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Who killed Jessica Chambers? 19-year-old cheerleader begs for help after someone pours lighter fluid down her throat and sets her on fire

“Her hair was fried like it had been stuck in a light socket. Her face was black.”

She was a petite, bubbly, kindhearted cheerleader in a tiny Mississippi town that was shattered by her brutal murder.

First responders found Jessica Chambers in the middle of the road clothed in only her underwear, her face black and ninety percent of her body covered in burns. She held out her arms saying “Help me, help me.”

Her once-blonde hair was standing on end, appearing as though she had been electrocuted. Whoever set her on fire first poured lighter fluid down her throat, according to family members. First responders who found her at the scene were traumatized by the sight of her, and the fact that they couldn’t save her. The injuries were just too severe. There was nothing that could be done.

Before she was pronounced dead, the 19-year old girl told paramedics the name of the person who set her petite body on fire in her own car, which sat burning next to where volunteer fire fighters found her, desperately trying to save her own life. But it wasn’t the name of the man who now stands accused of killing her.

Jessica Chambers
Quinton Tellis (R) is accused of murdering Jessica Chambers in December 2014

That inconsistency played a key role in the suspect’s first trial, which ended in a mistrial when a jury deadlocked. The defense team convinced enough members of the jury that there was reasonable doubt the man on trial was Jessica’s cold-blooded killer. After all, Jessica Chambers named her murderer, and it wasn’t Quinton Tellis who she named.

Now 29 and in jail on an unrelated conviction, Tellis will be facing a jury again next month.

Jessica Chambers was found walking along a road in rural Cortland, Mississippi, on December 6, 2014. Her burning car was parked nearby. Gravely injured and appearing as a “zombie,” as one first responder said, Jessica remained conscious long enough to tell firefighters and paramedics that someone named “Eric” –or possibly “Derek” — had done this to her. That’s all she was able to say about what happened to her before she died at a Memphis hospital.

The well-liked teen had a bit of a wild streak and sometimes smoked pot, according to a 2015 Buzzfeed report on the case. Like most teens, she could be rebellious and defiant. But although friends claimed after her death that she had a deeper involvement in the local drug trade, Jessica had never been in any serious trouble with the law, and her violent murder shocked the rural town that had seen its share of crime. Who could have done this to her, and why?

“It’s the most baffling case I’ve ever worked on,” District Attorney John Champion told Buzzfeed reporter Katie Baker. Six months into the investigation, Champion said that investigators had tracked down several Erics and Dereks among the 130 people authorities had interviewed by that time. But none of those leads had yet panned out, and another seven months would pass before prosecutors named a suspect.

Ben Chambers, father, and Jessica Chambers/Family photo

In February 2016, more than a year after Jessica’s murder, a grand jury in Panola County indicted Quinton Tellis, then 27, on capital murder charges. Authorities had interviewed Tellis, a friend of Jessica’s, earlier in the investigation but revisited his role in the case after cell phone tower records revealed that Quinton and Jessica were likely in the same location on the night of her brutal murder.

Jessica and Tellis had only been friends for a short time before her death, and Tellis had admitted to investigators that he had seen the murdered teen on the morning of the day she died, but that he had no idea how she came to be killed. Investigators had initially believed his story, which changed over the course of multiple police interrogations.

Panola County District Attorney John Champion holds up an enlarged selfie that Jessica Chambers had taken before her death. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool, File)

At Tellis’s 2017 murder trial, jurors heard testimony and interrogation audio showing how the suspect presented conflicting accounts about his activities on the day of Jessica’s death, and was forced to revise his alibi when investigators told him that his first alibi didn’t stand. 

Phone records showed that earlier on December 6, 2014, Tellis had asked Jessica for sex via text message, and she had declined. But in interviews with investigators, Tellis claimed that he did have sex with Jessica once during the time that he knew her. According to testimony reported in the the Clarion-Ledger, prosecutors believed this sexual encounter may have happened the night Jessica Chambers died.

Quinton Tellis at his 2017 murder trial. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool)

Circumstantial evidence presented at the trial and Tellis’s own false statements to police were damning — and so was the inability to rule him out among four males whose DNA was swabbed from a set of Jessica’s car keys found at the scene of her death. But the circumstances of how those keys were discovered could present another obstacle for the prosecution when Tellis is tried a second time.

