May 27, 2021

Courage and cowardice: How the 2017 Brookhaven/Bogue Chitto killing spree changed us

Therese Apel

Today you’re waking up to a normal day… Just like four years ago today.

The 24 hours surrounding May 27 and May 28 in 2017 saw one of the most selfish, calculated, evil and cowardly incidents in Mississippi’s history. It was the state’s largest mass casualty incident on record (since the Civil War, which the historians like to point out to me for some reason, as if the two are comparable, but anyway). The killer would visit three separate homes, all friends or family connected to the Bogue Chitto community, to do his evil, taking hostages to drive for him in between.

Within just a few hours, the lives of William Durr, Barbara Mitchell, Brenda May, Toccara May, Jordan Blackwell, Austin Edwards, Ferral Burage and Sheila Burage were lost at the hands of a madman whose name isn’t even worth mentioning. He decided to try to erase them because they were trying to help his wife get out of the terrible, abusive relationship she was in. He couldn’t have her, so he pitched a nuclear, lethal temper tantrum.

Except 18-year-old Jordan Blackwell and 11-year-old Austin Edwards, whose only offenses were having brave parents. They were killed in lieu of those parents, who weren’t home when the killer came by. Jordan was shielding his cousin from the bullets when he was killed.

William Durr was the deputy sent to the scene when the call came in about the disturbance. He was just supposed to clear that coward out of the family gathering he was terrorizing with his drama — not the first time he had done it by far, and I don’t think anyone assumed it would be his last.

But the killer executed his wife’s mother and sister — her support system. Her aunt, her cousin, and her cousin’s husband whose bravery to stand and fight was the only reason that killer sustained any injury that day. Ferral Burage shot the killer in the arm as he tried to protect his home with a handgun from  the selfish, narcissistic manchild with automatic weapons.

For so many people who loved those people, the world ended that day, at least for a little while. There had never been evil so big and so loud and so ferocious in Lincoln County, and it was devastating. I spoke to the killer on scene, and his voice and his words still bring a knot to my stomach and make my flesh crawl.

Today at 11 a.m. at the monument in Bogue Chitto dedicated to those eight victims, we will lay a wreath to commemorate their loss. The sacrifice of those who died protecting and the innocence of those who couldn’t defend themselves or others — we know what today is, and it matters.

At his trial, that coward spoke to the audience and the jury, at one point spreading out his arms before the court, saying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The disgust and revilement in that courtroom was sticky and thick and descended as soon as the words came out of his mouth. If it was possible for a man to seem exponentially more evil than the morning after he killed eight people, it was in that moment. It knocked the breath out of everyone who saw it.

Looking back, it’s hard to find beauty in those ashes, but for me as the reporter who was there from scene to courtroom, there have been some things I’ll cling to as evidence that God has been there throughout.

These families are the most incredibly beautiful people I’ve ever met. In the face of unimaginable grief, I have seen them maintain their faith, support each other, and hug back hard when approached by constant streams of well-wishers that seem never-ending. They have been honest and vulnerable about their pain, and they have been the example of strength and patience in the years that have passed.

The jury saw that as well, and more than a dozen new friends from north Mississippi are now family as well. Bogue Chitto is a part of them, as they are now a part of all of us who were involved in that 24-hour period in various ways.

Each of the victims lives on in his or her own legacy of kindness, bravery, generosity, humor, and love outside of May 27-28, 2017. We’ve come to know them — even those of us who didn’t — and treasure who they were.

The killer got four death sentences and four life sentences. He will never see life on the outside again. He can sit in a cell and talk to himself about how he’s like Jesus all he wants, and when his day comes to figure out who’s actually Jesus, I think the truth will be established quickly.

I think when something awful happens, everyone does that thing about how we’ll “never forget,” and “gone, but not forgotten.” Sometimes that’s something people say to get the loved ones through the funeral, then they return to life as it was before the tragedy as if nothing ever happened.

That’s not the case here.

William Durr, Barbara Mitchell, Brenda May, Toccara May, Jordan Blackwell, Austin Edwards, Ferral Burage, and Sheila Burage, you have my promise: As long as I’m breathing, the world will remember your names.

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