Helping children was top priority to Jones

Phil Etheridge knew whom to call when bureaucracy blocked his son from getting his driver's license.

His wife had called from the court annex in north Fulton County to say their son couldn't take the driving test because state rules required the car to be licensed and their car still had dealer tags.

"I said, 'Let me call Sammy,' "

Etheridge said Saturday. "He said, 'Tell Mark ... to tell the magistrate who he is and he'll give you his keys and you can use his car."

"That is the way he operated — he got things done," said Etheridge, a senior Superior Court judge. "You could count on him when you needed him. He was very old-school."

The small favor was vintage Sanford "Sammy" Jones, said his friends and colleagues, who were still stunned Saturday that he had died the day before in a plane crash that also killed one of the three young people he was flying to Newnan from Destin, Fla.

Jones' pilot calm and expertise helped save the lives of the two survivors, said Julie Campbell, mother of one of them. When the plane started having engine trouble, Jones had Campbell's daughter, Sarah Conklin, and Joshua Rumohr move from the seats in the back of the Beachcraft Bonanza to ones with their backs to him — a position increasing the odds of survival in a crash. He calmly told everyone to hold on, Campbell said.

"His voice calmed her," Campbell said of her 19-year-old daughter. "She trusted him. She knew he would do the best he could, and he did."

Alexander "Sasha" Medina, the passenger who died, was in the co-pilot's seat next to Jones when the plane clipped trees while trying to land in an Alabama field.

Jones, who grew up on a farm in south Fulton and was still a gentleman farmer, rose through the court bureaucracy from a law clerk to administrator of both the state and superior courts. He was appointed to the juvenile court in 1991, and he served as its chief judge from 1999 through 2008.

He earned a reputation as a creative problem-solver who could negotiate the thorniest and pettiest conflicts among the judges for whom he worked. He was seen as a visionary in terms of the juvenile court, which became his passion.

"He was the backbone of that juvenile court, he carried the bulk of the workload with very little fanfare," said John Shope, executive of the U.S. District Court in Atlanta and Jones' hunting buddy. "I know that specifically Sammy was the most important single influence in getting that juvenile court building separated out from the adult court structure. He knew it had to be separate because otherwise the adult court would consume it every time it needed space."

Michael Wilson, the retired administrator for the juvenile court, said Jones had a motto he often recited: "A hundred years from now it won't matter what my bank account was, the size of the home I lived in or the kind of car I drove, but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child."

"That was something he lived every day," Wilson said.

Shope was the administrator of the Fulton Superior Court when Jones was running the state court in the early 1980s. He noted the two jobs had a great potential for conflict because of jealousies and rivalries between the two court systems that competed for resources and responsibilities.

"He and I had a lot of potential for turf battles, but Sammy and I hit it off from the beginning," Shope said. "It is very unnatural for a state court clerk to move over to be the administrator of the superior court, but that relationship helped lay the foundation for him to make that move."

In other words, Jones had won over the Superior Court judges, who appointed him administrator in 1988.

"He was probably one of the most politically sophisticated people I've ever known," said his longtime friend, Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford. "Sammy knew the lay of the land, and he was the type of person who could work with everybody and make things work."

Bedford said he wished he had taken up the last offer to go turkey hunting on Jones' farm, and he regretted not spending as much time with Jones in recent years. Last week, Bedford's wife had penned a note to ask Jones over for dinner.

"When it comes down to it, life is all about people," Bedford said. "I will miss his great sense of wit. He had almost a Lewis Grizzard take on things. ... It had a way of putting things in perspective."

Shope introduced Jones to elk hunting in Colorado — where Jones was as interested in the camaraderie as in bagging a stag. Mike Ferguson, his childhood friend, said the two rod motorcycles together, and the judge had an uncanny knack for sniffing out hole-in-the-wall restaurants with scrumptious fare.

"A lot of people don't have time to talk to you," Ferguson said. "Sammy made time to talk to you. If you had a problem, he would stop doing what he was doing and talk to you."

Louis Levenson, the plane's owner, bought a farm near Fairburn, which made him Jones' neighbor and best friend for 25 years. Together, they sold cows, cleared brush together and made some money at what was more of a hobby than a business.

Levenson, a lawyer, said Jones helped him get an appointment as a Fulton County magistrate. "A lot of people were equally blessed — an endorsement from Sammy Jones was the route to good things," Levenson said.

Staff writer Kent A. Miles contributed to this article.