The home in which Jackson and his family were living in when his son was murdered.
NORCROSS -- Nearly two decades ago, Nick Jackson skirted a possible 20-year prison sentence because the bullets he fired hit no one and his attorney made a compelling argument that he was an expectant family man bent on supporting his children. It wouldn't be the only time that huge legal consequences would stare Jackson in the face, only to back away.
The family man ethos follows Jackson, 38, to this day, as he sits in a Lovejoy jail. And the overlap between his domestic life and his alleged criminal dealings could have pre-empted his downfall as a major cocaine trafficker. That he had sequestered his family in a $380,000 tri-story home -- built with his own hands in a leafy pocket of Norcross, so far from the hardscrabble streets of his childhood -- was not enough to stave off a robbery crew that one official likened this week to a terrorist operation.
But even the police and prosecutors with whom Jackson wasn't forthcoming -- if not a blatant liar in front of -- in the wake of his son's fatal shooting are respectful of his parental commitment.
"I can tell you one thing, he loved his family," said Mike Morrison, the Gwinnett Assistant District Attorney prosecuting the seven men accused of killing Jackson's son. "The pain was palpable."
Before Jackson's alleged ties to Mexican drug runners, before his valedictorian son was shot through his heart, before Jackson pleaded guilty to beating the boy's mother in a jealous outburst, he came before DeKalb Superior Court Judge Robert Castellani at age 19 and promised to stay out of trouble.
In those June 1994 proceedings, defense attorney W. Michael Maloof painted his client as a "typical" inner-city sob story: Raised by his mother in Atlanta, his father a phantom, left school in the 11th grade and carried a gun for protection "because everybody in the neighborhood had one."
There had been a minor traffic collision in DeKalb the previous year. The driver who hit Jackson's vehicle kept going and, when chased down and confronted by Jackson, brandished some sort of weapon, according to court records. In court that day, Jackson admitted to pulling his handgun and unloading. No one was injured.
"(Jackson) is going to be a family man," Maloof told the judge then. "(He) wants to have a good job and support his child."
Jackson pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, which carried up to 20 years in prison, but he was sentenced by Castellani to two years probation under the First Offender Act. The conditions were that Jackson would complete a boot camp in Stone Mountain and earn a high school diploma. Records indicate that he did.
While Maloof has long forgotten Jackson and only vaguely recalls the case, his years of working with that judge suggest to him that Jackson projected true potential.
"The judge is usually pretty reasonable, except for violent crime," Maloof said this week. "There must have been some mitigating factor about this case."
A woman's devotion
Jackson attended his son's funeral in a dark suit and red tie, with some 2,000 admirers of Nicolas "Nick-Nick" Jackson II behind him in Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church's cavernous sanctuary. Beside him wept his girlfriend of 18 years, Shameka Render, who wore a tan dress and beads. They lived together and had four children, including the freshman football player at Norcross High whose uniform number -- "11" -- stood before them in funeral sprays.
Render's devotion to Jackson could be characterized as blind. It has endured hurdles and shows no signs of diminishing, even as he faces at least a decade in federal prison. Approached outside courtrooms and reached by phone, the family has repeatedly declined to comment.
One morning in April 1998, Render called DeKalb County police to report an assault at Jackson's mother's Caribaea Trail home. She had come to retrieve her young children -- Nick Jackson II and his older sister -- when Jackson, whom she referred to as her ex-boyfriend, asked if she was dating someone else. She said yes.
As she began to leave, Jackson clutched her throat and punched her face and body. An officer noted scratches on Render's neck and a cut on her lip, and arrested Jackson.
Jackson would plead guilty to two counts of family violence battery, but again avoided significant jail time by agreeing to undergo a domestic violence intervention program -- and to abstain from violent contact with Render.
After Jackson surrendered to federal authorities, Render penned an Aug. 7 letter to U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Baverman as part of a motion to have his detention reconsidered. The letter paints Jackson as his son's hero, and a role model to their 3-year-old son, who has struggled through corrective surgeries for health issues.
"I believe great parents often times produce great children," Render wrote. "My son ... had so many of his father's qualities."
