Mississippi Hanging

After a fight with his white girlfriend, Willie, a young black man, was found dead, hanging on a tree. Suicide, according to the police, but Willie’s mother never believed it. Dutch reporter Michael Persson visited her and other people involved in Mississippi in search for the truth.

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Green Grove Road

The tree can’t be much older than Willie Jones was when he was found there last year, hanging from a plastic cord. It’s not the sort of tree you would associate with lynching – not some thick oak or chestnut tree on a hill just outside the village, but a young pecan tree, hardly taller than the surrounding bushes, at the edge of an overgrown front garden, in a wood in Mississippi. The branch Willie was hanging from is as thin as his arms were.

The house is on a dead-end gravel path where barefooted children hang about and barking dogs guard the trailers. This is where on 8 February 2018, Willie, a black boy of 21, argued for the last time with his girlfriend Alexis, a white girl of 19 who was living here with her parents and with whom he had a little boy of three months old. It was Alexis’ father Harold who found Willie half an hour later hanging from the tree and called 911 to say that his son-in-law had hung himself.

‘For Sale’, says the sign nailed to one of the posts of the porch. Birds sing as if nothing has happened. One of the windows has a bullet hole in it.

In the Green Grove United Methodist Church at the beginning of the gravel path — a small church where a service is held every other week — the black churchgoers nod in approval listening to what reverend Dino Terrell, a big man in a tropical shirt, has to say about Willie Jones’ case. ‘Suicide? A black man, hanging from a tree, after a fight with a white girl? Man, they swept this under the rug. Go and talk with the opposite neighbors. They were there.’

And so the story continues where it appears to have ended.

327 Green Grove Road, the house of Willie's family-in-law Photo: Michael Persson

Jackson, 2019

In Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, Nia Umoja is an activist trying to breathe new life into a dilapidated black neighborhood. She is both angry and resigned. It is March 2018 and she speaks about the injustice that can strike black America with the systematic arbitrariness of a thunderstorm. Mississippi is the state where Emmett Till was lynched in 1955 after he had made a flirtatious remark to a white woman. It is also the state where activist Medgar Evers was shot dead on his own garden path. And it is a state where one year later, three other civil rights activists were murdered when they were investigating a fire in a black church. Their case was made famous in the movie Mississippi Burning.

And, says Nia, blacks are still being murdered and the perpetrators get away with it. Only six months earlier a black man was found hanging on the university campus and a few weeks before that another one was found in the woods some 40 miles away. There have been more cases of dead African-Americans hanging in public places over the last couple of years – and always the verdict is suicide. ‘Black men don’t hang themselves,’ she says. ‘We know our past.’

Willie Jones’ death is also declared a suicide by Sheriff Mike Lee in the regional paper, the day after it happened. ‘There’s no evidence of a racially motivated crime.’ He claims that witnesses have said that Jones had threatened to kill himself that night. He also points to the fact that Willie’s in-laws are ‘bi-racial’ — one of their sons has a black girlfriend, Shay. No arrests are made.

Bullet hole from the shooting on Valentine's Day Photo: Michael Persson

A few days later, on Valentine’s Day, the police again respond to a call from 327 Green Grove Road. In the middle of the night, someone has fired at the house from a moving vehicle. ‘Now we have two investigations occurring at the same house,’ sheriff Lee complains to the Scott County Times. ‘When something like this shooting happens, it does not help the case at hand, and is senseless. This shooting takes away man hours from the initial case of the death of Jones.’

According to the newspaper, the people living in the house left in a hurry — never to come back again.

Meanwhile, Willie’s mother Tammie Townsend claims to have seen bruises on her son’s body and the black marks of cigarette stubs. She alerts the NAACP, the civil rights movement. Pressured by them, the sheriff asks for assistance from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) and the FBI. It’s turning into a serious investigation after all.

