LAS CRUCES — A street corner in California brought two strangers into Tony Jones’ life.
Jones, 44, who spoke to the Sun-News in recent days, said there’s no way he could’ve known at the time the two men — Jesse Denver Hanes, 38, and James Nelson, 36 — were suspects in a homicide halfway across the country. He said he also couldn’t have imagined how his encounter with the two would ultimately end: with all three of them jailed in New Mexico, Hanes accused of fatally shooting Hatch police Officer José Ismael Chavez, and Nelson and Jones accused of drug-related charges.
Nelson, 36, of Newark, Ohio, also spoke with the Sun-News last week.
At the corner of El Camino Real and Lawrence Expressway in Santa Clara, Hanes and Nelson approached Jones, telling him they were having a difficult time finding a hotel. Jones said he understood their problem: Adele was in the neighboring city of San Jose for a concert, putting a high demand on places to stay.
“I knew exactly why they couldn’t find the room,” he said. “Hotels are booked for miles around.”
So Jones helped them find a room in Sunnyvale, another adjacent city. And in return, Hanes and Nelson let him stay there for the night.
The ensuing relationship between Jones, Hanes and Nelson proved to be one of shared convenience. A few days before he met Hanes and Nelson, Jones was released from jail. He said he’d spent a stint in jail after an officer in Hemet, California, discovered a 20-year-old outstanding warrant for his arrest. Jones said he’d been sentenced to less than a month in jail and was released at the end of July.
Before that, Jones — who said he had lost his job earlier in the year — said he’d been homeless and at times living with friends. While staying with a friend, he’d gotten a call from his sister telling him that his mother in Missouri had breast cancer.
Hanes and Nelson told Jones they were in California to “see the sights” and they needed someone to show them around. The men also told Jones they’d planned to travel to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after California and could drop him off in Missouri. The deal sounded good, Jones said, because he didn’t have any money but he wanted to visit his mom. Plus, Hanes and Nelson were buying the meals and hotel stays, Jones said.
Before long, the trio was touring California. They went to San Francisco, a trip Jones said he’d taken many times throughout his life. Hanes wanted to avoid roads that required tolls; Jones said he knew the routes that didn’t require them. They saw the Golden Gate Bridge and tasted some of the local flavor.
“We got some clam chowder,” Jones said.
In Los Angeles. the trio visited The Forum — the longtime, former home of the L.A. Lakers — and visited a nearby casino, according to Jones. Nelson enjoyed gambling, having stopped in Las Vegas en route to California. Jones said gambling wasn’t his forte.
Capping off the day, the group saw the Hollywood sign, Jones said.
They attempted to stay the night in a parking lot, but Jones said his traveling companions didn’t like that the lot was monitored by security cameras. So they set out from Los Angeles early in the morning, about 2 a.m., headed to Phoenix.
During their cross-California travels, Jones said a particular incident began to make him uneasy. The group was in Bakersfield, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. It was there that Hanes approached him, proposing they carry out a bank robbery. Hanes bragged he’d robbed a bank at age 6 with a toy gun, according to Jones.
Jones told the Sun-News he’d served time in prison in Virginia, getting out in 2008. And he didn’t want go back. He said he told Hanes he wouldn’t rob a bank, which upset Hanes.
Jones does have a number of convictions, including possession of a controlled substance in 2006 in Virginia, breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony in 2003 in Virginia, failure to appear in 2003 in Virginia and driving with a suspended license in 1998 in San Jose, California, according to 3rd Judicial District Court records.
Later that night in Bakersfield, the three got a hotel room. Jones slept on the floor, but he happened to wake up in the middle of the night to find Hanes was awake, too, holding a gun in his lap.
“He was on the edge of the bed, and I could feel him looking at me,” he said.
Eventually, Hanes went back to sleep. Jones said he’s had weapons pointed at him before, but this incident unnerved him. Jones said he considered parting ways with the duo.
“He was kind of wild,” Jones said of Hanes. “He thrived on chaos, and that bothered me.
“But Bakersfield is in the middle of nowhere,” he said. Plus, he still needed to get to Missouri.