A local resident by the name of Jerry King testified at Quinton Tellis’s murder trial that he found a keychain near the site of Jessica’s burning death two days after her apparent murder, while he was pushing his daughter in a stroller. He testified that he took the “shiny” item home so his daughter could continue to play with the keys, but later became concerned that the keys belong to Jessica Chambers because her father’s name was found on the key fob. He then handed over the keys to investigators.

“One of the worst things you can imagine” 

At Tellis’s first murder trial, the most dramatic testimony came from the first responders to see Jessica, still clinging to life, next to her burned car. More than a dozen reportedly testified that Jessica had said someone by the name of “Eric” had set her on fire.

“She had her arms out, saying, ‘Help me, help me, help me,'” first responder Cole Haley testified, according to an Action News 5 report.

“Her hair was fried like it had been stuck in a light socket. Her face was black, and her body was severely burned.”

Another firefighter, Shane Mills, had to step away and catch his breath after observing Jessica covered in burns and barely clinging to life.

“One of the worst things you can imagine,” Mills reportedly said in court. “I can’t picture it for y’all.”

“She looked like a zombie,” volunteer firefighter Will Turner testified. “Her arms were out, and her hair was fried.”

Turner also brought up a potentially significant detail in the Jessica Chambers murder case, one that has received surprisingly little attention in the coverage of Tellis’s murder trial: Turner said he observed a suspicious person at the scene of Jessica’s fiery death — and it appears that authorities may not have followed up on this observation.

WMC Action News 5 – Memphis, Tennessee

“A middle-aged black male walked up” to the scene after Jessica had been transported away, Turner said, and he told the man that he had to leave as it was an active crime scene.

“He never said a word to me. He gave me a stare that I have never seen before; he stared straight through me.”

Turner said he repeated his order for the man to leave the scene, and threatened to have a deputy escort him away if he didn’t comply.

“He was looking towards where the car was at and in the woods the whole time,” Turner said. The man finally turned to walk away, repeatedly looking over his shoulder, the firefighter claimed.

Turner said he asked his fellow first responders to take down the license plate number of the suspicious man’s vehicle, and one volunteer firefighter did testify that he was able to do that. But it is unclear what came of this information, or if law enforcement agents ever questioned or even identified this person.

It remains to be seen if the defense will raise the issue of the suspicious character in Tellis’s retrial. But we know that Tellis’s connection to another murder case, as significant as that might seem to a jury’s decision, will not be admissable.

In 2016, Tellis pleaded guilty in Louisiana to the unauthorized use of a debit card belonging to Meing-Chen Hsiao, a 34-year-old Taiwan native who was found stabbed dozens of times in her Monroe apartment. Witnesses said they had seen Tellis at Hsiao’s apartment, and one said she heard the two arguing in the days before Hsiao, known as “Mandy,” is believed to have been murdered, according to the Clarion Ledger.

Tellis reportedly admitted to using Mandy’s ATM card — several days after she died —to withdraw at least $1,000 in cash. In July 2016, authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on murder charges connected to Mandy’s death — but Tellis had already been extradited to Mississippi in connection to Chambers’ murder by that time. As Oxygen reports, Tellis has not yet been indicted on murder charges in Louisiana, and the pending charges against him cannot be admitted in his trial for Jessica Chambers’s murder.

The retrial is set to begin on September 24, but could be delayed if Tellis’s defense team successfully appeals a judge’s rejection of the defense request to have District Attorney John Champion removed from the case. As CrimeOnline previously reported, Tellis’s defense lawyer Darla Palmer has accused Champion of witness intimidation in relation to a conversation he had with a former jailmate of Tellis’s who claimed the suspect admitted that Jessica Chambers called him by the pet name “Eric.” Champion has insisted that not only did this witness offer that information without any coaching, the DA doesn’t believe the claim.

For now, Tellis remains at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman where he is serving a 5-year sentence on a burglary charge unrelated to the Jessica Chambers murder case.

 

[Feature image:  AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool, File]