TUPELO – A suspected kidnapper shot Lee County Sheriff Harold Ray Presley six times 13 years ago today, and a memorial was put up in his honor.
Larry Presley thinks about his slain brother daily but has spent most of this year with something else on his mind – the disappearance of the 7,766-pound memorial dedicated near the Lee County Jail in August 2002.
The 8-foot-tall, 11-foot-wide granite memorial disappeared in January 2008 amid circumstances Presley still finds questionable. After Tupelo Police Officer Gale Stauffer died in December from a bank robber’s gunshot, Presley’s questions intensified about his brother’s memorial, funded by more $19,000 in donations. It listed names of six other lawmen killed in the line of duty and had space for more.
Law enforcement acquaintances told Presley soon after the monument disappeared that strong winds destroyed it during a night of severe weather that also damaged trees throughout the county.
“It was a big monument and put up by people qualified to install it,” Presley said last week.
After Harold Ray Presley’s death, Larry Presley won election to serve as Lee County sheriff four months later. He chose not to retain the interim sheriff, Jim Johnson, who soundly defeated him nearly two years later and remains in the elected office.
Some of Harold Ray Presley’s family still harbor anger and frustration toward Johnson.
On Jan. 8, Larry Presley delivered a letter to the Lee County Supervisors requesting a formal investigation of the monument’s disappearance. The letter stated the owner of Georgia-based Everlasting Granite Memorial Company said strong wind destroying the memorial was “not possible.”
While Larry Presley wants the monument replaced, something Johnson said he hopes will happen when the adult jail is expanded or relocated, state law prohibits using county resources to replace the monument, which wasn’t insured.
Near the flagpole located near the jail, markings still exist where the monument once stood tall. Rumors have swirled about how the monument disappeared stories like Johnson using a backhoe to destroy it. Other rumors include the sheriff using explosives.
Dennis Truax, head of Mississippi State University’s department of civil and environmental engineering, said the cause may be less sinister. He reviewed Saturday a photo taken a few years after memorial was erected.
Truax concluded wind, indeed, could be the culprit based on possible wind rotation the night of the incident. The photo and monument’s invoice indicate the tall structure’s thin width, making it vulnerable to severe weather.
“As strange as that might sound, actually, yes,” Truax said. “Within the limits of what I know, it’s certainly conceivable this was the result of a monument constructed by people with a lot of experience but did not do the engineering calculations for something like this.”
As for Johnson, he said he’ll never forget the tragic day in 2001 when a good man was murdered. He also said Larry Presley has never asked him about what happened to the memorial and knows some people always will believe he’s responsible.
“I know for a fact that I didn’t have anything to do with the destruction of it,” Johnson said. “What other people say is the right of being an American and having freedom of speech.”