It’s an intriguing case. During a first short visit by this reporter in mid-March 2018, the small neighborhood is dead quiet. A boy I meet at the beginning of the gravel path is one of the few people willing to say anything. ‘As a black man you feel like a deer,’ he says. ‘With a target on your back. You don’t do no stupid things around here. I ain’t dating a white girl.’

The sheriff is nowhere to be found and no one else wants to say anything about the investigation. Emails and phone calls to the sheriff and the MBI remain unanswered, also when the investigation is officially concluded, in early May. The conclusion is the same as at the beginning: suicide. There is no additional explanation and for a long time no questions are answered. In October Mother Tammie announces that she will be looking for justice, together with two public defenders and a number of local activists. It is the last news about the case to appear in American media.

So, in May 2019 it’s time to pay another visit to Green Grove Road.

Norris-Homewood Road, where Willie and Alexis started arguing on their way home Photo: Michael Persson

Scott County, 2019

Scott County is in the heart of Mississippi, a somewhat sloping area of woodlands, creeks and chicken farms where people stretch their vowels and speak in double negations. The town of Forest is the local hub, where public life is centered on the gas stations, fast food joints and the Walmart near the highway. The town center with the water tower, courthouse and town hall is as good as deserted after 5 PM, except for the sculptures of colorful chickens here and there. ‘Leading the way’ says a sign when you drive into town on a road that also leads to the slaughter houses of Tyson and Koch and the Mexican restaurants and Latino shops for the immigrants who provide America with chicken wings. Progress indeed, in Mississippi too.

This Sunday afternoon, Green Grove Road is bathing in sunlight as the neighbor who lives across from the empty house parks his pickup. In the back of the truck are a couple of fishing rods and a bucket full of fish to fry for dinner. Charles (black) asks his wife Eva Marie (white) to come out. ‘Talk to her. She knows what happened.’

‘My daughter Layla heard Alexis scream,’ says Eva, a tanned woman with tattoos on her upper arms, a packet of menthol cigarettes on the table in front of her trailer. They have a small vegetable patch, a tiny pool, and their own pool table in the shed – this is one of those places in America where people need to rely on their own inventiveness. ‘We went outside and saw him hanging. His feet were touching the ground, his face turned to the trunk of the tree. If he’d done this to himself, he could have held the tree and save himself. The police came in a couple of minutes, and then more police, two ambulances, Willie’s family. It took hours before they cut him loose. When they were gone me and Layla were still out there and we saw Harold with a funny laugh. He was laughing it off, he said.’

Earlier that night, says Layla, it had taken Harold ten minutes to park his truck. Harold was a mean drunk, she and her mother agree. Sometimes his children would knock on their door and stay the night because they were afraid to go home. And one time, Harold threatened to set the house on fire, says Eva.

‘And then one night your stepdaughter comes home, beaten up by her boyfriend, and you don’t do nothing? That don’t make no sense to me, with the mentality he had.’

She was never given the chance to tell her story, she says. ‘They keep me for stupid. But I want to give them some other reasons to think about what happened. That boy could never have committed suicide, with his arm the way it was. Willie worked for us sometimes, picking trash up, and I have noticed he couldn’t raise his hand all the way up. I can’t see that boy tying a knot over his head.’

An arm that makes it impossible for someone to have done something: it’s like an echo from To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel about a wrongly convicted black boy in the south who had one crippled arm and therefore could never have hit the woman he was supposed to have raped. It’s almost too good to be true. ‘I know things happen that are unexplained,’ says Eva. ‘But sometimes there’s another explanation.’

Also, Leila and Eva saw Harolds brother-in-law Randy drive off after Willie had been found dead, only to come back after the police had arrived. He parked his car outside the police cordon, says Layla. ‘How can you be a policeman or investigator and not see all those red flags? Papoose, the lead detective – we have always thought he was a good cop. He always did his job. And was great with the children too. But he wasn’t listening. Later we had that guy from the MBI. We showed him the video from our security camera, but he didn’t make a copy. He just made photos from our big flatscreen that was showing the video. He said the stories of all the family members were all the same, and that that meant the case was clear. Wasn’t that funny? I asked him if that didn’t mean that they had made sure their stories checked out. He said: very smart, you should come and work for the MBI.’

