Why Canton man tried to cheat death twice at Niagara

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Niagara Falls — When Kirk Jones waded into the rapids, the biggest danger wasn’t the 7-foot-long snake in his hands. It was the 170-foot waterfalls several hundred yards downriver.

Kirk Jones, of Canton, Mich., took a plunge over this area of the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

He knew the peril all too well. He had jumped over the falls in 2003, the first person to survive such a drop without a safety device.

Here he was, 14 years later, back at the brink, once again floating through a swirling mist toward the growing roar of the cascade.

Once again his friends would ask why. What makes a man leap off a precipice, rolling the dice with his life, not once but twice?

“Who jumps off Niagara Falls?” asked Russ Chiado, a longtime friend from Canton. “It’s amazing what we do in this world.”

Jones, 54, wasn’t a thrill seeker, friends said. The Canton native wasn’t a daredevil, despite what the newspapers wrote after the first time. He wasn’t chasing fame, quite content with obscurity.

Asked why he leaped the first time, he never really gave a good answer, friends said. He called it a suicide attempt but later acknowledged that was just a ruse to avoid a hefty fine for the illegal stunt.

People won’t be able to ask him this time.

Jones and the boa constrictor were supposed to ride over the falls in an 8-foot rubber ball, but somehow all three became separated before tumbling over the falls, police said. Jones’ body was found six weeks later.

In 2003, Kirk Jones became the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls without a safety device. In April this year, he planned to repeat the feat — along with his pet boa constrictor — in an inflatable 8-foot rubber ball. But something went awry, and Jones’ body was found six weeks later.

His friends are left foraging for answers in what they described as an unremarkable life, one where a man had been falling into a void long before two visits to Niagara Falls.

“To survive it the first time is a total accident,” said Bruce Juergens, 53, of Redford. “To try to survive it again is just totally freaking insane.”

Jones certainly didn’t look like anyone’s idea of a daredevil. With a paunch and receding hairline, along with a mustache, he bore an unfortunate resemblance to porn star Ron Jeremy.

He was just a likeable schlub from Canton, friends said. They described him as funny, fun-loving and generous.

If someone was drunk and drove off the road at 4 in the morning, Jones was always the one to come get him, they said.

When Alice Cooper put him up in a Niagara Falls hotel after the first jump, he invited his friends in Michigan to share in his good fortune and they ran up a room bill of several thousand dollars.

“He was sweet-hearted. He’d give you his last dollar,” said Rhonda Whitacre, who lived next door to Jones during their childhoods.

Jones continues to inspire loyalty from friends, even those who had long lost touch with him.

“You couldn’t ask for a better person,” said Whitacre’s husband, Dan, another friend since childhood. “He’s the person you want to be around all the time. It was always happiness with him.”

Jones was no schlub as a teenager.

He favored silk shirts, bell-bottoms and velvet black shoes with a red stripe, friends said. He wore a Rolex and drove a new Cadillac. He had $100 in his pocket while his friends had $20. Girls were drawn to him, friends said.

The money came from his dad, Ray, who owned a business that made measuring devices for auto part makers.

“He always had the best of everything,” said longtime friend Tony Fox, 54, of Plymouth. “The world he was raised in was glorious and fat.”

But after high school, Jones lurched from job to job. He had little taste for the 9-to-5 grind.

Within hours of hiring him as a painter, Fox realized he had made a mistake, he said. He didn’t fire him because he knew Jones would quit within several weeks. And that’s exactly what happened.

The only job he held onto was working for his father, filling orders and driving a truck. But accounts vary how much work he did.

He continued to live with his parents and, when he needed money for the first jump, his dad wired $300. While others criticized Jones for the stunt, his dad said he was proud of him.

When Ray went out of business in 2003, Kirk lost his sole source of money.

Like hitting concrete

Jones first became interested in Niagara Falls as a youngster. An avid reader, he learned all about its history, its daredevils, the ones who survived, the ones who didn’t.

The first was Annie Taylor, 63, a school teacher from Bay City. In 1901 she tumbled over the falls in an oak barrel padded with a mattress. She emerged bloody but alive.

By 2003, the stunts had become as clichéd as its image as a honeymoon mecca. The most common vehicle were barrels, but others made the plunge in a kayak and Jet Ski. Five of the 15 people died, including the ones in the kayak and Jet Ski.

But Jones had a new twist. He would do it without protection.

He visited the falls several times before his first jump, throwing Styrofoam into the cataract to see where it landed, friends said. He believed he found a spot where the water fell away from the rocks.

In October 2003, he jumped into Niagara River several hundred yards from Horseshoe Falls, which is one of Niagara’s three waterfalls, and floated toward the precipice on his back, he said later.

As he fell over the falls feet first, his body was enveloped by the cold, verdant water and spiraled like a corkscrew.

“It felt like I was being swallowed by a living beast,” he told a reporter in 2009.

When Jones landed, the water felt like concrete, knocking the wind out of him. As he dropped 30 feet below the surface, the roiling gorge spun his body in all directions, right, left, upside down.

He crashed into an underwater rock, temporarily blacking out, he said. He swam to the surface and clambered onto a rock, where he was retrieved by rescue workers.

The tumble had torn open his coat and ripped the buttons off his shirt, but left him with just two fractured ribs and some bruised vertebrae.

He could have been fined $10,000 but ended up paying $2,260.

After three days in a court-ordered psychiatry ward, Jones emerged to a phalanx of television news cameras. Appearances on “Inside Edition” and “Good Morning America” soon followed.

