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‘Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers’: The search for justice begins after a teen cheerleader burns alive

Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers is not only about the killing of Jessica Chambers, but about how her brutal murder — indeed unspeakable in its violence and cruelty – brought national attention and tore apart a small Mississippi town of just over 500 people.

Jessica was 19 years old when volunteer firefighters found the blonde, blue-eyed former cheerleader walking “like a zombie” away from her car, which was engulfed in flames — and Jessica’s body was nearly fully covered in burns. In courtroom footage, a traumatized volunteer described her flaxen hair as standing on end, “fried like it had been stuck in a light socket.”

She was still alive when first responders found her that December night in 2014. Asked who had done this to her, multiple first responders testified that Jessica said it was “Eric,” or maybe “Derek.”

In the documentary series, which premieres on September 15th on Oxygen, Major Barry Thompson with the Panola County Sheriff’s Office says that investigators tracked down everyone named Eric or Derek in Panola County, interviewing all of them. But they could not connect any of them to the murder. It would be over a year before there was an arrest: Quinton Tellis, a black man, now 29, was charged with capital murder in February 2016.

At the time, neither of Jessica’s parents, who are divorced but live on the same street, had heard of Tellis. Jessica had another boyfriend at the time, and the police investigation revealed that she and Tellis had only known each other for a few weeks before she died. In his initial police interviews, Tellis, admitted to seeing Jessica the morning of her death, but insisted he wasn’t with her that night. Cell phone tower records would tell a different story, according to the district attorney.

But as District Attorney John Champion explains in the premiere episode of Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers, investigators only revisited cell phone records after other investigative tactics had been exhausted. In addition to interviewing and confirming the alibis of every Eric or Derek in a wide area, the multiple agencies cooperating on the investigation offered a reward for tips that grew over time to a nearly staggering $54,000. In a town as small, and as poor, as Courtland, Mississippi, it would seem that such a sum would be enough to beckon someone with potential information to come forward.

But no one said a word.

“The reward got us absolutely nowhere,” D.A. Champion says in Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers.

Did this mean that no one had any information to share? Or that they were too scared to share it?

A 2015 Buzzfeed investigative report, the inspiration for the docuseries, showed how Jessica’s murder became an obsession for online sleuths all over the country. Jessica’s history of interracial dating was viewed as a possible factor in her killing. Some internet sleuths theorized that her death was gang-related. Others believed it was connected to the local drug trade.

CrimeOnline spoke with Theresa Apel, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger who has been working on Jessica’s case since the beginning, about the impact national attention had on the town.

“The social media uprising was among people who are not from here, and don’t know anything about Mississippi,” Apel said. The internet sleuths “were pulling up anyone they could find dirt on.”

“What that does to the town … .everyone is watching their back.”

These unsubstantiated theories and accusations may have derailed the investigation in the early stages, diverting attention and energy away from more credible leads. It wasn’t until months later that police found evidence in the cell phone data that led to Tellis’ arrest.

Tellis’ family steadfastly believes in his innocence,  and have accused law enforcement of caving into pressure to pin the crime on someone.

Since Tellis’ arrest, prosecutors have continued to build their case against him, even after his first murder trial ended with a deadlocked jury and a mistrial. Tellis’ attorney’s continue to prepare his defense.

Tellis’ second murder trial is set to begin on September 24.

Episode 1 of Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers premieres on September 15th at 7pm ET, only on Oxygen.