Photo by Nicholas Scott Hall
“Some guys are here, in the back room.
They’re talking about me,” Jessica Lewis told her mother, Susan Spence, in a panicked phone call. “I think something bad’s going to happen. I think they’re going to kill me.”
“Who is? What’s going on? Let me come get you,” Susan insisted, frantic, unsure if this was another drug-induced, paranoid call from the daughter she felt she’d already lost, or, if this time, there was truth in her words.
At 28, Jessica had suffered with addiction for a few years. She’d smoked methamphetamine and shot heroin. A North Mississippi native, she’d fallen in with a bad crowd from South Memphis, people who helped her get the drugs she needed to secure her fix. Her boyfriend, *Ramon (whom she never introduced to friends), kept her on a tight leash and encouraged her self-destructive habits. Her drug dealer, *Garvin, was a 40-something-year-old man who lived off Shelby Drive near Elvis Presley Boulevard in a house littered with guns, baggies of cocaine and meth ready to be sold, and vagrants using drugs. A kitchen freezer was filled with gallon-sized bags of pills. Armed men stood watch at the front door.
Despite Jessica’s shift in scenery, she played it off to friends as though nothing was amiss. She thought she could walk away whenever she wanted.
In the last year of her life, Jessica had been living between Ramon’s house in South Memphis and the Bellevue Inn, a motel at 1250 S. Bellevue near South Parkway. She’d told her mother she’d been given a free room in exchange for housekeeping. Susan didn’t know what to believe anymore — Jessica had been “gone” a long time.
Susan had received many worrisome phone calls from Jessica over the past couple of years — saying she needed money or to be picked up from some sketchy part of town — but there was more urgency on the other end of the line this time. Jessica’s voice was tinged with fear. Susan heard a man bellow, agitated, in the background, “Who are you talking to?”
“I’m talking to my mama!” Jessica responded with a defiant huff. A few mumbled words, some shuffling, then, “Mama, I’ve got to call you back.” Click.
She wouldn’t return that call until the next morning. “Everything is OK,” Jessica said, as if nothing had happened. “Everything is fine.”
They never spoke again.
Jessica Lewis was murdered on February 20, 2011, just two weeks after that phone call. She was a daughter, a mother, and a friend — my friend. The autopsy showed signs of physical abuse: bruises and cuts and skinned knees. The cause of death: a gunshot wound to the head. Her body was found in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, an unkempt graveyard at Elvis Presley and Elliston in South Memphis.
“Jessica’s gone,” Ramon told Susan in a phone call two days after the murder. “Gone where?” she asked. “She’s dead,” he said, and gave her the detective’s phone number.
According to Ramon, Jessica had been missing for six days. But Susan felt like he knew more than he was admitting. Over the coming months and years, as the investigation lingered and then slowed, it would become increasingly clear that it wasn’t just Jessica’s addiction that precipitated her murder, but the lengths she went to obtain the drugs.
THE LOST GIRL(S)
The first time Jessica sold her body for drug money could have been as early as 2007. In hindsight, the signs were there, but back then, friends and family chalked her odd behavior up to drug use.
Her funeral was held Saturday, February 26, 2011. I hadn’t seen her since the fall of 2008, not long after she’d spent more than a month in rehab at a local recovery facility. Four years earlier, she’d started using methamphetamine with the man who’d later father her second child. With him she delved into criminal activity, pawning stolen items (some from her own mother’s home) to support their habit. Soon after, she entered a custody battle over her first child and lost — her son went to live with his father and stepmother.
That was when I cut ties with her. Not because she was an addict (yet; at the time, I didn’t know the extent of it), but because I didn’t want to be around the drug use, even socially. I assumed it was a phase she’d outgrow but was selfishly too busy with my own life to do more than distance myself. I failed to keep in touch with her and, like many close to her, was oblivious to where the last three years had taken her. It wasn’t until her viewing that I heard the word “prostitute” used to describe my friend. She had been arrested at least twice for prostitution in Memphis, and her loved ones scarcely heard from her.
While we were readying for the funeral, another local woman with a history of prostitution, 44-year-old Rhonda Wells, met an all-too-similar fate as Jessica’s. She, too, died from a gunshot wound to the head, and her body was discovered in the same overgrown cemetery Jessica was found just four days earlier. In the following weeks, local television news stories surfaced, sensationalizing the homicides with headlines like “Possible Serial Killer Targeting Prostitutes” and “Prostitutes Found Murdered in South Memphis Cemetery,” each time egregiously flashing the victims’ mugshots across TV and computer screens with no measure of sensitivity toward the deceased or their families.
