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Monday, August 21, 2017

One true and tragic fact about the shooting of Corey Jones is that we’ll never know all the facts. Jones is dead, and the only apparent eyewitness is the Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, officer who shot him at 3:15 a.m. on an off-ramp of I-95, where Jones was waiting for a tow truck.

That’s another true and tragic fact — the man was only waiting for a tow truck.

On Thursday Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Jones’ family, said officer Nouman Raja fired six rounds, hitting Jones three times. He said Jones’ body was found 80 to 100 feet from his car, suggesting he had tried to get away, and that his weapon had not been fired.

This was way more information than the police had released, which is typical. In the end, these wrenching cases always boil down to what is known, and what is unknowable.

A national spotlight has been cast on the shooting because Jones, a 31-year-old black man, had no criminal record and was committing no crime at the time the officer stopped.

The handgun in Jones’ possession was legal. He’d purchased it a few days earlier, and the box with the paperwork was still in his car. He might still be alive if he’d been unarmed.

Jones was a housing inspector, a drummer, and a member of his church band. He was on his way home from a gig when his car broke down on the interstate ramp. Raja, dressed in street clothes, rolled up in a white unmarked van.

The police say that, according to Raja, Jones was holding his weapon when the officer walked up. If that’s true, who could blame Jones?

Anybody who’s ever had their car conk out on I-95 in the middle of the night is lying if they say they didn’t get a knot in their stomach. It’s sketchy as hell.

Imagine you’re stranded alone on a dark highway ramp, waiting for help, when a car you’ve never seen stops with a stranger at the wheel. If you are a person who owns a gun for protection, reaching for it when you’re frightened doesn’t seem reckless.

Sources have told reporters that Raja says he verbally identified himself as a police officer. It’s one of many things we’ll probably never know.

The transcript of his radio transmissions hasn’t been released, as of this writing.

Palm Beach Gardens Police Chief Richard Stepp has said there was no body camera on Raja, or dashboard camera in his vehicle.

Was there at least a blue light? Did Raja turn it on? Did he show his badge?

Put yourself in the cop’s position and it could be just as scary — you pull up to a stopped car and suddenly a guy’s standing there with a handgun.

If that’s how it actually happened.

What if Raja emerged with his own gun drawn and Jones, unaware that the stranger was a cop, reached for his? A deadly case of double mistaken-identity, each man thinking the other was a bad guy.

Maybe that’s how it went down, but we don’t know.

Just as we don’t know if the same thing would have happened if Jones had been a white man, waiting on a tow truck.

If security cameras on nearby buildings were working in the wee hours of Oct. 18, the videos might reveal the grim choreography of the fatal confrontation — but there would be no audio of what the two men said to each other, if anything.

Maybe Jones simply didn’t hear Raja announce he was a cop, or maybe Raja never spoke those words.

It’s almost inconceivable that Jones would have displayed a weapon had he been aware that Raja was a policeman. Said the family’s attorney: “Corey went to his grave not knowing he was killed by an officer.”

That could be true, but Jones isn’t here to testify.

The investigation is being handled by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which has had credibility problems with police-involved shootings. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw is famous for press statements exonerating cops based solely on their version of events.

And a federal judge recently excoriated the PBSO for losing a cellphone and other key evidence in the case of Seth Adams, an unarmed white man shot dead by a deputy in a strange case three years ago.

This time the whole country will be watching, so everything needs to be done properly — ballistics, forensics, toxicology and especially the questioning of Officer Raja.

Even when the investigation is finally over, the family of Corey Jones and the community won’t get all the answers. Nobody ever does.

Something tragic happened in the dead of night, and only one person lived to tell his side of the story. That is the fact.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.) (c) 2015, The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Screengrab via WPTV/YouTube