In the letter, Render applauded her husband's penchant for volunteering in the stands at his son's football games and his cooking for players at sporting events. Football coaches tell a different story.
"I very rarely saw the dad," said Norcross head coach Keith Maloof. "I didn't even know what he looked like until I saw him at the funeral."
Norcross Police Chief Warren Summers, a former prosecutor who came to know Jackson after his son's murder, said the family's dynamic brings to mind a legal concept called willful blindness.
"You have somebody who says they didn't know their husband was a drug dealer -- when they're living in nice homes and driving nice cars," the chief said. "We see these cases all the time."
The 2005 armed robbery
Prior to this summer, Jackson's most significant brush with the law came in Fulton County in 2005.
On the morning of July 30 that year, a restaurant manager parked his car to make a $3,348 deposit of his eatery's earnings at a Wachovia Bank on Peachtree Road in Atlanta. A man he would later describe to police as a light-skinned black male in his 20s, wearing a do-rag, stepped from the passenger seat of a Mercedes SUV, pulled a gray handgun and said: "I know you got it, give it up, or I'll kill you."
The alleged victim picked Jackson from a photo array, which was enough to bring an indictment on counts of armed robbery, aggravated assault and firearms possession. Jackson was incarcerated for six weeks in Fulton County until Render signed off on his $150,000 bond.
But his alibi was strong.
Jackson's attorney in that case, Steve Maples, argued that his client was building a home 15 miles away in Decatur that morning. Maples lined up 38 witnesses -- from a retired U.S. Air Force veteran who lived near the job site to Jackson's coworkers and Render -- to testify to his whereabouts that day. Maples describes the Jackson he knew in those pre-recession days as a hand-over-fist successful home-builder and remodeler, who also built commercial properties.
He calls Jackson's arrest a classic case of mistaken identity.
"The alibi is pretty detailed," Maples said in an interview. "We turned in tax receipts, bank checking records, plat diagrams and drawings for houses he was building."
The case was called to trial in July 2006, but a prosecutor moved to have it dead-docketed -- that is, shelved until further evidence could be produced, but exempt from statute of limitations requirements -- which a judge granted.
The alleged robbery victim declined comment this week, and asked that his identity and business name be withheld from print.
A good kid is slain
On the chilly evening of Feb. 2, Nick Jackson II was in his basement, playing an NCAA football game on his PlayStation console. The only other person home in the spacious Autry Street craftsman was his elder sister, Nikia, who was upstairs. The video game would still be on when police arrived.
Before that night, somewhere in metro Atlanta, two criminal factions had forged into an alleged robbery crew of six. Among them were a convicted thief and robber. Their ages spanned from 19 to 46, their home addresses from Lithonia to Douglasville.
Whether by design or not, the crew would have plausible deniability, because half of them literally did not know who the others were, the Norcross chief said. Jackson did not know any of them, but knew one of their brothers, said Morrison, the prosecutor.
Federal authorities said the crew was looking for a rumored $1 million and 50 kilograms of cocaine in Jackson's home. That quantity of cocaine, when cut for street sales, could fetch $5 million. Summers believes the crew had caught "more than the scent of a rumor" but he could not elaborate, as the case is pending.
"One doesn't know the other, they got together to do this job -- that's part of the reason why you have the disparity in ages," Summers said. "That's exactly how terrorists operate."
Investigators believe at least four men stormed in the basement after kicking in the metal door. Nick fled to his bedroom. He was barricading the bedroom door with his hands when six shots were fired into the door from at least two guns, leaving a cluster of holes about the size of a dinner plate. One bullet penetrated the teen's heart, killing him. Morrison believes the shooters knew who they were firing on.
Nikia called 911, and an alert officer spotted the crew of six fleeing the Jacksons' neighborhood in a rented van; each was arrested and charged with burglary and murder. A seventh man was booked later, but police don't believe he was at the home. The would-be getaway van was allegedly filled with ski masks, latex gloves, duct tape and handguns.
Also in the van: More than $19,000, tucked in a black bag and stored in a compartment.
