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Prince Jones Jr. struggled to define his own life. A P.G. County cop ended up doing it for him.
Photographs by Chris Gunn
After seven years, Prince Jones Jr. was down to one assignment before he would finally graduate from Howard University: to write his autobiography. A bright student with big aspirations, he usually earned good grades and led class discussions. He was known to initiate soul-searching dialogues with his teachers, advisers, and even the chair of his department. But defining himself was never easy. So he labored over the paper, an assignment for a summer class called the Contemporary Black Child.
Jones, 25, continued to hem and haw over his autobiography throughout most of July. Finally, he confided to his best friend and roommate, Bobby Caballero, that he just couldn’t put pen to paper and open himself up like that.
The paper went to the heart of Jones’ inner tensions. Who was he? What was his place in the world? It was his chance to define his life, a life filled with much unresthis parents’ divorce, his sometimes rocky relationship with his fiancée, Candace Jackson, the birth of their daughter the previous fall, and his issues with being a middle-class black man in contemporary America.
Polite, charming, and ever the gracious Southern gentleman, Jones had a future: officer’s school in the Navy, and then perhaps medical school, where he might become a radiologist like his mother. There would be marriage, too, and more children.
But first, he had that pesky assignment.
“He had, shall we say, some finding himself to do,” says his mother, Dr. Mable Jones, who lives in Philadelphia. “He was trying to reconcile himself to everything that has happened….He was at an impasse.”
In early August, Jones finally turned in his autobiography. Whether he was satisfied that he had finally defined himself to himself, no one will ever know. But as dawn approached on Sept. 1, in the Seven Corners area of Fairfax County, Cpl. Carlton B. Jones defined him for the rest of the world. The Prince George’s County undercover officer shot the student six times. One shot ripped into his arm. Five shots struck him in the back.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Prince Jones’ life story became a simple tragedy. He had found success in the white academic world of his youth, then come to Howard University to join a black community. Then he moved to P.G. County and found out that being black sometimes means being a police target.
Although Jones grew up far from the world of drugs and violence, in the instant of his death he became a symbol of police brutality, presumed racial profiling, and the faded promise of the black-led government of a majority-black county.
Prince Jones had become the perfect martyr.
Prince Jones’ death at the hands of a police officer is not the end anyone would have predicted for a young man with a Howard education, a 1998 Jeep Cherokee, and his mother’s ATM card always at his disposal. “He was well-traveled. He had the best education, the best of everything,” says his mother. “This wasn’t supposed to happen to him.”
Especially at the hands of a black P.G. County cop.
Since the ’60s, blacks had been told that you didn’t want to mess with P.G. police. They had a reputation for aggressive, no-bullshit street tactics. If you got pulled over past the District line, you could be in a heap of trouble. To the District’s black population, the force was perceived as white shock troops with no civil liberties written into their general orders.
But by 1990, all that was supposed to be changing. Blacks had become the majority shareholders in P.G. County, with 51 percent of the population. And they continued to arrive throughout the ’90s; they now constitute nearly 60 percent of the county’s residents. The county turned from redneck into the new suburban Gold Coast. With new economic and voter power, it’s a patch of land where the civil rights dream is supposed to have been realized.
In effect, P.G. embodies that dream better than the District. It was a test case for the long-held beliefstoked at Howard Universitythat if blacks held political power, equal justice for all would follow. And in many ways, the idea has worked. The county’s key leaders are black: County Executive Wayne Curry, State’s Attorney Jack Johnson, and Public Safety Director (and ex-D.C. Police Chief) Fred Thomas. Blacks also make up about 40 percent of the county’s police force. Drive through the tony suburb of Fort Washington and you quickly realize who holds the keys to the halls of power.
Cpl. Jones reportedly told his lawyer after the Prince Jones shooting that he had gone into law enforcement inspired by the vision of racial harmony invoked by Martin Luther King Jr. But those words hold a bittersweet ring for Prince Jones’ friends. Caballero, for one, says the officer has relinquished the right to be considered “a brother.”
