The Life and Crimes of Bam Jones

Henry Lee Jones is accused of two murders. That's only the beginning.

Detectives questioned Jones about the Gross case but never made an arrest, explaining to Walker and Gross' brother that Jones was an unlikely suspect because he was not only heterosexual but one of Gross' friends. That would prove to be the seventh time Jones was in police custody following his prison release.

By late August, nearly one year after the murder, the Gross case was growing cold. Then police discovered two dead bodies in Tennessee and a third in Melbourne, Florida. A serial killer apparently was on the loose.

Keith Gross (above and left) was raped and murdered on September 9, 2002.
Keith Gross (above and left) was raped and murdered on September 9, 2002.

Eighty-two-year-old Clarence James and his 64-year-old wife, Lillian, were fixtures in Bartlett, Tennessee, a Memphis suburb of 42,500 people. The easygoing African-American couple lived on Bartlett Boulevard, the town's main thoroughfare, and during rush hour, it was common to see Clarence sitting in his driveway, enjoying the weather as he waved to passing traffic. Most people in Bartlett waved back. "He was very friendly, very approachable, a gentle-spirited man," remembers Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald.

Clarence was a World War II veteran and father of 12 children. He had retired from the Memphis Park Commission and met Lillian late in life. Lillian worked as a housekeeper at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis.

Occasionally, she would join her husband in front of the house. They'd work in the yard together. As cars would pass, they'd wave in unison. "I know of a couple here in town who had a troubled son who Mr. James really impacted by being friendly and waving," McDonald says. "He apparently stopped his motorcycle one day and went to Clarence. He said, 'It makes me feel good that you take time to wave at me every day.' It was reported to me that Mrs. James came out and said, 'Child, what do we need to do to help you?' That's the kind of people they were. There's no color barrier here. This happened to be a white kid. We have a small-town sensibility about us."

On August 23, when Lillian didn't report to work or answer the telephone, her 41-year-old daughter, Margaret Wilson Coleman, went to the Bartlett Boulevard house. She walked inside and called her mother's name. "When I went in the house," she told the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, "I knew something was wrong when I saw the scissors lying around. My mother is a very clean person. She don't want nothing on their floor." Coleman grabbed the portable phone, went outside, and called police.

Investigators found the James couple inside the house, stabbed to death. The murderer left with some jewelry, according to police. News of the murder traveled quickly through suburbia. It was the town's first murder in five years. What's more, because everybody knew Clarence and Lillian James, everybody also knew that no one should have had reason to kill them.

Police surrounded the house on Bartlett Boulevard. Television crews arrived. Family members stood outside. That afternoon, drivers who expected to see Clarence waving and smiling as always instead observed the makings of a crime scene. "If you went by and the garage door was down, you wondered if they were sick or something," McDonald says. "You can imagine what people thought when they saw the crime-scene tape and television crews."

Bartlett police initially told Memphis news media that they believed two black men were responsible for the crime. "This is certainly unexpected when you look at their lifestyle," Bartlett Police Inspector Steve Johnson told the Commercial Appeal on the day the bodies were found. Johnson refused to answer questions about the case when interviewed by New Times.

Did Clarence James' daily routine of waving to drivers in some way invite in his murderer? McDonald sighs. "I can't comment on that," the mayor says.

A week after the murder, Bartlett police still hadn't collared anyone. Then news came from Florida: 19-year-old Carlos Perez was found dead at the Super 8 Motel on Federal Highway in Melbourne.

On August 26, Perez had left his father's Wilton Manors house early in the morning hoping to land a construction job through Dependable Temps in Fort Lauderdale. But by 1 p.m. that day, Perez was 150 miles north, checking into a room at the Super 8 Motel. He had a black man by his side. "He used what we call a nom de plume," says a Super 8 employee who requested that his name not be used. The next morning, a housekeeper found Perez's body. "He was wrapped up in a comforter, laying on the bed," the Super 8 employee explained.

Dependable Temps couldn't provide police with much information. "We don't know these people," George Kenney, an employee of the staffing agency, told New Times. "The kid only started working for us for a few days. All of a sudden, you get a call from the police. Nobody around here really knows anything."

Melbourne police caught an early break that appeared to connect the Jameses' killings in Tennessee to Perez's murder. A black male driving a white four-door Lincoln Town Car had used a credit card registered to Lillian James to buy gas in Melbourne. Detectives phoned authorities in Tennessee.

The investigators compared notes. Their crime scenes had similarities. What's more, a witness had seen a white Lincoln Town Car outside Dependable Temps in Fort Lauderdale on the day Perez disappeared. Henry Lee Jones owned just such a car.

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