OCALA, Fla. – The search for a Central Florida mother and her children has come to a tragic end after they were found dead in Georgia and the woman's husband is charged in the case.
Casei Jones, 32, of Summerfield in Marion County, was found dead in her husband's van after it was involved in a crash on U.S. 301 in Brantley County, Georgia, about 7 p.m. Sunday. Statements made by her husband led to the discovery of the bodies of the couple's four children in the woods in nearby Charlton County.
"Unfortunately, true evil has poked its head up here in Marion County," Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods told reporters at a Monday news conference. "That's about the only way to describe it."
Investigators suspect Jones and her children were killed at their Summerfield home and their bodies were then kept inside the residence and the family's van for several weeks before her husband drove them up to Georgia, according to Marion County Sheriff's Office.
Michael Wayne Jones Jr., 38, is charged with second-degree murder in the case, though additional charges are anticipated. He was taken into custody following Sunday's crash after a deputy working the scene picked up on a "foul odor" coming from the vehicle.
"At this point, Mr. Jones stated to the deputy that you may want to put me in handcuffs because there was a dead body inside the vehicle," the Brantley County Sheriff's Office said in a statement. Deputies later learned that there were additional bodies in nearby Charlton County.
Woods did not mince words about Jones.
"As far as I am concerned, as the sheriff of this county, underneath the jail ain't good enough," Woods said. "As a father, as a parent, it breaks my heart. As a sheriff, it angers me to no end, something to this degree, how a human being can ever do this."
Investigators began searching for Casei Jones and the couple's children -- Cameron, 10; Preston, 5; Mercalli, 2; and Aiyana, 1 -- on Saturday after family members reported them missing, authorities said. Loved ones said they hadn't been seen in six weeks.
The Marion County Sheriff's Office said family had been exchanging text messages with the missing woman's phone, but investigators are reviewing phone records and text messages to determine who was on the other end of the line.
On Monday, News4Jax spoke with Levi Strickland, a man who said he called police after witnessing the crash that led to the discovery of Casei Jones' remains. He said he was picking berries nearby when he heard what sounded like an explosion and ran over to find the source of the commotion.
"We ran down there and asked him, 'Was he okay?' and whatever," he recalled. "I smelled that smell and then we come on back and the police got there."
The medical examiner will determine the cause of death.
Jones appeared in Brantley County Magistrate Court on Monday where he waived extradition back to Marion County.
'Things like that just don't happen here'
Scott Macy was Michael Jones' neighbor at a home in Lessberg. He considered Jones a family man.
"Complete shock," Macy said. "He liked to barbecue a lot, doing bonfires for the kids, setting up tents in the back for them. They would have camp outs."
About 30 minutes away, Trisha Garren lived next door to the last known home of the Jones family. She said the children were rarely seen.
As a mother, Garren was brought to tears as she wonders what life was like for the children in their last days.
"I just feel for the family and everybody because those little kids, obviously, had nothing to do with it," Garren said. "What did they all go through beforehand?"
According to deputies, just weeks before the mother and children were found dead, Jones told the landlord of their last home that he was leaving and not coming back.
Ashleigh Albritton lives in Brantley County, near where the crash occurred and Michael Jones was arrested.
"Things like that just don't happen here," Albritton said. "I just hope that the families can move on and deal with it the best way that they know how and God will give them peace with it."