By Ann Marie Edlin
The University of Mississippi
Months after the death of a Panola County teen, remnants of scorched earth are still visible on the shoulder of rural Herron Road, where Jessica Chambers and her Kia sedan were set alight on a brisk, Mississippi winter evening. The bark of the large pine tree shading the scene of the crime is charred. Broken glass and soot still litter the ground.
As the road winds west of Courtland, one could easily miss the scene of the crime, which is curiously nestled back in the trees, about 20 feet from the road. It has been reported that Chambers was at her eventual murder location for about 45 minutes before anyone saw the fire and contacted local authorities. The vast amount of time that passed before authorities were contacted seems more plausible after visiting Herron Road, where traffic is scarce and there are no lines where the lanes end or begin.
Wreathes and polyester flowers spanning the color spectrum, and letters left by mourners adorn the tiny plot of land where the teen and her car were burned.
Secured to a nearby tree, a laminated sign reads, “CASH FOR HOT TIPS ARSON, REWARD” with a $5,000 dollar incentive to hand over any information one may have leading to the arrest and arson conviction of any person responsible. That reward has made a significant leap to over $54,000.
The bright yellow walls and red support beams of the gas station where Jessica Chambers was last seen alive, makes it noticeable off of Hwy 51. On Dec. 6, 2014, the surveillance video of Chambers captured at this gas station was recorded about 90 minutes before she was burned alive, officials said. The surveillance captures Chambers summoned by someone outside of the gas station, just out of the camera’s view.
Shortly after, another camera at the gas station captures a man filling up a gas can, then leaving the gas station on foot, heading in the same direction as Jessica.
If you take the shortest route by car from the gas station to the place where the burning occurred, you will have driven precisely 1.4 miles, an easy distance to be covered on foot. The mystery man with gasoline in hand has been ruled out as a suspect, and locals say that the man on foot is a regular of the gas station and is “completely harmless.”
A mere hour and a half later, emergency responders discover a horrific scene. Jessica Chambers, was found staggering away from her incinerated car with burns covering over 98 percent of her body.
When authorities reached Chambers, they made it with just enough time to hear Chambers mumble a few words regarding the attack. What Chambers said has not only been withheld from the public, but apparently her own father.
The victim’s father, Ben Chambers, a mechanic for the Panola County Sheriff’s Department, told reporters in a televised interview that Chambers said a name to authorities at the scene of her death. Chambers’ father claims to not know the name, but said that he hopes his daughter’s last words will lead to her killer.
Driving through Courtland, one would never suspect that something so horrendous had taken place in the small, seemingly deserted town.
Several residents interviewed would not go on record with their real names. One longtime resident of Panola County said she believes that “racially, there is a divide in the community” regarding the topic. She also said discussion of the topic seems to have declined.
Once the two-month anniversary of the teen’s death was reached, citizens across the nation began to question the capability of local authorities to bring justice for Jessica. With headlines reading, “Finding Jessica Chambers’ Killer Turns Cold,” officials had to reach out assuring the nation that the case was far from cold.
Another resident said she didn’t feel uncomfortable living in the county where the murder took place, with no known suspect behind bars, and she believes the local police know more than they are telling the public.
With a population hardly breaking the 500 mark, it seems as if someone would have come forward with a name, yet the usual chatter on the street has been hushed.