JACKSON, Miss. — The tiny town of Courtland has been changed forever in the wake of the burning death of Jessica Chambers in December.
The worst part, residents say, is that the fear is coming from everywhere. There's the terror of having the eyes of the world turned on the town of 460, and there's the terror that comes from the fact that nobody knows, anymore, who to trust.
Store clerk Ali Alsanai, who worked on the night of Chambers' death and was one of the last known people to talk to her, started receiving death threats almost immediately after he was quoted in news articles.
The death threats got worse, as well as accusations by bloggers and social media groups that he was tied to various gangs, and even to Islamic terror organizations.
Contacted by The Clarion-Ledger late last week, Alsanai confirmed he is no longer in Courtland. He is believed to be out of state, but he would not confirm a location, citing safety reasons.
District Attorney John Champion said Alsanai was always cooperative with the investigation. As early as Dec. 18, Champion confirmed that Alsanai was not a suspect.
The outside pressure has caused a level of fear that many in that small town can't figure out how to deal with or process. Chambers family friend Alicia Faulkner, who grew up with Jessica's sister Amanda Prince, said people even tried to point the finger at her.
"They don't know us. We're small-town people who were living our lives every day and then we were struck with this," she said.
Chambers was found on Herron Road in Courtland a little after 8 p.m. on Dec. 6, walking away from her burning vehicle with burns over 98 percent of her body. She died of her injuries.
Officials classified Chambers' death as a homicide, but in spite of interviewing what they have said is hundreds pf potential witnesses, they say they still have yet to emerge with a single prime suspect, although they have said they're encouraged by some recent turns in the investigation.
Last week, Sheriff Dennis Darby said despite erroneous reports by a local media source, the case is far from cold.
Faulkner said the residents of the town are tired of finding themselves and their friends scrutinized and ripped apart by people on the Internet who have never even been to Courtland.
"We have people in here trying to be detectives … let the law do their job. I'm tired of people trying to solve it theirselves. It's not helping," she said. "We have what we call little Facebook detectives doing this theory and that theory and that theory, and they're not getting nowhere with that. They're accusing people. On this one page they're putting up random people that I've known all my life and I know for a fact they didn't have anything to do with it."
Darby said he and his deputies just don't listen to the speculation that's thrown around, as much of a challenge as that can be. He said he understands people are involved emotionally with the case, and that they just want to do their part to help solve it.
"It's speculation, and they don't know. How could they know? Where do they get their evidence from? They form opinions and that's the human side coming out in us, and I understand that."
Champion said it's also unnerving that such a horrific crime could take place in such a tiny community.
"I think that if you polled a group of people and asked them, 'If you know you're going to die, what's the greatest fear of how you're going to die?' I'd imagine being burned alive is one of the greatest fears people have," he said. "To know what she must have gone through and I can only surmise what she must have gone through, the pain and the utter fear as she was being burned, it's beyond description how horrific this is. I haven't ever dealt with anything like this ... I've been with many many cases of people shot or stabbed, but if you look at the horrific nature of knowing you're burning alive, it's beyond anything I've ever dealt with."
Still there's the $54,000 reward looming above everything. Officials can't figure out why nobody is coming forward for that kind of money.
"We discuss constantly the reason why we're not getting any information off the streets," Champion said. "When you've got a reward of $54,000 and you're not getting any leads, no tips off that, it makes us really sit back and thing why isn't this money generating something?"
Champion said a lot of people are out there trying to solve the case and get the reward, but no credible leads are being generated. He said that could imply that only one or two people know what happened to Chambers, and they aren't talking, or that perhaps the person or people who did it left town right after the slaying and no one has any knowledge of it.
"People are scared. Nothing like this ever happened in this community, ever. Somebody getting set on fire alive, we don't have that every day," Faulkner said. "Coming from a small town … you know everybody. You know what part of town to stay away from, what people to stay away from. Something like that happening to someone close to me, I still don't know how to take that."
Faulkner, who had to help wrap the Christmas presents Chambers had bought for various friends and family, said the lack of closure at this point is taking its toll on every aspect of her life.
"You can't sleep," she said. "I work for the public. I keep wondering if I see this person on a daily basis. Has this person ever looked me in the eye and smiled? Knowing the hurt he's caused me, her mother, her father, her friends and family? How could anyone be so cruel? What if that was your family?"
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Therese Apel also reports for The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.