LONG BEACH — After the electric jolt of her husband’s arrest, there was a wild, dangerous feeling in the air; a tense wait to see what kind of trouble was headed their way. Then a jail cell door slammed shut on Susan Jones, and the truth came down like all hell.
“I think that day, as I sat in that jail cell, was the first time it struck me that this was really happening, and they were really going to continue with this theory,” Jones, 52, said in early June.
On the night of Feb. 13, 2010, she was pulled over for speeding. By the following morning, she’d been booked and released on suspicion of DUI. Trooper Scott Johnson had narrowly survived a gunshot to the head, and her husband Martin Jones, 53, had become the chief suspect in the attempted murder.
Today, he is chipping away at a 50-year sentence in the state pen. Johnson is dealing with lingering daily pain, the myriad responsibilities of a county sheriff, and a provocative new appeal from Jones’ attorney. Susan Jones is battle-weary from the chronic turmoil and disappointment of the last seven years, but her faith in Martin’s innocence keeps her going.
Her to-do list is filled with very big jobs: bring home a paycheck, keep it together for the family, convince the court system that her husband didn’t get out of bed one night and try to execute a trooper on the side of the highway.
“Anything of a violent nature is completely out of character for him,” Jones said. “The notion that he would do this sort of crime is just not possible, in my belief.”
Susan Jones is a woman accustomed to taking the long view. She met Martin when she was 14 and he was 15, and married him shortly after finishing high school. For many years now, she’s been a believer; her eyes fixed firmly on eternity.
Few would blame her for divorcing a man convicted of a horrible crime. Instead, she stuck by him through a years-long effort to get his conviction overturned in the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. While waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision, she hired Seattle defense attorney Lenell Nussbaum. In late 2016, the justices reinstated Jones’ conviction.
In May, Nussbaum filed a “personal restraint petition,” or PRP, asking the Court of Appeals to give Jones a new trial. Although an appeal can only address things that happened in trial, a PRP can introduce new evidence and address things that happened before the trial. Nussbaum’s petition focuses on evidence that wasn’t admitted in the first trial and questions about the credibility of a forensic technique that was key to the conviction. It also claims that a drug-dealer named Peter Boer heard his brother Nick Boer confess — and that Johnson deliberately misidentified Jones to cover up his alleged shady dealings with Nick Boer.
Johnson still believes Jones shot him.
“It is regrettable that the defendant can throw out all kinds of unsubstantiated and completely false theories/allegations,” Johnson said in a recent email.
Susan Jones just sees it as another attempt at setting things right.
“I feel like there were a handful of people who made mistakes or errors of judgment,” Jones said. “That’s been very hard to resolve emotionally, but I don’t think it was malicious.”
“I think of him as a very nurturing person; kind of in tune with his family and people around him,” Jones said.
The Joneses raised two boys in the Vancouver area, where “Marty” worked as a tower crane operator. By 2004, they were living in the Tri-Cities. Their sons were starting families of their own. Between Marty’s wages and income from their rental properties and bail bond business, they felt secure enough to move to the beach.
“It was always that thing — ‘When we get older, we’ll get to spend more time together,’” Jones said.
They sold most of their assets and bought a place in Seaview. Susan got a part-time job as a waitress, and Marty arranged to work on short-term crane jobs. They threw themselves into evangelical work for their church, and spending time with their family. It was an enjoyable, if ordinary life, filled with barbecues, travel, hikes and board game tournaments, she said.
After the shooting, the couple’s relationship became the subject of intense scrutiny and wild speculation. Jones acknowledged that there was some tension between them at the time of the shooting, but she said they were working through it.
“It wasn’t that we were unhappy at all. That’s very, very far from true,” she said.
The call came in a little after midnight, as Trooper Jesse Green was evaluating Susan Jones at the Long Beach Police Department. Telling her someone had been shot, the trooper released her and rushed out the door. Jones says her husband was in bed when she got home.
The following morning, the police showed up at their house. They agreed to be interviewed. They didn’t see any reason to call a lawyer.
“We continually put ourselves forward to answer any questions, be of any help,” Jones recalled. By mid-morning, “There were [news] cameras around town. A lot was happening, just swarms of law enforcement.”
She worked through the busy Valentine’s Day weekend, occasionally talking to investigators.
“Knowing he was innocent, we didn’t really have any fear,” Jones said.
A special inter-agency team that specialized in investigating police shootings initially handled the case. But by the end of Saturday, Feb. 13, the Washington State Patrol had taken over.
Late Sunday night, the Joneses headed up to a home they cared for in Surfside. Almost as soon as they arrived, a friend called. She said the police were at her house, and wanted to see them.
“When we arrived, they arrested him,” Jones said. She was upset, but agreed to go to the police station, where she sat through an all-night interview.
“We still didn’t call lawyers,” Jones recalled. “In my brain there was no cause to be concerned. We were just helping. We didn’t put those safety nets in place.”
At his arraignment hearing on Feb. 18, Susan learned that Johnson was suing her and Martin for $3 million, and had placed a lien on the home they were trying to sell. At the end of the hearing, police arrested her on the DUI charge.
