Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association is helping to pay for his legal bills. Its president, John Kazanjian, argued to the Palm Beach Post the fact that the first word heard in the recorded exchange is Jones saying "Huh?" means Raja identified himself as a cop.
With trial set for October, the former officer remains on house arrest, though he's fighting for his release. It doesn't seem likely. Jones' family objected vigorously when he asked in January to attend his daughter's play. Jones' stepmom, Kattie Jones, said in court that "if not for the senseless and wrongful killing of Corey Jones by Nouman Raja, neither family, neither family, would have this hurt." The judge denied Raja's request.
To those who have been pushing for more police accountability, a fair and successful prosecution against Raja could have a real impact, the ACLU's Baker says.
"Members of the community who have been hankering for there to be accountability will feel this is a good step," she says.
On February 18, 16 months after Corey's death, Clinton Jones hitched a red-and-white fishing boat to his truck and headed for the highway. He'd been fixing it up in his front yard and had told Corey that once it was ready, it was his.
Now the only way he could show his son the progress he'd made was to haul the thing out to a patch of grass alongside a highway exit.
"Man, I got the boat," he said, alone on the shoulder. "I wish you were here with me."
Then he spent a little time there, talking to Corey some more, telling him how much he missed him, and just looking around, taking in the place where his son had taken his last breaths, shot dead by a man who should have helped him.