There’s nothing like the sense of community and feeling of safety that come along with living in a small town; however, even small towns are sometimes subject to horrifying crimes. From infamous murders to crimes of the past that remain on the minds of residents to this day, these small towns have experienced some truly heinous acts.
We’re aware that these uncertain times are limiting many aspects of life as we all practice social and physical distancing. While we’re continuing to feature destinations that make our state wonderful, we don’t expect or encourage you to go check them out immediately. We believe that supporting local attractions is important now more than ever and we hope our articles inspire your future adventures! And on that note, please nominate your favorite local business that could use some love right now:
1. Courtland: The Murder of Jessica Chambers
In December of 2014, one of the most horrific crimes in the state’s history took place in the small town of Courtland. Just before 7:00 pm, Lisa Chambers received a call from her daughter, Jessica, who stated that she was going to grab a bite to eat and then head home – a promise that would never be fulfilled.
Later that evening, a passerby noticed a car engulfed in flames and alerted authorities. When police arrived they were faced with a grisly realization – 19 year old Jessica was also engulfed in flames. The barely recognizable teen was flown to a Memphis hospital where she eventually succumbed to her injuries – severe burns that covered 98% of her body. Upon further investigation, it was determined that Jessica was doused in lighter fluid, knocked unconscious, and set ablaze. To this day, the gruesome murder remains unsolved.
2. Water Valley: The Wagner Murders
On May 5, 1931, Water Valley residents were shocked to learn of the deaths of some of the area’s most prominent citizens, Mr. and Mrs. W.B. Wagner. Upon entering the Wagners' home that morning, the cook, Callie Wiggins, was faced with a terrible sight – overturned furniture and blood all over the floor. When authorities arrived, the gruesome discoveries just kept coming. There were bloody footprints on the floor and furniture, a bloody handprint on a light bulb, and a blood-soaked axe was found in the home. Eventually the Wagners' bodies were both discovered.
Mr. Wagner’s body was found in a shallow grave in the backyard, while Mrs. Wagner was found at the bottom of a nearby gully. It was later determined that an employee of the Wagners, Sam Green Whitaker, committed the murders; however, he didn’t act alone. Whitaker had the help of Emmett Shaw, and his little sister, Adelle Whitaker. Both Whitaker and Shaw were sentenced to death by hanging, a sentence that was fulfilled in July of 1931. Adelle was found guilty of being an accessory-after-the-fact since she arrived on the scene after the murders had taken place, and, therefore, received a sentence of 5 years at the Mississippi State Prison.
3. Philadelphia: The Murders of Freedom Summer Workers
In the summer of 1964, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael "Mickey" Schwerner were working to register black voters in Mississippi. While in route to investigate the burning of an African-American church, the three were picked up by local police and unjustly imprisoned for several hours. After being released, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were abducted and subsequently murdered by the KKK. This sad turn of events inspired the movie “Mississippi Burning.”
4. Money: The Murder of Young Emmett Till
Coined one of the state’s “most infamous murders,” the killing of 14 year old Emmett Till took place in August of 1955. While the African-American teenager was staying with relatives in Money, Mississippi, he visited a local grocery store and supposedly flirted with a white cashier. As a result of this miniscule act, he was kidnapped by two Caucasian men, viciously beaten, shot, and killed. The men who committed the crime were arrested and tried; however, an all-white, male jury acquitted the pair. Garnering attention from the entire nation, the horrific murder of young Emmett Till is said to have galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.
5. Leetown (community near Picayune): The “Sledgehammer Murders”
On the morning of Thanksgiving Day in 1981, James Billiot murdered his mother, stepfather, and stepsister…with a ten lb. sledgehammer. The gruesome discovery was made by Billiot’s stepbrother, who returned home early that morning. After two days on the run, Billiot was apprehended in New Orleans. Once in custody, Billiot’s poor mental state was confirmed as he kept insisting he needed to bond out because he “had more people to kill” and claimed to be Romeo Machiavelli, Led Zeppelin, and even Jesus Christ. Initially, Billiot was found guilty and sentenced to death; however, it was later determined that he was not mentally competent enough to be executed.
