Death, meth and loathing
A grieving family wants justice for their slain son—but do they have a case?
It was sometime around 9:30 p.m. three days after Christmas in 2001 when Jeremy Doss staggered out of his ‘85 Mustang in the parking lot of Oroville Hospital. Bleeding from several stab wounds and gurgling blood from his mouth, he managed to make it into the emergency room, where nurses rushed him into surgery. Doctors hooked him up with IV tubes and an oxygen mask and started a transfusion, but his pulse only weakened. As a last resort, they cut open his chest and attempted manually to restart his heart. It didn’t work. Apparently unable to breathe and losing blood from wounds in his neck, arms, abdomen, chest and head, Doss died on an operating table at 9:41 p.m. He was 29 years old.
Pursuing the death as a homicide and acting on a tip from a family member, Oroville police officers and Butte County sheriff’s deputies drove to the house of Doss’ ex-girlfriend, which was less than two miles from the hospital. There they found a gruesome scene—blood covered the floor and walls of the hallway of the house leading into the master bedroom. A violent struggle had taken place, and Doss was clearly not the victor. Since the incident occurred outside the city proper, the Sheriff’s Office took over the investigation.
Sheriff’s investigators had plenty of clues as to the identity of Doss’ killer—probably more than they really needed. Everybody instantly knew who had killed Jeremy Doss. It was a man law enforcement in Oroville knew only too well—a “career criminal,” in the district attorney’s words—named Joshua Moses Hellon.
Hellon, with whom Doss had clashed several times in the past, spent 19 days on the run before being apprehended on a tip from the victim’s father. Though he later told investigators that Doss had kicked in his door and attacked him, Hellon allegedly bragged to at least one person that he had planned and premeditated Doss’ killing. There is also circumstantial evidence that Doss may have been robbed of as much as $500 on the night he was killed. (Witnesses claim that Doss was in possession of a large amount of cash before he was killed, but when homicide investigators looked in his wallet, it was empty.)
So why, Doss’ relatives want to know, isn’t Hellon—already incarcerated on other charges—being charged with murder?
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said at the time—and still asserts—that Hellon stabbed Doss in self-defense. After reviewing and following up on the sheriff’s investigation, Ramsey’s office ruled the case an excusable homicide.
“In our best estimation, Mr. Hellon was defending himself in his own house from someone who had his own criminal background and was known to be a violent person,” Ramsey said, adding that many of the possible witnesses for a potential prosecution gave stories that either supported Hellon’s statements or changed over time.
But Doss’ friends and family members think otherwise. Pointing to evidence they gathered mostly on their own and labeling the sheriff’s investigation “botched” and “mishandled,” they are calling for the state attorney general to take up the case.
“Our son was baited … murdered and robbed,” wrote Jeremy Doss’ mother, Frances Presley, in a letter to Ramsey. “We want [the responsible parties] to be prosecuted to the full extend [sic] of the law for First Degree Murder.”
The case against Hellon is less solid than the family would like it to be. Hellon and Doss had a long-standing and widely known beef. The stabbing happened in a private residence in front of only one known witness, a woman who was not only romantically linked to both men, but who also had a history of drug abuse and a criminal record. Hellon told investigators that he was only responding out of fear when he grabbed a kitchen knife and fatally stabbed Doss, and so far they believe him.
The Doss family doesn’t. They also want to know what happened to the money Jeremy Doss had in his wallet just before he was killed, and why nobody at the house that night called 911.
The feud between Doss and Hellon had been brewing for years before their final altercation. The two had been at odds over Hellon’s relationship with Doss’ younger sister, over money Hellon allegedly owed the Doss family and, most important, over pride.
At the center of their dispute was a woman, Dorothy Constance Yard-Spicer, called “Connie” by everyone who knew her. It was Yard-Spicer’s house on Long Bar Road where Hellon stabbed Doss and left him to die. Yard-Spicer not only saw the fight, but, say witnesses who talked to Doss the night of his death, she also had called Doss several times that night and asked him to come over, saying that Hellon was beating her up and that she was unable to defend herself. Ultimately, say members of the Doss family, those phone calls led to Jeremy Doss’ death.
Though the Sheriff’s Department obtained Doss’ cellular-phone records, it is not releasing them in order to protect the privacy of anyone who may be on them, said a department spokesman. Without those records, it is impossible to tell who called Doss the night he was killed. A bartender who knew Doss and was with him hours before his death told investigators that he received several calls that night, saying that, “I don’t know who was on the phone, but by his actions I believe it was Connie.”