Eva: ‘The Lord says: the truth will reveal itself in time.’

Layla: ‘It’s time this is told.’

The place where Willie often played basketball Photo: Michael Persson

Tammie

Willie Jones came from an area north of Forest, called Brusha by the locals. White people will warn you about it – even at the bottom of American society there’s always an even lower place. It’s chaos there, say the folks of Forest, and even the police won’t go there. Along the paths in the woods, trailers huddle together at odd angles, surrounded by cars, quads and broken-down horse trailers. Here and there is a gritty basketball court where children play who are all related. At one of those small roads stands Brusha’s biggest house, the only one that is two stories high, where Willie lived with his mother and his brothers and sisters. The house is owned by his stepfather, Herbert Townsend, a.k.a. Papa Smurf, who went to prison eight years ago to serve a 30-year sentence because of large-scale drugs trafficking. Out here, no one knew Willie as Willie. Here he was Duke – the nickname his parents gave him as a baby; a name that held a promise.

When he told his mother that he had fallen in love with a girl that already had a child, she didn’t try to stop him. ‘I told him it was his decision. He understood it was a big responsibility. He never shied back from those things. He loved kids, and the kids loved him. I had no problem with Alexis having a baby. But then I found out that she was white. Oh my God, I was saying to myself. Because this is Mississippi.’

But after Alexis had come by a couple of times, Tammie relented. She was a sweet girl, she says. And when Alexis got pregnant, Tammie didn’t mind. ‘I knew Duke would be a responsible father.’ She also became friends with Alexis’ mother, Melissa, a.k.a. Missy. ‘Melissa used to talk to me all the time. She stayed at our place, we cooked dinner, she and I had a little friendship. She talked about Harold, she was ready to get away from him – I guess the drinking got her outrageous. I still don’t think that she is racist. Harold was sometimes acting mighty funny. But I miss Melissa.’

Tammie and Willie Photo: Family archive

After the baby was born, things didn’t go well between Willie and Alexis. They lived apart, both with their own mothers and argued about parental access. One time, in early February in the Burger King, the police was called. On 8 February, the little boy was with grandma Tammie when Alexis came by at night to pick him up. ‘Duke said “I go with them.” He was going to spend the night with her. I said “Son, be careful.” That man, he didn’t like Duke. Anything he did wasn’t good enough. I shouldn’t have let him go.’

At 22.44 Tammie got a call from Melissa, telling her to come over right away. Willie had hit Alexis. Tammy jumped in her car and tried to call Melissa back to hear what had happened. She tried every number she had. Four minutes later Shaniya answered Alexis’ cell phone, screaming: ‘He’s hanging from a tree! He’s dead!’

When Tammie got there, the area had already been cordoned off with yellow tape. She was distraught and angry. She wasn’t allowed near him and had to identify him from photographs the police had taken of his tattoos. ‘Tammie’ and ‘Trust’ on one arm, ‘No One’ on the other.

‘It was all so unprofessional. The coroner didn’t even have a camera. She took photos with her phone, but that didn’t work in the dark. The police… didn’t do nothing. No questions, no investigations. It was like Duke didn’t count. After two hours they cut him down. They put him in a body bag, zipped it up, and left with him.’

She didn’t get to see him until four days later. He had been embalmed and brought back from Pearl, where the forensic lab was located. She never authorized the embalmment, says Tammie. ‘I felt like they were trying to cover up something. I saw so many things that were wrong. He had two spots on his leg like he had been burnt. He had bruises and scratches on his back. And his right shoulder was out of place. He was hit once during a football game and that shoulder was bad since that moment. His arm could pop out of place when it had some force applied to it. Something must have happened.’

The Mockingbird arm. Did he put up a struggle? Or did he overstretch it himself?