To Caballero, it seems that apart from the improved diversity in the police ranksand Cpl. Jones’ dreadlockslittle seems to have changed when it comes to P.G. County law enforcement. Prince Jones and Caballero knew this, Caballero says, because they had been pulled over in P.G. County by cops looking for drugs. “You feel it as soon as you cross over the line, where Michigan Avenue becomes Queens Chapel Road,” Caballero says.
No matter how many black professionals make their homes in P.G. County, no matter how many blacks hold political office, the police force still looks brutal. Jones’ shooting is the 12th police shooting in the past 13 months. Of the dozen victims, he was the fifth to die. Several local, state, and federal investigations of the county’s police force are now under way.
Ironically, police brutalitywhich has historically targeted minoritiesraised few eyebrows in the county prior to Prince Jones’ killing. Well-off blacks have either dismissed the problem or ignored it. To them, it’s a problem of the urban poor, what some derisively refer to as “inside-the-Beltway blacks.”
“In the past, we wanted black people to be police sergeants and lieutenants,” says Howard political science Professor Alvin Thornton, a longtime black community activist and former school board chair in P.G. County. “We’ve got that, and now the black elite has been silent [about police brutality]. We have to ask why that is.”
One reason, Thornton surmises, is that black politicians, no less than white ones, are subject to pressure to maintain order, hold down crime, and treat suspected criminals aggressively. “The black elite has adopted the same prejudices of the people we used to criticize,” he says. “We’re more accepting of those same behaviors [by the police].”
And good old-fashioned class stratification is still in place. As D.C. gentrifies, pushing more poor blacks into inner-ring communities like Landover, Suitland, and District Heights, P.G. County’s leaders find themselves scarcely better able to handle the in-migration from the city than their white predecessors.
And that inability seems to run downhill to the rank-and-file cops. Diversity on the police force is important, Thornton believes, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem. “There’s no guarantee that black folks, when they take positions as police officers and county commissioners, are going to be any more responsive to the least of us.”
It’s a notion that also has occurred to Prince Jones’ mother, who has taken over her son’s struggle to find meaning in his life. “There was a purpose” in the killing of her son, she says. “I can’t say exactly what it is, but it’s significant that the man who shot my son was black. It allows us to get to the police issue without it being a race issue.”
In some respects, Prince Jones fits the typical P.G. County cop shooting-victim profile: a young minority male spotted in a bad neighborhood. But in several crucial respects, his case is altogether different. He was well-bred, well-off, and well-connected. And, justly or not, who he was goes a long way toward explaining how he has become such a martyr.
Here was a black college student at a prominent black university on the receiving end of an apparent case of racial profiling by an officer who’s black like him.
So Jones’ death shook up the complacency of many people, starting with his own mother. Speaking at a packed service for her son at Howard’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel on Sept. 13, she said, “It might be that God had a plan for me to move out of my comfortable suburban practice and speak out.”
Unlike the other police shootings in P.G. County in the last year, Prince Jones’ death drew condemnations from the Rev. Al Sharpton and lawyer Johnnie Cochranactivists unaccustomed to protesting civil rights violations in jurisdictions where blacks wield so much political power. The student’s death sparked an angry rally by Howard students outside the Justice Department, moved Howard President H. Patrick Swygert to tears, prompted Vice President Al Gore to call for a moment of silence, and triggered yet another federal investigation of the troubled P.G. County police force.
Ted J. Williams, a family friend and attorney, believes that there’s no way Prince Jones’ shooting can be justified. Some of Jones’ friends at Howard, picking up on the thread, suggest that if Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. fails to prosecute Cpl. Jones, it will be because of racism. “We’re wondering if Horan might be Klan,” intoned Michael Atkins, a friend of the dead student’s, at the Justice Department rally.
