JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A longtime University of North Florida employee who was shot and killed early Wednesday morning in his Northside home was expected to testify later in the day at the trial of a young man accused of burglarizing the home in January, News4Jax learned.
Jonathan Wesley Brenton, 48, was found dead inside his home on VC Johnson Road just before 3 a.m.. after shots were fired during what neighbors described as a confrontation at his front door. Brenton was a senior information technology engineer at UNF for 21 years.
According to court records, Brenton was due to testify at the trial of Jecorian McCray, who is accused of burglarizing the home, which is on a dead-end road north of Dunn Avenue. Brenton reported finding the home ransacked after he returned from visiting his daughter in a drug rehabilitation hospital.
Prosecutors said home surveillance video showed McCray and his brother, who are acquaintances of Brenton's daughter, inside in the home. According to the police report, jewelry, checks and prescription painkillers were taken in the burglary.
A jury for McCray's trial was seated Monday, but after Brenton's slaying, the trial was postponed until next week.
News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said this gives police a lead in their search for Wednesday's gunman.
"The people involved in the burglary, and also the people who had an injunction filed against them," Smith said. "Or, there could be some other things we may not know about, that they had conflicts with people.”
Because Brenton's wife is also a witness in the pending trial, extra precautions may be taken.
“I’m sure the family is going to be nervous …wondering if someone is out there trying to attack them," Smith said.
Neighbors suspected from the beginning this was not a random crime because all the people who come down the road either live there on know someone who does.
“For me, I thought, well, it has to be more than a burglary," Greg Causseaux said.
Brenton 'will be sorely missed'
An email about the incident sent to UNF faculty said Brenton was a senior IT network engineer who had worked at the university for more than two decades.
"Joe was a valued employee who served in a number of roles during his 21 years at UNF,” wrote Jeff Durfee, director of networking, systems and security. “He was instrumental in building the early network and server infrastructure at UNF and continued to architect the campus network until his untimely departure. He will be sorely missed.”
The university released a statement about Brenton's death on Wednesday:
The UNF community is saddened by the news of Joe Brenton’s passing as he was a valued employee here for 21 years. He was instrumental in building the early network and server infrastructure at UNF and continued to architect the campus network until his untimely death. Our heartfelt prayers and thoughts go out to his family and friends.”
Police said they are working to determine how many people were involved in the shooting. They do not have a description of the gunman.
Detectives interviewed Brenton's wife and daughter, who were at home during the shooting. Officers said Wednesday that they are investigating whether it was a random attack or whether the shooter knew the family.
Officers canvassed the neighborhood to see if there was surveillance video to use for more evidence.
"We are asking anyone in neighborhood who saw anything to call the Sheriff's Office or Crime Stoppers," said Sgt. Michael Paul.
The number to call is 866-845-TIPS.
Neighbor Emmanuel Anderson said that since it is a long, dead-end street, whoever is responsible must know the area.
"My parents woke up this morning, and my father’s a retired (police) officer," Anderson said. "If you’re called in here, there’s no other way you can go. So, as far as that goes, I feel like in my mind, (it) is someone that’s in the area or has visited homes in the past."
Details in injunction may be reviewed by investigators
Hours after police were called to the scene, information began to surface about incidents involving Brenton's family members that detectives will use as part of their investigation.
News4Jax learned that Brenton's wife had two protective orders, filed on behalf of their daughter, against one of their neighbors who lived about a mile away.
"These injunctions were issued in the past couple of months. The detectives are going to use that as an investigative tool," said Rhonda Peoples-Waters, a Jacksonville attorney not involved in the case.
According to the injunction, the neighbor walked into the Brenton's home and stole the daughter's Xbox in January.
Six months later, the injunction said the same neighbor went to the home of the daughter's boyfriend and took eight bags of heroin and threatened to beat up Brenton's daughter.
The injunction also cited threats and stalking, which are all reasons why Peoples-Waters said detectives will review injunction extensively.
"Anytime you have allegations of drugs, then that's just a whole different path that the detectives can use. And that means they will use that as evidence to say, 'OK. Is this a possibility that these persons were also involved in this murder?'" Peoples-Waters said.
Peoples-Waters said investigators will continue piecing together possible motives to figure out who would have a reason to shoot and kill the man who was a father, a husband and a respected employee at UNF.
"And, unfortunately, maybe they weren't coming after the father. Maybe the purpose was just to rob the house, to get back at maybe some stolen drug money. You just don't know. And so, those are all of the things that the investigators now have to dig into," Peoples-Waters said.
Earlier Wednesday, News4Jax stopped by the home of the neighbor named in the injunction, who was visibly shaken when she heard the news of Brenton's death. She said the protective orders involved past issues and she had no idea why the family would be attacked or robbed.