Is he still alive?
GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. – Deona Horton bolts out of the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her boyfriend. Sprinting downstairs to the back of the complex, and around the corner, she uncovers a safe spot to crouch down into the bushes. Out of breath and petrified, she waits.
But no one comes and she can take a simultaneous sigh of sheer relief and exhaustion, both physically and emotionally.
The last time then-18-year-old Horton saw DeCorrius Brandon Jones, she feared for her life.
Her once-genuine, loving and “teddy bear-like” 20-year-old boyfriend, who aspired to become a chef, had allegedly done acid and attacked both her and his mother.
She said, he was utterly unrecognizable.
“It was like I saw a demon in his face, honestly. It looked like... something inhuman-like,” Horton remembered vividly.
On Oct. 15, 2016, her boyfriend chased after her, wearing only navy-blue basketball shorts—no shirt, no shoes, no wallet, no cell phone, no keys.
Jones then darted into the woods behind Sugarloaf Crossing Apartments in Lawrenceville, Ga.
He was never seen again.
‘She's the devil! She's the devil!'
Now pregnant and living with her mom in College Park, Ga., Horton said, she keeps an eye out for Jones when she’s back in Lawrenceville, hoping she’ll catch a glimpse of him and see that he is still alive and well.
But she will never get the image of the last night she saw him in 2016 out of her mind.
That brisk fall evening started like so many others for the couple. Around 9 p.m., Horton’s doting live-in boyfriend borrowed a friend’s car and picked her up at work, a nearby Papa John’s.
They were high school friends-turned sweethearts and had been dating for about six months.
“He was just a sweet person all around. He was very soft-spoken. He was a very, very caring person. He was a very genuine person,” she reminisced.
But that night, his behavior would not reflect anything like her portrayal of him, and would alter both of their lives forever.
Wearing only a pair of shorts, Jones pulls into the pizzeria’s parking lot to pick up Horton from her second shift. He gets out of the car and opens the passenger-side door for his girlfriend.
Everything seems fine.
As the pair drives down Old Norcross, Jones begins talking to her, but insists that she look directly into his eyes from the passenger seat.
“Look at me while you're talking to me,” he says sternly.
Shocked, because he's never spoken to her like that before, she looks at him. But as she looks away, he becomes agitated.
“Look at me. I'm fine. I can drive and talk to you at the same time,” he tells her, but his temper is beginning to escalate when she disagrees with him.
“No, you can't,” she argues.
They quarrel back and forth, as they pull into the apartment complex where they share a home—about 10 minutes from Papa John’s.
He parks the car and tugs on Horton, trying to pull her over the console of the car to the driver’s side seat—keeping her from exiting the now-parked car.
“What are you doing? Let me go. I'm trying to get out of the car. What's wrong with you?” she questions him.
As a struggle ensues, she fights her way off him and gets out of the car, somewhat unscathed.
She runs full force up the stairs, but he quickly catches her and throws her over his shoulder, carrying her into the second-floor apartment.
Horton knows something is not right—he’s not in his right mind.
“What's going on? What's wrong with you?” she begs him to answer her.
She knows that he has tried acid and believes he might be on it now.
“Are you tripping right now? What's going on with you?” again, she questions him.
He slings her onto the couch.
“Tell me that you're not afraid of anyone but God and your mom. Because I'm not afraid of anyone but God and my mom!” he shouts at her.
“What are you talking about?” she asks.
“My mother's a God, and I'm not afraid of anything,” he tells her.
So, she gives in, hoping her words will calm him down.
“OK, I'm not afraid of anyone but God and my mom.”
But it’s moot.
“No, you're lying,” he rebuts.
Horton looks at her boyfriend who’s towering over her and realizes that he isn’t looking at her as her. It’s as if his mind has shifted and he’s yelling at her but his intentions are for someone else, maybe himself. In her mind, that means nothing she says in that moment is going to halt his rage.
