“My babies! My babies! Oh, God! I’m so sorry!”
Wailing and inconsolable, Tim Jones’s ex-wife, Amber Kyzer, collapsed in tears on the witness stand Monday as she read a letter she had written to Merah Jones, one of her five children murdered by her ex-husband at his Red Bank home in 2014.
As Judge Eugene Griffith stood and waved the jury out of the Lexington County courtroom, Kyzer —formerly Amber Jones — kept her face turned away and down as she continued to cry out for her slain children.
“Oh God! I’m so sorry. So sorry! Why? Why? Why?” she keened in anguish. The high-pitched outburst, often without words, went on for more than a minute.
Nearby, her ex-husband, Tim Jones, sitting with his lawyers at the defense table, made no sound. Court officials gingerly grabbed Kyzer, helped her from the witness stand and led her out as she screamed, “They’re my babies!”
It was the most emotional moment yet in a five-day-old trial of one of the most horrific multiple slayings in modern South Carolina history. Jones, 37, a divorced Intel computer engineer, faces the death penalty for the 2014 slayings of his five children, ages, 1-8. For more than a week, Jones drove around the Southeast with the bodies of his children in his SUV before dumping them in a forest area in rural Alabama.
Amber Kyzer, the trial’s 26th prosecution witness, had been on the witness stand more than an hour when deputy prosecutor Suzanne Mayes asked her to read a letter that Kyzer had written to her daughter, Merah, 8, in 2014.
Kyzer said she had written it because she knew her children were upset over the break-up of their parent’s marriage, and “I felt it was my place to apologize for breaking hearts, for their broken home,” she testified, her voice cracking.
Beginning to read the letter, she began to gasp for breath, “Merah, my sweet, sweet daughter, I know that your heart feels heavy and you feel really sad. I want to reassure you, sweetheart, that you along with your brothers and sister mean everything to me. Mommy and Daddy were very blessed ...”
And then, Kyzer began wailing, caught in the throes of an anguish rarely heard in any South Carolina courtroom.
Jones is charged with killing Merah, 8; Elias, 7; Nahtahn, 6; Gabriel, 2; and Abigail Elaine, 1, on the night of Aug. 28, 2014. Friday, in a taped confession played to the jury, Jones said he accidentally killed Nahtahn, 6, by forcing him to do an excessive number of push-ups and squats, then he strangled the others deliberately. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Before her outburst, Kyzer had testified through tears but she always regained her composure quickly enough to keep going. Mayes led her through the story of how she and her husband met, their doomed nine-year marriage, his strict religious tenets and her brief, poignant last phone conversation with Nahtahn before Jones, in a rage, hung up on her. Later that evening, he is believed by investigators to have killed the children.
The couple had met in 2004 when they both worked at the Enchanted Castle in the Chicago area, a children’s fun park similar to the kid-friendly chain, Chuck E. Cheese’s, in South Carolina, Kyzer testified. She was 19 and hadn’t graduated from high school; he was a whip-smart math and computer whiz who was going places, she told the jury.
“I though ‘Wow’ — This guy has it together,” testified Kyzer, who married Jones just six weeks after the two met He seemed perfect — enrolled in school, involved in an Apostolic Pentecostal church, employed and making plans to attend medical school.
“He was a very smart man, very smart. Everything he set out to do, he accomplished, and I found that very honorable,” she testified, her voice breaking.
“I started going with him to services,” Kyzer testified. “The church didn’t believe in long dating periods. They felt it was too enticing to be around each other and not be married ... He was already speaking in the church and he thought it was more appropriate to be married.”
The church was strict. Women were not allowed to cut their hair. They could not wear pants, make-up or jewelry. “Tim’s motto was a woman is supposed to be fruitful and multiply. A woman is supposed to listen to her husband ... He wanted a farmful (of children).”
They moved to Mississippi, where Tim first attended community college, then graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in computer science and engineering and landed a job with computer chip maker Intel in Blythewood. They moved to a “run down trailer” in Lexington County in the Batesburg-Leesville area, she said, where they had three children.
As Jones worked at Intel, she stayed home with the children and by 2013, had two more. But Kyzer was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the marriage, she said. Tim’s view was “women are to be seen and not heard. I was merely to take care of the children and to keep them out of his way and to do as he asked as my husband,” she testified.
When she decided to leave the marriage in 2012, she was seeing another man, Shawn Kyzer, to whom she is now married. The two have a young daughter, she testified.
Since Jones had the money and was the sole financial provider, he got primary physical custody of the children while she was granted regular visitation. In divorce proceedings, he had a lawyer. She did not.
“I thought I was making the best decision I could,” she said, adding that she had no job, no car and no ability to pay rent at the time.
Under the final divorce decree, she could only see her five children once a week, every Saturday, at a Lexington Chick-fil-A restaurant, where Jones had to be present, she testified. “I was willing to do whatever I had to to see my children,” she added.
Kyzer testified that as time went by, her ex-husband because increasingly angry about little things and she never knew what would trigger his rage. She got a job and was eventually able to write checks for the children’s clothes, diapers and other supplies. Yet, he granted her fewer visits with the children, she said.
On the evening of Aug. 28, 2014, Kyzer made her regular call to her children at 7 p.m., and an agitated Jones picked up.
“I heard my son crying — my son Nahtahn — and I asked him what was wrong, and he said, ‘Mom, I didn’t mean to.’ And Tim was going on in the background, ‘You could have killed yourself, son!’ I was trying to calm my son down.”
The boy was gasping for air, Kyzer said, and couldn’t catch his breath.
According to earlier evidence, Tim Jones was angry at Nahtahn for blowing four electrical outlets in the home.
“Tim got mad and said, ‘Why are you always defending the kids?’ Kyzer testified. “Then he told me to ‘shut the f**** up’ and hung up the phone.”
She called back six or seven times but no one answered. That was the last time she spoke to her children.
Nahtahn was the smallest of her three oldest children who she called Tater. His favorite toy was a Woody doll, the cowboy character from the movie “Toy Story,” she testified. When police searched the Jones’ mobile home, they found the Woody doll smashed to pieces, according to testimony.
During Kyzer’s testimony, Mayes asked her if she had been told about a May 2014 report made to the S.C. Department of Social Services about Nahtahn by Karen Leonhardt, the nurse at Saxe Gotha Elementry School, where Nahtahn attended school. Kyzer said she was not informed about the incident.
Leonhardt, who testified Monday morning, had photographed bruises on the boy’s neck and forearms who was living with his father. She then reported the incident to DSS as a possible child abuse case. Her photos of the bruising were shown to the jury Monday. Other testimony has portrayed Nahtahn as the child who made Jones especially angry with his antics and behavior. Jones has confessed that Nahtahn was the first child he killed.
DSS actions in this case are under scrutiny and the subject of a civil lawsuit by Kyzer. The state agency investigated the family three times on suspicions of neglect and abuse leading up to the children’s deaths.
The trial resumes Tuesday morning.