According to headlines, these women weren’t daughters, mothers, sisters — they were just “prostitutes.” If they had been magazine editors, like myself, would their profession have been advertised without consideration of other details — namely that they were human beings who were murdered?
One thing that stood out from the fleeting news coverage was this: a pattern. Prior to Jessica’s murder, on January 27th, a “known prostitute,” 31-year-old Tamakia McKinney, was found dead in the middle of Hemlock Street. News stations reported that another prostitute, Marnicia Shaw, was found murdered in a hotel room on Brooks Road on February 12th. Two days after the discovery of Wells’ body, a fifth would-be victim, a self-professed prostitute identified only as Katrina, was shot in the face, thrown from a car, and left for dead on Ledger Street. Katrina survived and was able to give police a description of the suspect. Each incident occurred less than a mile from Mt. Carmel Cemetery, an area not far from Graceland and a hotbed of criminal activity in Memphis.
The surviving 2011 victim helped investigators create this composite sketch of the suspect.
Soon, news coverage ceased, but families and friends of victims were left in the dark to grieve without much hope for closure. (Though investigators were responsive in the months after Jessica’s death, earlier this year when Susan called to check on the status of her daughter’s case, she was told that no notes had been made in her file since 2013.) Whoever took the lives of these women is still unknown.
The wound opened again in 2015 when news surfaced of another woman with a history of prostitution, 25-year-old Juanita Gilmore, found dead on September 16th in Hollywood Cemetery, a plot of land adjoining Mt. Carmel, separated by railroad tracks. Gilmore had been stabbed multiple times, her body bludgeoned to the point of being almost unrecognizable.
Known as a haven for drugs and prostitution by night, Mt. Carmel is deceptively peaceful by afternoon’s light. About three miles north of Graceland and as many miles south of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, traffic flows along the cemetery’s east border on a strip of Elvis Presley Boulevard lined with boarded-up buildings. Neighborhood homes face the southern side of this graveyard where Tom Lee, the hero who saved 32 people from drowning in the Mississippi River in 1925, was laid to rest in 1952.
In recent years, the cemetery has fallen into decrepitude, with tombstones sinking and crumbling and saplings growing through marked burial plots. The west end is bordered by the canopy of a small forest of tall trees. Just last May, the Memphis Police Department (MPD) was again called to investigate the cemetery after someone reported that it looked like existing graves had been disturbed or new graves had been dug. (The newest headstones I saw were dated 2001.) The search turned up nothing on this occasion, but sites like Mt. Carmel and Hollywood Cemetery merit patrol.
According to Assistant District Attorney Olivia Brame, “cemetery killings” are extremely common. Many times, a killer will bury a victim right where someone else has already been buried. “They’re incredibly hard to find,” she says. “We may not even know about it.” Pointing to cases of local cemetery killings in the last five years, Brame says, “These are just the bodies that we’ve found in Shelby County. There are more out there.”
To date, neither Gilmore’s case nor those of the 2011 victims have been solved. But MPD Homicide Sergeant Robert Wilkie believes the same suspect is to blame for four of the five 2011 cases, and that someone out there knows something that can help them catch the culprit. Though he can’t confirm they’re looking for a serial killer, Wilkie says that “two cases are for sure forensically linked together, and there are four cases that we believe are all the same person.”
Wilkie says DNA was lifted from some of the victims (including Jessica), but there hasn’t yet been a Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) match. According to FBI.gov, as of April 2016, the National DNA Index (NDIS) contains more than 12 million offender profiles, 2 million arrestee profiles, and nearly 700,000 forensic profiles. In that same time period, CODIS has produced more than 300,000 hits assisting in nearly as many investigations. The system continually tests random samplings of DNA, says Wilkie, but to date, “nothing has come back from any of the DNA.”
Over the past five years, Jessica’s family and friends have often wondered if she hadn’t had the shameful “prostitute” label slapped across her case file, would her murderer still be on the loose? “I understand why they might think that,” Wilkie says, “that we as investigators or police would look down simply because of their profession — but part of that profession is no witnesses. They are doing illegal actions, so they’re going to places that are secluded or dark or where no one’s going through or where no video is, intentionally, to avoid capture. They’re trying to keep away from the police [or anyone else] being able to see, so that works against us.”
