PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) – Corey Jones grew up in church, watching his grandfather preach, acting in plays directed by his aunt and watching his uncles play drums. By age 4, he was already banging on the drum set and eventually took over for his uncles. A budding musician, he soon was performing with local bands.
Jones had just left a gig Saturday night in South Florida when his car broke down off Interstate 95 in the affluent community of Palm Beach Gardens. A fellow band member tried unsuccessfully to jumpstart the car, then left the 31-year-old man to await a tow truck on a dark interstate exit ramp.
That early Sunday morning, Officer Nouman Raja, who had been investigating local burglaries, stopped his unmarked car to check on what he thought was an abandoned vehicle. It was then that Jones was shot.
Palm Beach Gardens Police, through Chief Stephen Stepp, have said little about the fatal shooting, only that Raja was “suddenly confronted by an armed subject” and fatally shot Jones.
It’s unclear what prompted the confrontation. Raja wasn’t in uniform. He was riding in an unmarked car. The drummer’s family thinks it could have been a case of mistaken identity and Jones may have thought he had to defend himself.
“Corey probably got scared,” his uncle Fred Banks said. “He wouldn’t attack anybody.”
Now Banks said the family finds the latest shooting of a man by an officer has plunged them into the ongoing national debate about police use of force, particularly in cases involving African-Americans.
Jones’ family is being represented by prominent civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, who also represented the Trayvon Martin family. A rally is planned Thursday at the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department. The Rev. Al Sharpton is expected to attend.
Jones, a graduate of the University of Akron with degrees in business administration and music, was so passionate about drumming that he organized monthly jam sessions where dozens of musicians from all over South Florida would come to the Bible Church of God and play gospel music – and sometimes a little R&B – well into the night. He was a quiet, laid back man who also enjoyed fishing, relatives said.
By day, he worked as a public housing inspector and also mentored at My Brother’s Keeper, an organization for black youth, according to his LinkedIn page.
Jones and his brother, former NFL wide receiver C.J. Jones, were close friends with Pro Bowl defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, long with the New England Patriots and now with the Houston Texans. Wilfork tweeted after Jones’ death that he was “a good dude a standup guy” who was raised in the church.
Relatives stressed that they don’t hate police, but pointed out that Jones was in a vulnerable position in a stranded vehicle, needing help at night. Police are “supposed to be protecting you, but you can’t trust them anymore,” Banks said.
Investigators recovered a handgun on the ground matching a box found in Jones’ car, Stepp said. Records indicate Jones purchased the weapon legally three days earlier. Raja’s car didn’t have a dashboard camera and the department’s officers do not wear body cameras, the chief said.
“It would be premature to say we have all the facts and speculate as to what took place based on unconfirmed accounts,” Stepp told reporters.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has said he offered state agents to assist investigations underway. He hasn’t asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to undertake its own probe.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office is investigating and hasn’t issued any public statements. The state attorney is investigating separately.
“We intend to fulfill our responsibilities of fairness and transparency under the law and to the community,” State Attorney Dave Aronberg said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the local Urban League is asking for Thursday’s rally to be peaceful.
Violence is a rarity in Palm Beach Gardens, a well-to-do community known as the home to tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.
According to the FBI, there was only one homicide last year in the city, where 89 percent of residents are white and have a median income far above the Florida average, according to the U.S. Census.
Jones lived in Lake Worth, south of Palm Beach Gardens.
City records show Raja, 38, had no disciplinary actions or complaints since joining the Palm Gardens force in April. He previously worked seven years at the Atlantis Police Department, another small city in Palm Beach County. Police haven’t said what race he is.
A man who answered the door at the officer’s home Wednesday quickly shut it and declined to answer questions.