COURTLAND, MS — The trial for the man accused of murdering 19-year-old Jessica Chambers, who was set on fire nearly three years ago along a back road in Mississippi in a gruesome killing that shocked the nation, is finally set to begin.
Jessica was doused with an accelerant and set alight on December 6, 2014.
After police and paramedics found her engulfed in flames outside of her burning black 2005 Kia Rio, she was flown to Regional Medical Center in Memphis where, after suffering burns over 98 percent of her body, she died.
The defendant, 29-year-old Quinton Tellis, has pleaded not guilty to the murder.
Over the years, the case has made national headlines and drawn a variety of amateur sleuths to spout their theories about which residents of Jessica’s small town could have been involved.
Many social-media sleuths share theories on the “Justice for Jessica” Facebook page — and have named potential “suspects” including Jessica’s ex-boyfriend Bryan Rudd, and Ali Fahdel, the clerk who worked at the gas station convenience store where she last bought gas.
And while authorities and family members say that while the armchair detectives have good intentions, in many cases they have allegedly done more harm than good by spreading unsubstantiated rumors.
At the beginning of the investigation, police appeared to have few clues — and the final hour of Jessica’s life remained a huge mystery. She was last seen on grainy gas-station surveillance video that showed her walking toward the gas station, about 90 minutes before first responders discovered her on fire about a mile away. The footage shows Jessica waving to someone off camera before she walks over to speak with them.
The clerk, Ali Fahdel, said that Chambers bought more gas than usual, and indicated that she was going to meet someone. Police quickly cleared Fahdel, but according to his father, he moved from the area after receiving death threats.
Later, investigators said they believed the killer had been in her car before setting it alight — and that Jessica had been conscious when they arrived.
Courtland, like many small towns, has problems with gang violence and drug activity, but from the beginning authorities and locals believed that this attack was personal.
Among the leads detectives pursued was searching for ties to other recent burning cases in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, and exploring the possibility that Jessica, as a white woman who dated black men, could have been attacked because of an interracial relationship.In the end, it was something relatively simple — Quinton Tellis’ cell phone — that helped investigators crack the case.
Friends and family said that Tellis had known Jessica for a couple of weeks, and that they may have been briefly romantically involved. According to Tellis’ Facebook page, he later married and moved to Monroe, Louisiana.
Tellis has been behind bars in Louisiana since the end of August, when he was arrested on three counts of unauthorized use of a debit card after allegedly using bank cards belonging to murdered Taiwanese student Meing-chen Hsiao.
Hsiao, 34, was found stabbed to death in her apartment in Monroe, in August 2015. She allegedly was tortured to death for her credit card personal-identification numbers. Tellis is a suspect in her murder.
Prosecutors say that after examining the phone records of Tellis, who faces life in prison if convicted of Jessica’s murder, they were able to determine that he was allegedly the last person with Jessica on the day of her murder.
Prosecutor John Champion said: “We came to the realization that he was with her at 6 o’clock. Their phones were absolutely together in Batesville.”
Since Tellis’ extradition to Mississippi after being indicted and charged in February 2016, he has been held at the DeSoto County Jail in Hernando.
Members of the jury will reportedly be required to travel more than 200 miles and spend more than a week sequestered. Jury selection began yesterday in the trial, which prosecutors have said the expect to last approximately 14 days.
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Main photo: Jessica Chambers [CNN / YouTube via Justice for Jessica – Facebook (screenshot)]