If his reason for going over the falls was to cash in on the notoriety, he was partly successful.

He joined a Florida circus, wearing a white suit with gold sequins and rhinestones as he signed autographs and led alpacas into the ring during opening parades.

Kirk Jones enjoyed a brief time in the spotlight after his first time over the falls. He planned a memoir and joined a Florida circus. But the circus closed after three months, and the book was never written.

He planned a memoir entitled “You’re Kidding Me: A Knucklehead’s Guide to Surviving Niagara Falls.” And he contemplated leaping off a Las Vegas hotel onto a bunch of foam pads.

But the circus closed after three months, the book was never written and the Vegas plan fizzled.

“He was just back to regular Kirk,” said Bill Montague, 54, a classmate from Canton Township.

Jones’ parents retired to Oregon and, in 2004, he moved in with them. His dad suffered a stroke, and Jones took care of him until his death in 2007.

The following year, Jones and his brother, Keith, who also had moved to Oregon, were charged with selling cocaine from the Salem home they shared with their mom, police said.

Keith, who had been convicted of selling drugs in the past, served two weeks in the Marion County Jail for the Oregon offense, according to jail records. Kirk, who didn’t have a criminal record, received probation, but after failing to perform community service, spent five months in jail.

Left without family

After Kirk was released in 2011, the brothers removed their mother from an Oregon nursing home and brought her to Florida, friends said. The trip apparently violated several conditions of Kirk’s probation: remain in Oregon, find employment, perform community service, stay away from his brother, according to court records. Jail officials said they couldn’t discuss his case in detail.

Fox said he warned Kirk to straighten out the probation issue, but Kirk downplayed the matter. Kirk said he had learned from other inmates how to avoid the police while seeking food and other assistance from churches and social service groups.

“When you grow up like he did, where everything was given to you, you get used to it,” said Fox. “It’s hard to become a pizza delivery guy from Wayne with an old car.”

In Spring Hill, Florida, north of Tampa, Jones doted on his elderly mother, Doris, friends said. He put on her jewelry, made sure her clothes matched, drove her to medical appointments.

But money was tight. He was caught shoplifting from a Walmart in 2014, paying the $50 fine in two payments, according to Florida court records.

Keith, 56, died from a heart attack that year and Doris, 88, passed away the following year.

Kirk, a lifelong bachelor, then married Holly Marion, 40, a fellow fan of heavy metal music, but the union quickly soured, friends said.

Kirk had no family, little money and was running out of options.

Jones rarely spoke about his plunge over Niagara Falls and certainly never showed any interest in repeating it, friends said. If he ever thought a big bounty rested at the bottom of the falls, he had been disabused of that notion in the first stunt’s aftermath.

And yet, in April, his life had taken a winding path back to the same spot. The risk was huge, the payoff small. He had called the earlier stunt the act of a desperate man.

“It makes no sense. Why would he try it a second time,” said Jo Anne Buzzerio of Spring Hill, who befriended Jones after he moved to Florida.

The second time around, Jones took precautions, friends said. He spent $800 for an inflatable rubber ball with a zippered hatch, they said.

He may have gotten the idea from Bill Fitzgerald, who rode over the falls in a similar contraption in 1961. The ball struck a rock but bounced harmlessly away, leaving Fitzgerald unhurt.

But Jones didn’t think using a ball would be noteworthy enough, especially after having already taken the plunge unprotected, friends said. He needed to make it seem more daring or, at least, exotic. That’s where Misty came in.

Misty was Jones’ yellow albino boa constrictor, whom he had bought a year or so earlier.

Jones had regretted not taping the first stunt so he planned to film the second with a camera mounted to a drone, which he would control with a device on his wrist, friends said.

Police would later find a website where Jones planned to market the second escapade. It was going to sell T-shirts with a photo of Jones, the falls and the snake.

“Believe in the impossible,” read the T-shirt. “KIRK JONES + MISTY conquer Niagara Falls NY 2017.”

Unclaimed in Buffalo

On April 19, tourists spotted an empty rubber ball spinning above the waterfalls, apparently stuck on some rocks.

The next day, a Niagara Falls State Park worker found the drone on a nearby island, police said. Video from the camera showed the drone taking off, hovering over the river for several minutes and then crashing. There was no sign of Jones.

His ex-wife Marion called state park police to say Jones may have ridden over the falls.

Police found his 2001 Honda minivan, holding an empty snake cage.

So they had Jones’ drone, Jones’ ball and Jones’ van, but they didn’t have Jones.

“We didn’t know if it was a stunt or a hoax,” said park police Major Pat Moriarty.

On June 2, a boater discovered Jones’ body 12 miles from the fall, a spot where the river flows into Lake Ontario. Misty is still missing.

Despite the discovery, questions abound. Police don’t know if Jones had ever gotten into the ball or had fallen or jumped out.

Moriarty said he couldn’t discuss Jones’ specific injuries or other details of the case until he contacts Marion, whom he hasn’t reached since her April phone call. The News also hasn’t been able to contact her.

Jones, a scholar of Niagara Falls, may have failed to heed a lesson from a fellow Michiganian.

Taylor had hoped to get rich from her stunt but died broke, said historians. She considered a second plunge but deemed it too dangerous. She is buried in the “stunters” section of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls.

Jones’ body lies in the Erie County Morgue in Buffalo. If it continues to be unclaimed, Moriarty said, the morgue will eventually have to remove it to make room for new ones. If that happens, one place it could be taken is Oakwood Cemetery.