Mississippi’s history of lynchings haunts grieving mother

JACKSON, Miss. — Round midnight on Feb. 8, 2018, a 21-year-old Black man was discovered hanging from a pecan tree within the entrance yard of his White girlfriend’s house on a mud highway in Scott County, Miss.

Willie Andrew Jones Jr. was dangling from a twisted, yellow nylon rope connected to a low tree department. He was sporting a grey hoodie, flip flops and blue “Tremendous Mario” pajama pants. His proper shoulder, which had been disabled by a highschool soccer harm, had popped out of the socket, in accordance with court docket information.

The belt wrapped round his neck belonged to a young person who lived on the house. The tree the place Jones was discovered was about 15 yards from the white clapboard, one-level home.

The ten adults who had been inside the home that evening advised inconsistent tales of what occurred earlier than and after Jones was discovered hanging, in accordance with police statements and court docket information. Paperwork present that 40 minutes after Scott County Sheriff’s Division investigators arrived on the home, they declared Jones’s dying a suicide.

However Jones’s mom, Tammy Townsend, 45, disputes the division’s fast conclusion. She believes her son was lynched.

The tales didn’t add up, she mentioned. Jones and his girlfriend, Alexis Leann Rankin, had a 4-month-old boy, who was inside the home that evening. Minutes earlier than Jones was discovered, he had argued together with his girlfriend and her White stepfather, who disapproved of interracial relationships and had threatened him with a gun, in accordance with court docket information.

Townsend defined that her son, who was right-handed, had an outdated soccer harm that prevented him from lifting his proper arm above his head. That harm, she mentioned, would have made it unattainable for him to hold himself. A number of days after the dying, a witness mentioned that whereas Jones and Rankin had been arguing, her stepfather had gotten a gun and threatened Jones. The witness mentioned Rankin’s mom made the stepfather put the gun away, however that he had adopted Jones outdoors. and closed the door.

“My son was lynched,” mentioned Townsend, who lives in Scott County.

‘There didn’t seem like another proof’

Mississippi is a state haunted by its historical past of lynchings and racially motivated killings. Jones’s dying occurred 55 miles from Jackson, the place civil rights chief Medgar Evers was killed in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1955, Chicago teenager Emmett Until was visiting kinfolk in Mississippi when he was kidnapped by White males after they accused him of whistling at a White lady. Until, 14, was tortured, then shot. His physique was wrapped in barbed wire, connected to a 75-pound gin fan and thrown within the Tallahatchie River. His dying introduced nationwide consideration to racial violence and injustice and have become a catalyst for the civil rights motion.

Since 2000, in accordance with police information, no less than eight Black males have been discovered hanging from bushes in Mississippi — plus Craig Anderson, who was fatally crushed in a racial terrorist assault {that a} federal decide referred to as a lynching. Though authorities have dominated the deaths suicides, many kinfolk imagine their relations had been slain.

“What most individuals don’t know is it’s nonetheless occurring,” Townsend mentioned. “I’ve heard of different lynchings in Mississippi. You hear stuff on the information. … However I by no means put in my head what’s occurring, till it occurred to my son.”

Scott County sheriff’s investigators arrived on the home in Lake, Miss., minutes after Harold O’Bryant, the stepfather of Jones’s girlfriend, referred to as 911, in accordance with court docket information. Investigators searched the scene and took photographs of Jones’s physique hanging from the low department of that pecan tree.

In an interview with The Washington Submit, Scott County Sheriff Mike Lee mentioned Jones’s dying was totally investigated.

“We had been referred to as by Mr. O’Bryant, first title Harold,” Lee mentioned. “When the officer arrived, they discovered Mr. Jones hanging by what seemed to be a belt fixed to a tree.”

Lee mentioned officers took statements from the adults in the home — the girlfriend, her stepfather, mom, brother, uncle and a good friend. They advised police, Lee mentioned, that Jones acknowledged “he was going to go outdoors and hold himself.’ I don’t assume anyone took him at his phrase till they really got here out and the daddy noticed what had occurred.”

Lee mentioned the case was dominated a suicide. “There have been no indicators to the place the physique was in a wrestle on the bottom. There would have been a form of struggle to place the younger man there,” Lee mentioned.

