Two children, both placed in the custody of an abusive father, finally murdered the father's girlfriend (the effort to kill the father failed) in an effort to escape the abuse, some of which involved sexual abuse by another unnamed family relative (a convicted sex offender) who lived in the home.
That was ten years ago. Now investigators are realizing how much the Florida Department of Children and Families botched this case, and want clemency for the kids. Quelle surprise...CPS screwed up. Again. Who would believe it....
Beneath surface, a life of violence
Documents unveil history of abuse for young killers
BY JOHN A. TORRES • FLORIDA TODAY • November 8, 2009
Less than four months before 13-year-old Catherine Jones and her 12-year-old brother, Curtis, shot and killed their father's girlfriend in 1999, child welfare investigators found signs that they were being sexually abused by a family member.
A few years earlier, the state looked into claims that the same family member had molested them. That family member, convicted in 1993 of sexually assaulting his girlfriend's daughter, lived in the house in Port St. John with the children and even shared a room with the boy.
A third investigation occurred in 1996 when Curtis had a bruised and swollen eye.
After each investigation, officials did nothing, according to reports obtained by FLORIDA TODAY with the permission of Jones, now 24 and six years away from her scheduled release from prison. Documents included confidential findings from the agency later renamed the Department of Children and Families.
The girl and her brother originally were charged with first-degree murder in what started as a plot to kill the abuser, their father and his girlfriend. They pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for 18-year prison sentences followed by a lifetime of probation. Now, an attorney is helping in their fight for clemency -- forgiveness, at least, for the remainder of their sentences.
Lawyer and Florida State University professor Paolo Annino says the siblings had a violent family history and didn't understand what they were doing 10 years ago. Catherine, in a recent interview in a Homestead prison, said she even wonders if she isn't better off for having gone to jail instead of staying in that home.
"There are some times when I look back at it and wonder if this didn't happen, would we have healed to the point where we are?" she said. "Did it take something like this to happen or were there other things that could have been done? At 12 and 13, you don't know about anything else."
Annino, who trains law students in legal advocacy at the Public Interest Law Center, believes the brother and sister were treated unfairly.
"This is a case, in which all the systems failed these kids," Annino said from his Tallahassee office. "They were oblivious to all the red flags. DCF is who I ultimately blame. They totally failed to properly investigate the case. If they had done that, there would not have been a murder.
"Instead, you have two victims that are sent to prison for 18 years."
Police, attorneys and newspapers reported the children killed the girlfriend, 29-year-old Nicole Speights, because they were jealous of attention their father was giving her. However, documents, from DCF and the Brevard County Sheriff's Office, depict a family mired in violence.
Catherine Jones says she regrets taking a life, but at the time she was willing to do anything to escape the abuse.
"At one point I was just so happy to be away," she said of how she felt after her arrest. "I know that sounds, like, really messed up, but there was a point where I was just away from all that, and I was by myself and I was safe."
Their mother, Stacie Parks, said she fled the home because of domestic violence in 1989, when Catherine and Curtis were 4 and 3 and about 10 years before the killing. Parks said her husband made it clear she couldn't leave with the children.
She believes they may have been saved by taking another life. "They were taken away from that environment and now they have a chance," Parks said by phone from her home in Kansas. "If this had not happened, I would hate to think where they would be right now."
From the beginning
According to Parks, the violence started before Catherine was born.
Catherine's parents met in Palo Alto, Calif., when her mother, 17, served 23-year-old Curtis Jones at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. They started dating despite her family's objections to a white girl having a relationship with a black man.
Parks became pregnant within six months.
"Curtis Jones started hitting me within a month of when we started dating," Parks wrote in a sworn affidavit prepared for Catherine's clemency petition. "He hit me while I was pregnant which caused me to have a tear in my uterus."
She blames that tear for Catherine's premature birth. The baby weighed in at 3 pounds, 11 ounces and was nicknamed "Munchie."
Less than a year later, on May 31, 1986, Parks gave birth to Curtis in Alabama, where the couple moved before settling in Brevard County.
