Ralph Leon Jackson could have expected at least a life term in prison when entering federal court to be sentenced for shooting two people last year at a scenic overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
What he could not know was the intensity his victims’ families and friends would show Thursday as they labeled him cowardly, cold-blooded, sick and selfish.
Blasts from Jackson’s 20-gauge shotgun and an ensuing fight disfigured Christina Floyd, then 19, of Palmyra, and killed Charlottesville disc jockey Timothy Davis, 27.
“I’ll never be able to forgive you for that,” Daniel Olewine, a friend, said directly to Jackson, who had turned in his chair to face whatever might be said.
Staring back at the killer during almost an hour of testimony was a framed photo of Davis propped up on the witness podium.
From there, his mother, Leticia Davis, talked about her only child as a man motivated to advance his radio career and begin a family. He enjoyed doing simple things, like being with his two cats and hanging out with friends. He worked closely with volunteers at WNRN, including Floyd, and considered the station’s signal tower on Carters Mountain to be a favorite place.
“When you shot him, he was doing one of those simple things: He was just enjoying a sunset on a beautiful spring day with a pretty girl on a mountain overlook,” Davis said during a tearful, 10-minute statement. “At least a beautiful view was the last thing Tim saw before you shot out his big, brown, beautiful eyes. I shudder to think of the horrific pain he must have felt.”
U.S. District Judge Samuel Wilson sentenced 57-year-old Jackson, of Stuarts Draft, to life plus 35 additional years in prison, without the possibility of parole.
Reading a brief statement, Jackson apologized to the families, and said he hopes they see some justice in his sentence.
“I do not now, nor do I ever expect to understand, my actions,” Jackson said.
Authorities never pinpointed a motive for the shooting.
From victim statements, the randomness of the brutal attack still weighs on them.
“I’ve never been fearful of much in my entire life … felt pretty damn near invincible,” Floyd wrote in a statement read aloud by an attorney. “April 5, 2010, all that changed drastically. I will never be the same person.”
Authorities said that on the night of the shooting at Rock Point Overlook, Jackson sat waiting in his car about 15 minutes before firing his first shot out the window. He fired again while approaching the victims, who were both left injured on the ground.
Floyd fought back, but Jackson knocked her about 6 feet over a cliff and rained down rocks that fractured her skull and broke her finger. A shotgun blast had punctured one of her lungs.
She fled to a passing pickup truck that rushed her away.
Rescuers found Timothy Davis 200 feet below the cliff.
Two days after the attack, a tip led authorities to Jackson’s ranch-style house at 1880 Howardsville Turnpike. He’d had no prior criminal record, authorities said, and was described by a neighbor and his employers at Delmar’s Body Shop in Staunton as a quiet type who mostly kept to himself. He was married, with two children, and had served in the Army, according to Assistant Federal Public Defender Frederick T. Heblich Jr.
Davis died two days after Jackson’s arrest.
“I can’t erase those images of Tim at the hospital,” Leticia Davis told the near-capacity courtroom, where more than 50 people listened.
She said she tries to remember the good things about her son, including how he loved curry chicken and had a dry sense of humor like that of his father, who died of cancer exactly five years before Thursday’s hearing. Her speaking became more emotional as she concluded by telling Jackson that his life sentence should be a “living hell that you deserve.”
Friends and relatives remembered Timothy Davis as generous with his time and as genuine, “like an older brother, there to help with problems.”
“What distinguished Tim was his enthusiasm, his drive, his love for people,” said Michael Friend, WNRN general manager.
In Floyd’s statement, she described the difficulties in telling people what happened to her, often opting to refer vaguely to “the accident.” She said hand surgeries keep her from playing the flute and lacrosse.
And she said she fears when cars pass by and her own reflection in dark windows.
“Sometimes I’m afraid to sleep,” she wrote.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Huber called Floyd’s strength “unbelievable,” and said authorities built much of their case on her recollections. The prosecutor was choked up by the testimony Thursday, and said it was the most compelling he has heard.
In her statement, Floyd said she went to the parkway that day with Davis for the reason many others do too: to get away from stress.
“Little did we know,” she wrote, “it would be the worst day of our lives.”