A Boston University professor was killed after falling through a large gap in a badly rusted, state-owned staircase in Dorchester that had been closed to pedestrians since last year, officials said Monday, a mysterious death that stunned his family and colleagues and raised questions about how he happened to reach the dangerous area.
David K. Jones, 40, was found on the ground near the JFK/UMass MBTA station around 1:30 Saturday afternoon under a set of stairs that connects Old Colony Road to the Columbia Road overpass, authorities said.
The stairs had been “deemed unsafe and closed for approximately 20 months,” said David Procopio, a State Police spokesman, and the MBTA has warned the public not to use the stairs to access the Red Line station. A wire fence was blocking the lower entrance and a jersey barrier and chain link fence blocked access at the top, Procopio said.
It’s unclear how Jones was able to access the stairs.
Jones, an associate professor in the BU School of Public Health’s department of Health Law, Policy and Management, lived in Milton with his wife and three children. He was mourned Monday by his family, colleagues, and a lifetime of friends.
“The void he leaves behind is unspeakable,” Jones’s widow, Sarah Sacuto, said in a social media posting. She wrote that her husband went out for a run and “never returned” home.
“He was the most loving, kind, considerate person I knew,” Sacuto wrote. “He was the best father. He loved to dance to Phish, be outdoors, and run. He loved unconditionally and was the proudest father to his kids. I loved him.”
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said investigators “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,” Rollins said in a statement. “While the investigation is ongoing, we are available to offer his family support and connect them to community resources through our victim witness assistance program.’’
Jones joined the School of Public Health in 2014 and had distinguished himself as “an exemplary member of our community,” said Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the School of Public Health. During his tenure, he served as the founding editor in chief of Public Health Post and received several honors, including the public health school’s Excellence in Teaching Award.
In an interview, Galea recalled Jones as a “passionate and dedicated teacher” who was “beloved by his students.”
“He was a positive presence in the school and contributed to making it a better place,” Galea said. “He was just a good guy, always willing to engage and take on projects that helped the school, helped his students, and I very much valued that about him.”
Shortly after meeting Jones in 2015, Galea tapped him to lead The Public Health Post, a new online publication that set out to translate the science of public health to a general audience.
“We wanted a faculty member to head it up, so I reached out to David and we sat down and I explained the vision,” Galea said. “He was early in his career to do something like that, but I thought he could do it and was right. He did a fabulous job establishing the project . . . and the website today is a tribute and legacy to David.”
Galea said he learned of Jones’s death Saturday evening after State Police contacted the university’s human resources department in an effort to reach his family.
“It was really just an out-of-the-blue, shocking and tragic moment,” he said.
Funeral details would be forthcoming, according to his family.
A fund-raiser for Jones’s family had received more than $77,000 by Monday evening.
“David was beloved beyond words,” read the fund-raising appeal. “This Go Fund Me page has been set up to raise money to support David’s wife, Sarah, and his three children, Olivia, Anne, and Thomas.”
On Monday, there were multiple signs posted at the top and bottom of the staircase informing people that the stairway was closed. Procopio said he wasn’t certain whether those signs were present at the time of the accident.
A number of rusted steps had fallen to the ground below the staircase. It was not clear when they fell, but a Google Street View image from November 2020 showed four missing steps.
The MBTA has repeatedly warned the public not to use the stairs.
From January 2020 until March 2021, officials posted 37 alerts to the MBTA Commuter Rail Twitter account that the stairs were inaccessible and directed them to use other ways to access the station while “necessary repairs are being made.”
The MBTA station serves the Red Line and three commuter rail lines — Greenbush, Kingston, and Middleborough/Lakeville.
Spokesmen for the MBTA and Keolis North America, which operates commuter rail service, declined to comment.
An MBTA official said Monday that the staircase in question is maintained by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. DCR officials could not be reached for comment.
Governor Charlie Baker briefly addressed the fatality when asked about it after an unrelated State House meeting.
“The story itself is a terrible tragedy,” Baker said. “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. Obviously I feel terrible for him, for his family, for all his colleagues and his students.”
Residents of the area said that the staircase has been in disrepair for years. Richard Saunders, who lives down the street from the Red Line station, said the entrance on the Columbia Road overpass has been blocked — with fencing and a rectangular cement slab — for as long as he can remember.
An MBTA sign on the fence said it was to be closed “until fall 2020.”
Fencing about 5 feet tall obstructed the Old Colony Avenue entrance and the area surrounding the staircase before Jones’ death, Saunders said. It was extended after the incident, he said.
Genesia Eddins, who lives nearby, said the staircase has been falling apart for years.
“That’s devastating to hear,” she said of Jones’ death. “I think the conditions speak for itself. They’re basically disintegrating underneath us.”
Emma Platoff and Taylor Dolven of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents Andrew Brinker and Nick Stoico contributed to this report.