He begins choking her on the couch, as she struggles to break free from his clutch.
“Please, let me go. Let me go. I can't breathe,” she pleads with him.
But he doesn’t let up and smacks her in the face.
“I'm afraid, please let me go. I will leave—just let me go!”
She fights him off her and makes her way to the T.V., stand near the door. She pushes the T.V., against him, trying to barricade him from her.
He screams at her.
“Get out! Get out!”
Already on her way out the door, he grabs her again and pushes her to the ground, choking her.
In a complete frenzy, her adrenaline kicks in and she breaks away, running out the door.
She scurries down the staircase and quickly looks for a place to hide, while dialing 911.
She’s out of breath and sobbing.
911: Gwinnett County 911, what's going on there?
911: Where are you, ma'am?
Horton: I'm at 1595 Old Norcross Road.
911: OK, calm down so I can understand you... Why are you crying?
Horton: Because my boyfriend and I just got into an argument and he's going f---ing crazy right now. I don't know what's wrong with him.
911: What exactly is he doing?
Horton: He's grabbing me... f---ing holding me down, trying to tell me to open my mind. He keeps telling me that the devil has taken over me. I'm like, 'What the f--- are you talking about?' He's holding me down--but he's literally holding me down.
911: OK, where is he now?
Horton: He's upstairs. He's taking all of my shit out of the house, telling me that I need to get out because I'm trying to protect myself, and I'm f---ing scared.
911: Quit yelling, OK? Take a deep breath for me. Can you make yourself safe and go into another room?
Horton: I'm outside! I can't go back in there. He's going crazy!
911: When you say he's going ‘crazy,’ what exactly is he doing?
Horton: I don't know what's wrong with him! He's hitting me; he's grabbing me. He keeps holding me down like something was wrong with him. I keep telling him to let me go 'cause I can't breathe and he keeps holding me down... like he doesn't care.
911: OK, what does he look like? Black, white, Hispanic, Asian?
Horton: He's black and he's tall.
911: What's his name?
Horton: DeCorrius Jones.
She tries catching her breath in between sobs and sniffles.
911: OK, he's in the house now?
911: Can you get into a car or hide somewhere?
Horton: No, I'm sitting outside. He hasn't come out here yet...
911: What's your name?
911: What's your last name, Deona?
Horton: Horton. H-O-R-T-O-N.
A police car drives past the apartment, but Horton doesn’t flag them down, fearing Jones will see her and come after her again.
Still hiding, with a fat lip from the altercation, Horton calls Jones’ mom, Shacora Jones, who lives about five minutes away.
“He’s not in his right mind right now,” she tells his mom. “He just went off on me. We just got into an argument. He was hitting me.”
Shacora, 43, saw DeCorrius earlier in the day when she took him to Walmart for groceries. He talked to her then about how he was experimenting with acid, she said.
She warned him, “You don't need to fool with that, because No. 1, you don't know what to take. This stuff affects people differently.”
They talked it over and he listened and responded to his mom with, “Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am. I understand.”
“I'm thinking it's something that he tried; he experimented with it and it was going to be over. I never knew that it would get to this extent,” Shacora said.
He told her that acid was opening his mind and he could see everything clearly.
“He wasn't acting any kind of erratic or violent or aggressive behavior. He was just talking like his mind had just been opened up,” Shacora recalled.
But that would change that same day.
After she dropped him off at his apartment, she now assumes, he did more acid. But she doesn't know how much or where he got it from.
“I never thought it would go this far,” she said.
GONE COLD | Into the woods
Shacora arrives at the apartment where her son is still livid, and now, downstairs. She tells a terrified Horton to go sit in her car while she talks to DeCorrius inside.
He rushes to his mom.
“Mom, don't listen to her. She's the devil! She's the devil! She's the devil!”
Shaking and scared, Horton goes to Shacora’s car—still in disbelief that her gentle, kind boyfriend would ever lay his hands on her.
