Light reflects off the photograph of a brown-haired, blue-eyed boy grinning underneath a North Carolina Tar Heels hat. Nearby, a dark-brown urn, decorated with fir trees and miniature deer figures, sits above a shiny plaque that reads, “Jonathan Gramling, August 22, 1983-August 31, 2001.”
The shrine at the rural Boone County home of Jim and Deanna Gramling is a small monument to their son, who had just turned 18 years old when he died. It is also a painful reminder that the circumstances surrounding his death have never made any sense to them.
Jonathan was shot during what appears to have been a botched burglary of a Millersburg man’s home. The official version of events is that Jonathan and two acquaintances, Christopher Davis and David Fike, went to the home of William Jones in the early morning hours of Aug. 31, 2001. While Fike waited in the car, Davis and Jonathan broke into the house, waking Jones, who grabbed a shotgun. Jonathan was wounded in the driveway, about 30 feet from Jones’ door. He died later that day at University Hospital.
The Gramlings cannot know for sure what happened that night, but they think there are discrepancies in the official version of the case. They are convinced Jonathan was not participating in a burglary; they think that after accepting a ride home, he ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time. The Gramlings have established a Web site, www.justice4jonathan.com, with links to information about Jonathan’s death, including a map of the crime scene, the coroner’s report and Jones’ statement to police. The Gramlings hope the Web site will clear Jonathan’s name, as well as persuade Callaway County Prosecutor Robert Sterner to reopen the criminal case.
“I want everyone involved to be in jail, and I won’t quit until it happens,” Deanna Gramling said. “Our intent is to go as high as we need to go to make sure the truth comes out.”
Sterner filed felony murder charges against Fike and Davis but accepted plea bargains from both men. Davis was sentenced to two five-year terms for an earlier burglary of Jones’ home and 10 years for the Aug. 31, 2001, attempt. Fike turned himself in the same day as the attempt and was released on bond Sept. 5, 2001. He later pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary and was sentenced to five years’ executed probation.
No charges were ever brought against Jones, which still angers the Gramlings. They think Jones used excessive force in defending his home the night Jonathan died and should be prosecuted. On their Web site, the Gramlings criticize Sterner’s handling of the case.
“Mr. Sterner has been unwilling to charge Jones with any crime, even though his actions may have violated Missouri’s law on deadly force,” the Gramlings say.
Sterner disagrees that Jones’ actions that night were criminal, and a grand jury agreed.
“I called a grand jury and they decided not to indict,” he said. “That is the role of the prosecutor.”
The Gramlings, however, insist the grand jury never heard the whole story because Davis was not called to testify.
According to the Gramlings, their son had gone to Columbia earlier that day to search for a job. That night, he met up with Fike and Davis at Deja Vu, a Columbia nightclub. He asked Fike and Davis for a ride first to his girlfriend’s house and then to his parents’ house, which is located Hallsville and Sturgeon.
The Gramlings say that Jonathan fell asleep in the car and that when he woke up, he was at Jones’ house. On their Web site, the Gramlings recall receiving a phone call from University Hospital, informing them that Jonathan was on life support with a gunshot wound.
“His face was free of buckshot, but bruising and swelling left him so unrecognizable, we were forced to identify him by a birthmark on his leg,” the Web site says.
In addition to creating their Web site, the Gramlings have spoken and written letters to many government officials about their son’s case but have not garnered much support. Their son’s death underscores what they see as an unfair system of checks and balances in which prosecuting attorneys have no meaningful oversight.
“Prosecutors do not have anyone to answer to but the voters,” Deanna Gramling said.
For his part, Sterner acknowledges the Gramlings’ anger but does not agree with their campaign for changes in the criminal justice system.
“They’re grieving parents upset by the violence and loss of life,” Sterner said. “To that extent, I understand.”
In May 2002, the Gramlings filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Jones. They allege that Jones did not have to use deadly force that night. The lawsuit is not about money, said the Gramlings’ 24-year-old daughter, Mindy Bailey, but just another attempt to hold someone accountable for Jonathan’s death.
“For us, it has nothing to do with financial compensation,” Bailey said. “Mom and Dad and me just want to see (Jones) have to have some type of retribution for what he did.”
When contacted, Jones did not seem aware that he had been sued by the Gramlings. He declined to discuss for the record what happened that night.
The Gramlings’ desperate fight on behalf of their son is a sharp contrast to the happy memories they have of Jonathan. Deanna Gramling recalls him riding bareback on the family’s horses with his arms out at his side like he was flying. She points to a picture of Jonathan in hunting gear, holding the antlers of a large buck he had killed, and another of him holding a fish. She smiles as she notices a plush, cream-colored chair that was a favorite of Jonathan’s. And, of course, there is the shrine, which sits just inside the front door of the family’s one-story house. Deanna Gramling says she almost always keeps the candle lit to remind her that her son’s death in no way represented his life.
“He saw the good in everyone,” she said.