Tammie pauses, swallows. ‘I don’t know why God did it the way he did it but… I was pretty sure it was no suicide. My child was not suicidal. He was happy, always cheerful, never depressed, didn’t use drugs, had no financial problems. Of course, I had my doubts. What if I was to blame for this? What if he was going through something? Did I miss something? But two days later I said my prayers and laid down and he appeared. Am I tripping, I thought. He said: “I have to tell you something. Please believe me. I didn’t do this to myself.” And I said: “Okay baby, I believe you. I promise you I won’t stop trying to find the person who did this.”’

‘They treated my child like he was nothing, like he was a nobody’, she says. ‘Nobody cared about my child. When a black man dies, people are not trying to find a guilty person. Imagine it had been her instead of him. Then he’d be in jail that same night. And he would have never gotten out.’

Alexis

The media

One of the problems with murders of black Americans is that they are solved much less often than those of white Americans. According to a 2018 Washington Post study, over the past ten years, 63 per cent of cases with a white victim led to an arrest, against only 47 per cent if the victim was black. And that was in cities, under the watchful eye of the media. In the country, dead black people raise even less fuss and attention.

‘There’s been a lot of murders in this community, but no investigations,’ says Willie Nelson, in a trailer in Brusha. In the aftermath of Willie Jones’ death he joined the New Black Panthers — an armed black self-defense group. ‘A dead black doesn’t count. The police are doing nothing, that’s racism right there.’ Only recently he had to keep a burglar under control with a gun for 90 minutes before the police came. ‘Justice doesn’t work for everybody here.’

The media also show little interest. Not much is written about dead black people in Scott County. A boy killed by gunfire here, a decapitated woman there, a burned-out car with a body in it: they make the news, but what happens next is unclear. Accusations of racism may also backfire. A black boy hanging from a tree? ‘We didn’t see the story,’ says James Phillips of the Scott County Times. ‘We looked at the evidence, and we didn’t see why it could be something different than a suicide. That’s what we got from the police. Maybe there’s more, but we have to go by the facts that we know. I’m sorry to say, but there’s always something racist. It’s a kneejerk reflex – even when a black guy starts shooting, and a white man shoots back, for self-defense, you get the NAACP complaining. People become desensitized. Here we go again. The risk is, it distracts from cases that need attention.’

Randy

The report

The report made by the Scott County police about Willie Jones’ death makes for both a very long and a very short read. Very short, because the most important information consists of voluntary statements by witnesses who all say roughly the same thing – Alexis tells her story to the police the day after the events, but most statements were taken no sooner than 12 February, which means that there was a window of four days for people to make sure their stories checked out. Very long, because all of them leave things out or place curious emphases, which makes the amateur sleuth want to ask many follow-up questions. How long was Harold outside while Willie was outside? Why didn’t he do anything when, by his own statement, he saw Willie walk off with a cord and heard him mumbling about killing himself? Where was Randy, before the police arrived? Why are there no photos of the body in the police report?

The run-up to the events seems more or less consistent. After Alexis picks up her son at Tammie’s on 8 February and drives back home together with Willie, and Shaniya (19), the girlfriend of Alexis' brother Thomas, and their little girl in the back, things get out of hand. Willie asks for Alexis’ cell phone and finds text messages of her new lover on it. He freaks out, hits Alexis and, after she has pulled over, he drags her out of the car and bangs her head against the door. They then drive on to her house, with Willie now behind the wheel. He stops one more time and begs her for forgiveness. Once they arrive at the house, they go inside and the quarrel starts up again. At some point, Willie says ‘I fucked up’ or ‘I messed up’ and goes outside. Harold goes after him, to – in his own words – see how he’s doing. He sees him walking with the cord that they use to pull a small cart with the children in it and hears him saying that he is going to kill himself. Harold then goes back inside and comes out again 20 or 30 minutes later. He then sees Willie hanging. He goes back inside and tells his brother-in-law Randy: Willie is hanging from a tree. Then he calls 911. It is now 22.49.

