PINE APPLE, Ala. (AP) — Their little bodies shrouded in plastic bags, the five children of Timothy Ray Jones Jr. had been dead for days by the time he led investigators to the spot where they had been dumped among dead trees and scrub brush.
The children's journey to that isolated hilltop in central Alabama covered hundreds of miles and crisscrossed several Southeastern states as Jones drove his Cadillac Escalade around for days, using bleach to try to mask the smell of the decomposing bodies, authorities said Wednesday.
Jones was arrested Saturday at a DUI checkpoint in Mississippi, about 500 miles from his hometown of Lexington, South Carolina. An officer said he "smelled the stench of death" along with chemicals used to make methamphetamine and synthetic marijuana. Jones was acting strangely and appeared "somewhat disoriented," said Lewis McCarty, the acting sheriff in Lexington.
Court documents show the children's brief lives were troubled, marred for years by discord between their parents. The divorce between Jones and his wife, Amber, finalized 11 months ago, included multiple allegations of adultery against the woman and resulted in the children bouncing back and forth between their home in South Carolina and northeastern Mississippi, where Jones' family lives.
A therapist who saw the man more than two years ago described him as "highly intelligent" and responsible, yet emotionally devastated and angry over his wife's alleged infidelity, court records show. Still, authorities said they don't know why the children were slain, or how, or exactly when. Autopsies were scheduled to begin Thursday.
Jones, 32, confessed to killing his children, ages 1 to 8, and dumping their bodies in the secluded clearing, authorities said. The computer engineer who had a degree from Mississippi State University was working for Intel when he disappeared with his children, the company said. At the time of his divorce, he was making about $71,000 a year.
The sheriff said Jones apparently acted alone and will be charged with five counts of murder. Authorities have seized his computer.
Jones' father made a brief statement, but directed questions attorney Boyd Young, who would represent his son. Young's office in South Carolina refused to confirm that it is representing Jones and declined to comment.
Authorities believe the children were killed at the same time, likely soon after they were last seen alive in late August. Jones had moved with the children to a neighborhood of mobile homes in Lexington after the October 2013 divorce and the children had slowly started disappearing from view, said neighbor Dorothy Wood.
"I didn't even hear them playing outside any more. I thought they had moved," Wood said.
Jones' stepmother, Julie Jones of Amory, Mississippi, called the children "beautiful."
"They were wonderful. They were happy," Jones said as she cried.
Divorce records listed the five children as Merah, 8; Elias, 7; Nahtahn, 6; Gabriel, 2, and Elaine Marie, 1. Elaine Marie was born Abagail Elizabeth but the parents agreed to a name change, records show.
In Lexington, there was an abuse complaint against Jones lodged on Aug. 7, but when deputies and an official with the Department of Social Services went out to the house, they interviewed the children and didn't see anything to alarm them. Officials wouldn't say who made the complaint.
The case has unfolded over the past two weeks, but it wasn't until Tuesday afternoon — when authorities found the children's bodies — that they went public.
"We were trying to balance the children and the investigation against the releasing of information," McCarty said.
The children were last seen Aug. 28. The older children were at school, and Jones picked up his younger kids at daycare. He was to bring the children to their mother's home Sept. 2, but never showed up.
Their mother, Jones' ex-wife, reported them missing Sept. 3. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said authorities did not issue an Amber Alert because the case didn't meet the criteria — Jones had legal custody of his children.
With the children already dead and stowed inside the vehicle, Jones left their home on a journey that took him to North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and finally Mississippi, authorities said. In all, he covered about 700 miles in what the Lexington sheriff called a "logistical nightmare."
In Pine Apple, 20 miles off Interstate 65 and about 65 miles south of Montgomery, Mayor Chris Stone said he was cutting his grass Saturday morning when he saw a man driving a black Escalade along Alabama 10, a two-lane highway where logging trucks are more common than luxury SUVs. The man was driving slowly, like he was looking for something, Stone said.
"He was going out toward where the bodies were found," Stone said.
The same day, apparently after the bodies were atop the hill, Jones stopped to use an automatic teller at a bank in the nearby town of Camden, said District Attorney Michael Jackson. Authorities haven't found anything linking Jones to Alabama, Jackson said, and the hill may have been picked simply because it was hidden from view.
"They think it was just a location thing, being a rural area," Jackson said.
On Saturday night, about nine hours after the mayor saw the Escalade, Jones was stopped about 190 miles away at a checkpoint in Smith County, Mississippi, authorities said.
When authorities ran his license plate, they discovered Jones and his children had been reported missing by their mother. Late Monday, Jones confessed to deputies that he had killed them and dumped their bodies, said Charlie Crumpton, sheriff of Smith County, Mississippi.
The children's mother, Jones' ex-wife, is in shock and distraught, McCarty told reporters.
"I want you to know that she lost five vital body parts," he said. "A very nice person, a very sweet lady."
Jones' father, Timothy Jones Sr. of Amory, Mississippi, said the family's hearts were broken, and he called his son a loving dad.
"We do not have all the answers, and we may never have them," he said in a statement outside his home. "But anyone who knows Little Tim will agree that he is not the animal he will be portrayed as through the media."
Jones Sr. did not take questions from reporters.
A memorial service will be held for the children in Amory on Friday.