A Mississippi-based reporter will never forget the December day when she learned a 19-year-old girl had been burned alive in a small southern town not far from where the journalist lives and works.
Theresa Apel was one of the first reporters on the scene of the shocking murder of Jessica Chambers, a well-liked teenager in Courtland, Mississipi, whose brutal death tore the sleepy town apart.
In December 2014, volunteer firefighters responded to the scene of a burning car and found Jessica, covered in burns and appearing as a “zombie,” clinging to her final moments of life. The paramedics tried desperately to save her but the burns were too severe and widespread — even the inside of her mouth and throat were badly damaged and full of soot. Jessica would later die at a hospital but she spoke briefly to the emergency responders before she was taken away in an ambulance. When they asked her who did this to her, Jessica reportedly said: “Eric did this to me.”
Apel, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger, drove to Courtland as soon as she heard about the violent crime that had claimed the life of the pretty, blue-eyed former cheerleader.
As she began reporting on the story, Apel recalls seeing firsthand how the unthinkable tragedy rattled the residents of the close-knit town about 500 people; made up of multigenerational families, both black and white, who had known each other all their lives. But Apel noticed a fear among the residents almost immediately, as Jessica’s grieving family and friends along with those who only knew Jessica from a distance tried to make sense of what had happened to her — and who had done it.
“If you asked someone, were you around the night she died?,” Apel remembered, “you could see the fear on their face.”
With no obvious suspects at the time — despite Jessica’s final utterance — the town began to turn on itself.
Not long after the murder, as investigators were busy interviewing every Eric or Derek they could find in the county — dozens and dozens, in the end — Jessica’s death became a popular topic among internet sleuths, with multiple social media forums dedicated to the crime.
Apel said it wasn’t long before these armchair detectives started creating theories of their own, tossing out accusations and rumors that were entirely baseless but nonetheless made their way to to Courtland. With little information from police, even some of Jessica’s closest family members spent time reading about Jessica’s case online.
There was “this social media uprising among people who are not from here and don’t know anything about Mississippi … pulling up dirt on anyone they could find,” Apel said.
Among the unfounded internet rumors: Jessica was the vicitm of a gang killing: she had been a witness for the FBI; even her own father come under suspicion on social media. People on internet forums also raised the issue of race, trying to suggest that because Jessica had friends of different races, and sometimes had dated black men, that somehow made her a target.
“What that does to the town? Everyone is watching their back,” Apel said. “The fear absolutely escalated.”
It would be a year and a half before prosecutors had a suspect, and his name wasn’t Eric. Qunton Tellis, a recent friend of Jessica’s who admitted to police he saw her the day she died, is set for his second murder trial next week. Though investigators had reportedly traced Tellis’s cell phone signal to the area where Jessica was found burned that night, his first ended in a mistrial when a jury couldn’t come to a decision. The defense had apparently convinced at least some of the jurors that Quentin Tellis may not be Jessica’s killer, since he wasn’t the man she named.
This time around, Apel said she believes the prosecution may have a new witness; someone who is believed to have seen Tellis the night of Jessica’s murder, very near the spot where Jessica’s car keys were later found.
Apel’s experience as a firefighter also informs her view of the words Jessica said that night.
“When you factor in airway burns and noise from fire trucks,” Apel said, “I find it hard to believe that she was clearly understandable.”
Still, the reporter said, Jessica’s last words may still be the best tool for the defense.
For now, Jessica’s family still awaits justice for the senseless killing of the petite, pretty girl whose smile could light up a room.