Morrison said this week he has no evidence that the money came from the basement. Another $600 that Nick had collected from chores and birthdays has not been verified to be missing.
It's possible the teen died for the only item that's been confirmed stolen that night -- a laptop shared by the Jackson family.
The elder Jackson -- who stands about 6 feet tall, with a bullish physique and dragon tattoo wrapping his right forearm -- was so incensed by seeing his son shot, he tore the Masonite bedroom door off its hinges and flung it across the basement, breaking it in half.
The killing was the city's first in more than two years. Said Mayor Bucky Johnson the next day: "In the 10 years I've lived here, I've never heard of anything like this happening in Norcross." Many were left shocked, but suspicious, and those suspicions centered on the victim's father.
Hounding father, odd stories
After the slaying, as the grieving family moved away from the crime-scene home, Jackson was no stranger to authorities. And to more authorities than he likely knew.
Summers said Jackson went so far as to make complaints about the Norcross police investigation and asked that it be taken in other directions.
"He thinks there's another suspect out there that needs to be arrested," the chief said. "We've gone down that avenue; we don't feel like there's probable cause to take a warrant."
Morrison said a "very upset" Jackson would pay his office weekly visits for updates. During one conversation in the yard of the Autry Street residence, Jackson pointed to a large white-brick home being built in an adjacent subdivision with properties in the $450,000 range. Jackson told the prosecutor he was building that home, and offered to take him on a tour one day, Morrison said.
Miller Lowry, the developer who built the home, said Jackson had no involvement in that home's construction. He blames Jackson -- whom he liked and respected as a neighbor and father -- for bringing a pall upon the area.
"The whole situation was definitely surprising to me -- a jaw-dropping surprise," Lowry said. "It's not a positive for the community nor my personal investment."
Maples wrote in 2005 that Jackson was the sole owner of a contracting and trucking company called N&N Trucking in downtown Stone Mountain, which state records show was dissolved that year; Jackson is not named in those documents. Morrison said Jackson also claimed to own a barbershop in Atlanta's Kirkwood neighborhood. That property's location could not be verified for this story.
The feds were watching
On Aug. 1, Jackson came to the Norcross Police Department not as a revenge-hungry father but to turn himself in. He had been charged with cocaine possession and trafficking alongside eight other men in a federal indictment. Twenty-seven phones were tapped and hundreds of hours of surveillance conducted during an operation that had begun about a year before Jackson's son was slain.
It's alleged that Jackson and others, including his "right-hand man" Darren Dunlap, had acted as distributors, brokers and couriers for Mexican traffickers. Authorities seized eight kilograms of cocaine, 75 kilograms of marijuana and $800,000 in the facet of the investigation that allegedly involved Jackson.
In court, U.S. Attorney Skye Davis said Jackson, too, had a system for watching, by way of "workers" he employed.
When authorities stopped Dunlap in May last year and pulled five kilos of cocaine from the vehicle, Jackson allegedly dispatched someone to observe the search, and he phoned a Mexican counterpart to warn of "a problem." Dunlap would make bond in DeKalb County and remains at large.
Last week, Jackson's camp dropped his court-appointed attorney to retain Jerry Froelich, a high-profile defense lawyer with a resume of representing NFL players and dignitaries. In 2006, Froelich won the acquittal of former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell on racketeering and bribery charges.
Froelich declined to discuss his rates or specify who retained him, saying only that he was referred by "some friends in the community."
"I took (the case) because of the referral," Froelich said. "It was done as a favor."
For now, Jackson remains in federal custody without bond, with no hearings scheduled. He faces a minimum of 10 years without the possibility of parole. Morrison expects to try the seven suspects in the home-invasion killing sometime next year.
An award for excellent students at Hopewell Christian Academy, where Jackson's son graduated atop his eighth-grade class, will bear his name. Despite the federal charges, Jackson hasn't lost the support of the school.
In other letters to the federal judge, one school official calls him "a bright and inquisitive person (with) a gentle and delightful sense of humor" and another "a warm, loving and kind-hearted man" who adored his children.
"(Jackson) loved his son. He took his son with him everywhere," said Maples. "He was his whole world."