A couple of weeks ago, Malcolm Lambert called to say he was going to jump out of a plane—as a “publicity stunt,” he said. The 76-year-old who two years ago lost both of his legs to a heart ailment (poor circulation), was going to skydive. He'd already talked to someone at Perris Valley Skydiving, who agreed to take Lambert on a tandem jump on Saturday, April 26, at 1 p.m.
Lambert picked that date because it marked the sixth anniversary of Jahi Turner's disappearance. Jahi is the 2-year-old whose stepfather reported missing on Saturday, April 26, 2002. The stepfather, Tieray Jones, told police that he took the little boy to Balboa Park and left him at a playground, under the watch of two women, for a few minutes so he could fetch a soda. When he returned, Jones told police, Jahi was gone.
Lambert, a retired government field researcher, was part of the search for Jahi “from day one,” he said. A couple of months earlier, Lambert had volunteered to help find 7-year-old Danielle van Dam.
Danielle's body was found a month after she disappeared, but there's been no sign of Jahi. Police wrapped up their search a month after Jones first reported the boy missing, fairly certain that the stepfather wasn't telling them the truth about what happened. But with no body and no physical evidence, only witness statements (witnesses reported seeing Jones hauling a large bag to a dumpster the day before he reported Jahi missing, and no one ever saw the two at the park), District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis declined to file charges against Jones, saying a lack of physical evidence made the case difficult to prosecute.
Police had searched the Miramar landfill, thinking that that's where the dumpster's contents had been deposited, only to find out later that the driver responsible for the Golden Hill route had opted to go to a different city dump.
Jones and Jahi's mother Tameka had moved to San Diego from Frederick, Md., only a couple of days before Jahi disappeared. Tameka shipped out with the Navy, leaving Jahi with Jones.
For a while, there was a Jahi Turner Foundation, “but people moved away” or lost interest, Lambert said. “At some point, people get tired.”
Lambert has become close with Jahi's birth father's family (who live in Frederick) and helps them try to keep the boy's name and face in the media, even though the only photo he has is of 2-year-old Jahi, who, if he's still alive, would have turned 8 in February. And, as far as the media goes, it's difficult to get us (them?) interested in the case when there've been no new developments. News thrives on narrative, and Jahi's disappearance is a story that's been told.
It's not that the story lacks interesting footnotes: Jones, the stepfather, was hauled back to Maryland by a bounty hunter in late 2002 for failing to appear in court on misdemeanor drug-possession charges. In 2004, he was arrested for attempted murder after shooting at a man near an apartment complex and, while awaiting trial on that charge, was indicted by a criminal grand jury for allegedly killing a guy in 2000 (that case was thrown out after witnesses “went missing,” as the Frederick News-Post put it). Jones' rap sheet includes a burglary conviction, and he's been taken to court by the mothers of the six kids he's fathered.
But as unsavory a character as Jones might be, a tendency toward bad behavior doesn't mean he harmed his stepkid. As Justin Brooks, a professor at California Western School of Law, explained, you can't use a person's criminal history “to show he is a bad guy.” A judge will want evidence that there's a link between the crimes a person's committed and what he's on trial for. “You need to show whether they illustrate such things as motive and opportunity,” Brooks said.
Charlie Smith, a Maryland state attorney who prosecuted Jones for the 2004 shooting (Jones pleaded guilty and is serving a five-year sentence), said prosecutors had a theory that there was a link between the guy Jones targeted and Jahi's disappearance (Lambert speculates that Jones mistook his target for one of Jahi's uncles), “but we were never able to prove a relationship,” Smith said.
Jahi's case has been declared “cold” by the San Diego Police Department, which last year started a cold-case website that includes mostly homicides but also missing persons and fugitive suspects. There are roughly 950 such cases, said Sgt. Anthony Johnson. Jahi's isn't yet up on the website, though. Johnson said that it's a matter of limited resources—investigators have uploaded photos and information on about 80 cases with another two-dozen ready to go up. He said he'd check with investigators and try to get Jahi's case posted in the next batch.
So, back to Lambert's jump. No media showed up—Perris is a bit of a drive—but he has a DVD of the jump. At least one news station has expressed interest. Lambert hopes to get some national media exposure—not for himself, but for Jahi's case.
“It's not every day that a 76-year-old double amputee jumps out of an airplane,” he said.
Since CityBeat first talked to him in 2004, Lambert's been saying the same thing: “There's got to be somebody out there who knows something.” Jones' phone records showed that he made multiple calls to former girlfriends leading up to when he reported Jahi missing, but none of those women cooperated with investigators.
Right now, Lambert's working with East Village Community Church to raise reward money for the case. Otherwise, there's only the $1,000 Crime Stoppers reward. Johnson, the cold-case sergeant, said reward money “absolutely” can lead to new information in a case.
“We just booked a guy on Friday who was wanted in a 2000 murder,” he said. “The family posted a $9,000 reward on top of the $1,000 offered…. Someone came forward.” Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.