Ten years later: Slain Lee County sheriff’s legacy lives on

By Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Ten years after former Lee County Sheriff Harold Ray Presley was killed pursing a kidnapping suspect, his life and death are still providing life lessons to family and law enforcers.
No one cherishes those lessons more than his nephew Brandon Presley and current Sheriff Jim Johnson.
“He was more than my uncle,” said Presley, Northern District public service commissioner. “He was more like my daddy. My daddy died when I was 8 years old and Uncle Harold stepped right in and helped raise me.
“I felt and still feel lost without him here. That day he died was a terrible day for all of Lee County. There is still a big hole in my life from his death.”
Presley was killed in the early morning hours of July 6, 2001, after chasing suspected kidnapper Billy Ray Stone to a shed behind a home on Fellowship Road. Stone had driven through a roadblock on Auburn Road and crashed the vehicle he was driving after a police pursuit.
At some point during the chase the kidnap victim, 55-year-old Charlene Wright, was thrown from Stone’s vehicle. She suffered lacerations and was taken to North Mississippi Medical Center for treatment.
Stone was tracked to an area in the county but dodged deputies, so a search was started to locate him. Presley and deputies were going door-to-door looking for Stone when they heard a dog bark near a storage shed behind a home.
Reports said that as Presley, who wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest, entered the shed, Stone fired several shots, hitting Presley as he pushed a deputy out of harm’s way. Presley, who fired back, was later pronounced dead at North Mississippi Medical Center. Stone died at the scene.
After an investigation by the FBI, deputies Sgt. Danny Dillard and Sgt. Jason Stanford were tried on federal charges of violating Stone’s civil rights. They both were acquitted.
Although there has been speculation as to what really happened in that shed, there was never a question that the sheriff was trying to do what the people elected him to do that day.
“My uncle loved working,” said Presley. “The day he was killed he was out there doing his job. He never asked his deputies to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself, so he was out there working with those guys.”
Johnson was an investigator under Presley at the time he was killed. He was named interim sheriff after Presley’s death.
Like everyone else working for the department that day, Johnson was aiding in the search for Stone when he heard the call come across the radio that the sheriff had been shot.
“Harold Ray was very hands-on so when it came to paperwork, the investigators took care of it,” remembered Johnson. “I had gone back to the office to get an affidavit and warrant signed on the suspect. Then I heard the call that he’d been shot. That was a hard radio transmission to listen to.”
Johnson said that day 10 years ago helped shaped his approach to law enforcement.
“This was not a jailer or a deputy who was killed,” said Johnson. “This was the top guy. And if he could fall victim to this then any of us could. Now I make sure all of our deputies, including myself, wear our vests at all times. When I go out on a call I can’t help but think about what could happen and what has happened.”
Johnson served as interim sheriff until a special election six months after Presley’s death. Presley’s brother, Larry Presley, won the election to fill out the remainder of the term. In 2003, Johnson defeated Larry Presley for the job.
To the boy he raised from age 8 all the way to manhood, Harold Ray Presley not being around is a battle every day.
Brandon Presley said it was his uncle who got him into politics, resulting in him becoming the youngest mayor in Mississippi at age 23 in Nettleton. He took office just four days before his uncle was killed. Brandon Presley ran his uncle’s sheriff’s campaign when he was 16 years old.
“I was looking forward to him being my mentor and my support when I became mayor,” he said. “I was so excited about that. To have him here to bounce ideas off of and talk about the job was a big deal for me. It didn’t happen. It was like the rug had been snatched from under me. A terrible feeling, a terrible day.”
Presley said his uncle had a real love for Lee County and law enforcement.
“I know this sounds cliche’, but he truly died doing what he loved to do,” said Presley. “And that’s the truth.”
Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or danza.johnson@journalinc.com.