Calling for help didn’t save stranded motorist Corey Jones from the bullets later fired by a plainclothes police officer who stopped to investigate the parked SUV.
But now the recording of Jones’ call to roadside assistance — and the sounds of the shooting that it captured — could help convict former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja for what a grand jury Wednesday determined was an “unjustified” shooting.
Raja was arrested Wednesday on charges of manslaughter and attempted murder.
The cellphone call recording reveals that Raja — who wasn’t wearing a uniform or a badge — didn’t identify himself as a police officer when on Oct. 18 he approached Jones’ vehicle along I-95 and soon after opened fire, according to the State Attorney’s Office findings released Wednesday.
The recording also shows that Raja fired three shots, waited 10 seconds, and then fired three more times, with at least one of those shots fired as Jones ran away, according to the State Attorney’s Office report.
Jones’ death drew a swift public outcry, sparking rallies and protests that at times drew hundreds of demonstrators. The killing happened during a national uproar over use of force by police, from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore, involving young black men.
Attorneys for Jones’ family maintained that Jones likely didn’t know that Raja was a police officer. And in a report released Wednesday, prosecutors echoed how Raja’s lack of police identification was “grossly negligent.”
“Raja chose to approach Corey Jones’ vehicle in a tactically unsound, unsafe and grossly negligent manner,” according to the prosecutors’ report. “Raja was driving an unmarked white cargo van, which no reasonable person would assume was a police vehicle. … A reasonable person can only assume the thoughts and concerns Corey Jones was experiencing as he saw the van approaching him at that hour of the morning.”
After the grand jury completed its review Wednesday, State Attorney Dave Aronberg announced that his office charged Raja with one count of manslaughter by culpable negligence, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison; and one count of attempted first-degree murder with a firearm, a felony punishable by up to life in prison.
The Jones family on Wednesday issued a statement saying they are relieved that Raja will face charges and that their goal now is “to ensure that this never happens to another innocent citizen.”
“While we understand that nothing can bring back our son, brother and friend, this arrest sends a message that this conduct will not be tolerated from members of law enforcement,” the family statement said.
Jones, a Delray Beach housing inspector and a church drummer from Boynton Beach, was waiting with his broken-down SUV along Interstate 95 near PGA Boulevard when he was shot and killed by Raja.
Jones was driving home from a gig that night and had become stranded.
He at 1:44 a.m. called the Florida Highway Patrol from his cellphone to request roadside assistance, according to the state attorney’s report. A road ranger and one of Jones’ bandmates arrived to try to help start the car, but couldn’t get it going.
They both left by 2:45 a.m., but Jones stayed because he didn’t want to leave his drum equipment unattended for fear it might get stolen, the report said.
Raja, 38, stopped about 3:15 a.m. to investigate Jones’ potentially abandoned car, according to police.
Jones was on his cellphone with a roadside assistance operator when Raja approached and their initial interaction was recorded, according to the State Attorney’s Office findings.
According to the transcript of the call, Jones is first heard saying, “Huh?”
“You good?” Raja asked.
“I’m good,” Jones said.
“Really?” Raja responded.
“Yeah; I’m good,” Jones said.
“Really?” Raja replied.
“Yeah,” Jones said.
“Get your f—— hands up! Get your f—— hands up!” Raja said.
“Hold on!” Jones said.
“Get your f—— hands up! Drop!” Raja said.
After saying, “drop,” Raja fired three gunshots within two seconds, according to the report.
After about 10 seconds, Raja fired three more shots — this time “more deliberately” with one shot every three seconds, the report said.
“Oh my gosh!” the operator can be heard saying on the recording after the first round of shots. And then, “There’s gunshots,” after the second volley, the report said.
Raja did not identify himself during the shooting, according to the recording, and “there is no question that Jones ran away from Raja,” according to a probable cause affidavit.
Police say that as Raja approached, Jones had a gun that he was licensed to carry. The State Attorney’s Office findings determined that Raja kept shooting, even after Jones no longer held his weapon.
“There is sufficient evidence and probable cause to conclude Nouman Raja continued to discharge his firearm at Corey Jones after Raja realized Jones no longer possessed a firearm. The intent of discharging his firearm was to kill Corey Jones,” according to the state attorney’s findings.
Raja didn’t know Jones was on the phone with a roadside assistance operator when he approached the vehicle, according to the report.
About 33 seconds after Raja fired his final shot, he called 911 using his personal cellphone. As the call connected, Raja is heard yelling: “Drop that f—— gun right now!” the report said.
Raja gave his location to the operator and said he shot someone who “had a silver handgun in his right hand,” the report said.
“I came out, I saw him come out with a handgun. I gave him commands. I identified myself and he turned, pointed the gun at me, and started running. I shot him,” Raja told the 911 operator, according to the report.
