Vineland neighbors mourn slain grandmother

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010.)

Residents at the Regency East apartments were shocked and saddened Wednesday to learn the violence that erupted in the complex the day before took the life of “Miss Betty,” Betty Buxton, a 73-year-old woman who lived there for more than 20 years.

Police fatally shot Rashid Jones, 25, after he advanced on them swinging a baseball bat and defied their orders to drop it, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said Wednesday in a written statement. The officers had responded to a 911 call. Moments later, they found Buxton, Jones’ 73-year-old grandmother, lying bloodied in her apartment. Ambulances rushed Jones and Buxton to local hospitals, but both died of their injuries.

“I heard gunshots,” said 18-year-old Lashira Thompson, who has been staying with her grandmother, Doris Riley, in an apartment nearby. “Like, ‘Boom, boom, boom, boom!’ Five shots.”

Thompson said she looked outside and saw a bullet shell casing near her front door under a fire extinguisher.

“I saw someone (lying) in the hallway,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t sure who. I ran back inside. I was scared.”

Vineland Police Capt. Rudy Beu and Officer John Calio both fired their guns at Jones after warning him to drop the baseball bat, officials said.

“I heard them say, ‘No, put it down. Put it down. Drop it,’” neighbor Bill Bernhardt said. “Then I heard ‘Bang.’”

Neighbor and complex manager Edith Hitch said authorities plucked a bullet out of the wall next to Riley’s apartment.

Bernhardt opened his door and looked down the hall, where he saw the back of a police officer and a man on the ground with what looked like a baseball bat lying next to him. The police didn’t shoot again, Bernhardt said.

“Then I heard people yelling, ‘She’s in here, she’s in here!’” Bernhardt said. “That’s when I closed the door.”

He said he later saw emergency personnel take Jones out, his side bloodied, while Buxton was carried out with a bloodied face.

Based on what he saw, Bernhardt said, “The cop did everything — everything — right.”

Beu and Calio have been placed on paid administrative leave, as has Officer Ryan Watkins, because the three were involved in a police shooting incident, Vineland Police Chief Timothy Codispoti said. Webb-McRae’s office has taken over the investigation, as state procedures dictate.

Beu had finished his regular shift when he heard the call come over the radio. He arrived at Regency East first, followed by Calio and Watkins, who has been on the force just one year, Codispoti said.

“We are saddened for the families of the deceased and the families involved, and our thoughts and prayers are with them,” Codispoti said.

Investigators continued to interview neighbors at the building Wednesday in order to sort out exactly why Jones may have killed his grandmother and then gone after police.

Neighbors said Buxton was a doting grandmother loved by her neighbors and that Jones was a mentally ill grandson who appeared to have lost his battle with his instabilities.

“Everyone thinks he was on drugs,” Hitch said. “He wasn’t. Either he was bipolar or schizophrenic or something like that. I don’t know what.”

Hitch said authorities told her Jones had a nightstand full of medication, but wasn’t taking it.

Neighbor Ruth Burley said she was in Buxton’s apartment regularly, helping Buxton with cleaning, dusting and other chores.

“He’d stay in his room, and that was it,” Burley said. “She didn’t say much about him.”

Thompson said Buxton “talked to me at length about her grandson” Tuesday morning, just hours before her death.

“She said a lot of bad things,” Thompson said. “She said he was acting out. She said all she could do was pray.”

Lyle Shaw, a neighbor who doubles as a maintenance man and thus drew the task of mopping the hallway floor outside Buxton’s apartment Tuesday, said Jones always appeared respectful when he saw him.

“He always treated me nice,” Shaw said. “When I moved to Millville, he drove the truck.”

Neighbors said Buxton lived in the apartment complex for more than 20 years and was well-known by neighbors, who recalled her habit of springing hugs and kisses upon people.

That happened often, because she regularly sat near the entrance to the hallway leading to her apartment, greeting people as they entered, sometimes helping them with their groceries by holding the door open for them. She chewed tobacco out there, neighbors said, and during the summer, she would sit near a tree by the front of the complex along Chestnut Avenue.

“This lady would do anything in the world for anyone,” said Joanne Diaz, who takes care of her grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease just a few apartments away. “I don’t know that she had any problems with anyone that would cause anyone to do anything to her. I just know I’m going to miss her.”