The details of the confrontation between Cpl. Jones and Prince Jonesthe two were unrelated and apparently unknown to each otherremain murky. According to a terse version of events provided by P.G. County police, Cpl. Jones, driving an unmarked black Mitsubishi Montero, started following Prince Jones after he was seen in a known drug area in the District. Cpl. Jones’ interest was aroused because the black Jeep the student was driving was similar to a vehicle implicated in a case involving drugs and a stolen police weapon. The officer eventually tailed Prince Jones to Seven Corners, where Jones’ fiancée lives.
Police say Prince Jones pulled off into a driveway near his girlfriend’s house, apparently to check out the mysterious car on his tail. The officer passed him and then came back and stopped at Prince Jones’ car. According to the police version, Prince Jones then got out of his vehicle and approached Cpl. Jones. The police officer identified himself but flashed his gun, not his badge. Prince Jones then got back into his car, put it into reverse, and rammed the officer’s Montero at least twice. Cpl. Jones then fired off 16 rounds into Prince Jones’ Jeep, hitting him six times. Family members contend that, according to an autopsy they commissioned, the angle of the bullet wounds indicate that Prince Jones was driving away when he was shot.
Prince Jones’ friends reject the police explanation, insisting that it is intended to slander him. Many areas of Washington, after all, can be described as known drug areas, and many black Jeeps can be seen driving down many roads on any given night. Prince Jones had no record of drug arrests in P.G. County, Fairfax County, or the District, and his friends and family say he never used drugs.
Partisans on each side of the fatal encounter argue self-defense. Cpl. Jones’ supporters contend that he was in fear for his life. Prince Jones’ friends and family members, describing him as a straight-laced, Bible-toting student, say they can only surmise that he reacted out of fear and instinct. “If he had known who was following him,” his mother says, “he would have cooperated.” Cpl. Jones, she adds, “didn’t know who he was shooting.”
Two nights before he was shot, Prince Jones’ mother called him from her office in Philadelphia. He had just returned from a trip to New Orleans, where he had been visiting his dad and other relatives. Dr. Jones phoned her son for a reason: She was worried about him.
Prince was struggling to finish up his last school assignments, stay on track to graduate in December, and enter the U.S. Navy’s Officer’s Training School. Dr. Jones speculates that he had a lot of other issues on his mind as well.
According to Dr. Jones, that recent visit to his father in New Orleans had reopened a lot of hurt feelings within her son. He still wanted to play the peacemaker, attempting to bridge the distance between his mother and his father, a chemical-company executive. He had privilege and statusbut a fair share of pain.
There was also what Mable Jones regarded as a difficult relationship with Jackson, the mother of his 11-month-old daughter, Nina. Dr. Jones worried about the stresses the young couple faced together. It was a relationship, she thought, that was holding him back from fulfilling the promise of his once-bright academic career.
“I told him I loved him and I was praying for him,” she recalls. “He told me he was doing all right.”
The elder of two children, Prince Jones attended St. Andrew’s Christian Academy in Houma, La.the start of a lifelong religious education. At age 8, he got another kind of education: His mom left his dad and took the children to Duncanville, Texas. By his mother’s own account, Jones lost his best friend in his dad.
Beginning in 11th grade, Jones attended the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, a two-year residential early-admission university program reserved for the top 1 percent of Texas high school students. It was also his entree into the tightly knit and mostly white community of Texas’ best and brightest.
Amy Fox, a classmate there, remembers Jones as the only black student in a class of about 200. He thrived in the program’s strict environment of rules and regulations and 11 p.m. bed checks. Apparently, he had no problem fitting in socially, either; he was elected prom king in 1992. “I always remember him hanging out with people, making them laugh. He was the perfect gentleman,” Fox says. “I don’t remember him ever being angry.” Moreover, in a school society with the usual amount of teen drinking and partying, Fox remembers Jones as a straight kid focused on school.
Jones made his college decision in an effort to develop a connection with other blacks. “He picked Howard because he wanted a sense of community,” Dr. Jones says. “Growing up middle-class and affluent, he wanted to get close to home.” He enrolled in the university in the fall of 1992 with two years’ worth of college credits already completed.
