Florida police thought they caught a car thief but it was NC barbecue legend Sam Jones

NC pitmaster Sam Jones mistaken for car thief by Florida police

North Carolina barbecue pitmaster Sam Jones was handcuffed and detained at the Orlando airport on his way to a food festival.
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North Carolina barbecue pitmaster Sam Jones was handcuffed and detained at the Orlando airport on his way to a food festival.

His hands cuffed behind his back, North Carolina pitmaster Sam Jones was marched out of a car rental company near the Orlando airport, certain the joke was on him.

Instead, he was read his rights and stuck in the back of a police cruiser, mistaken, it would seem, for a local car thief.

Jones is one of the country’s preeminent barbecue pitmasters and is considered part of North Carolina’s barbecue legacy. His family owns the legendary Skylight Inn in Ayden, and his own restaurant, Sam Jones BBQ, is widely acclaimed. He’s also the fire chief of the all-volunteer Ayden Fire Department in his hometown.

But he has never stolen a car.

Jones chronicled his brush with law enforcement on social media to his 27,000-plus followers on Thursday, April 4, including an Instagram story recorded from the back of a deputy’s vehicle. “It sucks to be in the back of a police car,” he said in the video.

In an interview with The News & Observer after the encounter, Jones explained what happened that day. He said he was detained for two hours and that it was “scary as hell” being handcuffed in public and led to a police vehicle without explanation.

“Looking back, it was one of the most dehumanizing things I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “They didn’t seem real apologetic.”

Cpl. Rose Silva, public information officer with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed Jones was detained by deputies, calling it an “investigative stop.” She said employees at Priceless Car Rental believed Jones looked like a suspected car thief that had come to their shop in the past two months. According to a police report, the thief had stolen two cars.

Silva said police agreed with the employees’ assessment, based on fake IDs used by the suspect.

Jones said it took two hours and an extensive background check to prove he wasn’t the man they were seeking.

A lawyer for Priceless Car Rental said via email last week that the company declined to comment.

Sam Jones, a part of a six-generation BBQ family, opens his own place in Winterville, N.C. He pays homage to his family's restaurant, The Skylight Inn, but brings the old traditions into a more modern setting.

A visit to Florida

Jones said he was in Florida to take part in the Ocala Culinary Festival, where he was scheduled to cook at an event with other Southern pitmasters.

He flew into Orlando International Airport with two colleagues and planned to pick up a reserved rental car.

Instead, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office was called, Jones was handcuffed in the lobby of the rental company and led to a police car.

“I thought it was a joke,” Jones said. “I do have some friends known to play pranks.”

Initially, Jones said deputies wouldn’t tell him why he was in cuffs, saying they would in “a little bit.” After 20 minutes, Jones said he was accused of stealing cars and had his rights read to him. He was never charged, according to the police report.

“I knew at that point there was a mix-up and I wasn’t really in trouble, it was just a matter of how long it was going to take to sort things out,” he said.

Jones’ colleagues later told him they heard a manager at the rental car counter said, “We finally caught the guys who’s been stealing cars from us.”

Barbecue celebrity

Jones is a James Beard Award semifinalist who has announced plans to open a second barbecue restaurant in downtown Raleigh. His first cookbook will be published next month. At the Skylight Inn, his family’s 70 year-old restaurant, a James Beard American Classics medal hangs on the wall for its contributions to the country’s culinary history.

Jones said he told the deputies a modest version of this biography: he is a restaurant owner from North Carolina and not a car thief. He showed them YouTube videos of him cooking whole hog barbecue and suggested a Google search might clear things up.

Jones said deputies even called Barry Stanley, Ayden’s chief of police, to vouch for him.

But he said authorities remained unconvinced for two hours.

“I work with law enforcement all the time,” Jones said. “I sympathize with those guys, but...”

Eventually Jones was cleared and released. He posted other photos on Instagram, including one with a freshly lit cigarette in his mouth and his hands still cuffed behind his back.

He now is lightly joking about the situation, using the hashtag #FreeSamJones on a subsequent social media post. He said the phrase might show up on a T-shirt.

But the gravity of the situation isn’t lost on him.

“Once you’re in handcuffs all you want to do is get out of handcuffs,” Jones said. “You can no longer do what you want to do. You’re handcuffed and in the back of a car and it didn’t matter what kind of person you were before that. Three (deputies) didn’t believe I was who I showed them I was.”

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