December 6, 2021

Jessica Chambers case hits 7 years, still unfinished

Therese Apel

Jessica Chambers

Around 5 p.m., December 6, 2014, Panola County.

A 19-year-old Courtland girl heads to the local convenience store to put gas in her car, and that would be the last time her family ever saw her.

Jessica Chambers was a typical 19-year-old. She was an ex-cheerleader, worked in a clothing store, and had plenty of attention from the boys. She was known to have sold drugs from time to time, and had an arrest on her record, but it was hard to find anyone in Courtland or Batesville who seemed to have a major issue with her. Jessica was well-liked by almost everyone.

But that night after her trip to the gas station, Jessica was discovered by firefighters who responded to a call of a burning vehicle on Herron Road in Courtland. They got there and began the usual operation of extinguishing a car fire until something almost unthinkable happened. Coming from the direction of the woods, a young woman was walking toward them in just her underwear, burned beyond recognition.

“Help me,” she said to then-Fire Chief Cole Haley.

What happened after that is a jumble of disputed facts. Multiple firefighters testified that they asked her “who did this to you?” and that she replied either “Eric” or “Derrick.” How all of them had time to talk to her as her considerable airway burns closed her throat, her lips and tongue already parched from inhaling gasoline-fueled fire and fumes, is unclear.

In the ambulance, another first responder asked, “Did Eric do this to you?” and according to court testimony, she replied with what sounded like, “No.”

A doctor would later testify that there was no way Jessica could have made accurately distinguishable words at that point. The mystery of what the word “Eric” or “Derrick” could have been meant to be has no clear answer.

Jessica was flown to a hospital in Memphis, where her family met her. Her late mother, Lisa Daugherty, said in an interview later that she got the news from Jessica’s stepmother, Debbie Chambers. They were pulling up at the hospital as the helicopter landed. Early the next morning as Lisa sat with Jessica, she told her that it was okay if it was too hard to fight and she needed to let go.

Jessica died minutes later.

The world didn’t forget her, though. The Jessica Chambers case became an obsession around the country. It hit at a time that people were learning to use their social media to play internet sleuth, and around the country people were certain they could solve the crime.

Officials investigated all the Erics, Derricks, and even a Jerrick in the Panola County area, including other nearby counties too. Jessica’s keys were found in a nearby ditch by a man walking his child in a stroller. Federal agents on the case began dissecting cellphone records to see who had been in Jessica’s life. There were no Erics or Derricks in her phone other than two Erics on her Facebook, and both of them were cleared.

Jessica’s boyfriend at the time, Travis Sanford, was in prison. Authorities explored whether he could have though Jessica was unfaithful and put out a hit on her, but his grief was so genuine that it didn’t seem plausible, they said.

Quinton Tellis, a gang member also from Courtland, caught investigators’ attention because he was with her the day she died, according to witness testimony and cell phone pings, but he lied about it multiple times before admitting to it.

But the Panola County gangs came forward, each of them denouncing the killing and saying they had no problem with Jessica.

Amid his shifting stories, Tellis told officials that he had slept with Jessica once, allegedly weeks before, and described an area where he said it had happened.

Tellis was indicted in Mississippi in February 2016 as he sat in a jail cell in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, accused in crimes connected to a Taiwanese national who was found tortured to death in her apartment. He will be tried in her murder in January 2022.

The night Jessica died, their cell phones pinged in that area. The passenger seat was laid back, just as he had described. He had, according to court testimony, been begging her for sex, which she had blown off. At the same time, though, she would ask him for money or to buy her food. They had known each other roughly two weeks.

Tellis’ inconsistencies caught him multiple times, the real kicker being when he said he was with “Big Mike” Sanford on the night Jessica was killed. But Big Mike testified that he was in Nashville at a Tennessee Titans game. Phone records and receipts would show Big Mike was truthful, and that he had taken that trip in the vehicle Tellis had described as the one they had allegedly ridden in on the night of December 6, 2014.

Tellis went to trial in 2017, and the prosecution brought strong evidence. They had seemingly incriminating texts and voicemails from Tellis to Jessica, and District Attorney John Champion and then-ADA Jay Hale brought forward surveillance video evidence of Tellis in the gas station the night Jessica died. When Tellis was told of Jessica’s death, he didn’t have any reaction. That’s strange, they argued, considering he just spent parts of the day with her.

With then-Department of Justice analyst Paul Rowlett on the stand, Hale confirmed that Tellis had deleted Jessica’s texts and contacts from his phone. Tellis, they said, had told investigators he didn’t see any reason to keep her in his phone if she was dead.

“So he erased her from his life,” Hale said.

Defense attorneys Darla Palmer and Alton Peterson hammered on the Eric and Derrick testimony, with Palmer ending her closing arguments by saying, “Eric isn’t on trial here today, but he should be.”

That trial resulted in a hung jury. In 2018, the prosecution brought the case again, adding an expert witness to talk about Jessica’s airway burns, and they brought a witness who said she picked Tellis up that night and gave him a ride. He seemed nervous and sweaty, she said.

But the jury hung again. Eric and Derrick were too constant, too shady. Prosecutors say they don’t know if they will bring the case again. Some experts have said they believe Champion will wait to see what happens in the Louisiana case.

Lisa Daugherty died October 29 of this year, never knowing whether there would be justice for her daughter. Travis Sanford was killed in a dice game in March 2019. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation’s Tim Douglas, one of the lead investigators on the case, has retired. ATF agent Scott Meadows, another lead in the investigation, has been transferred out of state. Hale now works for the United States Attorney’s Office, and Rowlett is working for the Department of Defense, also out of state. Then-Sheriff Dennis Darby was beaten in the last election, and his detectives have largely retired or gone to other agencies. Jerry King, who found Jessica’s car keys, was killed July 28 when his ATV was rear-ended by a Tallahatchie County deputy.

Some say new eyes on Jessica’s case could be what it takes to bring closure one day. You could say the case is possibly solved, possibly not. For now, though, it is definitely unfinished.

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