The man who killed an Aiken Public Safety officer two years ago pleaded guilty to her murder on Monday and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Joshua Tremaine Jones, 28, pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the January 2012 murder of Master Cpl. Sandy Rogers, as well as the additional charges of possession of a weapon during a violent crime, unlawful carrying of a pistol, failure to stop for blue lights and petit larceny. In exchange for the plea, Jones avoided the death penalty and will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Circuit Court Judge Doyet “Jack” Early also sentenced Jones to a combined nine years and 30 days for the additional charges at a competency hearing for Jones on Monday, during which a psychiatrist also shed light on Jones' troubled past and mental illness.
The morning of the murder
Before sentencing, Second Circuit Solicitor J. Strom Thurmond Jr. went over the facts of the case. Rogers was one of three officers called to investigate two suspicious vehicles in Eustis Park at about 7:40 a.m. on Jan. 28, 2012.
Two officers investigated a Dodge truck on the park's lower area that was found to be uninvolved with the murder, Thurmond said. Rogers pulled up beside a blue BMW that was backed into a parking space. The two other officers then heard three shots and saw the blue BMW flee the scene.
Thurmond said a witness saw Rogers exit her vehicle and approach the driver's side of the BMW, at which point the driver, Jones, shot her three times and then took her gun. Unknown to lawmen at the time, Jones had allegedly killed his pregnant girlfriend in Augusta hours earlier.
“Our theory in the case is that Jones misbelieved he was being arrested for the Georgia crime when approached by Aiken Department of Public Safety personnel,” Thurmond said. Rogers was taken to Aiken Regional Medical Centers, where she was pronounced dead at about 4:30 p.m. An autopsy revealed she died of a fatal gunshot wound to the head and a potentially fatal gunshot wound to the neck. A third round was deflected by Rogers' badge.
Officers followed the BMW and pursued Jones at speeds in excess of 100 mph. A helicopter was brought in to locate the vehicle after lawmen lost sight of it. Jones was arrested at a home on Youman Street in Batesburg.
Psych evaluation, diagnosed schizophrenia
Much of Monday's hearing was spent on testimony from Dr. Donna Schwartz-Watts, a forensic psychiatrist who was asked by Second Circuit Public Defender Grant Gibbons to examine Jones. She testified to a number of “significant” findings in several areas.
Schwartz-Watts said Jones was hospitalized after being beaten and mugged in March 2011. Three months later, he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head, resulting in severe brain damage, specifically in the areas of the brain controlling emotions, impulse control and judgment in stressful situations.
After that, Jones was hospitalized in Aurora Pavilion, Schwartz-Watts said.
Jones' bizarre behavior after his arrest included biting his wrists to the point that they were bleeding, she said. While at the Department of Mental Health, Jones reported seeing ghosts and hearing voices in his head.
“He told me he hears three voices; they all talk at once and say very horrific things to him,” she said. “Sometimes he responds to them and sometimes he tries to ignore them. He noticed that when he ignores them, they say worse things.”
Schwartz-Watts said she analyzed video of Jones' bond hearing days after the murder, during which he is seen convulsing, growling and even cursing at a judge. Schwartz-Watts said that was his attempt at drowning out the voices, and that she diagnosed him with schizophrenia.
The symptoms of schizophrenia likely came on in Jones' early 20s, and Schwartz-Watts said he was schizophrenic when he killed Rogers. Since being put on medications, she said Jones' condition has improved. He hasn't had hallucinations for months and understood why he was in court, she said.
'He took a vital part of Aiken'
The standing room-only courtroom at the Aiken County Judicial Center on Monday included Rogers' family members and life partner and more than a dozen Aiken Public Safety officers.
Rogers' sister, Jenny Johnson, offered a statement before sentencing. She told the court Jones took away not only an officer, but also a sister, a daughter and an aunt.
“Sandy would have been one of the ones to help (Jones) any which way,” she said, holding a photo of Rogers. “He took a vital part of Aiken. I wish that he had just given her a moment. This person right here could have saved his life and her life also.”
Thurmond said the plea deal “may not be popular with some,” and that prosecutors struggled with the decision for some time.
“But it does bring this matter to a conclusion and achieves a result with certainty and finality,” he said.
Aiken Public Safety released the following statement late on Monday: “We are grateful for the support that we received, and continue to receive, from the community. We applaud the professionalism, dedication and hard work of the Second Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division and all the officers and individuals involved in the investigation, arrest, detention and prosecution of this case.”
Authorities in Richmond County have pending charges of murder and feticide for Jones, who allegedly shot his pregnant girlfriend, Cayce Vice, in the head just hours before killing Rogers. A message left with the Richmond County District Attorney's Office was not returned by press time on Monday.
Rogers was the second Aiken Public Safety officer killed in the line of duty in less than two months. Master Public Safety Officer Scott Richardson was shot Dec. 21, 2011, during a traffic stop and died the next morning. The trial for his alleged killer is scheduled to start later this year.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.
Master Cpl. Sandy Rogers, a 28-year veteran with the Aiken Department of Public Safety, joined the department in January 1984 and worked as a field training officer and speed measuring device instructor, training a majority of the officers in the department.
A lifelong resident of Aiken, Rogers is remembered by her co-workers as being a “mother hen” to the other officers. She received the Distinguished Service Award in 2003, the Life Saving Award in 2003 and the Certificate of Commendation in 2011.
Rogers helped start the Book Bag Program, which benefits children at Helping Hands, and was known for her efforts in reaching out to troubled individuals and youth.
Rogers was the first female law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in the state of South Carolina.