Before leaving California, Jones said Hanes and Nelson stopped at a Big 5 Sporting Goods, where Hanes bought a holster for a .45 caliber handgun and a box of hollow-point bullets. Hanes had claimed he was buying the items as a birthday present for Nelson.
A favor granted
Throughout the trip, Jones said Hanes and Nelson were taking turns driving and smoking heroin. Jones said he’s been around drugs before, so that wasn’t a big deal to him. Jones said he “only smoked a couple of times.”
In Phoenix, the group stopped to try to find a place to stay overnight, Jones said. Hanes crossed a street to check out a hotel. And Nelson took the opportunity to talk with Jones.
Jones said Hanes and Nelson were good friends. But Hanes had a controlling personality. Nelson didn’t want Hanes to get a small stash of drugs he had, so he asked Jones if he could put it in his suitcase to hide it, Jones said.
Jones allowed him to keep the drugs in his bag. He estimated it was “a gram” of what authorities have said was methamphetamine. Also, there was a pipe.
“It wasn’t mine,” he said of the drugs.
According to court records, Doña Ana County authorities seized 1.2 grams of meth from a black suitcase Jones had at the time of his arrest.
‘From zero to 1,000’
The group set out from Phoenix on Interstate 10 in the 1991 Lexus car in which they’d been traveling. In New Mexico, Nelson sold some marijuana to a person at a rest area, who told him there was a Border Patrol checkpoint near El Paso if they stayed on I-10, Jones said. So Hanes and Nelson reprogrammed the car’s GPS, and that’s how the three wound up in the village of Hatch on Aug. 12.
Jones said he was sleeping and listening to music and was sitting directly behind Hanes, who was driving, when they got pulled over by a Hatch Police officer. Jones said he doesn’t know what violation prompted it.
County authorities have said the traffic stop took place about 3:40 p.m. on Franklin Street, one of the main routes through Hatch.
Officer Chavez, a two-year veteran of the Hatch Police Department walked up to the vehicle — authorities have said he approached from the passenger side — and asked for Hanes’ driver’s license. Jones recalled Hanes saying it was in his baggage. Meanwhile, Jones spotted one of the registration documents for the car in a pouch near him in the back seat. He pulled it out and tapped Nelson on the shoulder to hand it to him. But that’s when the “situation went from zero to 1,000,” he said.
Jones said he heard the officer say to Hanes: “What’s that in your hand?”
“Within seconds, he whipped around and fired one shot into the officer,” Jones recounted.
Hanes then hit the gas pedal, speeding out of Hatch.
Jones said he looked back because he was concerned about the officer. But a second Hatch officer started firing at the car. Jones said he ducked at that point because he knew the trunk had luggage in it. He was hoping the bullets would hit that before striking him.
Hanes hit Interstate 25, traveling at speeds up to 120 mph. Jones said Hanes almost crashed twice before exiting at Rincon, about five miles south of Hatch.
Jones said Hanes pulled into a yard, and everyone jumped out of the car, adrenaline pumping. Jones said he got out and had his back to Hanes. That’s when he saw a young boy wearing a yellow shirt, who he’d later come to credit with saving his life.
Suddenly, Jones heard a “boom,” another deafening gunshot.
“It was terrifying,” he said.
Hanes started hopping around, apparently having shot himself in the thigh. Jones decided he needed to grab his suitcase and was able to get it out of the trunk. Nelson and Hanes were arguing, Jones said.
According to court records, the 9-year-old boy who witnessed the three in Rincon was on his way home from school. He saw one white man arguing with another white man who was seated in the driver’s seat of a “gray car,” according to the records. He’d also seen a black man.
Jones is African-American, and Nelson and Hanes are white.
The boy ran inside to tell his mother what had happened and he came back out to see “a white man chasing the gray car as it drove away,” court records state.
Hanes had jumped back into the car and sped off, Jones said. After he rounded a corner out of sight, Jones said he heard another gunshot. He said that prompted Nelson to break down crying. Jones said he and Nelson assumed Hanes had taken his own life. Jones, however, said he wasn’t about to check whether that was the case.
Authorities have said Hanes then continued south on I-25, stopping at a rest area near Radium Springs. Hanes is accused of carjacking a person there and shooting him, though not fatally. Hanes then continued to drive in a loop that took him back to Hatch, where police arrested him.