Jones’s ft had been nonetheless on the bottom when police arrived. “All he needed to do to not hold himself was to face again up,” Lee mentioned. “That’s how we see most suicides by hanging. It’s not like individuals leap off a chair. … There was no chair on the market.”

When Jones’s household insisted that the hanging might have been racially motivated, Lee mentioned, the sheriff’s division referred to as the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.

The MBI joined the sheriff’s investigation eight days after Jones’s dying. MBI Commissioner Sean Tindel advised The Submit, “There didn’t seem like another proof that anyone else had carried out it.”

Tindel added, “It was a mix of bodily proof, statements from witnesses there and the timeline of occasions that finally led to the conclusion.”

Lee mentioned investigators additionally determined “there was nothing that might be discovered that was racially motivated. Particularly trying on the home. Blacks and Whites had been residing collectively in the home.”

The FBI and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation each concluded Jones’s dying was a suicide, Lee mentioned.

“We don’t need somebody to assume we try to cover one thing,” Lee mentioned. “If somebody was murdered, we might have gone out of our option to discover out what occurred.“

An post-mortem report from the Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s Workplace, dated Feb. 9, 2018, confirmed the reason for dying to be “Ligature strangulation. Method of dying: Undetermined.” Lee mentioned he couldn’t clarify why the post-mortem report listed the way of dying as undetermined.

When requested by a reporter whether or not the Justice Division or FBI was investigating the dying of Jones and no less than seven different Black males discovered hanging in Mississippi since 2000, a Justice Division spokesperson responded: “We had been conscious of all of the issues and reviewed all of them. We’ve got no additional remark.”

Jones’s household mentioned the proof the MBI and Scott County’s Sheriff’s Division compiled incorporates contradictions. Jill Collen Jefferson, a civil rights lawyer, discovered proof in her investigation that authorities had missed.

“Within the MBI file, we see grass in Willie’s hair,” mentioned Jefferson, founding father of Julian, a civil rights group named after the late civil rights chief Julian Bond. “Willie’s mom advised me there was grass in Willie’s pockets when she obtained it from authorities.”

If Jones hung himself, Jefferson requested, “how did he get grass in his hair? How was there grass in his pockets? How was his shoulder dislocated? You may see his shoulder had popped misplaced within the images. It’s nearly like they didn’t study their very own proof. “That’s proof they’d, as a result of we acquired it from them.”

Jefferson in contrast witness statements with police stories. “If issues had performed out like Mike Lee mentioned, why would his head have ever been on the bottom?”

Throughout her investigation, Jefferson drove the again roads of Mississippi, asking questions of neighbors who heard by way of “paper-thin partitions” the argument that evening. Investigating the case with co-counsels, Kendall Enyard and Thomas Bellinder, the attorneys stored detailed notes.

Jefferson measured the tree the place Jones was discovered. The MBI file notes the department the place Jones hung was seven ft excessive, in accordance with court docket information.

“Nevertheless it’s not,” Jefferson mentioned. “It’s 7.5 to 9 ft. … Willie was 5′8, with an arm harm. How might he have positioned the rope across the department and reached as much as tie the knots?”

In December 2020, Jones’s household filed a lawsuit in Hinds County Circuit Court docket in opposition to O’Bryant. “There was little to no proof of Mr. Jones committing suicide,” the lawsuit argued, “however there’s vital and substantial proof that Mr. O’Bryant was engaged in negligent or wrongful conduct that triggered or contributed to Mr. Jones’s dying.”

Within the lawsuit, the household argued that police ignored statements from the good friend of Jones’s girlfriend, who was a witness in the home that evening, who mentioned that minutes earlier than Jones was discovered hanging, “O’Bryant pulled out a gun with the intent to hurt Mr. Jones.”

O’Bryant, who now lives in Jackson, Miss., failed to reply to the lawsuit and on March 9 a decide dominated in opposition to O’Bryant. Jones’s household and heirs gained the judgment by default as a result of O’Bryant failed to indicate up in court docket.

On April 15, the court docket awarded Jones’s household $11 million in damages. They’ve obtained nothing. In July, O’Bryant failed to indicate for a deposition to find out his belongings.

‘I don’t know what to do’

Three years earlier than the lawsuit was filed, on Feb. 12, 2018, in a “voluntary assertion” to the Scott County Sheriff’s Division, O’Bryant wrote out his protection.