Yard-Spicer declined to be interviewed, making her somewhat of a mystery. Investigators say her account of Doss’ death corroborates Hellon’s story. Sources close to both parties said Doss and Yard-Spicer carried on a romantic relationship for between four and six years, living together in Yard-Spicer’s small, secluded house on Long Bar Road for much of that time. Though Doss apparently had deep feelings for Yard-Spicer, he told his mother before they broke up that he was tired of Yard-Spicer’s drug and gambling problems and that she often stole money from his wallet and brought home undesirable people.
Doss went so far as to buy a safe to keep his money in, but early in 2001, Presley said, Yard-Spicer broke into it, stealing about $1,500. (There is no corroborative evidence for Presley’s statement, and Yard-Spicer was never charged with such a crime.)
“The safe was the last straw,” Presley said. “He was trying to clean himself up, but he felt she was getting more deeply involved.”
Sometime after Doss moved out, Hellon moved in. According to court records, Hellon set up a kitchen laboratory at Yard-Spicer’s house and began making methamphetamine from ephedrine and household chemicals. Hellon was later convicted on a felony charge of possessing materials for meth manufacture.
Jeremy’s father, David Doss, says he told Jeremy on several occasions to leave his relationship with Yard-Spicer in the past.
“I told him, ‘You’re either going to wind up in prison, in the hospital or in the morgue,'” the senior Doss said. “Jeremy didn’t like to back down.”
Jeremy also didn’t like the fact that his ex was dating Hellon, whom he came to blame for Yard-Spicer’s continuing involvement with drugs, Presley said.
Before they became embittered toward each other, both men grew up in Oroville. Both of their families were affected in one way or another by family break-ups, drugs and the economic troubles Oroville suffered through in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Though both attended high school, neither graduated. Doss attended school in Oroville until he was a teenager, when he moved for a brief period to Porterville, a town of about 62,000 in the San Joaquin Valley. There, he dropped out of high school in the 11th grade and moved back to Oroville to begin work as a carpenter, a vocation he continued until his death. Doss was widely known and apparently had many friends in Oroville, as about 300 people showed up for his funeral. He was described by an employer as a good and responsible worker.
But there was another side to his personality. As prosecutors point out in defending their decision not to prosecute Hellon for Doss’ death, Doss had convictions for domestic violence, fighting, assault and being drunk in public.
His family says Doss had a temper but was not a violent person at heart.
“He’d scrap in a minute, but he didn’t go looking for trouble,” said Doss’ father.
Doss also had a minor speed habit and, according to one anonymous source, was a problem drinker.
“He was kind of a weekend warrior,” David Doss said. “He’d smoke a little [meth] on Friday and be back to work Monday. He did like his beer, though.”
Like Doss, Hellon dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, joining a National Guard unit stationed in Modesto, where he was trained as a combat medic. His commanding officer at the time described him as an “excellent and thoughtful soldier.”
At some point Hellon earned his high-school-equivalency diploma as well as a basic EMT license. But by the mid-'90s, he also reportedly had developed an intravenous speed habit and a bad reputation to match. He received his first felony conviction in 1992, when he was arrested for residential burglary and check forgery.
Up against 13 felony counts, Hellon received several letters to the court attesting to his good character. In one, his mother wrote to the Butte County judge that Hellon had been a model child until the age of 13, when a cousin told him for the first time that he had been adopted. After that, Hellon’s mother wrote, he began to get in trouble and drifted in and out of foster care.
Hellon was sentenced in June of 1992, receiving his first two felony strikes and getting six years in state prison on one charge and eight years on another. In 1995, court records show, he was punished for battering another inmate. At some point in his incarceration, he joined a white-supremacist prison gang and had the gang’s emblem tattooed on the back of his head.
Hellon thus began a series of arrests and incarcerations. A glance at Butte County court records from the years 1992 to 2001 reveals arrests for burglary, auto theft, carrying a concealed weapon, being a felon in possession of a firearm, illegal possession of dynamite, failure to appear in court and various other charges. Many of those charges were later dismissed, but, says Ramsey, most were rolled up in plea bargains.
Doss may have known Hellon from Las Plumas High School, where they attended classes around the same time, and he probably had some contact with Hellon over the years, as they traveled in some of the same circles. The two are only about a year apart in age, with Doss being older. If they didn’t know each other before, they certainly became acquainted on New Year’s Eve leading into 1990, when Presley says Hellon attacked her son at what was then the family home in the Oroville highlands.
