By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press
TUNICA – Mississippi authorities said Friday that robbery appeared to be the motive for a suspect in two roadside slayings that prompted unfounded fears of an impostor police officer pulling over victims.
Tunica County Sheriff K.C. Hamp said James D. Willie, 28, was arrested Tuesday after the investigation of an alleged rape turned up evidence linking him to the killings.
The first roadside killing happened May 8, when Thomas Schlender of Nebraska was found dead at about 1:30 a.m. in his car on Interstate 55 in Panola County. Then local casino employee Lori Anne Carswell was found dead in her car on Mississippi Highway 713 about 2:15 a.m. on May 11.
Willie was arrested Tuesday after a woman said he raped her. The sheriff said tests on shell casings and a 9-mm Ruger pistol found during that investigation matched shells recovered at the killing sites.
Police had warned drivers that a fake officer might be pulling over victims. But Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain said Willie had not been posing as a police officer in the shootings.
He was being held on charges of kidnapping, aggravated assault and rape and was charged with capital murder in Tunica County. A capital murder charge is expected in Panola County, meaning he could face the death penalty or life in prison without parole if convicted.
The sheriff said he believed robbery – possibly connected to drugs – was Willie’s motive. He said Willie has been “cooperative to a certain extent” but did not confess to the crimes.
He said authorities still don’t know why the highway shooting victims were on the side of the road, but they may have been lured to pull over or already were on the roadside when Willie approached.
News of the arrest brought relief Friday morning in the Tunica area.
Authorities had developed several theories during the investigation, and one was that someone could be posing as an officer to pull people over because there was no apparent reason for the victims to pull over.
“If we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of public safety,” Strain said. “The fact is that we got him off the street and people can go back to a level of comfort.”
The sheriff said Willie’s arrest unfolded after a woman who was involved in a domestic dispute in Tunica County asked Willie for a ride to the Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday morning. The two apparently did not know each other. Instead of taking here there, authorities say he drove her to a field in a remote area and raped her.
During the attack, Hamp said the woman tried to flee and Willie fired a shot. He then drove the woman to the apartment of his girlfriend where the victim was able to escape and call deputies.
Investigators found a shell casing in the field and recovered the Ruger pistol from a car belonging to Willie’s girlfriend. Ballistic testing later found that it was the same gun used in the two highway shootings, authorities said.
Strain said Willie is a convicted felon, but he did not have details about his previous arrests.