Crime & Public Safety

Lawyer accused of bilking $600,000 from Jasper County property owners commits suicide before trial

Horace Jones Jr.'s May 2015 booking photograph.
Horace Jones Jr.'s May 2015 booking photograph. York County Detention Center

Rock Hill attorney Horace Jones Jr. has appeared in many South Carolina courthouses over the past two decades, representing clients primarily on money matters.

On Oct. 12, Jones, 45, was scheduled to be in a Jasper County courtroom -- not as an attorney, but as a defendant facing a felony charge that he stole $600,000 from the descendants of slaves who had owned property near Hardeeville since just after emancipation after the Civil War.

If convicted on the breach of trust charge, Jones could have spent up to 10 years in prison.

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Eight hours later and 200 miles away, York County sheriff's deputies found a man's body in a wooded area on Falls Road outside Rock Hill. Police and the coroner said the man suffered what appeared to be a gunshot wound, and they are investigating the death as a suicide.

They identified the dead man as Horace Jones Jr.

Jasper County prosecutors and police alleged Jones stole $600,000 from Leanora Nelson and her family by selling their land -- worth $10 million -- in a secret deal, then keeping the cash.

It was not the only scam police said Jones ran. In York County, Jones was accused of stealing $150,000 from the estate of a deceased dentist.

Jones, who has also represented clients in heirs' property lawsuits on Hilton Head Island, was arrested in Rock Hill in May after police say he forged two signatures on the dentist's will following his 2011 death and taking the estate money for himself. Jones faced 10 years upon conviction. A trial date had not be set because Jones never showed up for court in York.

All told, Jones -- who had been suspended from practicing law in 2013 -- was accused of bilking three-quarters of a million dollars from his clients.

Police in York County had been looking for Jones since Aug. 17, when a bench warrant for his arrest was issued. Police could not find him at his Rock Hill home or his Oakland Avenue law office in Rock Hill, where a hand-written sign on the door tells visitors: "This office is currently closed until further notice!!!"

Police and court records show that last year Jones -- who was wanted on the Jasper County charges at the time -- gave Rock Hill police a false name when they pulled him over.

On Tuesday, after hearing from York County deputies that Jones had been found dead, prosecutors in Jasper and York counties dismissed the criminal cases that could have landed Jones in prison for 20 years.

"I can't prosecute a dead man," said Francine Norz, an assistant solicitor in Jasper County.

ALLEGATIONS OF MAMMOTH SCAMS

Horace Jones started working for the Nelson family in 2005, court documents show.

Leanora Nelson is one of three sisters who owned the Jasper County property, which has been in the family since shortly after her forefathers were freed from slavery. Jones came recommended from another person who called Jones a stand-up guy who would look out for the family, Nelson said.

Nelson, a retired educator in a family of educated people who have had success in life, said in a telephone interview from her New York home that she had hired Jones to update titles for the property.

"I trusted the man," she said.

Instead, according to both the criminal charges and a federal lawsuit Nelson filed in 2011, Jones sold the 77 acres for $600,000 and kept the money.

Nelson and her family filed the federal lawsuit against the company that bought the property after years of wondering what was going on with Jones' handling of the property.

Officials with the company that bought the property filed a countersuit against Jones, maintaining in court documents they would not have made the deal if they had known Jones did not have authority to make the sale.

Jones was "a clever, devious, dishonest, disingenuous" man, Nelson said. "He was good at being awful."

With the federal lawsuit pending for three years, the Nelsons asked police in Jasper County to investigate in early 2014.

On May 20 of that year, Jones was pulled over in Rock Hill and gave police a fake name, Rock Hill police spokesman Mark Bollinger said. When police learned Jones was wanted in Jasper County, Bollinger said, they took him into custody until he could be taken to Jasper County.

The next day, records show, Jones was arrested in Jasper County.

According to that arrest warrant, between March 15, 2005, and Jan. 1, 2013, Jones "was hired by the victim Leanora Nelson to update titles on five parcels of property. The defendant did sell the property without her knowledge or permission for $600,000. The victim reports the property was listed for sale for approximately $10,000,000."

A day after his arrest, court records show, Jones was released on $100,000 bond.

On Oct. 8, 2014, Jones was convicted of giving false information to Rock Hill police in Rock Hill municipal court and fined $1,092.50.

YORK COUNTY CHARGES

After York County dentist James Rucker Jr. died in 2011, Horace Jones was hired to handle his estate, according to York County Probate Court documents.

Rucker's sister, Marian Rucker-Shamu, alleged that Jones forged her brother's signatures on the wills. Probate Judge Carolyn Rogers, after hearing evidence from handwriting experts and other testimony, ruled that "purported" signatures of Dr. Rucker on two wills in question were "not genuine."

Jones was still in charge of Dr. Rucker's estate at that time and afterward, but the probate case continued. In court documents, Rucker's family and their lawyers alleged Jones had misappropriated $150,638.66 from the estate that he spent for personal expenses, salaries for employees, and other uses.

Judge Rogers ordered Jones to produce records, court documents show, and told him she was considering a bench warrant for his arrest.

That probate case also remains pending.

Like the Nelsons in Jasper County, Rucker-Shamu didn't just fight Jones in civil court. She asked police to investigate.

On May 15, York County sheriff's detectives arrested Jones on a felony charge of breach of trust more than $10,000 in connection with the theft of $150,638.66. The warrant states the scam went on from 2009 through 2014.

Jones wrote on his York County arrest sheet that he worked as a tax preparer, earning $500 a week. He was released on a $10,000 bond shortly after his arrest, records show.

Jones didn't hire a lawyer for his York County case and didn't show up for an August hearing, according to York County prosecutors and court records. A judge issued a bench warrant for Jones' arrest Aug. 17 after he did not show up for that first appearance.

Police could not locate Jones until his body was found in those York County woods.

Rucker-Shamu, who lives in Maryland, said she had prayed often about what Jones had done to her family. She said she has no idea what happened to the money he took, although court records show Jones used some of it for expenses, such as gasoline and groceries.

Because Jones is dead, Rucker-Shamu might never know all the details. When asked about Jones' death, she would only say, "Retribution is a universal law."

While Jones can no longer be prosecuted in criminal court, the pending civil actions continue, and more civil lawsuits could be filed against his estate.

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