A Fauquier County Circuit Court judge has dismissed a murder charge against Christopher Jones, saying there was insufficient evidence that the journalist from Morrisville killed his former girlfriend.

Jones, 26, smiled confidently upon his release Wednesday from the Warrenton jail, as he had throughout the four-day trial.

"I'm elated. I just want to go home. It's been a long ride," he said, declining to comment about the case.

More than 20 of Jones's friends and relatives erupted in cheers outside the courtroom, including his mother, Lorraine Whitfield, who yelled: "Thank you, Jesus! Hallelujah!" and nearly broke into a dance.

Michele Mueller, 24, was found beaten in her Remington home the morning of Jan. 26, 2001. She died 10 days later of what the medical examiner called blunt-force head trauma. Jones was arrested 15 months later in June 2002. The couple had dated for more than three years and had a son, Jordan, now 5.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kevin Casey told jurors in opening statements that Jones killed Mueller because he wanted sole custody of their son and did not want to pay $300 a month in child support.

A former Fauquier County sheriff's deputy, Christopher Allen, testified that he asked Mueller while she was being rushed in an ambulance to the hospital whether Jones had beaten her up. Allen said she uttered an ssss sound. He then asked her to squeeze the paramedic's hand if Jones was the perpetrator, which she did.

But Judge Jeffrey Parker said Mueller's faint noises and hand signals would have forced the jury to convict Jones based on an "inference."

Parker also said that even though Jones's sperm was found in her home, that did not prove he was there at the time of the beating. He dismissed the case without sending it to a jury, saying there was "too much left for conjecture and speculation."

Defense attorneys said that Jones watched a movie at a friend's house before going home the night of Jan. 25, 2001, and that his grandmother made him breakfast the next morning before he left for Lord Fairfax Community College, where he was studying design.

Judy Mueller, who gave dramatic testimony about finding her daughter lying on the floor in what she at first thought was "red paint," said she and her family still think that Jones, a former sportswriter and editor for the Culpeper Star-Exponent, was responsible.

"It was a shock that it could end like that," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, [Jones] has not been found innocent. We're just angry."