Mourning a murder and solving a murder in the age of coronavirus: A California family’s hunt for answers

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For those who have lost loved ones to violent crime during the pandemic, the coronavirus is especially cruel: It not only hampers investigations, but it makes the mourning process all the more difficult to handle.

At dusk on April 15, Kevin and Tracey Butler were watching television with their eldest daughter Rachael, 22, and Camaryn, 20, at home when they received a telephone call that haunts them still.

Their son Jackson, who turned 19 Feb. 1, was fighting for his life following a brutal knife attack in a Pleasanton, Calif., hotel parking lot less than 2 miles away.

"Each day is like waking up to a nightmare," Jackson's father, Kevin Butler, told Fox News this week. "That evening, we went to the scene and followed the ambulance to the hospital, having no idea what the outcome would be. But because of the corona, we could not go in as a family and say a prayer. We could only go in two of us at a time, and we could not touch or kiss his forehead."

Jackson soon succumbed to multiple stab words. Five weeks later, no murder charges have been brought and little is publicly known about what went down when the young student wandered into the parking lot in shorts and flipflops for the last time.

On April 21, about a week later, police arrested two in connection with the case, although neither suspect was charged with murder. Isaiah Joseph Howard, 19, was detained briefly at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin on suspicion of accessory to murder, and concealment or destruction of evidence. He promptly made $40,000 bail and was released. A second suspect, who is 17 (a minor so his name was not released), was held at the juvenile hall on charges of robbery and conspiracy.

Jackson Butler was stabbed to death in a parking lot in a suburb of San Francisco on April 15.

Jackson Butler was stabbed to death in a parking lot in a suburb of San Francisco on April 15. (Butler family)

However, Pleasanton Police Capt. Larry Cox told Fox News that a fresh wave of arrests is more than likely in the next few weeks; investigators have "identified other suspects" both directly and indirectly involved.

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But the global pandemic has decelerated crucial components of the process, he said. Testing DNA samples is slower, as is obtaining search warrants and data from major social media and cellphone companies.

"We are reaching out to these companies, but most of them are 'nonessential' businesses that are either not working or their employees are working from home. The replies are timely, but [getting what we need] has been slowed quite a bit," Cox continued. "These are frustrations that we share with the family, a month later, and we are still waiting on evidence."

According to Jackson's sister, Howard and her brother played football together. As far as she knows, they were acquaintances – not enemies – and followed each other on Instagram. The minor, she said, is closely related to Howard and was also a standout athlete like her brother.

Happier times: Easter Sunday, Jackson Butler with his parents and two sisters

Happier times: Easter Sunday, Jackson Butler with his parents and two sisters (Butler family)

She pointed out that her brother saved up to buy himself a designer bag, which arrived in the mail that day. He posted a picture of it on his social media as well as a picture of an old one he was selling, raising red flags about whether he was a victim of a robbery. The new bag was $900.

"My brother had no enemies, he had the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met," Butler insisted. "He made everyone feel special; he volunteered with special education classes and at the old folks' homes. He wanted to make a difference in people's lives."

Compounding its grief, the Butler family cannot hold a memorial service or a candlelight vigil due to social distancing and stay-home orders amid COVID-19.

The family said they typically talk to detectives once a week, and the days that stretch between calls feel nothing short "of a lifetime."

"They arrested those first two weeks ago, and now for the sake of 10 percent of their bail – $4,000 – they are free to walk around, and hide more evidence and figure out their story," said Rachael Butler. "They don't have to wear a bracelet. Their mugshots weren't released. They could be your neighbor."

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Kevin Butler said his son wanted his wings and was staying close by at an extended-stay hotel. His apartment-hunting quest was on hold due to the health crisis. His girlfriend was in his room at the time of the murder, and thus not a direct witness to what happened in the parking lot.

"Other murders make national news, but this hasn't been the case with our son. We want someone to be held accountable," lamented Tracey Butler, Jackson's mother. "We don't want our son to be forgotten. We want people to know that nobody has been charged with murder, and the suspects are still walking around while our son is not."

She pointed out that, chillingly, a friend saw one of the recently released suspects at the local post office just the other day.

"We are a very close family, and we can't do anything for him while everything is closed," she continued. "Our son deserved more. He isn't here to fight for justice."

And while nobody is currently behind bars in the case, Cox said he doesn't consider the suspects a "flight risk."

A court hearing, Jackson's family said, is slated for June 16, and police hope to have a more detailed picture by then.

"There are still a lot of people we need to talk too. There are no independent witnesses and no surveillance video. It really is a whodunit case starting from scratch," Cox asserted. "But we are going to get there."

Butler's murder marks the first homicide in the sleepy Pleasanton community in eight years, authorities said.

While the family questioned whether nearby police departments such as San Francisco or Oakland – which deal daily in violent crime – will assist, Cox reassured that his team is fully focused and determined to seek justice.

"The good news is [we have so few] violent crime cases, we can dedicate so much time and resources, and we are making sure to dot all our I's and cross all our T's," he said. "We will get there."

Jackson Butler was born and bred in Pleasanton, a 70,000-person city in Alameda County, California – a suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area about 25 miles east of Oakland.

Known for his childhood excellence in an array of sports, as a young teenager, he chose to focus his efforts on judo wrestling, his dad said. At the age of 15, he was recruited by the French National Team, but just days later, his name emerged on the world ranking list as a native of the U.S., disqualifying him from taking the opportunity.

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At the time of his murder, Jackson was taking firefighting classes at Las Positas College, following in the footsteps of his father, who retired in December after 31 years as a battalion chief in the neighboring Woodside Fire Protection District.

"It has been rough. I have seen a lot in my career and been through a lot in my life," Kevin added. "But nothing compares to losing my baby, my son."