The violence continued, and Parks said she left many times, but Jones would convince her to return.
They eventually married in 1989, only months before Parks would leave for good -- pawning a gold chain to pay for the one-way ticket to her mother's home in Kansas.
"My mom said I couldn't bring the kids because they were biracial," said Parks, who also said she feared her husband's revenge if she took Catherine and Curtis.
In 1993, Parks drove to Brevard and took them from school and to Kansas without permission. According to court records, she was arrested for third-degree felony of "interference with custody." The children were returned to Florida, and charges were dropped.
Parks said she is closer with Curtis than Catherine, but hopes to rebuild that relationship.
"I never asked why they did this," Parks said. "I figured I knew why. They had grown up with violence their whole life."
According to the Department of Corrections, Curtis Jones Sr., who still lives in Brevard, has visited his children regularly, though Catherine said the relationship can be strained. FLORIDA TODAY unsuccessfully tried to contact him for this report.
A few months after Parks left in 1989, Curtis Jones Sr. was charged with attempted second-degree murder for shooting two men in a Titusville pool hall. Charges later were reduced to a misdemeanor when police decided the shooting was in self-defense.
The children stayed with his mother in Alabama while he worked out his legal issues.
About that time, a family member -- who once spent six years in prison in Alabama for strong-arm robbery -- settled in Titusville. In 1993, the family member was arrested and later convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Less than a year later, 8-year-old Curtis, while visiting in Kansas, told his mother the family member molested him.
FLORIDA TODAY is not identifying the family member because he was never charged in connection with these alleged incidents.
According to investigative reports from the sheriff's office, Curtis said the family member shared his bed with him and "sometimes fondles him when they are in bed together."
But when he came home, Curtis changed his story. According to the sheriff's documents, "Curtis stated that he lied in hopes that the relative would move out of the home or that he would be sent to stay with his mother in Kansas on a full-time basis."
DCF closed the case. That was the first of three times they investigated child abuse in the home.
On Sept. 22, 1998, 13-year-old Catherine ran away from home. According to DCF documents, about the same time, a teacher at Space Coast Middle School told child welfare workers she suspected Catherine was being sexually abused at home by the family member.
"He did everything but penetration," Catherine told FLORIDA TODAY. "It wasn't rape, but it was touching and fondling and oral sex, he would make me perform oral sex to the point where I would throw up."
State investigators reported finding "some indicators" of physical abuse and sexual molestation.
Catherine denied the molestation and returned home. Investigators closed the case after offering parenting and counseling services, which Catherine's father declined. She would say her father intimidated her into lying.
Investigators, however, warned her father that the family member she had accused shouldn't be in their house because he was a convicted pedophile.
"Their only avenue was to take the kids out of the household, but you can't tell a kid something like that, especially us," Catherine said in the FLORIDA TODAY interview. "One of our parents had already left."
Catherine said what hurt most was that her father ignored her claims.
"He didn't believe me at that time, and it felt like he was taking sides, like he chose his (relative) over me," she said. "I expected him to be at the point where he would want to kill him."
Officials with DCF wouldn't comment on the Jones case. They said recantations are common when it comes to sexual molestation, but that doesn't always end an investigation.
"The child is sometimes seeking to put an end to the crisis created by their disclosure," said spokeswoman Elizabeth Arenas.
No one believed her, Catherine said, except her 12-year-old brother. On their way to school one morning, Curtis admitted he was being abused, too.
Catherine said her plan to get herself and Curtis out of the abusive situation was to kill those who were allowing it. Their kill list included the relative they said was abusing them, their father and Speights, a teacher's assistant at Jefferson Junior High School on Merritt Island.
Looking back, Catherine said she is not sure why they felt the need to kill Speights. If she had thought more, "it wouldn't have been her," she told a psychologist. "It would have been (the relative)."
But any doubts the siblings had about the plan, Catherine said, were eliminated just a few days after DCF closed its investigation.
Catherine, 13, said she was in the shower when she heard the bathroom door open. The relative ripped the shower curtain and stared at her.