‘I need you to send somebody over here right now,’ he tells the operator on duty. ‘There’s been an argument between my stepdaughter and her boyfriend and he has hung hisself in a tree. Ma’am? I don’t know what to do, if I need to cut him down try to give him CPR… I don’t want to be in this stuff. … He is dead, I just walked up and touched him and he is limb. He said he was going outside to kill himself, but I didn’t believe him. They got a baby together, and he jumped on her on the way home, and beat the crap out of her on the way home and now he’s hanging in a tree out here. Ma’am? Please hurry. I don’t know what to do I just want to cut him down. I don’t want to get in it. I know CPR.’

From that point on the police buys the story of the announced suicide. Perhaps it’s the truth. But the police report contains another, alternative reality.

It’s the story of Shaniya, Thomas’ black girlfriend. She makes a phone call to the police on the night of 14 February. Earlier that day, very early in the morning, six bullets were fired at the house on Green Grove Road. One bullet hit the TV and another one went through a mattress. The family then flees the house, but Shaniya doesn’t go with them. Their ways part. This is what Shaniya has to say about the night Willie died:

‘Willie Jones went into the room with Alexis. Harold thought Willie had started beating on Alexis again. Harold went into his room and grabbed a gun. Melissa made him put the weapon back into the room. Melissa told Harold there is no need for a gun. Shortly, Willie walked outside. A few minutes later, Harold walked outside. Shaniya said Harold stayed outside for about ten minutes.’

This statement is completely different from the rest. Suddenly we have a gun, and Harold who is outside with Willie for 10 minutes. So, what does the police officer ask Shaniya, after hearing her story?

‘Do you know if Willie used any type of drugs?’

The tree (left) where Willie was found Photo: Michael Persson

The sheriff

For almost a week, the sheriff avoids this reporter’s questions and it is impossible to make an appointment. Then suddenly Mike Lee has found a moment to go to the police station.

‘My heart goes out to the mother,’ is the first thing he says. He understands her search for answers; he himself would also not be able to accept the fact that one of his own children would commit suicide, but there are simply no indications for murder, he says. ‘The findings are what they are. You can’t make something out of what is not there. We couldn’t find anything. We were looking where there may have been a scuffle, where there may have been someone dragged, if his hands were tied up. He was not beat up or bruised or anything. Moreover, Willie had made the statement that he was going to do something to himself.’

Yeah, according to witnesses like Harold. Has he ever been treated as a suspect, are only as a witness? ‘He was treated that night as a witness and then later we started treating him as a suspect, making sure we got a statement from him and making sure that his statement matched with people from there.’ Was he questioned? ‘I believe, I am quite sure that he was polygraphed by the MBI. He was never arrested, but treated more as a suspect.’ And what about Shaniya’s deviating statement about Harold and his gun? ‘Her statements to the MBI continued to change. I’m not sure why she wouldn’t just say wat the truth is.’

Time to contact the MBI, the local branch of the FBI. The man in charge here made the news last fall for banning Nike products, because Nike is the sponsor of Colin Kaepernick, the athlete who protested against police violence against blacks. The head of the MBI doesn’t like that one bit.

However, the MBI says that the report about Willie Jones is with the District Attorney’s office in the town of Philadelphia, 40 miles away. I drive there along roads where trucks full of chickens leave a trail of feathers, and along the levee where the bodies of the three civil rights activists were found in 1964. Olen Burrage, on whose property they had been buried, was never convicted – the family home still stands proudly.

Sheriff Mike Lee of Scott County Photo: Michael Persson

‘One of the worst crimes of the civil rights’ struggle,’ sheriff Lee had said. ‘I know that this is Mississippi and there is a long line of racial tensions that are stigmas. It’s this history that can blow up. When there’s a white-on-black crime then that fits some people’s agenda, they see a few good old boys getting together in white sheets and string someone up. But most of people that hate people because of skin color are dying out. There’s a new generation. We went to school together; we work together we go to birthdays together. We’re a melting pot now. This is the new Mississippi.’