Wilkie does not believe Juanita Gilmore’s 2015 case is connected to those of the 2011 victims besides the location where they were found and the situations that likely led up to their murders. “I think that one was more personal, even more personal than the others,” he says. But the killer(s) took them to “the cemetery, no doubt fully intending to kill and leave them right there … obviously no intention of them ever leaving that final spot, so they went with the intent to discard their bodies,” Wilkie says. “I am sure that at that point all of them knew what was happening, and that it was the end.”
REMOVING THE LABEL
Before becoming an addict, Jessica was a good girl, a precocious girl who blossomed into an admirable young woman, a mother of two boys. It didn’t add up. She’d excelled in school — the type of person who rarely had to crack a book to study, eager to learn and teach others who weren’t as quick to catch on to new concepts. She was on the Horn Lake Middle School dance team, and though she wasn’t necessarily the most popular kid in class, she was genuine, easygoing, and had friends in every social clique. After high school, she was pursuing a medical degree at Northwest Mississippi Community College (and later Delta Technical), and through school, she had always held down legitimate jobs, including a stint at a desk job with a prestigious local hospital.
Jessica was beautiful. She often flat-ironed her shoulder-length, strawberry-blonde curls, and she had style — her closet was full of body-hugging jeans and cute tops to adorn her near-hourglass, athletic figure. Even as a teen, smile lines creased her face. When she’d laugh, her cheeks rounded and her bright blue eyes gleamed through squinted lids — that guttural laugh still resonates in my memory.
Jessica and the author at a senior class holiday gathering.
I’d known her since middle school. We worked part-time jobs together and our boyfriends were in a band, performing at venues on Beale Street and elsewhere. We’d help the guys carry in gear, lugging guitars and microphones backstage like VIPs. Before we turned 21, we’d use fake IDs to order Jack and Coke, then dance all night with our crew of friends at the foot of the stage under flashing, colored lights. We thought we were rock stars. But she had a way about her — Susan described her as a “lightning rod.” She always forged the way, and no one argued it.
Jessica had her first child at 20, the first of my close friends to venture into motherhood. She was the most beautiful pregnant woman I’d ever seen; her belly grew outward as the rest of her petite frame stayed the same. When her son was born, she radiated love and light. She was planning a wedding with the child’s father, and from the outside her life looked picture perfect.
But it wasn’t. She soon struggled through a downward spiral that led to an early grave. As a nod to her never having to experience any more pain, Susan chose one of Jessica’s favorite Pink Floyd songs — “Comfortably Numb” — to play at her funeral. But seeing her in a coffin — gaunt, lifeless, a scarf covering the bruising on her chest and neck — it was hard to see beyond the pain.
Susan, like Jessica, is petite and has the same rounded, smiling cheeks, hers framed by short brown hair that curls under the edge of her face. She’s gentle-natured and demure, but much more resilient than most women I know. Susan lost her brother, husband, daughter, and father all within a year’s time, enduring more heartache in one year than some experience in a lifetime.
She leans on her faith in God for strength. But it has only been in the last year that she’s been able to shed some of the shock of losing her daughter. In that time, we’ve met on occasion to sort through Jessica’s old photos, to attempt to decipher exactly how her life took the turn it did, and share memories of the happier times. Talking about those times, there’s a shift in Susan’s demeanor — a light comes on inside.
As she describes the only child she ever gave birth to, Susan smiles through tears. She remembers how driven, talented, and radiant Jessica was growing up. How Jessica, as a bright-eyed, energetic youngster, looked forward to Easter weekend each year because her Aunt Mary would take her out for a “girls day” to shop for the perfect dress.
Jessica (second from right) and friends pose for a photo at the 2001 Horn Lake High School graduation.
She remembers beaming with pride at Jessica’s school graduations, seeing her readying for prom, and admittedly being a bit annoyed by her habit of noisily rummaging through her makeup bag in the car, fixing herself up on the road. She recalls her late husband, David, Jessica’s step-dad (she called him “Day-Day”) teaching her how to drive a car, and then sending her off to her first job working concessions at the local ball field. And seeing her, as a young woman, glowing through two pregnancies, giving birth to sons a few years apart. “The memories will never leave, just like with her friends,” Susan says.
The memories are all we have left. We lost Jessica — first to addiction and later to a lifestyle none of us can grasp. She suffered in silence in the last years of her life, as do many addicts and trafficking victims who tend to block out family and friends and live with a level of shame that’s hard to come back from.
