Wife, Police Seek Answers in Md. Teacher's Shooting Death

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005

Relatives of Jason Garland Winfrey tried to hold back tears yesterday afternoon as neighbors and friends visited Winfrey's Burtonsville townhouse to help them come to terms with his slaying.

As police detectives pursue leads in the case, Winfrey's wife of nearly a year, Rhonda May Winfrey, said she has no idea why her husband, a 35-year-old high school English teacher and former basketball coach, was shot to death early Friday in Greenbelt after an evening out with friends.

The Winfreys were married July 1 and were planning to leave tomorrow for an anniversary vacation in Aruba. Jason Winfrey had packed days early for the trip, and yesterday a large black duffel, along with a set of golf clubs his wife gave him for Father's Day, was lying near the stairwell in their home.

Greenbelt police found Winfrey dead in his forest green Jeep Wrangler about 3 a.m. Friday in the parking lot of Springhill Lake apartments. The vehicle, its driver's side window shattered, was parked with its engine running, and Winfrey's body was in the driver's seat with a gunshot wound to the head, Officer George Matthews said.

The gun had not been found and there were no suspects yesterday afternoon, Matthews said.

Winfrey was in Greenbelt most of Thursday night watching the NBA Finals championship game at T.G.I. Friday's with friends, his wife said. After the game, the group went to Willy K's Bar and Grill to sing karaoke, she said.

Friend John Fant said he couldn't imagine Winfrey getting into serious trouble.

"When we were younger, we weren't necessarily goody two shoes," Fant said. "But we all had the upbringing that we knew right from wrong, and none of us wanted to be out on the street doing wrong."

Said his wife: "I was definitely captivated by his smile in a big way because he just seemed so genuine."

As a 10th-grade English teacher at Bowie High School, where he started teaching last year, and as an English teacher and head basketball coach at Gaithersburg High School before that, Winfrey had a close connection to his students, his wife said.

She opened a plastic bag of memorabilia from his classroom yesterday -- posters of black historical figures, bulletin board trim and wallet-sized photographs his students had given him.

"He was well respected, did a good job, kids liked him," Gaithersburg Assistant Principal Laurie C. Bricker said.

Winfrey received a bachelor's degree in English from Bowie State University in 1998 and kept a bookshelf full of literature in his basement study. A black mesh bag holding three of Winfrey's basketballs lay in a corner of the basement.

He was learning to play guitar this spring and had mastered a few Miles Davis songs, his wife said.

Rhonda Winfrey said she plans to establish a scholarship fund in her husband's name for students who want to be teachers.

A ballet instructor who owns a dance studio in Annapolis, Rhonda Winfrey has an 11-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, Bria, who called her stepfather "Jake-a-Roo." The Winfreys had planned to have another child.

"He so badly wanted a baby for us to add to our family," she said. "He said, 'Rhonda, I just can't wait to have somebody call me 'Daddy.' "

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