“This goes back to when they were juveniles,” Presley said, describing a scene in which, for reasons now unclear, Hellon allegedly “sucker-punched” Doss. Presley said she was inside when her daughter ran in, saying, “Someone’s beating on Jeremy.” Presley armed herself with a baseball bat and went out to confront the assailant, who turned out to be Hellon, traveling in a car full of teenagers, she said.
That incident had something to do with Hellon’s relationship with Stacy Doss, Jeremy’s younger sister. Presley said Jeremy had always been protective of his siblings, and since his parents’ divorce in the 1980s, “Jeremy was the caretaker of the family.”
Over the years, Stacy and Hellon dated on and off, though Stacy only recently told her mother that the two were more than friends during that time. According to sources close to the family, Stacy has struggled off and on with a drug problem.
“I forbade her to be around him,” Presley said, but it did no good. When, in 1993, Hellon allegedly stole Stacy’s car and crashed it in the Oroville Montgomery Ward parking lot, Stacy kept it a secret that Hellon was involved.
Hellon was with Stacy Doss sporadically for a number of years, but they broke it off while Hellon was in jail and Doss was dating Yard-Spicer. Stacy and Hellon’s part-time relationship, while thought of as unsavory by Frances Presley, apparently didn’t cause an overwhelming amount of friction between Hellon and Jeremy Doss until the summer of 2001, when Stacy’s father, acting out of a misconstrued notion that he was helping Stacy, decided to bail Hellon out of jail. When Hellon jumped his bond and then moved in with Yard-Spicer, the feud was officially on.
David Doss, Jeremy’s father, a stocky, weathered man, has a quiet intensity that some would say comes from leading a hard life. A carpenter and Oroville native, the senior Doss has had his own run-ins with the law, with drugs and with Josh Hellon. It was David Doss who bailed Hellon out of jail in mid-2001 when Hellon was up on charges that he had stolen a truck, was high on methamphetamine and was in possession of a syringe. (Court records show that he was caught red-handed with the truck and syringe, and that Hellon actually told a sheriff’s deputy that he used crank.)
Doss said he was able to secure Hellon’s release with no cash payment, no collateral, and credit that was “shot to hell.” Angel’s Bail Bonds, which later sued David Doss for $11,000 when Hellon failed to show up for his court case, secured his release using as collateral the home of one of Hellon’s friends, even though Hellon had jumped bail in the past.
When Hellon failed to appear this time, David Doss was stuck with part of the bill, and he and Jeremy took it upon themselves to bring Hellon in. On two separate occasions, they had Hellon in their sights, but each time he was able to escape. One of those times, David Doss said, Hellon struck Jeremy with a large, folded knife, knocking him over.
By this time, the latter half of 2001, Hellon and Jeremy Doss had graduated from being sporadic rivals to being sworn enemies. On the day of Doss’ death, the two had agreed to fight each other at an acquaintance’s residence in Oroville, an event that was supposed to prove once and for all who the better man was. Mike Ramsey described the fight as a “meet me after school” kind of affair, where the two men would settle their differences in a fistfight. Doss kept the appointment, but Hellon never showed up.
Fuming over his missed opportunity, Doss drove to the Foothill Lounge in Oroville and began drinking beer sometime before 6 p.m. According to a written statement given to investigators by Leanna Graves, a Foothill bartender who is also Jeremy’s cousin, Doss told her that he had heard Hellon had “put a thumping on” Connie Yard-Spicer and expressed a desire to help his former girlfriend. Doss, who had just cashed a paycheck worth over $300, was drinking steadily if not heavily. He bought drinks for friends and paid his tab in cash, revealing a large wad of bills in his wallet, Graves stated.
After receiving a number of calls on his cell phone, Doss talked to Graves about Yard-Spicer while they played pool. After receiving another call at about 8:50 p.m., Doss told Graves “he needed to go take care of something he really didn’t want to take care of.” Before he left, he hugged and kissed his cousin, who told him not to “do anything crazy.”
Doss then drove to a friend’s house to meet his father and collect a $200 debt. Jeremy told his father that he was thinking of going out to confront Hellon. David Doss warned him not to go.
“I told him, ‘Don’t go down in there alone.’ He said he wouldn’t.” Doss said.
But something made Jeremy change his mind. Less than an hour later he was dead.
When David Doss heard what had happened to his son, he was furious. His anger was stoked by rumors he heard—that Hellon had planned the assault, that there were more assailants in the house, and that Hellon had bragged about what he did.
He thinks his son may have been ambushed.
