Sitting with family in an expansive federal courtroom, Leticia Davis trembled as attorneys spoke of her murdered son.
She rarely took her eyes off the man in the jailhouse jumpsuit who picked her son at random as the target of a lethal shotgun blast at a scenic overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Almost a year after Timothy Davis was killed, Leticia Davis watched in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg on Wednesday as her son’s killer pleaded guilty.
Ralph Leon Jackson, a quiet 57-year-old mechanic from Stuarts Draft, will spend the rest of his life in prison. A federal judge convicted him of the murder of Davis, attempted murder of Christina S. Floyd, 19, and two firearm charges.
Blasts from Jackson’s shotgun on April 5 killed Davis, a 27-year-old Charlottesville disc jockey, and injured Floyd, of Palmyra. The friends were watching a sunset at Rock Point Overlook.
Authorities said they still can’t find a reason for Jackson’s seemingly random attack.
“We’ve looked at this thing inside and out,” said Augusta County Sheriff Randy Fisher. “We couldn’t find an explanation.”
After the hearing, Western District U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy said it is unlikely anybody will ever know the reason behind the shooting. He said he hoped the life sentence would bring some form of closure for the victims’ families.
For more than a month, a federal panel considered the death penalty as a potential punishment for Jackson. In the decision-making process, the panel weighed a number of items, including Jackson’s criminal background, the trauma to the victims and law enforcement resources used in the case, among other things, Heaphy said.
He said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke directly to him last week and advised against seeking the death penalty. The decision led to the Wednesday plea deal, in which Jackson accepted guilt for the crimes and agreed to a life sentence.
In court, Jackson removed large, square glasses as an attorney recounted the night of the shooting.
Authorities said Jackson drove a small, red car along the Parkway until he came upon the pair. He waited about 15 minutes before lowering a 20-gauge shotgun out his window.
A shot thundered across the mountain.
When Floyd turned to Davis, she saw his hands grappling the air, and his face bloodied.
Jackson opened the car door and walked toward them, gun in hand. He fired again from less than 20 feet, hitting Floyd and knocking her to the ground next to Davis.
The high school senior ran toward Jackson and began to fight, Heaphy said.
“Literally, hand-to-hand combat,” he said. “She ripped his shirt and lost her shoes.”
During the struggle, Floyd fell about six feet over the side of a cliff. As she tried to run for help, Jackson rained “cucumber-sized” rocks at her, twice fracturing her skull and breaking her finger. One shotgun blast had punctured a lung, Heaphy said.
When Floyd ran barefoot into the road, a passing pickup truck driver rescued her and rushed her down the mountain.
Heaphy credited her survival to “uncommon courage.”
As the night shrouded the mountain, local, state and federal authorities hunted for the shooter as rescuers tried to reach Davis, who was found more than 200 feet down the mountainside. He was recovered with shotgun wounds to his head and shoulder and directly to his face.
Rescue crews airlifted Davis to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville where he later died, authorities said.
The manhunt ended two days later when an anonymous caller alerted authorities to Jackson.
“I can say the tip was specific … and led us directly to Mr. Jackson,” Heaphy said.
Authorities descended upon Jackson’s ranch-style house at 1880 Howardsville Turnpike. With a warrant in hand, they found Jackson’s red car, ammunition and the shotgun used in the attack, authorities said.
Before the shooting, Fisher’s deputies rarely interacted with Jackson, as reflected in the man’s spotless criminal record.
A neighbor said he used to lend tools to Jackson and described the man as a quiet type who mostly kept to himself. His employers at Delmar’s Body Shop in Staunton spoke similarly.
Heaphy said he considered Jackson’s state of mind during the shooting, and investigated Jackson’s queries to detectives about how male-enhancement drugs might have altered his mental state.
“We have found no evidence of any mental disease or defect,” Heaphy said. “Mr. Jackson will serve the rest of his life in a federal prison, in a small room with a spare bed ... alone.”
During one interview with police, Jackson said he thought he was shooting at his son-in-law, who he thought may have been abusive to his daughter, authorities said. Heaphy said Floyd and Davis bear no physical resemblance to the people Jackson mentioned.
Heaphy specifically credited Augusta County Inv. George Cox and T. Scott Fairburn of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for their work on the case.
Craig Chillcott, the area agent-in-charge for ATF, said he’s proud of the investigators.
“Once things started coming down, it came down hot and heavy,” he said.
In a written statement, Floyd’s mother, Jennifer Haley, expressed gratitude for the support her family received.
“We want everyone to know that we are grateful for the outpouring of love and support we have received throughout this very difficult time in our lives,” she wrote.
Leticia Davis declined to comment, but said she plans to read a victim impact statement at an official sentencing on June 9.
As well as a life sentence, Jackson faces a minimum of 35 additional years in prison.