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What was U-Va. shooting suspect’s motive? Clues offer possibilities.

From left, Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D'Sean Perry. The three Virginia football players were killed in a shooting on Sunday. (University of Virginia Athletics/AP)

Christopher Jones Jr. dropped into his friend’s Virginia barbershop in 2020 to make a generous offer: He’d buy Vashaun Hill a brand-new pair of clippers to replace his worn ones, using money from a refund check from college at the University of Virginia.

“Chris was a good dude at heart. I told him, ‘You don’t have to do it,’ ” said Hill, who had played high school football with Jones in Petersburg, Va.

Virginia Coach Tony Elliott and Athletic Director Carla Williams spoke to the press about the three football players who were killed on Nov. 13. (Video: The Washington Post)

Jones still bought the clippers.

Hill was grasping to reconcile memories of his kind, outgoing friend with reports of another Jones that emerged this week — an accused mass shooter. Authorities say Jones methodically shot and killed three football players, and injured two others on a bus that had just returned to the U-Va. campus from a field trip Sunday night.

Six days later, perhaps the biggest question about the horrific tragedy still haunts Hill, victims’ families and a grieving U-Va. community: Why?

Authorities have not released a motive for the rampage, and those who knew both suspect and victims have struggled to come up with any concrete possibilities. Though Jones at one time played football, former players said his 2018 stint was short and unremarkable, and there was no overlap between him and those he is accused of killing with bullets to the head. Family members have claimed Jones was bullied but have not provided details, and no evidence has emerged to support those accounts. A witness to the shooting said Jones barely interacted with those on the field trip he is accused of shooting. One friend who knew Jones from high school said that recently, he seemed to be more withdrawn than she had remembered.

“It’s just hard to try to piece all this together, knowing the Chris we know,” Hill said.

The Virginia State Police, which took over the investigation Thursday, said in a statement that detectives are still working to establish the motive.

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Mass killings in the U.S.
When is something a mass killing?
The Washington Post uses the term mass killing to describe any event in which four or more people, excluding the shooter, are killed by gunfire.
The Post generally only uses the term mass shooting when we’re citing an organization such as the Gun Violence Archive whose definition differs from ours. The GVA defines a mass shooting as an event in which four or more people, excluding the shooter, are injured or killed by gunfire, including events with no fatalities.
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In 2022, there were 647 mass shootings (here are the events in 2023 so far.). In 2021, 2020 and 2019, there were 690, 610 and 417, respectively. Before that, the Gun Violence Archive tracked fewer than 400 a year since 2014. Most gun deaths continue to be from suicides and homicides, with men making up the majority of both perpetrators and victims.
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“Any declaration of a particular motive for the shootings would be purely speculative and unfounded at this time,” the statement said. “Defining Jones’s motive is a priority of those investigative efforts, and a task that takes time to pursue and achieve.”

A prosecutor said at Jones’s arraignment this week that a witness on the bus told investigators that Jones appeared to be aiming at certain people, but what — if anything — would lead him to target Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry remains murky.

Ryan Lynch, a U-Va. student who witnessed the shooting, said she was told by others on the bus that Jones said something to the effect of, “You guys are always messing with me,” before he opened fire. But she said that comment was strange because she did not see Jones interacting much with other students. The group had gone on a trip to D.C. to see a play about Emmett Till and eat Ethiopian food at a restaurant.

How a class trip ended in gunfire at U-Va.

Michael Hollins Sr. said his son Michael Hollins Jr. — who was injured in the shooting — told him that Jones asked one of the players about a video game before shooting. He added that his son did not know Jones.

Lynch said she ducked to the floor after the barrage began at the back of the bus. Lynch eventually peered out from beneath a coat as Jones strode down the center aisle of the bus with a kind of swagger, she said. Jones exited and fired more shots in the air, she said.

He was arrested roughly 12 hours later and 80 miles from campus, following a shelter-in-place order at U-Va. and a massive search.

The most obvious connection between Jones and four of the five victims is that they had all played at some point for the U-Va. football team. He was a loner on the team and quiet, and stayed to himself during practices, drills and weight training, former players said.

But according to the players, there was no overlap between victims and Jones — who was a member briefly in 2018. Perry joined U-Va. football in 2019, one year after Jones left. So, too, did Hollins, according to U-Va.'s website. Davis came on team in 2020. Chandler was a new transfer this year from Wisconsin. The fifth victim was a 19-year-old female student; her family declined to comment.

Armando “Mandy” Alonso Jr. — a former member of the football team from 2017 to 2021 — played with Jones as well as two of his victims, Davis and Perry.

“I don’t think Chris ever knew or played with any of them,” Alonso said. “He was only there for a few months.”

A man who opened the door at Jones’s mother’s house this week and identified himself as Jones’s 19-year-old brother said Jones had long been picked on, starting in high school and extending into college.

“It followed him,” the man said.

But the 19-year-old would not say who Jones claimed had harassed him, nor offer any details on what the harassment entailed.

He claimed his brother was at the “breaking point.”

“He held it in for too long,” he said. “It’s been happening for months.”

Jones seemed to echo some of those claims in a 2021 interview with the U-Va. student newspaper — though he suggested the bullying predated his time in college. A student named Christopher Jones, whose photo accompanying the article appears to be the same man arrested in the shooting, said he had found a home in the school’s chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, where he was president.

“I was bullied a lot, and that caused me to distance myself from people,” Jones said. “And as I got older, I realized that a lot of things in life I can’t do by myself, so I decided when I got to college, I was going to find a group of people like-minded, driven about achievement. And I found it. I found Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Incorporated.”