Addiction envelops all aspects of a person’s being. “It’s not a matter of caring about your family or loving your children . . . That’s how powerful addiction is,” says Allen Richardson, executive director of Serenity Recovery Center. Richardson has been a licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselor for more than 20 years. “Addiction is an illness just like diabetes or cancer,” he says. “Once a person gets addicted, they can’t ‘just stop.’ It’s like asking someone to stop breathing. They don’t have a choice.”
Society tends to view addicts as second-class citizens. “Until it hits their family,” Richardson says. “Addiction crosses all socioeconomic lines, races, and backgrounds, particularly with heroin now. We’ve seen a big uptick in the usage of heroin, and it’s mainly with college students and higher-income-bracket families.”
Though Jessica received long-term treatment and attended substance-abuse meetings, she did not make it out the other side. (Her case is one of many; know there is hope for addicts seeking recovery.) “They say don’t enable them, but if I had continued to enable her, would she still be alive?” Susan asks. “I tried everything I could to help her, but I still feel like I could have done more — any parent would.”
As for memories, there is another Susan will never forget: the call about Jessica’s death. Driving home from work, she had to pull over. “I felt like I was giving birth to her, like someone was ripping her out of me; like someone was taking my baby,” she says. There would never be another Easter outfit. Her final shopping trip for Jessica would be to purchase the clothes she would bury her in.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from, nobody deserves to be killed like that,” Susan says. Thinking of how Jessica’s last moments must have gone, before being dragged through a South Memphis cemetery and shot in the head on a wintry February night, clothed in only underwear and one sock, she shudders. “She was cold. Jessica didn’t like to be cold.”
A DANGEROUS PATH
Prostitution is often not a choice. Or what seemed like a choice at first may quickly turn into enslavement. While a number of factors can lead a person to this lifestyle, among them drug addiction or an abusive home life, prostitutes are often victims, manipulated, exploited, and controlled by traffickers or pimps.
Even so, prostitution is sometimes glamorized in Memphis and elsewhere. A 2005 Memphis-made film, Hustle & Flow, portrays the life of a fictional Memphis pimp, DJay, who aspires to become a rapper. With the help of one of his prostitutes, he records a hit song — the movie’s title track, “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp,” scored a “Best Original Song” Academy Award for its writers, local rap group Three 6 Mafia.
Since 1974, an annual gathering of pimps, called the Players Ball, has been held at various locations across the U.S. and honors pimps nationwide — with one garnering the “Pimp of the Year” award. The Players Ball has been explored in various documentaries, including HBO’s Pimps Up, Ho’s Down and the Hughes brothers’ American Pimp. A regional Players Ball takes place in our city each year.
But the lifestyle is anything but glamorous.
One of Memphis’ most notorious sex trafficking cases was that of Terrence “T-Rex” Yarbrough, a pimp who in 2013 was sentenced to nearly 45 years in prison for 10 counts of sex trafficking, after transporting women from Memphis to Tunica, Mississippi, to prostitute. According to a U.S. Department of Justice press release, victims and witnesses testified that Yarbrough “lured vulnerable victims, some as young as 15 years old, into prostitution with false promises of love, family, and prosperity. Evidence showed that any time a victim refused to engage in prostitution, Yarbrough resorted to threats, intimidation, and violence.”
Predators like Yarbrough prey on the weak — runaway youths, women who have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused, or addicts who’ve dissociated from their families and friends. Pimps often give sex workers a nightly quota and force them to work hours on end with limited sleep. A meal, a new outfit, or a hit of a favorite drug may be used as incentive and reward, and punitive actions are taken against those who resist (in addition to deprivation of the aforementioned “luxuries”).
“Can you imagine walking up and down the same 20 yards of real estate over and over again until you got picked up because you knew if you stopped you were going to get beat?” asks MPD Lieutenant Christopher Moffatt, who spent several years supervising the Memphis VICE team and participated in prostitution stings. “I can’t imagine the despair . . . the hopelessness. Think about this: That woman who’s on the side of the road, 6:30 in the morning, sun’s peeking, she’s been there all night long, walking that same stretch with the exception of the times she [got in a stranger’s car]. That’s her break from walking.”
The horrific violence Yarbrough’s victims endured included “being beaten with belts, coat hangers, crowbars, padlocks, and dog chains; being thrown down stairs; having their heads smashed in car doors; having their legs burned with irons; and being scalded with boiling water.” One victim testified that when she refused to work for him, Yarbrough threatened to prostitute her 9-year-old daughter.