"He started masturbating while I was in the corner crying," Catherine said. When he was done, she said, he left 50 cents on top of the toilet seat.
Catherine withdrew. She stopped eating dinner with the family and stayed in her room.
"That's when I started writing in my journal I'm gonna kill everybody," she said. "That's how it happened."
According to interviews and court documents, when she told Curtis of her plot, he said he would help: They would use the 9mm semi-automatic their father kept in his bedroom.
Pulling the trigger
On Jan. 6, 1999, Speights was working a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle at the family home on Tope Street in Port St. John. The children were sitting at the dining table with her, Curtis holding their father's pistol in his lap.
"She happened to be there and my dad happened to leave, and we knew that (the relative) would be coming over later that night. She was at the other end of the table, and then (Curtis) shot her in the chest," Catherine said. "I can't say how many more times he fired the gun, but I know that maybe the last two bullets I shot."
Speights was hit by four of nine bullets fired.
Catherine said Curtis started shaking and crying. The children dragged the body to the bathtub, leaving behind a trail of blood. They poured bleach on the carpet and floor.
According to reports, they ran from one friend's house to another, saying they shot Speights by accident. When parents of their friends said they had to call the police, the children fled and hid in a wooded area near their house.
Police found them in the morning, and at first, they said the killing was an accident.
"It was obvious, though, there were some things that made this different than an accident," said Lt. Tod Goodyear of the Brevard County Sheriff's Office, who was the lead investigator. "There was some obvious cleaning. The victim had been moved from where it happened through the house to a bathroom area."
Shortly after the interview with police began, the children admitted to their plot to kill Speights. It was several years before they revealed their plan to kill the others.
Goodyear said he and other investigators knew DCF had been called to the house before. Deputies had accompanied child welfare workers there.
Goodyear, however, said he knew of no concrete evidence regarding sexual abuse.
Investigators also noted Catherine's apparent lack of remorse.
The grand jury rejected treating the children as juveniles and made the siblings the youngest charged with murder as adults at the time in the United States. If tried as juveniles, state law allowed no more than 36 months in jail.
Knowing a first-degree murder conviction would result in a life sentence, lawyers worked out a plea deal for second-degree murder. It was accepted on Aug. 16, 1999.
Attorney Kepler Funk, who represented Catherine, said previous abuse is not a defense for first-degree murder in Florida.
"The only way we could have presented this was if the kids had been in imminent danger and acted in self-defense," he said. "We felt Cathy was a kid who still had something to offer in her life and had nothing but bad things going on. She had a horrific start to her life."
Tony Hernandez, who represented both children briefly, said he had hoped for a manslaughter charge and a juvenile sentence. Then they could have served three years in prison and four on probation.
Hernandez said dealing with the young Curtis was heartbreaking. He remembers the child asking if he could have his Nintendo video game with him in prison.
"The sentence and outcome is something that has bothered me throughout my career," he said.
Hopes and dreams
Catherine said she looks forward to catching up on the things that have passed her by.
"Cell phones, the Internet, driving and, you know, I never went to high school," she said. "I never wore makeup at home or got my nails done or highlights or any of that good stuff. I think I miss food, too, more than anything."
Catherine also said she would have to learn to believe in people again.
"In here you can't trust people, everyone has a motive for everything," she said. "I don't really know how to relate to people. I was exposed to things that I never would have been exposed to at home. . . There is no way to grow into something different."
She said she would like to go to college and earn a law degree. She also wants to open a restaurant.
But all those dreams can wait, Catherine said, until she sees the brother she last saw nine years ago.
"We're best friends," she said. "Nobody understands what you go through in here except someone else that has been in here."
The two wrote until recently when they were prohibited from doing so by a warden, because the siblings are co-defendants.
Catherine said she wishes that a deeper psychological evaluation or investigation into the sexual abuse had been done before sentencing. She said she takes responsibility for what she's done, but adds that she is not a cold-blooded killer.
"I think the charges and the sentence was excessive," she said. "Taking our lives wasn't going to bring hers back."
Contact Torres at 242-3649 or firstname.lastname@example.org.