In his second semester, Jones took a noncredit course titled Proper Education of Black Students. The class, which stressed self-improvement, introspection, and students’ responsibilities to themselves and the black community, met every Saturday and could last up to 12 straight hours. The class had a profound impact on the young student.
In a paper dated April 24, 1993, Jones wrote: “Time. Time is precious. So precious to me that I feel I shouldn’t waste it. I think these last two months have been an excellent use of my time and [a] model for me to use and teach for the rest of my life.”
Jones commented on his own efforts toward self-improvement: “I started praying to strengthen my bond with God,” he wrote. “This has helped me phenomenally. I’ve become focused, a better worker, a calmer person, and a better Christian. I’ve been moved toward a disciplined lifestyle that compliments me for the better.”
Friends attest that Jones was devout. A vegetarian, he wouldn’t eat his mother’s roast beef, smoke weed, or take more than an occasional drink. Many of his friends were youth ministers and pastors. When he went to work as a personal trainer at Bally Total Fitness in Hyattsville, near the home he shared with Caballero, he brought along his Bible.
At Howard, majoring in human development and childhood education, Jones impressed his professors with his respect for authority. He never raised his voice and always called his elders “sir” and “ma’am.” He was a Big Brother, and a member of the Gentlemen of Drew social club. Caballero says his friend was so popular on campus, he gave Jones the nickname “Ferris Bueller.”
But those activities still weren’t enough for Prince Jones to define himself. He tried to join his father’s old fraternity, Omega Psi Phiwhich boasts such alumni as Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan, and Michael Jordanthree times without being accepted. Each time, he had to endure severe rounds of physical hazing, a friend and fellow pledge says.
When he devoted himself to his classes, Jones would excel, according to his adviser, Sylvan I. Alleyne. But he sometimes let his grades turn into Incompletes, and he would occasionally take semesters off. His attention could be all over the placehis part-time jobs, his studies, his volunteer work, his girlfriend, his parents’ divorce.
“He tried to project the image of being at peace,” says a friend, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Washington City Paper contributing writer. “I always got the impression that he was really, really struggling with stuff. I never got the impression it was drugs. I thought it was personal life struggles….Every time I saw him, I would ask him how he was doing. He would always mention God.”
There was God, and there was being a black man. The book collection Jones left behind in the first-floor bedroom in the house he shared with Caballero includes a number of volumes on black studies and black consciousness, including Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West.’s The Future of the Race. On Page 57, there’s a margin notation that Caballero says Jones wrote: West’s “fundamental problem is inability to immerse himself in black life.”
There are plenty of people who thought Prince Jones was a deeply self-conscious man. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, he knew what it felt like for strangers to fear him reflexively. When Jones was faced with uncomfortable social situations or white authority figures, friends say, he would attempt to defuse any racial tensions by showing off his intelligence. Sometimes, though, he could just shrink.
Wendy Abu-el-Hawa, another friend, remembers going to a Fairfax 7-Eleven with Jones this past June. The parking lot was lined with pickup trucks. Inside, Jones found himself to be the only black person there. “I watched him change,” she says. “He became an accordion folding in on itself. He slowed down. He tried to be perceived as less threatening.”
Abu-el-Hawa says she asked Jones about his behavior change. “‘Look around,’” she remembers him saying. “‘They’re scared of me.’”
Prince Jones first met Jackson, his future fiancée, six years ago at a fashion show where the two were both working as models. She remembers his sharp features and every detail of his ensemble: khaki pants, brown shoes with brown laces, a printed silk shirt. He had his hair cut short, with long sideburns. He smiled easy and big. He looked “very schoolboyish,” and he was like no one she had ever met. But it was his introduction that really threw her off.
“Hello, darlin’. It’s nice to meet you,” Jones greeted her. A little sweet and all too geeky.
