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Key witness in Joaquin Rams murder case in Manassas City speaks publicly for first time

Prince McLeod Rams and his father, Joaquin Rams, in Manassas last year. Joaquin Rams is now charged with the murder of his son. His other son was cropped out of the photo by the defense team, at Rams’ request. (courtesy Joaquin Rams)
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Now that Prince William County prosecutors have decided to seek the death penalty for Joaquin Rams, accused of murder in the October death of his 15-month-old son Prince McLeod Rams, one of the key witnesses in the case is speaking out for the first time, saying that Rams did not kill his son.

Sue Jestice was present in the Manassas City house on October 20 when Prince Rams collapsed. He died the next day, and the medical examiner eventually ruled that the toddler had been drowned. Sue Jestice, her husband Roger Jestice and Joaquin Rams Jr., the defendant’s 13-year-old son, were the other three people in the house. Rams’ lawyers have said all three, in addition to Rams, claim that Rams is innocent.

(For a detailed background on the case, start here.)

Joaquin Rams, 36, did not have custody of his son, but had been granted unsupervised visits by a judge in Montgomery County. On that Saturday morning, he and his son, Joaquin Jr., drove to Maryland to pick up Prince, then drove him back to the Jestices’ house in Manassas City. The Manassas City police, and the Prince William prosecutors, believe that Rams then drowned his son in the bathtub in order to collect on more than $500,000 in life insurance policies he’d taken out on Prince Rams.

Sue Jestice, 59, is legally blind, though she can make out shapes. She notes that she doesn’t see well, “but I hear very well.” She said she and her husband have known Rams for nine years, and that “Joaquin did not do anything to hurt that child. I’ve seen him with his oldest son. On every visit that he had [with Prince], here in this house, he was happy as can be.”

Jestice said Rams was “just joyful at getting supervised visitation,” which a judge granted in March 2012, followed by unsupervised visits starting in August 2012. “He cherished every moment he had with Prince. I can’t see, but I can tell you his personality was that of a happy baby. Typical toddler. I could hear him laugh. He was a happy child and Joaquin demonstrated no type of intent to hurt him.”

But why would Rams take out $500,000 in life insurance on a baby? The policies were bought in 2011, Jestice noted, and “he did that before he even knew if he was going to see his son,” she said. “Those policies were taken out with the advisement of the insurance agent he had at the time. I told the grand jury it’s excessive.” But she pointed out that Rams had bought a $1 million policy on himself, and that his teen son has $1 million in trust from an insurance payout from the death of the teen’s mother, Shawn Mason, for which police are also investigating Rams. “Joaquin was just leveling the field” by adding a policy for the younger son, Jestice argued.

On the morning of Oct. 20, Rams and his son brought Prince to the house, played with him and fed him until he became drowsy, Rams’s lawyers have said. Prince was put down for a nap around 1 p.m., sleeping next to his older brother who was playing video games on an Xbox, the lawyers said.

At about 2:20 p.m., Rams told police he got up from his own nap and noticed Prince’s arms shaking. He scooped up the toddler, felt he was hot, and took him to the bathtub to cool him down while screaming for the Jestices to call 911, his lawyers said. Prince had had a series of febrile seizures in the previous six weeks, and one of the instructions Rams received from Prince’s mother was to place the child in a tub of water.

Roger Jestice dialed 911, where a dispatcher instructed them to take the child out of the tub and begin CPR, the lawyers said. Sue Jestice said, “The water wasn’t on for a minute. I can hear it, I know my house, I know which faucet is on. When you have a person screaming at the top of their lungs, when I made it up there, the water had already been turned off. They’d taken him out of the bathroom and got him on his side.”

She said “they laid a towel down, the baby was placed on that towel. I can’t see but I was more concerned with keeping [Joaquin] Junior calm. His Dad is panicking, his baby brother is blue, I just wanted to keep him calm. The torture that that child has been put through is incredible.”

Paramedics arrived to find Prince on the floor, wet and naked, with no heartbeat. They left seven minutes later, but records show it wasn’t until 3 p.m., 40 minutes later, that they revived Prince. He was taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital and placed on life support, but died the next day.

Meanwhile, Manassas City police went to the Jestice house and asked if they could search it. Roger Jestice and Rams both granted their consent, and the police stayed for nine hours, until nearly midnight, Sue Jestice said. They took bags full of items out of the house, Sue Jestice said, including two of her computers, one of which had software for the blind. They have not been returned, she said.

As part of their investigation, though, Manassas City police did not interview Sue Jestice. To this day, they still haven’t. “I’m the blind lady, who am I?” she asked. She said investigators have since obtained her information by bringing her before a special grand jury in June, which is the first such grand jury ever in Prince William County.

Three days after that search, Manassas City police returned again, this time with a search warrant. Sue Jestice said the police turned the house upside down a second time. The search made it clear that Joaquin Rams was the target of a criminal investigation, so he stopped cooperating with police then.

In January, the medical examiner ruled that Prince had died by drowning. “That totally threw us all off kilter,” Sue Jestice said. “It’s not possible,” because the water ran for such a short period, and there was no stopper in the tub to let the water level rise, she said.

Nine days after the medical examiner’s ruling, Rams was arrested and charged with murder. The Manassas City police then returned with another search warrant, for their third search of the Jestices’ house, seeking financial records.

In June, the Jestices were summoned before the special grand jury. Sue Jestice declined to discuss her testimony in detail, but said the first hour was devoted to questions about herself and her background, and the second hour was about Rams and his two sons. She said she broke down and cried in the grand jury when she discussed “not being able to have any interaction with Junior at all.” She said Joaquin Jr. was “my grandson.”

On July 2, an indictment was unsealed charging Joaquin Rams Sr. with capital murder. The next day, Manassas City police officers showed up at the Jestices again, for their fourth search. They again had a search warrant, which they told the Jestices was sealed, even though the target of the investigation has been in jail for nearly six months.

“I got a little belligerent with them,” Sue Jestice acknowledged. “I said, ‘What the hell else do you need to take out of here?’” She said she was instructed to sit in one place, and she listened as detectives tested the flow and temperature of the water in the upstairs bathtub. “I could hear them calling off the various changes of temperature,” she said. She said the investigators were done in 45 minutes.

I asked Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert why the police were still serving search warrants, nearly six months after Rams was first charged. He said, “The investigation starts with the charge.” I said I thought the police investigated, then a charge was filed. “A lot of people think that way,” Ebert said, “but the investigation starts with the charge.”

Sue Jestice said the investigation of what she believes to be an innocent man has been hard on her. “It’s embarrassing for me to even walk the neighborhood,” she said. “With the amount of vehicles and amount of people that come here every time…It’s intrusive and it’s humiliating.”


Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: The birth of Prince

Part 3: The death of Prince

Part 4: The investigation

Prosecutors launch special grand jury to investigate Joaquin Rams