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Unusual suspect: The dramatic rise, fall of Bobby Dean Jones

The final victim says the nice-guy burglar breached her home by way of the carport, a busy space where her husband, a retired postmaster, used to whittle walking sticks and ornate wall clocks.

Vicki, as she'll be called, awoke the morning of Saturday, July 25, to a splash of busting glass in the kitchen of her 50s-style ranch, an island in a big, perfect lawn a stone's throw from Hoschton's Town Center.

At 69 years old, Vicki lay in her dark bedroom gathering extra sleep, a luxury she'd earned since retiring from Big Star grocery years before. She figured the kitchen noise was her husband, fiddling around with the chicken soup he whips up on weekends, dropping pans. But her husband was running errands, and the noise was someone else.

Vicki closed her eyes, let the pillow take her.

Just as sleep welcomed her back, Vicki heard a rattling of her dresser drawers, a visitor in the bedroom. Eyes open, she saw the broad-shouldered figure of a man - too tall to be her husband, possibly her grandson. When he turned around to face her, she felt her blood pressure erupt.

Scrambling for words, Vicki asked a simple question: "Well, what's going on?" The stranger was calm, clean-shaven, a friendly glint to his eye, his hands empty; he wore a dark baseball cap and T-shirt, tidy jeans. He claimed to be a good Samaritan, she says, a highway passerby who saw an old blue Mercury in the driveway and, possibly, ribbons of smoke rising from the backyard.

"He said he was just wanting to check to be sure we were all right," says Vicki, a calculated, gracious inflection to her soft speaking. "I knew that something was wrong, but I wasn't, say, really scared."

In her cottony slippers, Vicki led the stranger back to the kitchen, where she first saw a pane of her backdoor spat in shards across the floor. It was time, she thought, to end the charades.

"I said, 'Who are you?'" she recalls. "He said, 'Dean Jones.' I said, 'I really don't recognize you.' He sounded like he was actually concerned. He said, 'If you're all right, then I'm just going to go on.' I said, 'Okay,' and out the door he went."

Vicki withholds her real name because her mother - living in her 90s at a Winder nursing home - is unaware of the alleged break-in, despite the subsequent headlines. It's not that Hoschton, the self-proclaimed "Scarecrow Capital of the World," is immune to crime, but the rarity of violence inherent in home invasions makes such reports especially repugnant to local officials.

Thus the city's police chief, Jeremy Howell, was so incensed by Vicki's report, so hell-bent to find this "Dean Jones," he offered $1,000 from his own pocket for information leading to the nice-guy burglar's capture. Two city council members chipped in $500 each.

Unusual suspect

The suspect who came forward to police was the antithesis of what Howell had expected - no larceny miscreant, auto thief or dope pusher. The suspect was Bobby Dean Jones, the Gwinnett County Fire Department's officer of the year in 2005, pinned with a medal of valor for single-handedly saving a drowning woman's life.

In a 2005 letter to Fire Department officials, the woman's family had called Jones a godsend.

"There is not a day that goes by that we don't thank God for having Dean Jones go over and above," the letter reads.

Four years later, Jones, 38, not only admitted to the July 25 encounter with the senior citizen, he reportedly led police on an in-custody tour through the rural hamlets of West Jackson County, pointing out eight total homes he'd invaded in recent months.

According to Howell, Jones' modus operandi involved "utilizing a 12-inch screwdriver as a pry tool around a door, or to break the window," he says. "He primarily operated in the West Jackson area because he was familiar with it."

Lost career

Police records show Carolyn Dutton, a disabled 62-year-old who lives alone in a trailer on Doster Road, was the only other victim to come face-to-face with Jones.

On a cold, rainy morning the Monday after Easter, Dutton says she stumbled on the drenched stranger in her kitchen, him wearing a jacket and cap stitched with the Gwinnett County Fire Department's emblem. She thinks the rain muffled the sound of Jones bashing her backdoor lock.

His face downward, hands in his pockets, Jones claimed to represent a company that builds wheelchair ramps, before he calmly walked to his red, full-size truck and drove away, she says.

"He didn't bother me or nothing like that, but he scared me to death," Dutton says. "He knew I was disabled, so I figured he was going around to these people's houses who couldn't look out for themselves, getting their medicine."

Ask Hoschton police, and they say Dutton's instincts were correct.

Police say Jones' motive for the break-ins was to swipe all the prescription medications - narcotics especially - he could get his hands on. Should he be confronted, Jones operated with a "premeditated ruse" that borrowed from his firefighting experience, Howell says.

Police believe he worked alone.

"(Jones would have said) there was something wrong, such as a fire or smoke in the area, and that he was there to help," Howell says. "We're confident the motive didn't include a desire to harm anyone or steal valuables."

On July 28, Jones came to Hoschton City Hall donning a Fire Department shirt and hat, wanting "to clear things up," according to a police report. His mother had read his name in media reports and urged him to do so.

Following his incriminating tour of the Hoschton area, police booked the Braselton man at the Jackson County Jail, charging him with six total counts of felony burglary. He remains free on $10,000 bond. The cash rewards were not paid out.

The arrest cost Jones, a married father of two, his $61,600 salary as a Firefighter III. He'd served on the department for 13 years, earning a voluminous stack of certifications and special qualifications over the years.

