3 Held in ‘94 Slaying of Valedictorian in San Diego : Crime: Willie Jones, a symbol of hope in the city’s black community, was killed in drive-by shooting the day after graduating from high school.
As the valedictorian of his high school class, Willie James Jones III urged fellow graduates to “never lose sight of your dreams.”
But the 18-year-old honor student, student body president and champion wrestler never got a chance to pursue his own dream of becoming a doctor.
The day after he graduated Jones was gunned down in a drive-by shooting as he left a graduation party where parents were acting as chaperons, alcohol was prohibited and an off-duty police officer was providing security. A car containing five men was seen speeding away.
Like few other murders in its history, the killing of Willie Jones shocked and angered much of San Diego, particularly the African American community, in which Jones had become a role model and a symbol of hope.
Candlelight marches were held, and neighbors and civic leaders demanded an end to drive-by shootings and other street violence. The City Council renamed the street where Jones died in his honor. The police chief vowed that the investigation would not end until the killers were found.
For 17 months, however, there were no arrests.
Then Wednesday, after one of the most intensive homicide investigations ever in San Diego, authorities announced the arrest of three gang members on suspicion of Jones’ murder. More arrests are possible, they said.
Underscoring the civic significance of the case, the indictments and arrests were announced at a news conference held by Mayor Susan Golding, Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst, Police Chief Jerry Sanders and Councilman George Stevens, who represents the neighborhood where Jones was killed.
Stevens, the only African American on the City Council, commended the police and remembered Jones as “a young man who did all the right things and said no to all the wrong things.”
Stevens said Jones “was an outstanding young man but some senseless, worthless men drove by and shot him.”
A sometime critic of the Police Department, Stevens called on community members to provide information on this and other drive-by shootings.
“Mothers are crying out there because their children are dying,” said Stevens, his eyes glistening.
Jones was the unintended victim of a drive-by shooting meant as retaliation for something said by someone else at the party, authorities said.
The three suspects--Delano Lartel Wright, 23, Diriki Antrell Hill, 19, and Myron Terrell Mason, 21--are being held in County Jail in lieu of $1-million bail each. Wright reportedly was once a football player on a team coached by Jones’ father.
Pfingst said the three defendants did not know Jones, but he declined to provide more details about the fatal shooting or what led to the arrests.
“Willie Jones was a child who behaved the way every parent would be proud of,” Golding said. “He grew up in a neighborhood that is tougher than some, but he avoided gangs and drugs and became a valedictorian. He was cut down on graduation day, unable to find a life that would have been a good life.”
After being courted by several colleges for his academic and athletic prowess, Jones had accepted a four-year scholarship to Cornell and was set to leave soon for college.
Instead, Jones was buried in his high school graduation robe, and friends from Lincoln Preparatory High School huddled around a television to watch a tape of his graduation speech.
Jones had dreamed of being an obstetrician and had worked summers as a laboratory intern at UC San Diego Medical Center. He had a 3.8 grade point average, was on the football and cross-country teams and went to the state finals in wrestling. In his valedictory speech, he had praised his mother for giving him strength to succeed.
Dana Robinson, vice principal at Lincoln, a school with 60% African American and 25% Latino students, said Jones was widely admired by students and adults because “he represented to our community that, yes, our kids can make it.”
Jones and several other students were leaving the party on Ozark Street in the racially mixed Lincoln Park section of San Diego when a car drove by and shots were fired. Jones was struck by a single bullet in the chest.
Jones was killed just blocks from where a San Diego police officer was mortally wounded in 1989 after a confrontation with gang members, a crime for which five gang members were convicted.
Although San Diego, like other big cities, has seen its share of gang violence in recent years, the killing of Willie Jones alarmed the community more than other similar killings, possibly because it showed that even “good” youths could be cut down senselessly.
Herb Cawthorne, former head of the San Diego chapter of the Urban League and now a reporter and commentator for KGTV-Channel 10 in San Diego, said he thinks Jones’ killing provoked a kind of “enough is enough” reaction from the community.
“It was not only outrageous that Willie Jones was killed, but it reinforced the fact that we’ve all been negligent and indifferent to the killing of kids who don’t have as much potential as Willie,” Cawthorne said. “Sometimes it takes the killing of a leader to make people realize what’s happening out there.”