Death at closed, rusted staircase a mystery

BU professor found dead beneath fenced-off steps

BOSTON UNIVERSITY  professor David K. Jones was found dead on Saturday beneath a closed-off, rusted-out staircase near the MBTA’s JFK/UMass Station in Dorchester, but how he got there remains a mystery.

The steep staircase had been closed for a long time and pictures suggest it would not be easy to access. Fencing and a jersey barrier blocked access from the top at Columbia Road and fencing blocked access from the bottom at Old Colony Avenue.

In a Facebook post, Jones’s wife, Sarah Sacuto, said her husband went for a run Saturday morning and “accidentally accessed a flight of stairs near the JFK UMass Boston metro stop that was rusted through. He fell from 20 feet up and most likely died instantly.”

The death is a tragedy, but how exactly it happened remains unclear. Jones and Sacuto live in Milton not far from the intersection of Blue Hills Parkway and Brook Road. It’s about 5.5 miles from their home to the stairs at the JFK/UMass Station if Jones ran a fairly direct route, longer if he took a more scenic path. 

It was the middle of the day on a beautiful weekend, so visibility would have been very good. Pictures of the staircase on Monday in the Dorchester Reporter and on Google show fencing in place at the top and bottom and signs notifying people walking by that the stairs were closed. Google Earth pictures from November 2020 show many steps on the staircase already missing then and they also show fencing at the top and bottom of the stairs, although the fencing at the bottom appears to be less secure and there is little signage.

Google Earth picture from November 2020 of staircase. The MBTA station is across the tracks in the rear.

A State Police spokesman issued a statement saying detectives and the Suffolk County district attorney’s office were notified by MBTA police “of the unattended death” of Jones, who had been discovered under the set of stairs by a passerby who called police.

“Preliminary investigation revealed that the stairs had been deemed unsafe and closed for approximately 20 months. There was a wire fence blocking the bottom entrance of the stairway (Old Colony Ave) and a chain link fence and jersey barrier blocking the top entrance (Columbia Rd),” according to the statement.

Still, why would a 40-year-old respected professor of public health, after running at least 5.5 miles, decide to climb a fence to navigate an obviously rusted-out and dangerous staircase?

In online comments on stories reporting on the death, there were those who blamed the Department of Conservation and Recreation for failing to maintain the steps. (The stairway is apparently DCR-controlled property and not owned by the MBTA.) Gov. Charlie Baker, during a press availability, called Jones’s death a terrible tragedy for his wife and three children and his students. “There’s an investigation going on at this point in time, and I want to let that investigation proceed before we comment more on it,” he said. 

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins issued a statement saying “we continue to look at how Dr. Jones accessed a stairway that had been closed for some 20 months. Whether accidental or intentional, any death is a tragedy and the harm to loved ones is the same.”

One commenter on Universal Hub said he suspected Jones made a tragic mistake. “With all sympathy to the widow and family, the rational conclusion is that Jones was intentionally in a place where he knew he should not have been. He doesn’t deserve death and I am not trying to shame the poor guy for what seems like an avoidable, yet fatal, mistake. But unless some elaborate conspiracy is revealed where Jones was murdered and the crime scene was staged as an accident, it seems like Jones was a too-curious urban explorer or he wanted to use the closed stairs as a way to avoid the [nearby] rotary.”