GA Quadruple Murder-Kidnap Wrap-up
By Mark Niesse, The Associated Press
When Melissa Peeler escaped to Oregon from her jealous ex-husband, it set in motion a chain of events that led to the killings of her 10-month-old daughter, her parents and her sister, and the kidnapping of her three other children from their northwest Georgia home.
After a police chase, another shooting and a 19-hour national manhunt, the children were safely returned and the suspect, Jerry William Jones, was arrested.
The crime spree left behind a devastating trail -- four bodies found in two mobile homes, a suicide attempt by Jones, the bloodsplattered children and tearful relatives with unanswered questions.
The tragedy was set in motion when Peeler, 27, traveled west for the holidays. Her relatives said she took the trip to get away from her erratic common-law husband, a small-time convicted thief. Peeler and Jones, 31, met in an Internet chat room six years ago and had three children together, but never married.
Peeler was visiting a boyfriend in Oregon, trying to start a new life and gain custody of her children, family members said.
Wednesday afternoon, Peeler received a telephone call in Oregon threatening members of her family. She called police at home in Ranger, Ga., asking them to check on her children, who she had left behind with her parents, said John Bankhead of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Deputies "went out there, did what you can do in a situation like that, looked through the window, knocked on the door, and then left," Bankhead said.
Several hours later, the sheriff's office got a more serious call from Peeler -- she said Jones had told her of the killings, adding that he would "start killing the kids one by one" if she alerted authorities.
Deputies rushed back to the trailers, knocked down the door and discovered the dead. Peeler's 10-month-old daughter, Harley, had been strangled. Several gunshots had been fired. Also killed were Peeler's parents, Tom and Nola Blaylock, and her sister, Georgia Bradley.
By Thursday morning, electronic signs on highways across Georgia lit up with alerts telling people to look for Jones and the three children in a red Ford Explorer. Named Levi's Call, the state's version of the Amber Alert system notifies people statewide about abductions.
The news quickly spread to neighboring states and soon national cable news channels were showing Jones' mug shot and the description of his vehicle.
No one knew whether the children had been harmed or if they were even still alive. Jones had made threats before, said David O'Donnell, Peeler's brother-in-law.
"He says all the time, 'He'll kill you, he'll kill me,"' O'Donnell said. "He's an idiot, just a crazy person."
In the 11 hours that followed, sightings of Ford Explorers were reported to police from across the Southeast, but none matched the correct license plate number.
Then, shortly after 7 p.m. Thursday, someone traveling north on Interstate 75 near the Georgia-Tennessee border called 911 and verified five of the six license plate numbers.
Three state troopers trailed the SUV at a speed of 70 mph, spotted the children and turned on their blue lights.
But they couldn't run the vehicle off the road -- not yet. One of the children wasn't wearing a seat belt, said Cpl. James Davenport of the Georgia State Patrol, one of about 12 officers involved in the 20-mile chase that resulted in Jones' capture.
The vehicle exited shortly after the Tennessee border, slowed down in traffic, and Trooper Jason Davis drove his cruiser into the Explorer's right rear bumper, causing it to swerve into a telephone pole. The children, some covered in blood, stumbled out of the SUV toward the officers.
"The small one went out and went to Trooper Davis. He went out and put a jacket around her," Davenport said. "Of course, they were shaking, but other than that they were fine."
The blood came from Jones, who had aimed his gun upward through his jaw and shot himself either during or after the crash. He survived and is in stable condition at a hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Peeler was granted custody of the children -- 10-year-old Brittney, 4-year-old Brandy and 3-year-old Tammy -- by a judge Friday.
Other family members tried to return to normalcy while coping with the enormity of their loss. They swept the house and took out the trash, but they also looked through photo albums and made funeral plans.
"I've cried for three days, I don't think I can cry any more. I sat down and watched some home videos to help cope," said Kacie Charles, the 20-year-old granddaughter of the Blaylocks. "It's upsetting and we're going to miss them. You can't bring them back."
A rift has opened in the family because Peeler is angry with family members for criticizing Jones and releasing home movies to media, Charles said.
Most of the family has only briefly talked with Peeler, who is back in northwest Georgia with her children.
Meanwhile, Jones will be extradited to Georgia on murder charges when he's healthy enough, officials said.