While she sits in the car, she fears for his mom’s safety, knowing now what he’s capable of.
About 10 minutes pass and she leaves the car.
She knocks on the door.
Shacora opens the door and instructs her to stay outside and sit on the stairs.
While sitting on the steps she can hear them shouting at each other. She wants to open the door to help, but she fears what will happen.
“DeCorrius, I thought you would never hurt me! I thought you would never hurt me! Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this?”
Horton overhears his mom’s screams through the closed door.
Inside, DeCorrius is holding his mom down, trying to put something into her mouth.
Holton can no longer hold back her compulsion to break through the door.
She believes she sees DeCorrius holding his mom down on the ground—his knee is in her neck and he’s viciously choking her.
“What are you doing? What are you doing? What are you doing!?” Horton screams at him.
As DeCorrius turns to look at Horton, he lunges at her.
She sees nothing short of an inhuman presence come over him.
And she runs.
In tears, she flies down the back staircase to the second set of apartments, and hides under the staircase. After a minute, she runs again, this time to the other side of the apartments and cowers in the shrubbery, and calls her mom.
DeCorrius runs out of the apartment, down the stairs and into the vast woods behind the apartments.
Horton makes a second call to 911.
911: Gwinnett County 911...
Horton: Yes, I need a police to, um, 5... 1595 Old Norcross Road, please.
Horton: You guys just came here... Hello?
911: Yes, what happened?
Horton: Um, I just need someone here. I'll explain when you guys get here. But, I need someone here, like ASAP.
911: We need to know why they are coming back out.
Horton: I couldn't get any contact with my phone right now, but he's going crazy! He just tried to suffocate his mama. I don't have time to explain! I need someone to come out here now. Like, now!
911: OK, ma'am, I understand that, OK? But I need to know what's going on. Why they're actually coming back out.
Horton: I need someone here now! Like, right now!
Horton hangs up.
‘My son... I think he's on something'
Shacora races out of the apartment and down the stairs, leaving her cell phone behind. She drives across the street to the Shell gas station and calls 911.
It’s about midnight.
She’s out of breath and panting on the phone as it rings through to Gwinnett County's dispatch center.
911: Gwinnett County 911, what's the location of your emergency?
Shacora: I need a police car out at, uh, Sugarloaf Crossing Apartments on Old Norcross.
Shacora: My son... I think he's on something—he done jumped on me. I had to run out of the house. I left my cell phone in the house. I left, he was chasing his girlfriend. I think he's on something.
Shacora: I'm at the gas station up the street. I had to run with no shoes on, ma'am. Could you please send somebody out here?
911: What does he look like?
Shacora: He's a tall black guy. Please don't kill him. You can stun him, but please don't kill him.
911: You said this is your son?
Shacora: This is my son, yes. He's about 6'2-6'3. He weighs about 225-230 lbs.
Shacora: Please tell them, don't kill him—just stun him, if you have to, but don't kill him, please.
Shacora: Please tell them, don't kill him. I think he's on something. He done got something from somebody; he's on something... he was trying to force something in my mouth... trying to bite him, then he hit me in my head.
911: Stay on the phone with me, OK?
Shacora: I'm really afraid for my life.
911: I do have units on the way to you, OK? Just stay on the phone.
Shacora: Ma'am, please... I don't want nothing to happen to this child. I don't want him to go to prison. But I knew he on something... Oh my God... he said he trying to get the devil out of me.
Barefoot, Horton runs across the street and meets up with Shacora at the gas station.
Gwinnett County Police are dispatched to the scene for a domestic dispute between a mother and son. That’s where they find a frantic mother and girlfriend, but no DeCorrius.
Upon Officer Benjamin Sitton’s arrival at 4785 Sugarloaf Pkwy., in Lawrenceville, Ga., he notices that Shacora has a swollen upper lip and a scratch below her left eye.
