WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – When Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja pulled up to Corey Jones and his broken down SUV last fall, he didn't know Jones was on a recorded phone call with a tow truck operator.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg charged Raja with manslaughter and attempted murder Wednesday, saying his shooting of Jones, 31, last Oct. 18 was unjustified and that he lied to a 911 operator to make it appear that Jones was still armed and a threat more than 30 seconds after he had been felled by the officer's bullets. If convicted, Raja could face life in prison.
Jones' family issued a statement saying they are relieved by the arrest.
"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 statement said. They have a news conference scheduled Thursday.
Raja's attorney, Richard Lubin, did not respond to phone calls or email. Raja is scheduled to make his first court appearance Thursday.
The charges, according to court documents, center on a recording of Jones talking to a tow truck operator after his SUV had broken down on an Interstate 95 off ramp before dawn as he returned home from a performance. Jones, a drummer who also worked as a housing inspector, had purchased his gun only days earlier because he was worried about being robbed of his music equipment, his family has said. He had a concealed weapons permit.
Jones, who was black, and the operator had talked uneventfully for about two minutes when Raja, who is of South Asian descent, pulled up the ramp from the wrong direction and parked in front of Jones' SUV, according to charging documents. Raja, who was investigating a string of auto burglaries, was driving an unmarked cargo van with no police lights and was in civilian clothes: a tan T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap.
Raja's sergeant told investigators he had instructed Raja to wear his tactical vest that has police markings while on this assignment for his own safety and to identify himself, but it was found in Raja's van along with his police radio, the documents say. Raja, 38, had been a police officer for seven years, but only about six months with Palm Beach Gardens, a well-to-do suburb.
Charging documents say that, on the recording, as Jones and the operator talked, the door chimes from Jones' SUV sounded, indicating he stepped out as Raja approached. It recorded an exchange where Raja repeatedly asks variations of "You good?" to which Jones repeatedly replies that he is. Raja never says he is a police officer.
Suddenly, the officer shouts, using an expletive, for Jones to put his hands up.
Jones replies: "Hold on!" And Raja repeats his demand.
Raja then fired three shots in less than two seconds, according to the charging documents. Ten seconds of silence then pass before three more shots, each fired about a second apart, are heard.
Immediately after the shooting, Raja used his personal cellphone to call 911. As the operator answered 33 seconds after the last shot was fired, according to charging documents, Raja yelled at someone to drop the gun even though Jones' autopsy showed a bullet had pierced his heart and lungs and would have felled him almost immediately.
Raja told the 911 dispatcher that he had identified himself as a police officer and that he began firing as Jones came at him with a gun, prosecutors say. He said he continued firing because Jones was pointing his gun at him as he ran away.
When Raja's sergeant and other officers arrived, they found Jones' body between some trees almost 200 feet from the back of his SUV. A police dog found Jones' gun about 75 feet from his SUV, near where Raja told his sergeant he had seen Jones throw it. The safety was on and it had fired no shots.
Prosecutors say in their charging document that given the distance between the gun and Jones' body — and the heart wound that would have incapacitated him — they believe Raja fired the last three shots after he knew Jones had thrown down his gun and was running away.
Follow Terry Spencer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/terryspen . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/terry-spencer .