On December 6, 2014, Jessica Chambers, 19, was burned alive in the small town of Courtland, Mississippi. The first trial ended in a hung jury, and suspect Quinton Tellis is now on trial again. Jessica’s keys, where they were found, and by whom, may be crucial evidence.
According to a statement Jerry King gave to the police, King found the keys in a small ditch off the side of the road while walking down Main Street with his daughter in a stroller in Courtland, Mississippi. This was about a quarter mile from the crime scene where Jessica Chambers was found, barely alive, blackened by soot with burns on more than 90 percent of her body.
King told the police he noticed a pink rope with a set of keys attached and picked them up, also noting a keychain that read “Ben’s Auto & Diesel Repair” attached to it, connecting the keys to Jessica’s father Ben Chambers.
The keys in evidence had multiple keychains, including the “Ben’s Auto & Diesel Repair” tag. Other key fobs included a die, a pink hand sanitizer bottle, a footprint with embossed words of religious sentiment — and of course, the keys to Jessica’s Kia Rio that was shown to jurors in its burned, rusty condition at the Panola County impound lot in the first trial in 2017.
King, who has multiple priors including a DUI, resisting/obstructing arrest and grand larceny, told the police he put the keys at the bottom of the stroller and went home. In his dictated statement to the police, King said Mary Turner — his girlfriend — called an agent to turn over the keys.
In his testimony, King said he found the keys two days after Jessica Chambers died, and that his girlfriend noticed the auto repair key fob. He also testified that he gave them to his toddler daughter to play with as they headed home, a statement that differed from the written police statement.
According to King’s testimony, he thought the keys might be valuable because of their “shiney-ness,” and decided to pick them up and take them home.
Deputy Tyler Mills, who collected the keys as evidence, was also called to the stand, saying that King’s girlfriend called him after King found the keys. He testified that he went to King’s home then returned to the scene with King. King placed the keys approximately where he found them. Mills then photographed them on the ground. Those photos were shown to the jury.
On cross-examination, the defense pointed out that Mills was part of the Sheriff Department’s narcotics team and had never collected evidence in a homicide. The defense challenged how Mills handled the keys and his reliance on King’s recollection of when and where they were found.
Major Barry Thompson, the lead investigator for the Panola County Sheriff's Department, also testified just prior to a field trip jurors took to the relevant locations.
Thompson told jurors that King had mentioned the keys were found off the road in a gully, or a ditch, pointing out to the jury where King lived at the time on a map of the town.
In the cross-examination, defense attorney Alton Peterson asked Thompson how he knew the keys were found in that gully — and Thompson admitted that they only knew where they were based on King’s word. He also conceded that they took photographs of where King indicated he found the keys even though King admitted he moved them before calling the Sheriff’s Department.
The real kicker about Jessica’s keychain? The prosecution alleges that they have evidence of suspect Quinton Tellis’ DNA on the car keys.
Although there was a mixture of four male DNA profiles on the keys, three unidentified and the fourth that cannot exclude Tellis, Tellis does admit that there were he drove Jessica’s car some days prior to her death when he drove her to the doctor.
In this retrial, perhaps we’ll learn more about the keys and why they were found two days after the murder on the side of a street.
Tellis faces life in prison without parole if he is convicted.
Learn more about this tragic case on Oxygen, Saturday 7/6c in the docu-series “Unspeakable Crime: The Killing Of Jessica Chambers.”
[Photo provided by the Chambers family]