That’s why he tries so hard to prevent the photo of Willie hanging from the tree from leaking out. ‘People who see that stop thinking right away. Then everybody will be just talking about a lynching.’

In the waiting room of District Attorney Steven Kilgore is a Bible, but I don’t need to open it – he immediately makes time for the unannounced visitor. He points to a thick file, and sighs. ‘It’s all in here. Witness statements, new witness statements, and then some more witness statements. All the evidence. This kid killed himself.’ And what about those conflicting witness statements? ‘The thing is this was a young healthy male, there would be some kind of struggle. There’s nothing. They took scraping of finger nails, nothing. No defensive wounds. There is no evidence. Just the mama, and I get it. She can speculate, we got to go with the evidence.’

Tammie has shown me photos of her son, after he was returned to her following the embalmment. His lower back looks blue and has scratches on it, his shoulder looks weird and his nails have been cut.

But Kilgore points to the autopsy report. ‘Here. There was… no identifiable evidence of pathological change or traumatic injury outside of his neck. No identifiable evidence of contusion or hemorrhage within the deep soft tissue or skeleton muscle of the neck. I know she’s seen other things but it’s just not true. Those burn marks in the groin area are probably points where they injected the embalming fluid. The discoloring could be caused by the embalming too.’

He acknowledges that embalming – a process in which bodily fluids are replaced by other substances – is not conducive to a post-mortem examination. ‘Yeah, that’s a problem. You lose evidence. It’s not the body as it was when they found it.’

But he considers that a minor point. The sheriff, the MBI, the FBI, he himself, the Grand Jury that examined the evidence: no one saw any indication of murder. Racism? The officers conducting the investigation, from both the sheriff’s office and the MBI, were black!

What would it take to reopen this case?

‘A confession?’ says Kilgore.

Harold

Harold

The new home of Harold and his family is on a backstreet in a black neighborhood, an hour’s drive from the house they abandoned on Green Grove Road. According to a real estate agent’s website the house has been let since 24 February 2018, ten days after the shooting on Valentine’s Day. No one outside a very small circle of family and friends knows that he lives here now. Not a single stranger here has ever asked him if he was Harold. Especially not at night, in the dark. And now someone does.

‘Are you Harold?’

‘No,’ says Harold, who is on the porch. ‘I’m not, I don’t know him.’

He takes a few steps back, turns around and hurries to the back along the cars in the driveway. What the fuck, someone says, and another shadowy figure gathers up two small children and opens the front door to go inside. Suddenly Harold comes out that door with a gun in his right hand.

‘Everybody inside!’ he shouts, upon which the shadows start to scream and the children start to cry.

‘How’d you find me?’ he screams, waving the gun at me. ‘How the fuck do you know where I live?’

Later, he tells he had almost shot me because he thought I was a hitman – he really says so. For a year now, ever since those bullets hit his house on Green Grove Road, he’s been waiting for this moment. A dark car, Louisiana plates, a man in a dark shirt with a weird accent, a hand reaching for a back pocket – it all adds up. But he doesn’t shoot and calms down after reading my business card by the light of his cell phone, which he holds in the same hand that holds the gun.

‘We’re cool,’ he says. ‘Wanna beer?’

Inside, everyone sits down on the couches. Alexis is there with her two young children, her brother Thomas, Harold’s wife Melissa, and a little later Melissa’s sister Angela also joins us. Her husband Randy is not with her. ‘So, you want to know our side of the story?’

And so, they tell it. Alexis tells about the drive home and how she was beaten up by Willie. Melissa tells about how she called Willie’s mother—her friend Tammie—who called her a murderer, and that she is now convinced that it was Tammie that had the bullets fired at their house on that Valentine’s Day. And Harold talks about Willie and about that night.

‘At first he was a damn good kid’, he says. ‘He was a real goodmannered kid, yessir, nosir, he respected us all the time, he never showed us no kind of bad feelings. We are no racists. My own stepfather is black. We live here surrounded by black people. I think what actually caused the racist situation with me is when we moved out there and the kids started seeing the black folks and they started dating, I was against it. Not because I’m racist but because it ain’t right in Gods eyes. It ain’t right there. There aren’t red birds and blue birds fucking out there. But I came to accept it. Willie was a good guy.’