Raja used his personally-owned Glock .40-caliber pistol when he fired at Jones because his police-issued gun was still in its holster inside the unmarked police van he was driving, the State Attorney report said.
Raja fired six shots, hitting Jones three times, according to the State Attorney’s Office.
Three of the six shots Raja fired hit Jones.
One entered Jones’ left arm near the elbow and another struck Jones in the back of his upper right arm, neither of which would have been fatal wounds, according to the medical examiner’s findings, the State Attorney’s report said.
The bullet that killed Jones hit him on the right side of his chest, passing through a section of his heart and both lungs, the report said.
Just three days before the shooting, Jones bought a .380-caliber handgun that he had with him at the time of the shooting, according to the report. It was found 72 feet from the left rear of Jones’ vehicle, with the safety still on and without any bullets having been fired, the report said.
The night of the shooting, Raja was assigned to do surveillance patrol in large parking lots in response to a string of late-night vehicle burglaries, according to the state attorney’s report.
When the shooting occurred, Raja was wearing blue jeans, a tan T-shirt, sneakers and a tan baseball cap with the red letters “CAT” stitched across the front, according to the report.
Raja was driving a white Ford cargo van with no police markings. And he drove northbound on a southbound off-ramp to pull in front of Jones’ vehicle, the report said.
Raja’s supervisor later told investigators that Raja had been instructed to wear his tactical vest with police markings on it when he worked on assignment “for safety reasons” and to identify himself as a police officer. But he left the vest along with his police radio in the van when he approached Jones, the report said.
Raja, who at the time of the shooting had been working for Palm Beach Gardens police for less than a year, was fired in November while still in his probationary period for a new employee.
Raja’s attorney Richard Lubin could not be reached for comment Wednesday despite attempts by phone.
The city of Palm Beach Gardens released a statement saying it, too, learned Wednesday of Raja’s indictment. “We respect the criminal justice process at every level,” the city statement said. “We expect to make a more detailed statement on this matter in the future. Our thoughts are with the Jones and Banks families today.”
After Jones’ death, many rallies and protests were organized in Palm Beach County to protest delays in announcing any criminal charge against Raja and to keep the Jones case in the public spotlight.
It also led to changes by Palm Beach Gardens police. Its police chief has pointed to new policies put in place late last year banning all undercover officers from engaging in traffic stops without a backup marked car.
The department also started using body cameras after Jones’ death. Raja wore no body camera on the night of the shooting. Some other cities in South Florida similarly cited the Jones case as a reason for equipping officers with body cameras.
The manslaughter charge Raja faces is for “culpable negligence” in killing Jones by shooting him “without lawful justification,” according to the probable cause affidavit filed by the State Attorney’s Office.
The attempted first-degree murder charge is tied to Raja “unlawfully shooting” Jones the two times that didn’t kill him as well as the three shots that missed Jones, according to the State Attorney’s Office.
“The prosecutors are saying these are two separate, distinct acts,” said Robert Buschel, a Fort Lauderdale-based defense attorney not involved in the case.
Defense attorney Michael Salnick said he believes the attempted murder charge, which is punishable by up to life in prison for a conviction, could be an attempt by the prosecutors to get extra “leverage” for a possible plea bargain down the road.
Prosecutor-turned-defense attorney Marc Shiner, who watched Aronberg’s news conference on TV, said he expects Raja’s attorney will “argue self-defense all the way.”
Shiner, who called Jones’ death a “horrible tragedy” that warranted the filing of charges, said it’s going to be a legal battle for Raja’s freedom. The former cop will have to say he believed his life was in danger because a gun was pointed at him.
“If you’re a cop, you have the right to shoot someone and use deadly force if they are fleeing from a violent forcible felony,” Shiner explained.
Terry Banks, Jones’ uncle, said the family is happy Raja is charged with Jones’ death, but said they are cautiously optimistic.
“This is the beginning, not the end,” he said. “It won’t bring him back, but it’s a process we all have to endure.”
Palm Beach Gardens Vice Mayor Eric Jablin said he’s happy the family is finally getting some justice.
“The Jones family has been waiting a long time for this, and they’ve been extremely patient,” he said. “The system is slow, but it’s working.”
Riviera Beach Mayor Thomas Masters, a friend of the Banks family, said he never lost faith that Raja would be charged. Regardless of what happens to Raja, he said, he wants to honor Jones’ memory by fighting for legislation that changes police procedure.
Masters, other community activists and leaders helped draft and promote Corey’s Law, which discourages departments from allowing plainclothes officers to conduct traffic stops. He said advocates for the law will meet in Washington, D.C., later this month and Tallahassee in July.
“This is not just a Palm Beach County problem. This is not just a Florida problem,” he said. “We don’t want this to happen ever again anywhere else in America.”
Banks, through tears, said the family misses Jones every day. He thanks those that stood by him and his family.
“It took a whole village to get justice,” he said. “I believe we are on the right track.”