CAMDEN, Ala. (AP) — Authorities expect to charge a South Carolina man in connection with the deaths of his five children after he led officials to a secluded clearing in Alabama where their bodies lay wrapped in individual garbage bags.
Timothy Ray Jones Jr. has been charged with child neglect and police expect to lodge additional charges against him, the Lexington County, South Carolina, Sheriff's Department said.
Jones, 32, is awaiting extradition to South Carolina from Mississippi, where he has been jailed since his arrest Saturday on a drunken-driving charge, Smith County Sheriff Charlie Crumpton said in a statement.
Police have not released details on how the children — ages 1 to 8 — died.
"They were wonderful. They were happy," Jones' stepmother, Julie Jones of Amory, Mississippi, told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday. She identified herself as Jones' stepmother. "They were wonderful, beautiful."
"I'm sure everybody wants to know the answers," Jones' father, Timothy Jones Sr., said. He said he was working on a statement about his son's arrest and the death of his grandchildren. "It's just a terrible tragedy."
Wilcox County, Alabama, District Attorney Michael Jackson told The AP that Jones is suspected of killing the children in South Carolina before taking their bodies to Alabama.
Lexington County Coroner Earl Wells was arranging for the children's bodies to be taken back to South Carolina for autopsies and identification Tuesday night, sheriff's officials said.
It also was unclear when the children were killed, how much time passed before their bodies were disposed of, and what motivation Jones might have had to do it.
"This is a very tragic situation," Jackson said. "These kids' lives were snuffed out before they had a chance to enjoy life. Justice will be served."
On Wednesday morning, the dirt road where the bodies had been found — an isolated area between the Alabama towns of Pine Apple and Oak Hill, about 25 miles west of an Interstate 65 exit — was abandoned. Investigators had worked late into the night using flood lights, but there was no longer any sign of vehicles or people. Boot prints and tire tracks were especially prevalent around a pile of dead trees atop a sandy soil hilltop, guarded from view by the two-lane highway.
Jones had joint custody of his children with his ex-wife, police said, and had recently told neighbors he and the kids were going to move out of South Carolina.
Marlene Hyder and her husband, Johnny Hyder, said Jones and his wife moved into a house next to them about seven years ago in Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, 25 miles west of Columbia. Two years ago, the wife moved in with a male neighbor and Tim Jones moved away with the children, the Hyders said.
Jones led police to the site where the bodies of the children were found, off a two-lane highway near Camden, Alabama, said Alabama Department of Public Safety spokesman Sgt. Steve Jarrett.
Investigators could be seen at the site late Tuesday, working in a clearing at the top of a hill lit by floodlights.
Jones was detained in Smith County, Mississippi, on Saturday after being stopped at a motor vehicle checkpoint near Raleigh, Mississippi, and charged with drunken driving, Crumpton said.
The Smith County sheriff said Jones became agitated when a deputy questioned him about an odor of chemicals coming from the Cadillac Escalade he was driving. The deputy found what were believed to be chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine and a substance believed to be the street drug Spice, a form of synthetic marijuana, Crumpton said. A sheriff's office investigator was called and found what appeared to be bleach, muriatic acid, blood and possible body fluids, he said.
During a background check, police discovered that Jones was wanted in South Carolina "regarding a welfare concern of his children," who were on a national missing persons list, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation said in a statement. The children, who ranged from 1 to 8 years old, were reported missing by their mother Sept. 3, authorities said.
Jarrett told a news conference that authorities were not sure why Jones drove through Alabama.
Back in Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, Johnny Hyder said that when the Joneses lived next door, the children were often dressed in dirty clothes and were seen home at all hours of the day because Tim Jones had said he didn't believe in the public schools. Hyder said Jones was constantly looking for a reason to argue and often threatened to call the police. He said Jones approached him with a gun on his hip one day and was angry about something, but Hyder couldn't remember what it was. When Hyder said he was going to call police, he said Jones told him it was only a BB gun.
"It wasn't a BB gun," Hyder said. "It was a real gun. I know what one looks like, but I didn't want to cause any more trouble."
Marlene Hyder said Jones threatened to kill one of their dogs when it briefly went onto his property.
"He was a nut," she said.
Marlene Hyder said she also remembered a day when one of the Joneses' younger children came over to the Hyders' house and tried to drink out of one of their outdoor spigots. He was dirty and disheveled and ran back to his house when she tried to speak to him, she said.
A "no trespassing" sign was posted near the driveway of a house where the Hyders said Tim Jones' ex-wife still lived with the other neighbor. Several people were seen walking around the yard, but none responded to questions from a reporter.