Being called “darlin’” took her aback. After all, she was from Brooklyn and at the time a District resident attending Banneker High School. At age 16, she had never been anybody’s darling. And she hadn’t met a guy like this before. Then 18 and a Howard freshman, Jones was too polite, too Rhett Butler, too interested in merely talking to her.
But Jackson could see that there was more to Jones than just his affectations, something searching and sensitive. The two exchanged phone numbers. They didn’t have a first date, she says; things just clicked.
They were prom dates and, eventually, Jackson says, soul mates. Jones called her “Bird.” She called him “Monkey.”
Jackson would eventually graduate from Wilson High School and go off to Trinity College, a Catholic women’s school in Upper Northeast, majoring in philosophy. Jones would continue his studies at Howard, working at Federal Express and later Bally.
Through it all, they made an elegant if intense couple. They had nonstop dialogues, whispering in soft voices. They had shared favorites: Shakespeare in Love, the singer Prince, reading. Jones would follow Jackson from room to room, often with his head in his Bible. When he wasn’t reading alone, he was reading with herselected bits of scripture, The Historical Background of Christianity, Black Civilization. When they parted, Jones often left love notes by Jackson’s bedside: “Keeping in mind that Love’s Supreme you can’t let the night go by without feeling the love I have for you…Don’t feel bad. I’m not upset or mad at you. Love’s Supreme… Love’s Supreme…11:45 p.m., 5/25/00.”
Sometimes, Jones decorated his notes, not with their initials planted in a big heart, but with a small c tucked in the middle of a capital J. When they were apart, Jackson gave her boyfriend wake-up calls.
The two fingered the stacks at Barnes & Noble in Georgetown, went to church, and took long car rides with little care about where they would end up. “Just drivingpretty neighborhoods, ugly neighborhoods, drives with no destinationswe liked to drive and blast the music and dance in our seats,” Jackson says.
When they broke up, the fights never lasted too long. The longest period they were apart was two months, Jackson says.
Still, there were other problems. Problems with his temper. Problems with her temper. Jealousy. And the fact that Jones’ mother didn’t approve of his son’s choice in a girlfriend. Throughout his notes to Jackson, he reminded her of these tensions.
His biggest test came when Jackson became pregnant, in early 1999. In his bedroom in Hyattsville are the books he read concerning his new role, 102 Questions Children Ask About the Bible and The Expectant Father. While he studied, Jackson says, she fretted about how they would support the baby, how she would handle dropping out of school after her sophomore year, and the fact that giving birth would be painful.
Nevertheless, Jackson says, the two would lie in bed at night and marvel at what their future would be. Jones would smooth his hands over her belly and tell her how proud he was, she says.
But on two occasions, the stress of Jackson’s pregnancy apparently got to be too much for Jones. According to Fairfax County Police Department reports, Jones was arrested twice for allegedly assaulting Jackson. On July 23 of last year, she was treated at Inova Fairfax Hospital after one of the alleged assaults, police documents say.
A second incident allegedly occurred on Sept. 1 of last yearexactly one year before Jones’ deathwhen Jackson was eight months pregnant. This time Jones allegedly “kicked and hit” Jackson on the back and head, according to the police report. Jackson refused medical treatment.
Police officials may eventually use these incidents to taint Prince Jones’ name in their investigation of the shooting. But Jackson insists that although her boyfriend may have hit her, she hit him, too. Both assault charges were dropped. She adds that he sought forgiveness and got his temper under control. Throughout the last year of his life, she says, he made good on his promises to reform.
Shortly after the Sept. 1 altercation, Jones wrote Jackson a letter outlining his inner struggle: “My prayers and spirit are with you…I must step back…I’m not ready or healed enough to withstand my own foibles. I wish to be a good father, a better man…”
Jackson says they both changed because of those experiences. “We were young and immature in some areas,” she says. “But that was a good thing. We stayed together because ultimately we loved one another….We knew that in time we would mature. Everything that was good was good, and everything that was bad was good.”