Several members of the fraternity declined to comment to The Washington Post, with one saying they had been ordered by national leadership not to speak to reporters. The national organization issued a statement offering condolences for the U-Va. tragedy but did not mention Jones’s involvement with the fraternity. Executive Director John F. Burrell confirmed that members of the chapter at U-Va. had been asked not to speak publicly about Jones and declined to answer any additional questions.

Jones had been held up as a model of success in a 2018 profile in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, overcoming a troubled childhood in Richmond public housing complexes to win a spot at a premier public university. But as his academic career progressed at U-Va., he became enmeshed in trouble on and off campus.

Former Charlottesville police chief Rashall Brackney said Jones and other U-Va. football players were involved in a serious brawl at the Asado bar near U-Va. in late 2019. It’s unclear if any of the victims in the recent shooting were in any way connected to that fight.

The Charlottesville police denied a public records request for a police report on the incident but told a local newspaper at the time that a U-Va. student was injured in the fight and transported to a hospital.

The newspaper reported no charges were filed in the case because the victim did not cooperate with police. The owner of the bar said in an interview that he did not recall the incident.

In 2020, Jones was charged for felony fleeing the scene of an accident for a crash that occurred in Petersburg. The charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor, and Jones pleaded no contest and received a 12-month suspended sentence.

A Chesterfield County police officer stopped Jones while he was driving in February 2021 because the tags on his vehicle were not on file and discovered during a search that Jones had a stolen firearm in his waistband, according to a police report.

Jones told police he “paid $500” for the gun, according to the report. Jones told the officer he wanted the gun for protection for his family because he had lost two of his brothers. Family members did not respond to requests for comment about that statement.

Jones was convicted of possessing a concealed firearm without a license later in 2021 and again received a suspended sentence.

In September, university officials said a student informed administrators that Jones said he owned a gun during an investigation into a “potential hazing issue,” which they have not detailed. University officials said the gun report touched off an investigation by the threat assessment team.

Jones’s roommate told the team that he did not see Jones with a gun, but it appears the threat assessment team never talked with Jones, and officials said he did not cooperate with the probe. During the investigation, officials discovered Jones’s 2021 gun conviction, which they said Jones had not reported to the university as required by school rules.

School officials initially said they had referred Jones for disciplinary action for not disclosing his conviction, but later said they did not make the referral until after the shooting because of an inadvertent error.

Accused U-Va. gunman scrutinized for weapon by threat assessment team

A handgun was found near the scene of the shooting and investigators discovered a rifle and handgun while searching Jones’s residence in Charlottesville after the shooting, state police said. All firearms have been sent to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for processing.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares announced Thursday that he would appoint a special counsel to investigate U-Va.’s handling of the events leading up to the shooting.

Jones is facing three counts of second-degree murder and other charges in connection with the shooting. His next court appearance is Dec. 8. His attorney declined to comment. A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday at U-Va.

The Wednesday before Jones opened fire on his schoolmates, Morgan Johnson was with him in the student center.

They had met in that same spot about three times a week this semester to take Swahili, a virtual course that U-Va. students in the class opted to listen to in the same space on campus. Jones, Johnson said, was always cracking jokes during their study sessions.

“It was something different every day,” she said.

Johnson, a 21-year-old fourth year, remembered Jones asking her if she was excited to graduate. When she replied in the affirmative, he agreed: “Yeah, I’m ready to finally graduate,” she recalled him saying.

Johnson said she had no idea that Jones had a firearm and was shocked to hear that another student had reported that he might have had a weapon.

Kayla Hendrick, another 21-year-old fourth year at U-Va., said she noticed a change in Jones from the time they went to high school together in Petersburg. Before coming to college, Hendrick described Jones as “outgoing” and “goofy.” She said he liked to sing “anything R&B” and was known for his smarts.

Hendrick reconnected with Jones this semester for the first time since high school. At the beginning of the semester, she said she saw him at some events around campus, like a town hall organized by Black student groups. By November, she said she only saw him in academic spaces and he seemed to want to spend his time alone.

“You could tell he has been through a lot these past four years,” she said. “His light was dimmer. He was just always by himself.”

U-Va. President James E. Ryan said it may be difficult to ever make sense of the events in a video address to the campus this week. Investigators have yet to uncover motives in some other high-profile mass shootings, like the attack that left 58 dead during a Las Vegas concert in 2017.

“It’s possible and perhaps likely that we will never find one single thing that will explain this,” Ryan said. “It may also be that we that we never truly understand why this happened. But what we learn we will share.”

William H. Reid, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas who spent hours interviewing mass shooter James Holmes, said motives in such events typically emerge early in the investigation — there is an obvious anger, desire for revenge or passion that sparked the rampage.

But he said mass shooters are sometimes spurred to violence by triggers that might not make sense to someone else.

“The things that go on in assailant’s mind are routinely not the normal pathways that one would expect,” Reid said. “When you … try to make it look logical that’s very often a fool’s errand. It has to do with a mind that’s not working well at least in this particular area.”

Alice Crites and Karina Elwood contributed to this report.

Mass shooting at the University of Virginia

The latest: A month after the U-VA. shooting, the parents of D’Sean Perry have questions about why the violence was not prevented.

What do we know about the shooting? A witness revealed new details about the U-Va. shooting, where a gunman opened fire on bus full of students, authorities confirmed. Additionally, the University of Virginia failed to report the suspected shooter to a student-run judiciary committee.

Who are the shooting victims? Officials identified the deceased victims as U-Va. football players Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis and D’Sean Perry.

Who is accused of the UVA shooting? 23-year-old student Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. is the accused gunman in the U-Va. mass shooting. What was U-Va. shooting suspect’s motive? In an initial court appearance, a prosecutor claims that suspect Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. fired at a sleeping football player.