Horton tells police that DeCorrius picked her up from work, and as they were pulling into the apartment complex, he began acting “weird,” telling her that he needed to “beat the devil out of her.”
After tending to both victims, Sitton approaches the apartment.
The door is wide open and he cautiously enters with several other officers—not knowing who or what they will encounter.
As they go inside, Shacora and Horton fear that DeCorrius’ temperament could threaten officers, pushing them into using deadly force.
They yell from the stairs, “Don't shoot him! Don't shoot him!”
Every window in the apartment is open, and as the officers make their way through each room, turning on each light one by one, Horton watches from downstairs. The couple’s bedroom is the last room they inspect.
Horton’s heart is racing. She’s not sure if he went back into the apartment after their chase.
Now, she’s afraid for his life.
Sitton shouts out several times for DeCorrius.
But, he is nowhere to be found.
And without any luck finding DeCorrius in the woods, following a brief search—the officer files a missing persons report, as well as an incident report for the assaults on his girlfriend and his mother.
On Oct. 16, 2016, a warrant is issued for DeCorrius for two counts of battery and one count of false imprisonment.
Vanished without a trace
For more than a year, Gwinnett County Police have searched for DeCorrius with no new leads in the case.
His family has conducted searches throughout the area and has posted more than 1,000 flyers—but to no avail.
“Because he's over 18, it's really not a pressing issue. They don't feel no crime has been committed. They were real hesitant about helping us search for him because he was grown,” Shacora told 11Alive's Jessica Noll.
“I understand where they're coming from because there are so many young adults doing their own thing—leaving, going, leaving, going—but, like, parents know their children. If I knew I had a problematic son that may get mad, or may get upset, or may just disappear for weeks at a time, I wouldn't have been alarmed. But he was not that type of person,” his mom said.
There has been zero family contact, and no reported sightings of DeCorrius since that October night.
“In my mind, I'm like, this is stuff that I see on Lifetime. This is not happening to me right now,” Horton said. “It would have been the last thing I would've expected from him. Just knowing him, and just knowing his personality, I knew it was drugs. It had to have been. And it took his mind, definitely.”
“Now, nobody knows where he is.”
On Aug. 31, 2017, private investigator Jane Holmes, of Patricia Lane Investigations in Cumming, Ga., was hired to lead the search for DeCorrius.
"It's not really a cold case with Gwinnett County... I can't really speak for the police department, but nothing added up to them to look at it as a missing persons case," Holmes said. "But, of course Gwinnett County is a very busy jurisdiction. And you've got homicide investigators working the case—and every day there's a homicide in Gwinnett County."
As a private investigator, she said, she can put more time and resources into the case than law enforcement.
“We have other cases we work, but we're not bombarded with public cases like that."
During her investigation of the case, Holmes has uncovered the life that DeCorrius was leading at the time of his disappearance.
According to her, he had a group of friends from high school, whom he wrestled with, and was still very close to. Since leaving high school, where he also played football, he got his GED and worked odd jobs.
He eventually landed a job at a waterproofing company alongside his friends. They sealed basements for newly constructed homes.
"It's a dirty job; it's a tough job,” Holmes said.
He and his friends, she said, would ride to work together, work all day together and then they'd go home together. They played video games, smoked weed and hung out.
However, his drug of choice changed shortly before he went missing.
“The week before his disappearance, his girlfriend… she found out that he came home and said he had done some acid,” Holmes said.
He told his family that he tried acid and they too, warned against it.
On Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, prior to any altercations with his mom or Horton, DeCorrius had friends over and played video games. Those friends, according to Holmes’ investigation, went to a hookah lounge while DeCorrius left to pick up Horton from work that night.
She said he did some acid and left to pick her up from work.
“Nobody seems to know much he did,” Holmes revealed. “His girlfriend said, when he picked her up, he was acting very jittery and very aggressive towards her.”