On Oct. 2, 1999, Jackson gave birth to Nina Amayyé Edenchi Jones, and the couple seemed to rebound. Jackson says that Jones proposed to her on Aug. 4. She says she accepted, though she has no ring on her finger.
Their engagement, his mother says, is news to her. Dr. Jones says she thought her son was trying to flee from the relationship.
But in the months prior to his death, Jackson says, the two dreamed big. Jones talked of becoming a Navy Seal, a doctor, a teacher, or a diplomat. Jackson wanted to be an actress. The two would daydream about her winning an Academy Award.
They wanted a big modern house with a gate. Emblazoned on the gate would be the family name and crest. They talked of having a baby boy, Prince Jones III.
On Saturday, Sept. 16, Jackson sits in her Sleepy Hollow home opening a white three-ring binder. Inside that binder are the tokens of her romance with Jones: ticket stubs to Shakespeare in Love, a pamphlet from their first trip to Shenandoah, the positive pregnancy-test stick, and love letters written in Jones’ tight cursive on Post-its, notebook paper, and flowery greeting cards. In the back of the binder lie the first pictures of Jones smiling at his newborn daughter.
There were supposed to be more binders, more letters, more baby pictures. Now there are only memorials. Last week, Jackson was so overcome with grief that she could not bear to attend the memorial service at Howard. Instead, she sat with a friend beneath the tree where Jones died, and wept.
If Jones was a victim of racial profiling that night, Jackson can only imagine his reaction. “I think if you were to ask him, he’d say, ‘Man, all I can do is be myself. Hopefully, they’ll see me for me, and they’ll see God in me.’”
Now, different people see a lot of different things in Prince Jones Jr. Some see the Bible-thumping student. Others see the proud father. But mostly, when his peers at Howard talk about Jones, they talk about what his death represents. These are young men and women who are used to talking about graduate school and internships over mochas at Starbucks. They are the children of economic progress, Erykah Badu, and Oprah. They may have experienced an insensitive cop or two, but few have encountered the barrel of an officer’s Glock or a jump-out squad in Capitol Heights.
They have never faced what Jones faced that night.
Whether at the rally last week or after the standing-room-only memorial service for Jones, the students’ conversations have wavered between heated ’60s-era rhetoric and blank confusion. The reality has turned out to be more complicated than any answers contained at Howard’s Founders Library.
Eleven previous shooting victims at the hands of P.G. County cops did not raise alarms on the Howard campus. Even now, students are reluctant to link Jones to other victims. Their victim was entirely innocent, says Sellano Simmons, president of the Howard University Student Association.
Simmons doesn’t know the specific circumstances surrounding the other victims. He doesn’t know their names. And he didn’t know Prince Jones, for that matter. But that’s not important, he says: “[Jones] has become a symbol for police brutality, a symbol for all of us.”
Whatever happened on Sept. 1, friends speculate that Prince Jones died trying to be the good boyfriend, the good fathertrying to protect Jackson. As Cpl. Jones’ Montero followed him, the 25-year-old pulled off of Route 50 and onto Beechwood Lane in Fairfax. Instead of driving directly to Jackson’s home, just a few blocks away, he turned onto Quincy Terrace and stopped. Friends believe Jones didn’t want to lead whoever was following him to his fiancée’s house.
Sixteen shots rang out.
With six bullets in his body, Jones was still conscious enough to steer his Jeep back to Beechwood Lane. He then drove the narrow, dark street to Jackson’s house.
Neighbors heard a commotion outside. They found Jones’ Jeep smashed against another car, idling under a tree. It looked empty. There was heavy-metal music blasting from the stereo.
Jones died at Inova Fairfax Hospital. There were no guns or drugs in his car.
In one of the couple’s last conversations, Jackson says, Jones had finally attained calm: “He called me one night and he said he had completely forgiven himself and was committed to building a life with his family. He all around wanted to be a better man.” CP