“February 18 was a very bad day,” Jones said.
At the beginning of the trial, her husband had “full confidence that things would be resolved in a positive way,” Jones said.
However, he has an aversion to awkward situations, Susan Jones said; a tendency to turn into a bit of a joker when things get weird. He appeared to smirk and roll his eyes at times, leading some viewers to think he was arrogant, or wasn’t taking the trial seriously.
Susan Jones thinks he was trying to alleviate stress by exchanging “looks” with his loved ones.
“When there is a tense moment he is always ready to provide a little comic relief,” she said. “I can see, looking back, how that could be misconstrued.”
There were other problems too. The first trooper, Green, had seen a man walk by during the traffic stop. Police relied on his description to clear people at roadblocks that night. But in trial, it wasn’t admitted into evidence.
None of Johnson’s DNA or blood was found on Jones, and none of Jones’ DNA was found on Johnson’s clothing or anything at the scene, according to Nussbaum. But no one asked the crime lab to check for DNA from anyone else.
Because the gun was never found, the prosecution focused on ammunition. When police served a warrant at the Jones home, they found a box containing 100 .22-caliber bullets.
Police are supposed to meticulously document everything that happens as evidence after it is discovered, but that process went wrong at some point. According to the petition, a report from the scene said all 100 bullets were in the box, but at the WSP crime lab, technicians said there were only 97 bullets. The judge did not allow the first report to be considered as part of the trial. Jones said they later learned that other investigators also reported counting 100 bullets at the home.
A forensic expert used “bunter marks” to link a shell casing recovered from the scene to Jones. The expert said these tiny stamps, made during the manufacturing process, matched the marks on about half of the bullets in Jones’s box. A man who worked for the manufacturer testified that the company had likely manufactured millions of bullets with the same bunter mark.
Many forensics experts now say there is little scientific support for bunter mark identifications. Since the trial, the U.S. Department of Justice has cautioned that bunter marks can be helpful, but should not be used as grounds for conviction.
“My job is not to make a case for Scott [Johnson] being corrupt,” Nussbaum, the defense attorney said. “My job is to find evidence that someone else committed this crime, to support the fact that Marty is innocent.”
She has long specialized in tough post-conviction cases, so she knows the odds are against the Jones family. In 2016, the Court of Appeals received 1,058 PRPs. It dismissed or transferred about 750 of those. Even if the judges agree to review the petition, it will take months, or possibly years — they typically deliver opinions on 17 to 50 PRPs a year.
Jones won’t be getting out of prison any time soon. If the petition succeeds, the appeals judges will most likely order a county superior court to hold a new trial. Jones’ fate would depend on the outcome of that trial.
Peter Boer, the man who claims his brother Nick confessed on the night of the shooting and asked him to dispose of a bag of gun parts, has a lengthy and varied criminal history. It spans all the way back to 1997, when he became a registered sex offender after exposing his penis to a teenage girl. In fact, police were looking for him about week before the shooting, because he had violated his sex offender registration requirement, not for the first time. Numerous police reports document his habit of pulling a knife during conflicts.
Boer’s memories of that night constitute a major part of Nussbaum’s case. But in an interview with a private investigator, he said, he was intoxicated at the time.
“We’re trying to put this together as we’re sitting there getting high on drugs, and that was just a waste of time, because we were forgetting about what we were talking about every 10 minutes,” Boer said.
He also claims that in 2004, he sustained a disability that affects his memory.
“Everybody knows that I don’t really — I don’t really pay attention. Some of my memory is burnt since 2004; and I had an accident, right?” Boer said. “It comes and goes.”
Nussbaum knows Boer and his associates have problems, but she says their statements are consistent on all of the key points.
“The people who know about drug dealing are the people who do and deal drugs,” Nussbaum said. “I don’t how else to get there.”
Martin Jones was recently transferred from maximum to medium security, and that has made life a bit easier. He and Susan get to speak almost every day, and they no longer have to visit through a piece of bulletproof glass. Marty spends a couple of hours each morning in “personal spiritual studies,” his wife said.
“He has a unit job. He plays a lot of chess, walks, does a spinning class. He writes encouraging letters to friends and family,” she said.
For her, there’s “a lot of trying to hold it together.” She lost their home in a short sale, and she’s on her own for the first time in her life. She and Johnson settled the civil suit, according to court records. She says she is not allowed to discuss the terms of the settlement.
Though she feels most people in the community are supportive, she’s more reserved than she used to be.
“I find it difficult to meet people now, because I know they’re not meeting all of me,” she said. “It’s difficult to explain what my life is, or where my focus is.”
She had to adjust her expectations after a few crushing disappointments.
“Yes, the destination is freedom, but there are a lot of stops along the way,” Jones said. “Sometimes the train gets off track, but we’re going to get there.”
In the meantime, she’s trying to let go of her anger. She tries to count her “blessings.”
“We’re healthy. We have family support. Our children and grandchildren are still healthy. We’re still in a relationship, we’re just maintaining it at a long distance,” Jones said. She added with a self-deprecating laugh, “Maybe that’s one of the things I do to fool myself every day to get by.”