Searching for clues, new leads
A few months into her investigation, on Nov. 15, 2017, Holmes conducted a search of the wooded area around and behind the Sugarloaf Crossing Apartments, where DeCorrius was last seen running into.
A canvas of the area included Trace Sargent, K-9 handler and cadaver dog search investigator, as well as her specialized canines, Chance and Draco.
“We scheduled a cadaver search on Nov. 15, 2017, because Trace and I both thought, ‘Well, if he's deceased, he's probably going to be somewhere nearby. And maybe he got hurt in the woods.’”
When searching, “you're envisioning a body, but after three or four months, it's not going to look like that. Plus, we had fall, and the leaves, and the pine straw—he could easily be covered,” Holmes said.
GONE COLD | Into the woods: The search
Sargent has been specializing in missing persons cases for a quarter of a century and has been called upon to investigation more than a thousand cases. And she does so at no charge.
“It's my life's work. It never occurred to me to ever charge anyone to help them with this. It was a passion, and I was just very lucky to find that very young in life—and to be able to use this passion, and its very unique teammate, to help these families through their darkest hours.”
“I've seen what these families go through... it is quite the experience. And anything that we can do to help them through this.”
Her dogs are investigators themselves, she said.
“They're an investigative tool; they're part of this team.”
She describes her dogs as specialized tools for this type of case. But, she said, they are so much more than that.
“It’s a team member, it's a family member, it's a companion, it's therapy, it's all of that. They just have this incredible ability—and I can't really take any credit for these dogs. Just channeling their natural abilities and what Mother Nature has given them, and we just channel that drive, and that energy, and that focus to something that's beneficial and helpful. It's really watching magic happen.”
Their search for bodies, dead or alive, is all about information.
“The one thing that I can promise the families and law enforcement, is that we're going to know more at the end of the day, then we did at the beginning of the day—because the dogs will tell us where something is or where something isn't.”
And knowing where somebody isn't, is just important as knowing where someone is, she said.
Sargent and her team combed through the wooded area which borders GA 316. However, after hours of scouring acres of land, they found no evidence of DeCorrius.
Ultimately, Sargent and Holmes rule out that area for any further leads to his whereabouts.
“I was thinking that for sure we would find him,” Holmes said. “It's been very frustrating.”
A $5,000 reward is being offered for information leading investigators to DeCorrius’ location.
A reward, Holmes said, can reveal tell-tale signs of who knows something and who doesn’t—especially in a case like this.
“When no one comes forward, that either tells me, the only people that know where he is, are someone who had something to do with him being gone, or really no one knows. No one's come forward.”
At this point, she isn’t drawing any definitive conclusions.
“Could he be alive out there? He could be,” she said. “There's no proof that he's dead and there's no proof that he's alive.”
Dropping acid = risky behavior
Neil Campbell, director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse in Atlanta, told 11Alive's Rebecca Lindstrom that while opioid and heroin addiction is at an all-time high, acid, also known as LSD, is making a comeback.
In fact, the use of the hallucination-inducing drug is up by 40 percent in the past two years among adults, ages 18-25, she said.
And its popularity is gaining momentum.
The issue is, people don’t understand it.
“Young people especially, do not know what they’re taking and it’s really, really risky,” Campbell said. “You have no earthly idea what you’re putting in your body.”
And, some drug users don’t come back from the damage that it can cause.
“They call it mind-expanding, consciousness-expanding. It makes you see different things; it’s very colorful; you have hallucinations,” Campbell charged. “It changes your brain, changes the way it looks at things.”
“You can have psychosis, drug-induced psychosis.”
And it can cause lasting effects, altering their brain’s functionality for the rest of their lives.
“He could have been hospitalized; he could have been injured; he could have amnesia; he could have psychosis to where he doesn’t remember who he was and his life.”
Two years, however, is a long time to be gone.
"It’s really worrisome that he hasn’t come back,” Campbell said.
Where is DeCorrius?
