A 31-year-old man accused of killing four people and abducting three girls shot himself late Thursday and is in custody after leading police on a high-speed chase along Interstate 75 through Georgia and into Tennessee, authorities said.
The three girls were taken to T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital in Chattanooga for treatment, authorities said. Erlanger spokeswoman Jan Powell said they were treated and released Thursday night.
"We couldn't change what happened at the outset, but we knew we could change the outcome," FBI agent Kevin Perkins said. "We had the focus on the three lives in the balance."
Jerry William Jones shot himself in the face and was in critical condition at Erlanger hospital, according to authorities.
Authorities issued an arrest warrant Thursday for Mr. Jones. He was suspected of shooting and killing his former in-laws, Tom and Nola Blaylock; their daughter, Georgia Bradley, 32; and strangling his 10-month-old daughter, Harley, shortly before midnight Wednesday in Ranger, Ga., about 60 miles southeast of Chattanooga.
Mr. Jones then allegedly abducted his two daughters and his ex-wife's daughter, and a nationwide Amber Alert was issued about 8:30 a.m. Thursday, authorities said.
Twelve hours later, authorities said, the three were safe.
A witness spotted Mr. Jones' Ford Explorer on Interstate 75 in Whitfield County, Ga., and authorities followed him to East Ridge. A Georgia State Patrol officer bumped the vehicle and it crashed into a telephone pole, authorities said. Mr. Jones was found shot in the face.
At 7:35 p.m., two Catoosa County sheriff's deputies, one Whitfield County deputy and a GSP officer began following Mr. Jones north on I-75 to East Ridge, Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said.
As Mr. Jones exited the interstate, the officers could see the children in the car and were afraid to approach too closely, Sheriff Summers said.
At 7:54 p.m., Mr. Jones' car crashed at 5600 Ringgold Road near Lockhart Road, police said.
James Kerr, 43, of East Ridge, said he heard sirens and the crash from inside his home.
"I heard the sirens, then I heard the wreck, then I came outside. I had been watching the news and figured it was him," he said. "As soon as I saw it, I said, 'That's the vehicle.' Right then, I heard two to three shots, then I heard a bunch of hollering."
Police quickly began opening the vehicle doors, and they pulled out a girl, Mr. Kerr said.
As officers were removing the child from the vehicle, she was yelling about her back hurting, he said.
"She was screaming for her dad," Mr. Kerr said. "It's pretty sad."
Mr. Jones was taken to Erlanger by a Life Force helicopter.
Earlier on Thursday, deputies discovered the bodies after Mr. Jones' ex-wife, Melissa Peeler, called the Gordon County Sheriff's Department. According to her brother-in-law, David O'Donnell, Ms. Peeler said Mr. Jones told her about the killings and said he would "start killing the kids one by one" if she called police.
Ms. Peeler's sister, Kathy O'Donnell, and her husband, Kevin, were in their Ellijay, Ga., home with deputies from the Gilmer County Sheriff's Office when news of Mr. Jones' capture came over the deputies' radios, Mr. O'Donnell said.
He said he and his wife are relieved the ordeal is over for the three girls.
"I think law enforcement did an excellent job," he said. "I'm just tickled to death they got him before something happened to those girls."
The missing girls were Brittany Phelps, 10; Brandy Jones, 4; and Tammy Jones, 3. Brandy and Tammy are the children of Ms. Peeler and Mr. Jones, while Brittany is Ms. Peeler's daughter and Mr. Jones' stepdaughter.
Mr. O'Donnell said he did not know why Mr. Jones drove to Tennessee. Earlier in the day, Mr. O'Donnell and law enforcement officials had speculated Mr. Jones might have fled toward South Florida where he has a brother.
Mr. O'Donnell said Ms. Peeler had left her children with her parents and was visiting her boyfriend in Oregon.
"She can't even talk," he said. "She's on her way to Georgia."
The FBI is flying Ms. Peeler home from Oregon, authorities said.
SMALL TOWN REACTS
The slayings shocked residents of Ranger, a tiny, rural community.
"We're out here in the country, and you never hear of anything like that," said Sherry Moss, who lives in a trailer a quarter of a mile from the scene.
"I never heard any commotion," she said.
Mr. O'Donnell said Mr. Jones had an explosive personality.
"He shot one of my horses five years ago. He's an idiot, just a crazy person," he said.
Mr. Jones' mother and stepfather were killed in the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades, and Mr. O'Donnell said Mr. Jones got a substantial settlement, The Associated Press reported.
"He blew the money almost as fast as he got it, mostly on drugs," he said.
Mr. O'Donnell said Mr. Jones and Ms. Peeler never had been legally married, but they had a common-law marriage and had been together for six years.
Recently, the two had fought, and Ms. Peeler had broken off the relationship, he said.
"They all wanted her to leave Jerry," Mr. O'Donnell said of Ms. Peeler's children.
Mr. Keenan declined to speculate on a motive for the killings.
"We don't know. We just know there was a lot of brutality involved," he said.
Mr. Jones has been in and out of jail for years. According to the Georgia Department of Corrections, he spent several years in prison on burglary and theft charges. Mr. Jones now is on probation for a motor vehicle violation and obstruction of an officer in Floyd County and for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in Gordon County, records show.
Ms. Peeler initially called the sheriff's office earlier in the day and asked authorities to check on her parents. Deputies drove to the property but did not see anything unusual, officials said.
Authorities said the killer apparently took the time to clean up the crime scenes and hide the bodies. Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said the crime scenes indicated the killer was "very methodical."
"This wasn't quick. He clearly took his time," he said.
Cherokee Circuit District Attorney Joe Campbell said the multiple slayings would qualify Mr. Jones for execution under Georgia law. But he declined to say whether he would pursue the death penalty.
"IT WAS A SHOCK TO US"
Officials with the Department of Family and Children Services office in Gordon County said they were familiar with the family.
Ms. Peeler is listed as a resident of a public housing complex in Rome, Ga., according to Rome Housing Authority security chief Bill Vasser. But he said there was no history of violence at the address in the Park Homes housing complex.
Volunda Reese, who lives in the complex near Ms. Peeler, said Mr. Jones and the children lived in the apartment with Ms. Peeler.
"I just saw him the other day. He looked perfectly fine," Ms. Reese, 20, said. "It was a shock to us. There wasn't any arguing or anything."
Brittany and Brandy attended school at Main Elementary School in Rome until two months ago, according to principal Marvin Bynes. The children were withdrawn from the school by Ms. Peeler, and Brittany was enrolled at school in Gordon County, school officials in both districts said.
"The girls were well-behaved students," Dr. Bynes said. "It's a bad time for everybody now."
Mike Stanton, superintendent of the Gordon County School District, said additional staff were sent to Fairmount Elementary School in case Brittany's third-grade classmates needed counseling.
"This little county is not accustomed to anything of this nature," he said.
Staff writers Stump Martin, Will Morris, Candice Combs, Pat Mahony and Mike O'Neal contributed to this story.
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