Pastor Jameson McLaughlin wanted to make something clear this week as he spoke about the 23-year-old man charged with second-degree murder in the deaths of three University of Virginia football players.
“My heart certainly goes out to those families,” McLaughlin told USA TODAY Sports, referring to the victims. “This was tragic, traumatic. But this is also devastating because I saw something in him as well.”
He was referring to Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., who on Monday was charged with killing three football players and injuring two other people during a shooting rampage on a charter bus that had returned to the university’s campus in Charlottesville from a field trip to Washington, DC Jones was arrested at 11 am Monday, ending a 12-hour manhunt after the university campus was locked down Sunday night.
D’Sean Perry, Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler were killed in the shootings. Another football player, Mike Hollins, was shot in the back and is recovering from two surgeries, his mother told ESPN. ESPN identified a fifth shooting victim as Marlee Morgan.
In 2018, Jones was a walk-on football player at Virginia – before Perry, Davis and Chandler joined the team. But Jones is remembered for more than that by people like McLaughlin, Senior Pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Petersburg, Virginia.
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At Petersburg High School, Jones was a standout running back and linebacker. He was also president of the Key Club and a member of the National Honor Society. He graduated with a 4.2 grade point average and tutored teammates during study hall.
OPINION:UVA mourns football players killed in shooting as unanswered questions compound sadness
“He was a leader on and off the field,” said McLaughlin, 42, who played football at Petersburg High and has remained involved with the program. “Even though he was short in stature, I think he was only 5-9, he was one of those guys that stood out.”
Jones’ stint on Virginia’s football team ended after about a month, during which he was hampered by an injury, said Jackson Matteo, a graduate assistant for UVA in 2018. But Jones remained enrolled at the university and was a senior at the time of the fatal shootings Sunday.
McLaughlin said the reaction was shock when the news of Jones’ arrest reached Petersburg, a city of about 33,000 and approximately 100 miles east of the University of Virginia. But soon after, he said, the focus turned to the possible motive.
“Was it bullying?” McLaughlin said. “That’s one consistent question I’ve heard.”
Speculation of bullying grew following comments by Christopher Darnell Jones Sr., father of the man accused of the killings.
During an interview with the NBC affiliate in Richmond on Monday, Christopher Darnell Jones Sr. said his son told him “people were picking on him.” Jones’ father said the conversation took place about a month ago, and it was the last time he had seen his son.
“He had some problems the last time I talked to him,” Christopher Darnell Jones Sr. said during the interview. “He said some people were picking on him or whatever, he didn’t know how to handle it and I told him just go to school, don’t pay it any mind. He was really paranoid when I talked to him, but he wouldn’t tell me everything. He was a very sensitive young man.”
Kayreign Lundy, who played football with Jones at Petersburg High in 2017, said he’s been in contact with teammates since the shootings.
“The bullying, we’ve heard rumors,” Lundy told USA TODAY Sports, “but we didn’t think they were serious. Because Chris is not that type of guy to get bullied, how big he was and how well he gets along with others.”
Lundy pointed out that Jones was the player who rallied the Petersburg High football team when it needed a spark, and he also tutored teammates in English and math.
“When we had study halls, Chris would come in, and whoever needed help he would bring them up,” Lundy said. “When people were down, (he was) always bringing people up, always keeping their mind up, always keeping their head up.”
But Chris Jones was a young man known differently by those familiar with his past.
Jones was bullied in school, friend says
A story published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2018 chronicled Jones’ struggles and successes. Jones acknowledged anger issues that he said resulted in fights at school and suspension, and he traced some of his behavioral issues to his early years.
He said his father left when he was 5 years old, and they did not see each other until Jones was in high school.
Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. was picked on at school, one of his friends and football teammates in middle school told the Washington Post in a story published this week.
“Chris would wear outdated clothes and outdated shoes that a lot of people did not wear at the time, and they’d make fun of him because of his situation,” Brion Logan told the Washington Post. “He was always a nice person. He grew up in an unfortunate situation with his dad not being in his life too much and his mom not being the best off financially.”
Jourdan Davis-Dewitt, a former track teammate when Jones was a high school freshman and sophomore, had similar recollections.
“He would only lash out when he was bullied and picked on, which happened a lot,” Davis-Dewitt told USA TODAY Sports. “I wouldn’t call him a danger. I wouldn’t even say his anger got the best of him in high school because he didn’t. He used sports as his outlet to kind of escape what was going on.”
Jones told the Richmond Times-Dispatch he was teased because he was a kid from the projects who was raising his hand in class. But much of the time, he said, the other kids didn’t expect a kid from the projects to raise his hand in class.
“I would get upset because my intelligence was being insulted,” he told the newspaper. “Kids would pick on me — ‘Why did you do that? Why did you answer that question?’ ”Jones said. “And in that world, disrespect means you should fight.”
But the fighting stopped, according to Jones, when before his junior year he moved in with his father and paternal grandmother and transferred to Petersburg High School. He told the newspaper that mentors helped him let go of his anger. Lundy, one of Jones’ teammates at Petersburg, said he was unaware of any bullying.
But trouble found Jones again while he was attending Virginia.
In 2021, Jones was involved in a concealed weapon violation, UVA Police Chief Timothy Longo Sr. told reporters Monday.
“Through the course of the threat assessment team’s investigation, we learned of a prior criminal incident involving a concealed weapon violation that occurred outside the city of Charlottesville in February of 2021,” Longo said.
Jones was also involved in a hazing investigation that was closed because witnesses would not cooperate, according to Longo.
On Wednesday, a judge ordered Jones be held without bond after a brief video conference in Albemarle District Court. Jones was not asked to enter a plea and has been given until his next court appearance on Dec. 8 to hire legal counsel. Authorities have not determined a motive for the attack.
A memorial service for Perry, Davis and Chandler will take place Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena on campus.
“This is not the Chris that we know,” said Lundy, Jones’ former teammate who now works as a security officer.
McLaughlin, the pastor, found himself reconciling the Chris Jones he knew at Petersburg High School and the man who now faces three counts of second-degree murder.
“A lot of people are asking questions,” McLaughlin said, “trying to get to what happened.”
Contributing: The Progress-Index, Dan Wolken of USA TODAY