Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 23, 2014

During Thursday’s press conference at the Panola County’s Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney John Champion and Sheriff Dennis Darby announced they are seeking more information from the public in their ongoing investigation of the murder of Jessica Chambers. The Marshals Service is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to an arrest. The local Crime Stoppers group is offering a separate reward of $1,000.

Officials: ‘public’s help is needed’

By John Howell
Investigators need help finding Jessica Chambers’ killer. Or killers.

“There’s not a lot of street talk out there about it,” said District Attorney John Champion with Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby during a press conference Thursday.

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“There have been no arrests made at this point, nor do I anticipate any in the immediate future at this point,” the DA said.
“We’re appealing to the public to please assist in this. If you do have any information, it doesn’t matter whether you think it’s insignificant or not, let us know so that we can follow up on it,” Champion said.

Chambers, 19, died early Sunday after firefighters found her with burns over 98 percent of her body near a car burning on Herron Road near Courtland.

She had been set afire and then left by an assailant or assailants who obviously thought they were leaving her to an immediate death.

But she did not die immediately, remaining conscious at the scene long enough to talk to a firefighter from the Courtland Fire Department who arrived on the scene with two other volunteer firemen four minutes after receiving the report of the burning car.

“We know what she said, but we’re not commenting on that,” Champion said.

“In all the years that we’ve been doing this, it’s very rare that we don’t have a lot of street talk about who did this,” the district attorney continued.

“This case is relatively quiet on the streets right now; … If you know of anybody or anything that seemed suspicious to you around this time on Saturday, please call Crimestoppers or call the sheriff’s department directly.”

“Somebody out there knows something or has heard something that just has not come forward yet,” Champion said. “We’re asking the community to help us with this.”

The Clarion-Ledger on Thursday published a time line it had established for several events prior to Chambers’ death: Leaving her Courtland home about 6 p.m. and fueling her car at a Highway 51 convenience store shortly afterward. In a final phone call to her mother, Lisa Chambers, about 6:48 p.m., Chambers told her mom that she was driving alone to Batesville to clean out her car and planned to return home afterward. A little more than an hour later, firemen received the call that led to the shocking discovery.

“What we’re trying to do right now is basically establish her time line,” Champion said. “Once we narrow the time line down, we start trying to put people in that time line and that’s who we’re trying to interview.”

Investigators have talked to people who saw Chambers after her stop at the convenience store. Surveillance video showing Chambers at the store that night has been widely circulated on news and social media.

Sheriff Darby said a reward of $1,000 is available through Crimestoppers for information that leads to the killer. Call Crimestoppers at 800-729-2169; the sheriff’s department at 563-6230.

Champion said that investigators include personnel from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, the U. S. Marshal’s Service, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division of the Justice Dept., the Mississippi Crime Lab in addition to the Panola County Sheriff’s Department.

“We’re working with rumor control also” the sheriff said. “A lot of what’s being said, there’s not a lot of truth to it.”
Darby appealed to the media for help with rumor control and also for help in encouraging the public to come forward with information.

The sheriff said that a rumor that an accelerant was put on the victim or into her mouth or nose had not been confirmed by the crime lab.

(This newspaper in a story published Tuesday incorrectly reported that Panola County Coroner Gracie Grant-Gulledge had said that an accelerant had been used.)

“The A.T.F. is assisting us on this; we’re going to have the use of their lab in Atlanta,” Champion said. “We’re still trying to determine through lab results what was the source of the arson.

The U.S. Marshal’s Service is assisting with phone technology.

“We’re waiting on cell phone records,” Champion said. Chambers’ cell phone itself is “a usable piece of evidence.”
“It does appear to be a personal crime,” Champion said, but “we haven’t eliminated anything; we haven’t eliminated randomness.”

As family and friends of Jessica Chambers prepared for her visitation today and funeral tomorrow, they also braced for the continued media focus on every move as the search continues for her killer.

The heinous nature of the crime sent waves of revulsion throughout the community and nation as it attracted attention from traditional media outlets and the social media. A story on The Panolian Facebook page has attracted over 19,500 views, the most of any story since the present page was created in early 2013.

“We’re following up on every single tip, regardless of how minute it is,” the sheriff said. “We’ve got some determined investigators here

“My heart goes out; it’s personal, because I know him (the victim’s father, Ben Chambers) personally,” Darby added.
“One of the greatest fears that people have of dying is dying of fire, and this situation is about as bad as it comes,” Champion said.