By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press
MENDENHALL — A Mississippi legislator who authorities say committed suicide had struggled for years with depression but gave no indication in recent days that she was contemplating taking her own life, according to a former lawmaker who was with the woman the day she died.
State Rep. Jessica Upshaw was found dead Sunday outside the home of former Rep. Clint Rotenberry of Mendenhall. Upshaw, a 53-year-old Republican from Diamondhead, is believed to have died of a gunshot wound to the head, though an autopsy is pending.
Police Chief Candy McCullum said Monday there’s nothing to suggest the death was anything other than suicide.
Sitting at his kitchen table Monday holding a gray poodle named Beau, Rotenberry described Upshaw as his “soul mate,” saying they were both divorced and had been in a relationship for years. Wearing a plaid shirt with his salt-and-pepper hair parted to the side, Rotenberry fought back tears at times, but also managed a smile while talking about the good times the two had shared.
“Beau was her best friend,” he said, gently stroking the dog.
Rotenberry said he and Upshaw had spent the weekend together, first going to her house on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where they enjoyed a leisurely drive along the beach. They returned to his house Saturday. He said the two woke up Sunday morning and she checked her email and then they watched part of a romantic comedy.
“It was such a beautiful, relaxing day,” he recalled.
Rotenberry said he took a shower, but Upshaw wasn’t in the house when he got out. He found Upshaw’s body in his garage near the open door of her car.
“There were no signs. No indications … When I saw her, it was just disbelief. It’s like your mind is not believing what your eyes are seeing,” Rotenberry said.
Rotenberry said Upshaw had one of the sharpest minds he has ever seen among legislators, able to read and dissect long and complicated bills and amendments in a matter of minutes.
Upshaw could be tough and didn’t back down from a fight she believed in because she cared so much about the people she represented, Rotenberry said.
“She’s not just a hard person. She’s not just tough as nails. She had a heart. You may not have always seen that, but she was driven by convictions. She was driven by caring so much,” he said.
Rotenberry said he wants people to know that Upshaw fought a valiant fight against depression.
“She had this disease. It’s called depression. It was a fight just like you would fight cancer,” he said. “The passion she fought with for the people she represented, she carried that same passion in her fight with depression. She only knew how to give 110 percent.”
Chief McCullum said authorities received a 911 call about 1:20 p.m. to report a suicide at the house, a one-story brick home with white columns that sits on a hill on a wooded lot just off Highway 13. McCullum said it appears that Upshaw shot herself with what is believed to be a .40-caliber pistol.
McCullum said he called the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation when Upshaw was identified as a state representative. The investigation is continuing.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, asked his colleagues at the Capitol Monday to pray for Upshaw and the other members of the Legislature who died this session. Upshaw was the fifth state lawmaker to die in a matter of months.
“Knowing her as I do, I don’t think she would want us to allow this occasion to pass without reflecting on it and learning something,” Gunn said. He then asked House members to reflect on their own mortality saying “we are sinners” and “we need a savior.”
Funeral services are pending. Upshaw is survived by a daughter and grandchild.
Associated Press reporter Laura Tillman in Jackson contributed to this report.
Follow Mohr at http://twitter.com/holbrookmohr
More in Tuesday’s NEMS Daily Journal.