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On August 25, Lonnie Jones, 42, came home from fertilizing and aerating lawns for the retirees in the sleepy Florida coastal town where he's hiding out. There was a call from his lawyer waiting for him.
Jones learned that Court of Claims Judge S. Michael Nadel had ruled that the State of New York must pay him $1,798,691 for the five and a half years he spent locked up in the Elmira, Clinton, and Downstate correctional facilities for a crime he did not commit.
Since his release from prison in 2007, Jones has been up to New York City only twice: Once, he flew up for a few hours to sort out a revoked driver's license, and then he returned a year ago to testify in his lawsuit against the State. But after the few days that the trial lasted, Jones immediately boarded a flight back to Florida.
Jones avoids New York—where he was born and raised, and where his mother and a daughter still live—because of a man named Willie Hayward, who was in his mid-thirties when he was gunned down on July 2, 2001, at the Sea Park housing complex in Coney Island. Hayward had been the leader of the Brooklyn chapter of the Sex Money Murder Bloods gang. After Jones was arrested for the murder, the gang put a $20,000 contract on his head.
Lawyers from one of the city's top-tier law firms, working for free, eventually helped Jones prove his innocence and then win nearly $2 million, the third highest judgment for wrongful imprisonment in New York State history.
But the Bloods don't care. The head of Lonnie Jones is still worth $20,000 in Coney Island. Which is why, after serving five and a half years for a murder he didn't commit, Jones is still not truly free, as he lives and works and lays low in Florida.
Two months after Hayward's murder, police raided a small home in the Norwood section of the Bronx. That night—which happened to be the Thursday before the 9/11 attacks—police took Jones into custody for the murder of Hayward. Jones and his wife, Maria, say they were bewildered by the arrest.
Frantic after watching her husband being cuffed and loaded into a police cruiser, Maria says she stayed up the entire night, calling precinct after precinct trying to find out where they'd taken him. Around 4 a.m., she discovered that he was being held at the 60th Precinct in Coney Island, and that he was to be arraigned for murder when the Kings County courthouse opened in the morning.
Maria showed up for that hearing, exhausted. After seeing her husband officially accused of the crime and then taken back to jail—there would be no bail for a man accused of a premeditated murder—she went home, shocked. She waited for him to call. When he finally did, his instructions were brief: "Get me a lawyer."
She did, for $2,000. The man she hired represented Jones through his post-arrest proceedings, but when it became clear that the case was going to trial, the lawyer asked for $25,000 more. Their savings couldn't cover the tab, so Jones took on a public defender.
"He was nonexistent," says Maria of their state-appointed attorney. "During the lead-up to the trial, we were out in Coney Island, doing our own detective work."
Meanwhile, Jones had other problems. While he was being held at Rikers Island, awaiting his day in court, another inmate told him that word was spreading around the jail that the Bloods were guaranteeing $20,000 to the person who could get to him.
When he heard who he was accused of killing, Jones says, with characteristic restraint, he became "aware of how the situation would play out." But he admits to feeling real fear when he heard for the first time that the Bloods gang had spread the word about a contract killing.
"[The Bloods] didn't care that I didn't [kill Willie Hayward]. It was enough that I was arrested for it," says Jones. "It's not like they hire investigators, man. These are people who shed blood just because."
Now that he was a target, Jones warned his family to get as far out of Coney Island as they could. His mother left Sea Park and moved in with Maria. His sister moved out of New York altogether.
Jones also learned who had put him in jail: A woman named Robin Flood—known as "Tawana" in Coney Island—had told the police that it was Jones who had killed Hayward and injured another man, Terron Savoy. Tawana was Savoy's girlfriend.
When he heard the name, Jones says he flashed back to an argument that he'd had with the woman just days before his arrest.
In late August, on a Sunday, Jones received a panicked call from his teenage nephew, Markquice, who was still living in Sea Park. Markquice had run into Savoy in the stairwell of one of the Sea Park buildings. Savoy had heard that Markquice knew who had injured him and killed Hayward, but when the boy said he didn't know who the hit man was, Savoy pulled a pistol and began shooting. Markquice was uninjured, but he ran to a phone and begged his uncle to take him to his house in the Bronx for a while.