Operator who heard Corey Jones shooting recalls encounter

Corey Jones, 31, was shot and killed by a Palm Beach Gardens police officer on Oct. 18, 2015. Photo courtesy of WPTV.

Corey Jones, 31, was shot and killed by a Palm Beach Gardens police officer on Oct. 18, 2015. Photo courtesy of WPTV.

It was only Madeline Tolliver’s fifth day on the job at a call center for Allied Dispatch Solutions. And the first two were for training.

She introduced herself as Maddie to the predawn caller who calmly told her his name was Corey Jones and asked for a tow truck because his car wouldn’t start. Moments later, Tolliver, a 27-year-old woman in Johnson City, Tenn., became a witness — albeit 800 miles away — to the shooting of Corey Jones by then-Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja.

The emotional impact on Tolliver was clear in her recorded interview with FBI agents on Nov. 3, 2015, about two weeks after the shooting. The interview was released Tuesday by prosecutors as they prepare to bring Raja, 39, to trial on criminal charges. The two agents interviewed Tolliver with an attorney present in the city about 100 miles northeast of Knoxville, near the North Carolina border.

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Over the hum of workers in the nearby call center, Tolliver told agents she hadn’t read or seen anything about the man whose last moments she overheard. By then, however, Jones’ case had become the latest in a string of national news stories about fatal police encounters with black men.

The FBI agents played the entire recording of the phone call for Tolliver, including the nearly 40 minutes Jones spent on hold.

Right after Jones told her he was at Interstate 95 and PGA Boulevard, Raja’s unmarked van pulled up perpendicular to Jones’ car and an FBI animated reenactment, also released Tuesday, indicates Raja approached Jones’ car.

Tolliver asks her next question — Are there any landmarks? — but in reply all she hears is the clanging of Jones’ car to indicate that the driver’s side door is open with the keys in the ignition.

Then comes the brief exchange between Jones and Raja, in which Jones tells the out-of-uniform officer “I’m good,” followed by three gunshots.

“Oh, my gosh,” Tolliver says.

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Then, seconds later, “umm,” followed by the three methodical gunshots that authorities say included the killing blow. Tolliver utters “umm, there’s gunshots.”

And finally, all that can be heard is the clanging of the car alarm.

The playback stopped. Tolliver said nothing.

“Are you OK?” an agent asked.

“Yes,” she replied, her voice a tight whisper, so strained that her response sounded more like a question.

Tolliver said she never would have guessed that the voice that interrupted her conversation with Jones belonged to a police officer.

All she knew is the other man cursed at Jones, telling him to “get the eff back” or something like that.

“After that I stood up and I flagged for a supervisor to come over,” Tolliver told the agents, later adding: “I told him that I heard gunshots, and I didn’t hear anything else, and I didn’t know what to do.”

She and her supervisor sat for a few moments and tried to figure out what to do next. Because Tolliver hadn’t been able to pinpoint an exact address for Jones by the time of the shooting, neither she nor her supervisor had any idea who to call for help.

Corey Jones shooting coverage from the beginning: News, videos, analysis, photos

They finally decided that Tolliver should hang up and call back in hopes the caller would answer. By then, the investigation reveals, Jones likely was dead.

Tolliver said her mother, who also worked at the call center, was sitting behind her and heard her say that she heard gunshots. Her mother and a couple of supervisors were the only people Tolliver said she told about the incident.

Mother and daughter talked about it as they drove home that night. Tolliver said that by the time she got home, her husband was asleep, so she didn’t tell him about it until the next day.

By the time of the interview, Tolliver was still just three weeks into her new job. Before that, she told agents, she had worked for nearly a year at a local Wal-Mart.

After the shooting, Tolliver’s employers, Allied Dispatch Solutions, came under fire after it was revealed that it took five calls and about an hour of total time on hold before Jones and Tolliver connected.

The recordings indicate that Jones, despite his long predawn wait with a stalled car, remained calm and courteous.

Just 18 days before the shooting, AT&T had changed subcontractors overseeing its roadside assistance service, bringing in the startup company marred by internal problems, including lost calls, inexperienced help and long waits.

One former manager for  Allied told The Palm Beach Post in 2016 that Jones’ situation wasn’t handled properly, and that equipment failures might have been to blame.

“He could have been off the side of the road by the time this happened,” he said.

Others in the competitive roadside assistance industry reacted in horror to Jones’ experience. They described it as far outside the industry norm.

However it came to be, the recorded roadside assistance call proved key to prosecutors’ quest to build a criminal case against Raja, who drove up on Jones in an unmarked van and approached him without a police vest, badge or anything else to indicate he was a police officer.

Several statements Raja made to investigators in a walk-through of the scene hours after the shooting directly contradict the recording.

Jones’ brother, Clinton “C.J.” Jones Jr., said Wednesday that he and family members discussed what must have been going through Tolliver’s mind during those harrowing moments, and wondered aloud whether his family could do anything to support her while they themselves are still dealing with their loss.

“Could you imagine what it would have been like to go through something like that? It’s like something out of a movie,” C.J. Jones said of Tolliver’s experience. “But if it wasn’t for her being there, staying on the line with him, we wouldn’t have heard what happened.”