Published 12:00 am Friday, December 12, 2014

Services for Jessica Chambers, 19, will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 13 at Wells Funeral Home.

Investigators seek answers in death of burned woman

By Emily Darby Williams and John Howell Sr.

Firefighters at the Courtland Volunteer Fire Department were cleaning up after responding to a house fire Saturday night when they received a call at 8:12 p.m. about a car on fire about a mile away, just outside Courtland corporate limits. A passing motorist had discovered the blazing car near 3448 Herron Road.

The three firefighters immediately remounted their truck and drove to the scene where they found the vehicle still ablaze. Memories of what they found next will likely return in nightmares for the rest of their lives.
“I didn’t see her at first,” one of the firefighters told The Panolian.

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Near the burning car was a burned body, more dead than alive but alive nonetheless. Though she was not recognizable, the firefighters quickly discovered they knew who she was.

They also realized that what had started as a routine fire call had minutes earlier been the scene of a heinous crime. One firefighter said that he attempted to comfort her while his companions attempted to control the blaze consuming the vehicle and threatening the surrounding woods, all three cognizant that whoever was responsible for the horrifying assault might still be close by.

“I called the sheriff’s department immediately, I notified P1 (Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby), called Med Stat (ambulance) and immediately put Air Evac en route,” the firefighter said.

“I called Pope FD because I knew they were close by,” the Courtland firefighter added.

Jessica Lane Chambers, 19, 1024 Carlisle Road, Courtland was transported by ambulance to the parking lot at the Courtland Baptist Church where a waiting Air Evac helicopter carried her to the Med in Memphis.

Chambers had been doused with an accelerant that left 95 percent of her body burned, Panola County Coroner Gracie Grant-Gulledge said, yet was not pronounced dead until 2:37 a.m. Sunday morning. The coroner said that there was some initial confusion at the Med about the time of death, and investigators received word before they left the crime scene that Chambers was dead.

Grant-Gulledge assumed jurisdiction over the body, which was transported to Jackson on Sunday for an autopsy. Initial results are expected on Tuesday, the coroner said.

“The cause of death is determined; the manner of death is pending investigation,” she said.

Because Chambers was the daughter of Ben Chambers, employed by the sheriff’s department as a mechanic, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) is handling the investigation.

District Attorney John Champion came to Batesville Sunday morning for an initial briefing and later confirmed the homicide investigation.

On Monday, MBI and sheriff’s department investigators met at the David M. Bryan Justice Complex with the coroner and others involved in the investigation. Speculation about the crime was rampant in the community, but authorities are tight-lipped.

The crime attracted widespread attention in regional media including Memphis television stations.

The victim’s sister began a Justice for Jessica Facebook page shortly after her death. A story about Chambers’ death posted Sunday on the Facebook page of The Panolian had reached almost 16,000 views by late Monday.

A funeral for Chambers is planned for Saturday at 2 p.m. at Wells Funeral Home.