Regarding this case, and others like it, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich says, “That’s the ultimate level of the abuse and power and control these women are dealing with every day . . . It’s the same dynamic we see with domestic violence. It’s all about that ‘You’ve got to have me to survive, and I’m the one that’s going to supply you with the drugs that you’re addicted to, the roof over your head, the food, the everything [mentality].’”
In Memphis, 484 people were arrested for prostitution-related crimes last year — a number that has dropped dramatically over the last 10 years (1,415 arrests in 2005), but the crime itself has not diminished. According to Moffatt, the dip can be attributed, in part, to MPD’s policing priorities and lack of manpower. As well, a portion of the business has moved off the streets and online in recent years, with sex workers advertising as escorts on websites, making it easier to conduct business in private.
Prostitution is categorized as a class A or class B misdemeanor in Tennessee, depending on whether the offense occurred near a church or school, punishable with fines and jail time. Despite such a punishment, and considering that many of those involved in sex work have been violently coerced, it isn’t a victimless crime. In 2011, the Tennessee General Assembly removed prostitution as a prosecutable crime for minors. But, Weirich asks, “If a 17-year-old is a victim, how can an 18-year-old be a defendant?”
“No little girl says, ‘I can’t wait to walk down Lamar and sell my body for $10,’” adds Assistant District Attorney Abby Wallace, who works in the DA’s Special Victims Unit. “They are programmed — whether it be by an abusive home life or a pimp — to think that they are only worth $10 and that they are useless. They feel that society sees them that way as well, so they don’t cooperate with police, don’t report abuse, and don’t come to each others’ aid.”
It has not been proven that Jessica or the other 2011 victims were under the control of a pimp at the time of their murders. But their bodies were all found within a two-block stretch and within a month’s time, suggesting that these weren’t just random killings. The question remains as to whether they were committed by a pimp or trafficker or a sociopathic stranger (customers, called Johns or tricks). Johns are often predators, too, and though public perception does not place the same level of shame on them, there would be no business without them.
Many Johns physically abuse the women they patronize. A South Memphis sex worker named Porshe, who says she resorted to prostitution to pay her bills when she was unable to find a job, has often found herself in dangerous situations, and recently a local John has been threatening to kill women on her “track” (areas known for prostitution). This John, she says, set fire to her friend, and to escape, the victim threw acid on him — a defense weapon she carries with her daily in case of attack. The victim did not report the incident to police.
Jessica’s boyfriend, Ramon, in an off-camera TV news interview after her death, said he didn’t think it was a serial killer who’d killed her, but a pimp she’d refused to give a cut of her money. Was Ramon her pimp? If not, did he know him? Jessica was with Ramon when she called her mother in a panic prior to her death — she seemed to be aware of imminent danger. But MPD told Susan he had been ruled out as a suspect. No witnesses ever spoke up.
In recent months, as I’ve tried to retrace Jessica’s footsteps and gain a better understanding of where she’d been and who she may have been with, I’ve felt closer to her than ever, and filled with heavy regret. Admittedly, I’ve confused telling her story with trying to solve her case. I’ve found myself up many nights at 3 a.m., searching the far corners of Facebook looking for people with whom she may have had a connection — and in the process have found several Memphis pimps blatantly advertising their business and lifestyle on public profiles.
Skimming the pages of Just Busted every week, I’d find other local women who’d been arrested for prostitution and search public records to see if they lived or worked near where Jessica had been walking the streets. Some of them have arrest records dating back more than 10 years, selling themselves for as little as $10 to strangers in Memphis for an entire decade.
All of the digging has only led to more questions: Why is prostitution so prevalent in certain areas of town (Brooks Road, Summer and Tillman, Lamar and Democrat, the stretch of Elvis Presley/S. Bellevue between McLemore and Mallory)? What can be done to curb the crime? Why won’t the women who walked with and knew Jessica come forward with information? While MPD was willing to comment for this story, there are only so many answers they’re able to give on an open case. But will they ever close the case? Will it ever be solved?
HOPE FOR THE LOST
Pat Tia, a colorful Kentucky native, spent 30 years as an addict working truck stops across the United States. Tia is a convicted prostitute in five states, has been arrested more than 250 times, and was entered into drug treatment 10 times. Tia did not have a pimp, other than her crack pipe, she says, “and the pipe was a tough taskmaster.”
Once, she was stopped by police in Texas and the officer told her she’d had a missing person’s report out on her for six years. “He stood in front of me and he called my mother,” Tia says. “He did not tell my mother I was all right, he told my mother I was alive — because he knew that there was nothing all right about me.”