6. Pea Ridge (community near Forest): The Shondra May Mystery
In February of 1986, the disappearance of Shondra May shook the small community of Pea Ridge. At around 7:40 pm, the 17 year old called her mother, Genell, and said she was heading home. When she hadn’t returned home, Genell began to worry and informed her husband of the situation. It was at this moment Genell opened the front door and was faced with a disheartening sight – Shondra’s abandoned vehicle was parked on the road less than a hundred yards from the house.
After twenty-two days, her remains were discovered in Black Creek - the teenager had been bound and gagged. Since the initial autopsy was inconclusive, a second was performed at which point it was determined she had been sexually assaulted and strangled. Even after all these years, the identity of Shondra’s vicious killer remains a mystery.
7. Sarah: The Craft Family Murders
In April of 2001, Jan Michael Brewer went to the Craft’s residence, and waited for them to return home. When his ex-wife, Barbara, daughter, Paige, and ex-mother-in-law, Jane, arrived at the house, Brewer engaged in a conversation with Barbara and became agitated, at which point he shot Barbara’s mother, Jane. He then turned the gun on Barbara, killing her instantly. Since Jane was still alive, Brewer then shot her again to “put her out of her misery.” This horrific scene unfolded right in front of Brewer’s three year old daughter.
Claiming he didn’t want to leave any witnesses, Brewer then made the decision to kill Paige. Continuing his killing spree, Brewer waited for his ex-father-in-law, Carl, to return home, and as soon as Carl walked in the door he was executed. Before leaving the scene, Brewer took Carl’s wallet and Jane’s wedding ring, which he subsequently used to propose to his girlfriend. Brewer was eventually found guilty and sentenced to death. At the age of 34, he was executed by lethal injection at Mississippi State Penitentiary.
8. Walnut: The Parker Family Murders
February 2, 1990, is a date that will forever be remembered by the residents of Walnut as it was on this day a well-known family of four was brutally murdered in their own home. At around 9:00 pm, the Parkers – Carl, his wife, Bobbie Jo, and their two children, Charlotte Jo and Gregory – left a church service and headed home. The unsuspecting family had apparently walked in on a burglary and that’s when the horrific events began to unfold.
Young Charlotte Jo was sexually assaulted, each of the family members were shot several times, Carl’s finger was cut off in an attempt to steal his wedding ring, and the home, with the bodies inside, was set on fire. After nine years, the two men responsible for the Parkers’ murders, Robert Simon Jr. and Anthony Carr, were sentenced to death.
9. New Albany: The Crimes of Roman and Janet Killough Barreto
In August of 2014, the FBI was finally able to put an end to the manhunt for the only female on their most wanted list, Janet Killough Barreto. From 2005 to 2006, Janet and her husband, Roman, traveled to Guatemala on several occasions in order to buy children from a local adoption agency, only to bring them home and abuse them. The children, who were three and younger, were allegedly beaten, caged, malnourished, and forced to sleep on beds made of plywood.
There were also claims that the Barretos' would duct tape the children to their beds as well has hold their heads underwater. Eventually, the abuse led to the death of Ena Barreto, who died from injuries sustained after her stepsister threw her into a plywood bed. After this incident, the couple fled the area, and after five years on the run, authorities finally caught up with them in a Portland mall.
10. Winona: The Tardy Furniture Store Murders
In July of 1996, four people were found shot to death inside the Tardy Furniture store in Winona. The horrific discovery was made by employee Sam Jones. Several clues at the scene of the crime pointed to a former employee of the furniture store, Curtis Flowers. After being tried for the crime six times, Flowers was sentenced to death - a decision that was reached within half an hour, finally putting an end to a case that has haunted the Mississippi legal system for over a decade.
It’s hard to believe this type of horror can happen anywhere, let alone in our own backyards. Were you surprised by any of these? Know of other crimes that happened in a small Mississippi town? Tell us in the comments section below.