“I used to be constructing a shead [sic] with my brother in legislation Randy at our home [.] went inside the home. Was within the Front room in my chear [sic] when my daughter Alexis, Shay, and Willy acquired there my daughter Alexis and Willy went in one of many again bedrooms after they got here in.”

O’Bryant wrote that somebody advised him they had been preventing. “Me and Alexis mother went to the again of the home to see what was occurring,” O’Bryant wrote. “There weren’t preventing they had been arguing over a telephone that belong to Alexis and Willy had it.”

O’Bryant claimed that he and Melissa Rankin, Alexis’s mom, advised Jones to offer the lady her telephone again. “He gave her the telephone again went by way of the home mumbling to his self and out the entrance door,” O’Bryant wrote.

O’Bryant adopted Jones outdoors. “I figured that Willy would come again in a number of minuts [sic]. Willy and Alexis has had augured [sic] earlier than up to now and he would go outdoors and are available again in after somewhat bit.”

When Jones didn’t come again inside, O’Bryant wrote, “After a number of minuts [sic] I walked out on the pourch [sic] to see the place he was didn’t see him proper off after searching for him. I seen him within the tree.”

O’Bryant went again in the home and referred to as 911, in accordance with his assertion to police.

In a recording of the 911 name, O’Bryant is heard saying: “I would like ya’ll to ship anyone out right here proper now. There was an argument between my stepdaughter and her boyfriend. And he had hung hisself in a tree.”

He pauses. “

“Oh God,” the Scott County dispatcher responds.

“I don’t know whether or not I would like to chop it down and provides it CPR,” O’Bryant says, referring to Jones as “it.” “I don’t need to contact it as a result of I don’t need to be on this stuff.”

The dispatcher might be heard asking a query of somebody offline: “I can’t give him medical recommendation?”

She returns to the road: “No, you simply depart him alone till they get there. How outdated is he?”

“He ain’t that outdated. He’s useless. He’s useless. I simply walked up and touched him. He’s useless.”

The dispatcher asks: “How lengthy has he been on the market, child?”

“Ma’am,” O’Bryant solutions, “a very good 20, half-hour or so.”

The 911 name fades because the dispatcher requires assist.

In an announcement to Scott County sheriff’s investigators, Jones’s girlfriend, Alexis Leann Rankin, described the struggle they’d that evening.

“He begins to go thur [sic] my telephone and seen the place I used to be texting anyone else I then ask for my telephone again N he mentioned nawl You not getting it again so I preserve driving N he mentioned who is that this n—– you texting. I mentioned anyone I discuss to he mentioned nawl you aint speaking to no person else you don’t haven’t any selection however to be with me I advised him to offer me my telephone so I can name you moma to return get you he mentioned no.”

Rankin mentioned Jones then “reaches up and hits me N the pinnacle and grabs the wheel and makes us go to the left facet of the highway then I cease N put the automobile N park and get out and attempt to get away however he chase me and began grabbing me and telling me he loves me and I cant be with no person else that he needed his household again.”

Rankin wrote that after they lastly arrived at her house, she acquired out of the automobile and bumped into the home.

“I acquired to my oldest brother and begin to cry to him he then is available in grabs me and trys to take me to my room my gradma [sic] mentioned put her down she don’t wanna be hassle so I’m going in one other room crying N he mentioned I carried out tousled yall and walks out and after that I don’t know what occur till my step daddy come again and advised my moma to offer him his telephone I stored making an attempt to go outdoors N they woudn’t let me they made me keep inside until the police acquired there.”

In accordance with court docket information, on Feb. 4, 2018, 4 days earlier than Jones was discovered hanging, O’Bryant threatened Jones after he and Rankin argued at her job on the Burger King in Lake, Miss.

After Jones left the restaurant that day, O’Bryant got here in. In accordance with court docket information, staff who had been later interviewed by the MBI recalled O’Bryant telling Rankin: “ ‘If this occur [sic] once more, what I advised you I’m gone do to that nappy-headed thug.’ ”

O’Bryant later advised MBI investigators that he “by no means had an issue with Willie,” explaining, “she’s had a pair completely different boyfriends — all of ‘em coloured. … I ain’t by no means had no drawback with none of ‘em besides one of many guys my actual daughter dates,” in accordance with court docket paperwork.