Tia hitched a ride with a trucker to Memphis and, for the first time in her years of living this lifestyle, got an eerie feeling. “I don’t know if he ever hurt anybody or if that was just God’s way of saying, ‘I’m trying to get you to where I need you to be,’” she says. Tia quit the truck-stop circuit and spent some time walking “tracks” in Memphis, but it wasn’t until she was physically attacked by a would-be robber that she had a life-changing breakthrough.
“I fought that man like I was fighting for my life. But do you know why? He wasn’t getting my dope. Or my money. It wasn’t even about saving my own life,” she says. “I got away from him. I went home and smoked. And when it come time to go out the door to get some more money, I couldn’t go. For the first time in my life, I was afraid of doing what I did.”
Tia’s is among the survivor stories women who’ve been arrested for prostitution (and who meet qualifying criteria) hear at Lives Worth Saving, a prostitution intervention initiative created in a joint effort by the DA’s office, MPD, and RestoreCorps, a local nonprofit that offers life-saving resources for sex-trafficking victims. The class meets monthly (with the exception of March during Waffle Shop) at Calvary Episcopal Church, and since its inception in December 2014 has hosted more than 150 women. Those who attend the four-hour educational seminar are eligible for reduced criminal penalties and are given information on resources available to start anew. Providers who offer rehabilitation, job-skills training opportunities, and housing are on hand for those interested.
Using local resources like those present at Lives Worth Saving (A Step Ahead Foundation, the Salvation Army, A Way Out, HopeWorks, and others), Tia managed to turn her life around. She has since gotten married, received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Memphis, and today is an instructor for HopeWorks, a nonprofit that serves the under-resourced through outreach programs that develop individual worth.
In addition to hearing survivor stories, class participants see a presentation from the District Attorney’s office. “Can anyone picture themselves as a homicide victim? Does anybody in here know any homicide victims?” asks Assistant DA Brame. “You have a target on your back.”
The presentation proceeds with a photo slideshow of real Memphis crime scenes where sex workers were found dead. The murders are categorized with names like “the drainage ditch,” “the motel murder,” “the sidewalk tallboy,” and “the alley.” A particularly gruesome image was that of “the river dump,” in which the victim had been stuffed into a garbage can with holes cut out of the top. The top was tied down before the can was thrown into the river. The photo showed a hand with well-manicured nails peeking out, curled around the underside of the lid. She tried to escape until her last breath.
There are ways out of this lifestyle. It’s often a matter of awareness — of warning signs (like those discussed in this story) and of options for those who need help.
But by the time Jessica realized she couldn’t easily walk away from the situation she had gotten herself into, she was in way too deep. She’d reached out to her mother around Christmas 2010, less than two months before her murder, saying she was ready to turn her life around, “dry out” for good, and come home. “I felt it — she didn’t like what she was doing. And I know she felt ashamed and didn’t want to reach out to friends because we talked about it,” Susan says. “In her wildest dreams she never would have thought she would end up like that. And separating her life from her children: She wouldn’t have done that voluntarily. The drugs, of course, played a part, but the pressure of a pimp — I think she just knew there was no easy way out. And I was so naive about it that I just didn’t know.”
Though Jessica was among the “cemetery killing” victims found atop another’s grave, she did receive a proper burial in a peaceful plot in Northridge Woodhaven Cemetery in Millington. Her tombstone reads “Our sunshine, Mama’s baby girl,” and the gravesite sits in the Garden of Honor next to her grandfather and other veterans who’ve served our country. Her children, now 8 and 13 years old, have been adopted by family members, and, though they miss their mother terribly, have strong support systems. Susan sees so much of her daughter in them; Jessica lives through them.
As hard as it has been to accept that my friend met this fate, and as difficult as it has been for her mother to talk about it, our aims are many. Assistant DA Wallace sums one up: “Change the perception. There are too many people who think that there are segments of our society that are disposable, that they don’t matter, whether they be homeless people or prostitutes or drug users,” she says. “These are all human beings who have a story.”
Another: “I want the people who did this to her to face justice. This needs to be solved,” Susan says, “not only for us, but for those other ladies and their families, too. I know they hurt just as much as I do.”
Susan adds, “If there’s somebody out there who has a family member who’s into drugs, maybe they can get through to them quicker. If her story makes a difference in even one life, that’s a special tribute to Jessica, just to be able to be her voice. She was my life. She was my joy. And I’m never going to get over her.”