“He was too good in a fight to go down without getting in a few,” Doss said. “He’s going to reach out and touch someone.”
Most of the rumors David Doss heard have remained just that—unverifiable, perhaps apocryphal accounts. But a man who talked with Hellon and Yard-Spicer just three hours after the killing said Hellon bragged to him about killing Doss.
David Massie and his girlfriend Susie Wilkinson had met Yard-Spicer through their friendship with Jeremy Doss. They were at home the night Doss was killed. Around midnight, they say, Hellon and Yard-Spicer showed up at their house asking for a ride. The pair told them that Jeremy had been stabbed and had driven himself to the hospital. Neither, Massie and Wilkinson say, showed any bruises or marks. It was raining outside, Wilkinson said, and Hellon had his jacket zipped all the way up. Yard-Spicer was barefoot and dressed only in a nightgown.
"[Hellon] was bouncing all over the place,” Wilkinson said, though Yard-Spicer was more subdued, repeating the phrase, “There was so much blood,” over and over again.
When Hellon and Massie stepped outside, Massie said, Hellon told him something that made his skin crawl.
“He said, ‘Hey, it worked, homeboy, I baited him in,'” Massie said. “He said, ‘I knew when I didn’t show up [to fight] he’d go down to the house.'”
Massie gave investigators a written account of Hellon’s alleged remarks that the Doss family regards as a confession to murder.
It reads: “He [Hellon] said to Jeremy, ‘I don’t want to do this here.’ As he backed away, he turned and started down the hall. He said Jeremy followed and then Josh showed me how he spun around in a slight crouch, swinging his arm in a sideways, upward stabbing motion to Jeremy’s left side. Then that was all he said [punctuation added].”
The account is consistent with Doss’ wounds, but investigators question why Massie took a month to deliver it to them. They also say he “backed away” from the statement in interviews. One investigator thinks Massie may be trying to too hard to help the Doss family. In handwritten interview notes taken by Chief Deputy D.A. Francisco Zarate, Massie is described as “not credible … would make a poor witness … trying very hard to help … feels guilty.”
Massie stands firmly by his account. At a recent Hellon court appearance, Massie managed to get Hellon’s attention from the spectators’ area. Pointing a calloused finger at Hellon and shaking with rage, he said, “You told me the truth and I know it.” Hellon, shackled and dressed in jail clothes, said nothing and turned away.
After the court date, Wilkinson said she and Massie had gone to court that day to send Hellon a message. She said she is outraged that the D.A.'s Office had deemed their testimony not credible, saying that she had not only given sheriff’s investigators Connie’s bloodstained nightgown after it was left at her house that night, but also had contacted the D.A. within a week of the incident.
“I wanted to be here today so that he knows we’re still here and we still know what he did,” she said. “I want this community to know that they lost a good boy. Jeremy has three generations of family here. It’s his birthright that people know what happened to him. The way this whole thing has been handled … it makes me ashamed.”
If one homicide case were able to evoke every problem associated with combating violent crime in Oroville, the Doss case might be it. In the speed-saturated and tightly nested circles that Hellon and Doss traveled in, there are few people who might be considered innocent. Doss had meth in his system when he died. Some of the people Hellon and Yard-Spicer supposedly confessed to have criminal backgrounds or are drug users who may not want to get involved for fear of self-incrimination. And members of both Doss’ and Hellon’s families have had run-ins with the law, usually involving drugs.
Ramsey insists that the backgrounds of the people involved made no difference in his decision not to try Hellon for murder. In his view, he said, there are three types of cases: When a person is obviously guilty and there is evidence to prove it; when a person is just as obviously guilty but the evidence is lacking; and when a person may or may not be guilty and the evidence is simply inconclusive. He puts Hellon in the third category.
Hellon, meanwhile, is currently awaiting sentencing on the meth-making charge. Though he argued passionately in court that the ephedrine pills he had purchased over the counter were being used legally “as a health supplement,” the jury hearing the case didn’t buy it. Convicted last August, Hellon now has his third felony strike, making the likely sentence 25 years to life in a state prison.
With Hellon already facing life behind bars and the Doss case growing colder every day, trying Hellon for murder seems to investigators to be a daunting, costly and possibly futile exercise for an already overburdened county justice system.
And yet, asks Jeremy’s mother, "What if it was your son? My son wasn’t perfect, but he had a big heart and he was trying to clean himself up. I hope at least they put [Hellon] away for a long time. I wouldn’t want to see him do this to another family. Jeremy’s not the only victim here. He’s getting away with this, and it’s killing me."