In 2019, O’Bryant advised a reporter on the de Volkskrant, a Danish newspaper, that he didn’t approve of interracial relationship.

“I believe what really triggered the racist state of affairs with me is after we moved on the market and the children began seeing the black people they usually began relationship, I used to be in opposition to it,” O’Bryant mentioned, in accordance with court docket information. “Not as a result of I’m racist however as a result of it ain’t proper in God’s eyes. It ain’t proper. There aren’t crimson birds and blue birds f—-ing on the market.”

Two years earlier than Jones’s dying, in accordance with the lawsuit, O’Bryant threatened one other Black man that Rankin dated. In 2016, O’Bryant allegedly tried to kill Rasheen Lee, who’s the daddy of Rankin’s first youngster.

“Harold referred to as him ‘n—–,’ “ in accordance with the lawsuit, “busted a beer bottle, and gripped the bottle’s neck to make use of its jagged edge as a weapon.”

Rankin’s mom, Melissa Rankin, tried to calm O’Bryant down. Lee “ran half a mile to Inexperienced Grove Church and hid as Harold looked for him. Deputies arrested Harold and took him to jail. That very same day, Lee packed up and moved out,” in accordance with court docket information.

“When he heard about Willie’s dying,” in accordance with court docket information, “he thought, ‘That might’ve been me.’ Then, he cried.”

Jefferson mentioned Lee advised her that authorities by no means spoke with him about O’Bryant.

On June 2, Jefferson filed a movement requesting {that a} decide cost O’Bryant with second-degree homicide, manslaughter and offering false data to an officer in reference to Jones’s dying.

The movement defined that it was implausible that Jones dedicated suicide inside six minutes after arriving on the home that evening.

A time-stamped video from a surveillance digital camera connected to a neighbor’s home exhibits Jones exiting the automobile and going into the home six minutes earlier than O’Bryant referred to as 911.

Jones’s household additionally argued that he “had no historical past of self-harm. He had additionally made plans together with his mom for the next day. Additional, Mr. Jones and Ms. Rankin had a new child youngster.”

Though O’Bryant failed to look for the listening to concerning the lawsuit, he did seem on July 12 in Hinds County Circuit Court docket for a “debtors listening to” to find out how a lot he might afford to pay in damages to Jones’s household.

O’Bryant advised Hinds County Circuit Court docket Decide Winston L. Kidd that he had not obtained discover of the lawsuit — a declare Jones’s lawyer’s disputed.

Leaning on a podium in the course of a courtroom, O’Bryant advised Kidd he didn’t kill Jones.

“All that is lies,” O’Bryant mentioned.

O’Bryant advised the court docket, “The argument in the home, that was a verbal argument. I didn’t contact him. I’m so bored with being referred to as a racist. And look, they acquired me down for homicide I didn’t do.”

Jefferson rebutted O’Bryant’s claims of innocence in an in depth recounting of proof collected within the investigation, together with new statements collected from witnesses.

“The court docket has the authority to difficulty an arrest warrant for the crime that occurred in Hinds County,” Jefferson advised the decide. “We ask the court docket to nominate a particular prosecutor.”

As Jones’s household appeared on from the primary row within the courtroom, O’Bryant once more tried to plead his case. “Scott County investigated,” he mentioned. “The Mississippi Bureau investigated. It went all the best way to the FBI. In the event that they didn’t cost me with something, why are these people making an attempt to do me incorrect?”

The decide defined that the lawsuit was a civil matter, not a legal one. “They’re two various things,” Kidd mentioned. “Do you perceive the distinction? I’ve not dominated on their movement for prosecution by affidavit.”

The decide concluded the listening to, saying he would contemplate the movement.

O’Bryant and Melissa Rankin raced from the courtroom.

‘Come get your son’

On the evening Willie Jones Jr. was discovered hanging from a tree, his mom obtained a frantic name.

“At 10:44 p.m., her telephone rang,” Jefferson wrote in her notes. “I’ve telephone information from the evening of February 8, 2018, which present that Ms. Townsend, Willie’s mom, obtained this name from Melissa, the mom of her son’s girlfriend at 10:45:07 p.m. I wrote 10:44 as a result of that’s when Ms. Townsend first noticed the decision. When she answered seconds later, it was 10:45.”

