Corey Jones called his older brother to let him know he'd be late. His SUV had broken down near the southbound I-95 exit ramp to PGA Boulevard. It was 2:52 a.m., and Corey had pulled onto the shoulder to wait for help. His older brother, Clinton Jr., would call back at 3:19 a.m. By then, Corey was dead.
Sometime in those 27 minutes, Palm Beach Gardens Police Officer Nouman K. Raja stopped to investigate what he assumed was an abandoned vehicle. He was driving an unmarked van with tinted windows and was dressed in civilian clothes, with no visible badge. What happened next remains largely a mystery. Police have called it a "confrontation." Corey Jones was found dead about 80 feet from his SUV. He was running away when Raja fired six times. Three of those bullets struck Jones. A gun, which Jones legally owned, was found between his body and his SUV. It hadn't been fired.
In the ensuing days, we'd learn a lot about Corey Jones. One recurring topic was his love of music.
In addition to playing drums at Boynton Beach's the Bible Church of God, the 31-year-old was the drummer of local reggae band Future Prezidents. He was on his way home from a gig at the Jupiter bar Corners the night he was killed.
Boris Simeonov is the founder of Future Prezidents. Before Jones' death, the group was recording new material and preparing for a Midwest tour.
Simeonov met Jones about six months ago. Future Prezidents had cycled through a few drummers and was in need of a new one. Simeonov knew almost immediately his search was over when he found Corey Jones.
"It was like right away, as soon as we played together," he recalls. "It was like a breath of fresh air. I remember the first show we did together, we drove back — and I was thinking it — but he looked at me and said, 'Man, I'm really glad I met you.' And I was thinking the same exact thing."
Simeonov formed Future Prezidents about four years ago after leaving a comfortable job in corporate America. The songs just started coming out, he remembers, until one day it was clear to him: Music was all he wanted to do.
Reggae was the genre he was drawn to. Its roots in political and social oppression appealed to him. His mother had been a human rights activist in Bulgaria, a situation that threatened to land her in prison and forced her to flee to America as a political refugee. As a child, Simeonov remembers sneaking through Yugoslavia in empty oil barrels in the back of a truck, eventually making it to an American embassy, where he and his mother requested refugee status.
Now he tries to write songs that highlight the social and political injustices of the world. One of those songs, "Neda," he wrote after seeing a video online months before ever meeting Jones. "I remember watching a YouTube video of a woman peacefully walking down the street protesting, and she was shot by a military official — walking, just walking. There was no riot. There was no barricade. She was just walking and got sniped by a military person and bled out on the ground."
Part of the song's chorus goes, "I walk the concrete streets and see a tragedy/We all want to be free/It's a hypocrisy/People shot down by their own police."
It's a cruel twist of fate not lost on Simeonov. "I write a song about people shot down by their own police, and it happens to my own band. I mean, that's how real these topics are that I'm singing about."
Before Jones was in Future Prezidents, he was in a sort of musical partnership with local bassist Zack Bates.
Bates, who moved to South Florida from Dallas four years ago, had met Jones through a Craigslist ad, and the two hit it off immediately. At first, they tried to start their own band but had no luck.
Eventually, they went their separate ways, but they still spoke every couple of weeks, and whenever one found a new band, each would try to get the other in too. So when Jones joined Future Prezidents and soon found his new group in need of a bass player, he seized the opportunity.
"He called and said, 'The bass player is leaving, and I want you in this band,'?" Bates remembers.
Finally, Jones and Bates were together, and Future Prezidents were as solid as they had ever been, operating as a four-piece with local guitarist Don Wolf. "We were like a fist," Simeonov says. "You could put us in any situation and you couldn't pry us apart. No one ever spoke a negative word to each other. No one ever did anything but completely support each other, no matter what. What should have been some of our most difficult shows were some of our easiest. We were on the exact same wavelength. We didn't need to use words. We all felt fortunate and very blessed that we found each other, and we were ready to go to work."
Bates too notes that Jones had this almost otherworldly ability to speak without talking. "There was an unspoken bond," he says. "We always knew where each other was going musically. It was just this unspoken language that he had the ability to speak."
Future Prezidents' last rehearsal was one of the band's best. Bates and Simeonov remember its uncanny synchronicity. Each note hit its mark, and songs started to take shape. "We all finally learned how to read each other," Bates says. "The whole time we were playing, it was like nobody could do any wrong."
It was the first time Simeonov felt anything like it. "We were about to shoot straight up. I know it. I just know it."
The past two years have seen a string of highly publicized police killings involving unarmed or seemingly peaceful black men. In some of these instances, the media have tried to place blame on the victim. Security footage showing Ferguson's Michael Brown stealing a packet of cigarillos before he was fatally shot was looped ad nauseam on Fox News. And some pundits felt the need to point out that Trayvon Martin smoked weed.
It's as if the subtext were, Sure, maybe death was a little harsh, but "innocent" might not be the right word to describe these victims.
But Corey Jones' character seems unimpeachable. He was, by all accounts, a kind and heartfelt man, both in his band and at his job as a housing inspector.
"He respected the law," Simeonov says. "I've seen him walk away from situations where people were calling him the N-word. And he just walked away and said, 'This is bullshit, man. Let's get out of here.' You can't shake the guy."
"I still can't seem to wrap my head around it," Bates says. "This whole situation doesn't make any sense to me. From the little evidence we've been handed, nothing seems to add up."
Future Prezidents is still pushing forward — or trying, at least. The band will play a show this Thursday at Respectable Street as part of owner Rodney Mayo's Keep the Beat Alive Benefit Festival for Corey Jones. The West Palm Beach music champion says he offered to host and organize the benefit event "for the family, to raise awareness, and to keep it alive," with 100 percent of beverage sales and donations going directly to the Corey Jones Scholarship Fund, established by Jones' family. The plan, Mayo says, is to make it an annual benefit in Corey's name.
But things, they admit, have been difficult. To start, they still don't have a new drummer and have been using anyone willing to fill in.
Disbanding, though, isn't on the table. It's not what Corey would have wanted. "It felt like finally we were going to see the fruits of all this labor — blood, sweat, and tears. And it was taken away," Simeonov says. When he talks about what's to come of his band, his tone is almost defiant.
"But now I'm working harder. It's like, Really? You're going to mess with that? I'm not going to dishonor what we were doing by backing off."
Bates is on the same page. "It's just more of a reason to persevere, just in Corey's honor on its own. He was always striving for his dream. If nothing else, this should teach you to try and be your best and reach for everything you want in your life."
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The Sunday after the funeral, Simeonov went to see Corey's younger sister. She's a criminal justice major and a drummer herself (as is Clinton Jr., Corey's brother). It's been one of the hardest things for him, watching Corey's relatives — all as warm as he was — endure this awful ordeal.
He walked up to her and gave her Corey's old Future Prezidents hat, and she was thankful to have it, just another thing on a long list of things Corey left behind.
Keep the Beat Alive Corey Jones Benefit Festival
With Future Prezidents, Roots Shakedown, and more. 8 p.m. Thursday, December 10, at Respectable Street, 518 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Admission is free. Call 561-832-9999, or visit sub-culture.org/respectable-street.