In the wake of Jones' Aug. 3 termination, Fire Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said the firing was a matter of protocol.

"We're saddened by the news that one of our members would be involved in such activity," Rutledge said. "We have to make sure we do everything according to procedure."

Exemplary fireman

Vacationing on a Florida beach in August 2004, Jones heard a woman screaming for help in the ocean, dramatic distress calls that were not horseplay. He could see her head bobbing, a further sign of trouble. Then she went under.

Jones bolted into the ocean, pulled the woman's limp body to shore and started CPR. With an automatic external defibrillator, he worked until faint signs of a heartbeat emerged.

Though on vacation, Jones refused to leave the woman's side until she was stabilized at a local hospital. Doctors told the family the woman owed her life to him.

Upon his return to work at Fire Station 14 in Buford, Jones made no mention of the rescue.

"We only became aware of his heroic deed upon receipt of the letter from the woman's family," a Fire Department leader wrote in 2005, when Jones earned the Gwinnett Rotary Club's nod as officer of the year.

Former Fire Department Chief Jack McElfish went so far as to nominate Jones for the 2005 Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award for Valor, a national award commending bravery. Three Virginia firefighters edged Jones out; they were credited with saving 20 people trapped in a flooded building.

But the accolades for Jones don't end there.

Jones' peers had nominated him for inter-departmental awards in 2002 and 2003. And on Jan. 17, 2007, Jones was credited with saving a young father who reported heart attack symptoms on Island Bluff Lane in Buford.

Jones lowered the man's blood pressure, allowing his transport to Northside Hospital in Forsyth County, where a CAT scan revealed an aortic tear in the man's heart.

Again, his "prompt actions" were the difference between life and death, wrote County Administrator Jock Connell in a 2007 letter commending Jones.

Even Jones' captors, who so vehemently wanted to bring him down, seem compassionate after interviewing the soft-spoken firefighter.

"I told both he and his wife that I would do anything I could to help," says Howell, the police chief.

Questions loom

Exactly what prompted Jones' prescription medication addiction isn't clear, but his wife, Courtney Jones, said it could have boiled down to a single event - an "accident" that wasn't a car crash. She declined to elaborate.

Courtney Jones said her husband entered rehab days after his jail release. She said his mother's husband recently died, and that a child of his fell deathly ill but recovered - possible explanations for dependency.

As for the alleged crime spree, Jones' wife said the family was oblivious.

"I wish I knew - I had no idea any of this was going on," she told a reporter at her Braselton business, before politely asking him to leave. "The whole entire family is devastated," she said later.

Police officials and Jones himself declined to discuss what initially triggered his affinity for pills.

Reached on his cell phone, Jones initially agreed to a phone interview the following day. He didn't return calls thereafter. Other family and friends declined comment.

Prescription medication addicts resort to desperate - and often illegal - measures once more ethical options run dry, says Michael Barley, a California-based treatment advisor with GoodDrugsGuide.com. Opiates such as Vicodin, OxyContin and hydrocodone are responsible for the lion's share of dependency issues, he says.

"The person is basically out of control," Barley says. "They fall into a syndrome where they work doctors (for prescriptions) as much as they can. When that runs dry, they turn to the streets."

During his interrogation, Jones specified that he'd never stolen pills from ambulances or medical facilities. But his career wasn't totally bereft of reprimands.

Three years ago, fire officials suspended Jones without pay for 120 hours - and implemented a year of random drugs tests - following his arrest for DUI and leaving the scene of an accident. Jones later copped to the arrest, telling his superiors he'd been drinking at an Athens party when a fight broke out. He scrapped with "several people" and was "hit hard in the head," he later wrote in an explanatory letter.

According to police, Jones slammed his truck into a parked car and sped away.

"I can not truthfully account for what else happened after that," he wrote. "All I remember is waking up in Athens Regional Hospital."

Officials most recently reprimanded Jones in April this year for placing a fire engine back in service without filling the water tank. As punishment, he was ordered to teach a class at Lawrenceville's Station 9 on vehicle checking procedures.

In another letter, Jones blamed the lapse on a faulty ladder that had "sidetracked" him.

"No excuses on my part," he wrote. "Do not go by someone's word, always double check."

The legal repercussion of Jones' alleged felonious actions are only beginning. His case will next be considered for indictment by a Jackson County grand jury, expected to meet again Nov. 9.

Brad Smith, Jackson County district attorney, says with so many burglary charges stacked against Jones, a prison term isn't out of the question.

"Generally, with residential burglaries, we ask for jail time," Smith says. "In the scheme of things, it's a lot harsher to break into a house where someone lives."

Two weeks removed from the thwarted burglary, Vicki had no fear of the suspect, whose face on television seemed sinister to her in ways it was not in person. She hopes the arrest is a blessing in disguise.

"I think he just got desperate," Vicki says. "That's what bothers me most - that he was such a good guy. He had a good life, a good job - he was a hero."

SideBar: How we got the story

A reporter trawled police reports and interrogation records filed by Hoschton police and obtained pertinent copies of records in Jones' personnel file through the Georgia Open Records Act. After interviewing officials, he visited Hoschton and surrounding areas numerous times, talking to alleged victims and those who knew Jones. Some accounts of Jones' heroism came from our own archives.