But suicide, that wasn’t like Willie. Harold has an explanation, though: something about a drugs deal that went wrong. ‘I don’t think he did it on account of her, but on account of what they did out there with the dope and shit. We’ve heard Willie and some of his buddies stole a lot of dope out there, and the other gang wasn’t happy about that. That gang killed all of his buddies except for him. Maybe Willie thought it was the best way out of that.’

He tells about finding Willie in the tree that night (‘His feet were on the ground, his legs bent, I thought he was playing’) and that he wanted to cut him loose, but the dispatch operator told him not to. ‘What if I’d just cut him fuckin down and gave him CPR anyway?’ he says now. ‘I might have been in prison but he would have lived.’

That’s strange. In the 911 call he said several times that Willie was dead. No, he was still alive, Harold says now. ‘He would have had brain damage, but I could have saved him.’

Even stranger: when Alexis tells about Willie beating her up, Harold seems surprised.

’This is the first time I ever heard of it. If I would have known… I would have kicked his ass real good. I damn sure wouldn’t have killed him. And if I would have, it wouldn’t be in my fucking yard. I know the woods, we rode four-wheelers out there I know 20 miles of fucking mud trails, there are holes you could sink a jeep in. They’d never found him, if I did some shit like that. It ain’t right to do nothing like that but... I’d beat the hell out of him. I’d been in jail and he’d been in the hospital.’

But he knew that Willie had beat up his stepdaughter, didn’t he? On the 911 tape Harold says: ‘He beat the crap out of her on the way home and now he’s hanging in a tree out here!’

It’s kind of hard to confront him with these inconsistencies, with that gun still around somewhere.

What does he think of the statement of his then daughter-in-law Shay, who said that he grabbed a gun? ‘Before that crap happened out there, we didn’t even own a damn gun. I told that Papoose the investigator. He told me you better go get yourself something – you might want to need it. Well, you’ve seen that.’

Thomas, who has a child with Shay, says: ‘She turned like a whole 360. She turned completely against us. I don’t know why. I think someone threatened her, someone of Willie’s family. After she made her new statement against us she left.’

Harold says that he was surprised too that the police did so little that night. ‘They were just standing there, investigating nothing, writing down nothing, asking nothing. We could have fired up the grill.’

And what about the FBI and the MBI in the weeks that followed? Didn’t he take a polygraph test? ‘The FBI never contacted us. And I made an appointment for the polygraph, but the day I was supposed to go it was cancelled because the guy who did the polygraph was out that day. Then it was rescheduled. But the day before they said we don’t need you to go.’

He gets up to get another beer, and cigarettes. He seems relieved. ‘I really thought I was gone with you out there. But I would have gotten to you too, I can assure you that. When they’re coming for me, so be it. But they can’t touch my family. I fight till I die for my family.’

Sister-in-law Angela: ‘This is a wolf pack. They always stay together. Harold is the leader, Melissa the leading female. De others follow. When the pack sticks together it’s safest for them all.’

  • The grave of Willie Jones Photo: Michael Persson

Shay

Shaniya, who did leave the pack, was not available for comment. She didn’t answer when I knocked on her door. According to neighbors, her parents don’t want her to talk about the case anymore, out of fear for her safety.

Tammie also never spoke to Shaniya again after that disastrous call that night, with Shania screaming at her that her son was dead. She still holds hope for the truth — or at least for a credible effort to find the truth. Her pro bono lawyer, Thomas Bellinder, is trying to get the case reopened. ‘I hate it to say that I hate people,’ she says. But the way the police treated my son has really angered me. They wanted to get rid of him. Embalmed, buried, gone. They wanted me to shut up. They were afraid that Scott County would get a bad name. But by doing this they gave Scott County a bad name. I’m leaving. I won’t let my kids grow up here.’