The lady on the tip of the road screamed, “Come get your son!”

Townsend hurriedly dressed, climbed in her automobile and sped to choose up her son from his girlfriend’s home. It might have been a few 35-minute drive, largely again roads, passing cow pastures and cellular properties. At evening, the again roads by way of this a part of Mississippi are darkish and slender. Some homes show Accomplice flags.

4 minutes later, at 10:48 p.m., Townsend referred to as the girlfriend’s telephone to see what was occurring. Somebody answered and yelled, “He hung hisself! He’s useless!” in accordance with court docket information.

Upon listening to that her son was useless, Townsend crashed in a ditch.

In shock, Townsend acquired out of the automobile and began working the miles towards the girlfriend’s home. “The one who is along with her will get the automobile out of the ditch, catches up along with her and will get her again within the automobile,” Jefferson mentioned.

They drove 25 extra minutes.

When Townsend arrived on the O’Bryant house, the sheriff investigators had been already there.

Forty minutes later, a sheriff’s division investigator walked as much as Townsend and mentioned, “It was suicide. It was nothing else,” Townsend recalled.

“How might he know so quick?” Townsend remembered considering.

Jefferson mentioned surveillance footage exhibits Jones, Rankin and a good friend, Shaniya Tempo, arriving on the home at 10:35 p.m.

“Tempo will get out. The automobile begins once more and stops seconds later. Rankin jumps out and runs in” the home, Jefferson mentioned. “Willie parks and stays within the automobile. A surveillance digital camera exhibits he’s nonetheless close to the automobile at 10:44 p.m.”

Six minutes later, at 10:50 p.m., O’Bryant referred to as 911, in accordance with court docket information.

“We’re coping with a really small timeframe — six minutes,” Jefferson mentioned. “The time between Willie exiting the automobile and Harold calling 911. There have been 11 individuals inside the home, together with Rankin’s older brother, uncle and Harold. None of their tales add up.”

Jefferson mentioned that six days after Jones’s dying, Tempo got here ahead with new data. “Inside the home, Willie’s argument with Rankin had continued,” mentioned Jefferson, who discovered the main points in a Scott County sheriff investigator’s report and interviews. “Harold went to his room and grabbed a gun. Rankin’s mom made him put it again. Willie walked outdoors. Harold walked out after him and closed the door.”

A neighbor close to the home reported that she heard “a commotion” outdoors O’Bryant’s home that evening. “Three male voices cursed and yelled, ‘bitch,’ ” in accordance with court docket information.

“Then there was a loud noise, machine-like, that drowned the voice,” Jefferson mentioned. “Her account contradicts each assertion taken from people in Rankin’s home that evening, apart from Tempo’s. Authorities have by no means questioned her.”

Rankin and Tempo couldn’t be reached for remark.

One of many final photographs of Jones exhibits him using his horse.

“He liked horses and canines,” his mom mentioned. “He was all the time speaking about engaged on a pipeline. That’s what he needed to do.”

“‘Why is that?’ I requested. He mentioned, ‘Mama, I would like to have the ability to deal with you.’ ”

Townsend remembers sitting on the desk along with her son hours earlier than his dying.

“He was completely satisfied. No worries like he all the time is, that large outdated smile on his face and making everyone snort,” she mentioned. “My mama thought he was the silliest clown ever.”

She remembers he began getting the child’s stuff collectively. “Stated he was on the brink of go.”

Townsend recalled that Rankin and her good friend got here by her home to choose him up.

The evening retains repeating itself, prefer it’s on rewind.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Townsend mentioned. “Unbelievable, like a nightmare. The best way I misplaced him. It’s like day by day, each minute, each hour, I take into consideration my child.”

Within the months after Jones’s dying, Townsend referred to as Rankin, who allowed her to see her grandson.

As soon as she filed the lawsuit, she mentioned, Rankin would now not enable her to see the child. Townsend mentioned she used to take a look at photographs of the child on Fb. However, then the Fb web page was taken down.

“This can be a ache I can’t describe,” Townsend mentioned. “I consider him on a regular basis.”

Townsend mentioned she nonetheless has not heard from investigators.

“They threw him away like he was nothing,” she mentioned. “Simply fully handled my child like he was nothing. He meant the world to me.” | Mississippi’s historical past of lynchings haunts grieving mom


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