Horton, now-20, said she still loves DeCorrius, and that he “was the sweetest person ever. He always thought about others.”
“It was just shocking to think that all of this happened,” she concluded.
And she can’t shake that night from her memory.
“This is something you can't really get out of your head. It's always going to be there. It's really going to be there, because we don't know where he is. I feel like, when he is found, that will be really a sigh of relief. And I can probably come to terms with what happened.”
“No matter what happened, I just want him to be OK. I want him to come home,” she said.
And she wants him to know that there are no hard feelings.
“You're forgiven for everything that happened. Just come home and try to make it better. No one's holding it against you,” she said to him, hoping he reads this.
While she holds out hope, she keeps reality close by.
“The likelihood of him being alive, I feel like, is very low. But, in my heart, I really feel like he is. And if he is still alive, he's probably somewhere, probably delusional, don't know what's going on. I hope he's alive.”
His family said they will always have a hole where he should be in their hearts—until he comes home.
“We love him. We miss him. We want him to come home," Shacora said. "We're a real close-knit family. I understand that he's an adult and he has the right to go and come as he please, but he wouldn't go away from his family without talking with them for days and weeks and months at a time—not if he was in his right mind.”
His family also started a Facebook page in hopes of generating new leads about their son.
“He has a family that loves him and a lot of people are hurting because they don't know where he's at,” his father said. “There's a void in our lives without him.”
DeCorrius’ father, Curtis Jones, begs anyone with information to come forward.
“I just need for anyone with a heart, or a conscience, give any information that you have about DeCorrius. If it was vice versa and it was your family or family member, think about how you would feel. How your mother would feel. Or, how your father would feel. Your sister, your brother. I would plead with them in that area, to please help us find DeCorrius,” the 43-year-old father of seven said.
The hardest part, he continued, is “just not knowing, and I guess, just thinking what could I have done to not have let this happen.”
And to DeCorrius, Curtis said, “I love you, man. And like I say, there is nothing that you could do to stop that love. And we need you home.”
Even after the night of terror he put his mom through a year and a half ago, she wants him to know one thing.
“There's nothing he can do to where he couldn't come home,” Shacora said. “He knows he always has a home to come home to.”
“Do I think he's dead? No, I do not. I don't feel in no way, shape, form or fashion that he's dead. I just feel like he's somewhere not in his right mind, but I feel in time, he will get back to his right mind and he will come back home to us when he's more like himself."
11Alive reached out to Gwinnett County Police Homicide Det. Shannon Kulnis, however, she nor the department would comment on the ongoing investigation.
However, Kulnis and the narcotics unit met with Holmes earlier this month to discuss the case.
“We discussed different scenarios, but still the same conclusion—he has disappeared without a trace,” Holmes conceded.
If you have any information about DeCorrius’ whereabouts or what happened to him, contact Holmes, at (404) 353-4903 or the Gwinnett County Police Department, at (770) 513-5302.
For more of Georgia's cold cases, visit 11Alive's Cold Case page.
How we did the story
Gone Cold is an ongoing series, where 11Alive Journalist Jessica Noll investigates some of the most infamous and lesser-known cold cases in Georgia. She's digging for answers for the still-grieving families who long for them, and for the victims who have never found their justice.
11Alive Journalist Jessica Noll spent several days interviewing law enforcement and family to journalistically gather every aspect of the story possible. She investigated the cases, sifting through public records, court documents, police reports and photos.
This story is written in a narrative-style, long-form and was methodically reported in order to obtain each detail of Jones’ case—revealing what happened the day he disappeared into the woods nearly two years ago.
Contact the reporter
Jessica Noll is a multimedia journalist, who focuses on in-depth, investigative crime/justice reports for 11Alive's digital platforms. Follow her on Twitter @JNJournalist and like her on Facebook to keep up with her latest work. If you have a tip or story idea, email her at jnoll@11Alive.com or call, text at (404) 664-3634.