A brush with death?
Because it was hot that day, Jones and Nelson, still in Rincon, sat under a nearby tree. There, Nelson told him that he and Hanes were suspects in a homicide in Ohio. Also, according to Jones, Nelson told him the nature of the argument he’d just had with his friend: Hanes had wanted to kill Jones, who’d witnessed the shooting of the Hatch police officer. Nelson was arguing against it.
Jones now believes that bullet fired by Hanes in Rincon was meant for him. But the child who walked by somehow startled Hanes. Along with possibly an “itchy trigger finger,” Hanes wound up shooting himself instead, Jones said.
Jones said he also feared being killed by the police, who were aware a Hatch officer had just been shot.
“I thought: ‘We’re all going to die,'” he said.
The next thing Jones remembers is waking up.
Jones said he thought at first Nelson had punched him. But Nelson told Jones he’d fainted on his own, likely a reaction to everything that had just happened. The two saw police vehicles zipping by on the interstate. Heavily armed law enforcement officers eventually zeroed in on Nelson and Jones.
“They took us down hard,” he said.
At the time of their arrest, Nelson told police about the drugs in the suitcase and that they belonged to him, Jones said.
Authorities initially said they weren’t going to level charges against Jones, who they said was a hitchhiker. But Jones was indicted by a 3rd Judicial District grand jury on Aug. 25 on a possession of a controlled substance count, a fourth-degree felony. An arraignment is set for Sept. 6 in district court before state Judge Fernando Macias.
“I didn’t do anything wrong; I’m a nice guy,” Jones said. “It was a bad situation. I don’t mind helping people, but it went bad so quickly.”
Reaching out to Mom
The Sun-News reached Jones’ mother, Shirley Williams, 62, last week at a nursing facility where she lives in St. Louis, Missouri. She confirmed in a phone interview she was diagnosed with breast cancer after discovering a lump earlier this summer. She said she was dismayed to learn that Jones had been caught up in the situation involving the Hatch officer, but glad to know that her son was OK.
Jones has tended to be a drifter and had been living in California, Williams said. But she didn’t know where exactly.
Williams said she she wishes Jones had asked her for help in getting back to Missouri — and not hitchhiked.
“I would have given him a bus ticket,” she said. “I don’t have the money for a plane ticket.”
Jones told the Sun-News he didn’t contact his family for a ride after learning of his mom’s cancer diagnosis because he didn’t want to burden his family with additional costs.
Williams, who’s undergoing chemotherapy, said she misses her son.
“I want to see him; that’s what I want to do,” she said.
While in jail, Jones said he was having trouble reaching his family because he didn’t remember phone numbers. But he mailed a letter to his mom in recent days and was hoping it would reach her at the nursing home.
Jones is being held on a $75,000 secured bond, meaning he’d have to post 10 percent of that in cash through a bail bondsman to be released from jail, according to court records.
Hanes is facing six state felony charges and one misdemeanor, including first-degree murder. He’s set to appear in state court on Sept. 26. In addition, a federal grand jury has indicted him on five charges, to which he pleaded not guilty on Aug. 24.
Nelson spoke with the Sun-News last week, stating he didn’t want to say much without consulting his attorney. But he did want to offer an apology to the victims and to New Mexicans. He said he never intended to harm anyone.
“I feel great remorse and a lot of empathy for all the victims,” he said, on the verge of tears. “This situation is very tragic. I do want to say to the people of Las Cruces and to the people of New Mexico it was never my intention for people to get hurt.”
Asked if he had a role in saving Jones’ life after the Hatch shooting, Nelson replied simply: “Yes, ma’am.”
Nelson said he’s only seen his attorney one time, but he’s “hoping to go back home soon to get my situation in Ohio cleared up.”
A state grand jury indicted Nelson on trafficking controlled substances (possession with intent to distribute)(narcotic or meth)(first offense), a second-degree felony; distribution/possession with intent to distribute marijuana/synthetic cannabinoids (first offense), a fourth-degree felony; and use or possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor, according to court records.
“I feel bad for what has happened here,” he told the Sun-News. “I’m not a monster.”
Diana Alba Soular may be reached at 575-541-5443, email@example.com or @AlbaSoular on Twitter.