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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Who Murdered Jessica Chambers?

      Jessica Chambers, an attractive, blond 19-year-old, lived with her family in Courtland, Mississippi, a village of 460 people 50 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. The recent high school graduate, a former cheerleader and softball player, hoped to start college soon. She had just started working at Goody's Department Store in nearby Batesville.

     At six in the evening of Saturday December 10, 2014, Jessica drove to a gas station and convenience store on Highway 51 not far from her home where she pumped $14 worth of gasoline into her car. Inside the store, a cashier asked Chambers why she had bought more than her usual $5 in gas. Chambers said she was going somewhere and needed the fuel. About that time she called her mother to inform her she was on her way to Batesville to clean her car.

     Before walking out of the convenience store, Chambers purchased a pack of cigarettes and received a call on her cellphone. A few minutes later, just before six-thirty, she climbed into her vehicle and drove off. Surveillance camera footage revealed that she wore a dark sweater and pajama pants that looked like sweats.

     At eight o'clock that night, local firefighters responded to a call regarding a burning vehicle along Herron Road in a remote part of Panola County not far from the gas station. The emergency responders came upon a person walking down the road near the car. Jessica Chambers had been doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire.

     Chambers was airlifted to a hospital in Memphis where, a short time later, she died from burns on 98 percent of her body. Only the bottoms of her feet were not charred.

     At a law enforcement press conference the next day, the local district attorney labeled Chamber's death a criminal homicide. The Panola County sheriff told reporters that before she died, Chambers had spoken to firefighters. "She told them who had done it," he said.

     According to some media reports, the murder victim had also been bludgeoned on the top of her head with a hard object. There were also reports that the killer had squirted lighter fluid down her throat, a detail not confirmed by the authorities.

     While the victim's older sister informed reporters that she didn't know of anyone who had a grudge against Jessica, friends of the murdered girl posted online messages about a former, abusive boyfriend. (Whoever committed this atrocious crime did it out of an uncontrollable rage. This does not look like a murder committed by a stranger.)

     At the press conference, law enforcement authorities said they had questioned several people but didn't have a suspect in the murder.

     The U.S. Marshals Service offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Chamber's killer. The local Crime Stoppers group posted a separate reward of $1,000.

     As of December 2015, the Chambers case remained unsolved. Investigation had revealed, however, that the victim had been hanging out with a rough crowd that included local drug dealers. Her latest boyfriend, Travis Sanford, had been in jail on a burglary charge at the time of her murder. In the weeks before she died, Jessica Chambers told her father, a mechanic with the sheriff's office, that "Everybody thinks I'm snitching because you work for the police." 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Amish-Mennonite Pastor Kenneth Miller and His Underground Railroad

     Lisa Miller, as a teenager and young woman in Virginia, struggled with an addiction to pills and alcohol. She also participated in self-mutilation. After a failed marriage, and a suicide attempt, Lisa began dating women.

     In 1997, Lise met Janet Jenkins at an alcoholics anonymous meeting in Falls Church, Virginia. They became a couple, and in 2000, traveled to Vermont, the first state to offer homosexuals civil unions, to get married. The pair, after being civilly united by a judge, adopted the surname Miller-Jenkins, and in 2002, moved to Vermont where they bought a two-story house in a small southern Vermont town called Fair Haven.

     On April 16, 2002, after getting pregnant through in vitro fertilization, Lisa, at age 34, gave birth to Isabella. But in September 2003, when Isabella was 17-months-old, Lisa and Janet split-up. After the break in the relationship, a family court judge in Vermont granted Janet regular child visitation rights.

     In 2008, after trying but failing to end her former partner's visitation rights, Lisa Miller moved to Lynchburg, Virginia where a Christian anti-gay marriage activist named Janet Stasulli befriended her. Lisa, under Stasulli's guidance and influence, became a born-again Christian, and pursuant to her new religious beliefs, denounced homosexuality as a sin. In October 2009, the family court judge in Vermont granted Janet Jenkins primary custody of Isabella.

     Kenneth Miller (no relation to Lisa), a 43-year-old Beachy Amish-Mennonite pastor from Stuarts Draft, Virginia, a town of 9,000 30 miles north of Lynchburg, conceived of a plan to get Lisa and Isabella out of the country to keep the 7-year-old out of the custody of a lesbian parent. On September 21, 2009, Philip Zodhiates, an evangelical leader, and owner of a Lynchburg Christian direct-mail company, drove Lisa and her daughter to Buffalo, New York. Shortly after midnight, mother and daughter crossed the boarder into Canada in a taxi cab. They were met on the other side by a Canadian evangelical pastor named Ervin Horst who drove Lisa and Isabella, disguised in long skirts and head scarves of the type worn by the Amish-Mennonites, to the Toronto airport. Later that day, the fleeing mother and daughter flew to Managua, Nicaragua. (Currently at large, Lisa and Isabella are wanted by the FBI and Interpol. Lisa, now 46, and Isabella 12, have moved from barrio to barrio in Nicaragua to avoid apprehension.)

     Pastor Kenneth Miller, indicted by a federal grand jury sitting in Burlington, Vermont for the offense of abetting an international parental kidnapping, went on trial on August 8, 2012. If convicted, the Amish-Mennonite leader faced up to three years in prison.

     Fifty Amish-Mennonite supporters looked on as the Assistant United States Attorney, Eugenia Cowles, and defense attorney Joshua M. Autry, made their opening remarks to the jury. According to the defense version of the case, Pastor Miller did not know that by leaving the country, Lisa Miller was violating a lawful child visitation order. Defense attorney Autry argued that his client, therefore, did not possess the requisite criminal intent to obstruct the court order giving Janet Jenkins primary custody of the child.

     Federal prosecutor Cowles told the jurors that Pastor Miller had selected Nicaragua as the point of destination because that country and the United States did not have an extradition treaty. Moreover, the preacher made sure to book a flight from Canada to Mexico that didn't touch down in America.

     Philip Zodhiates, Janet Stasulli, and Ervin Horst, the evangelists the defendant had called upon to execute his anti-homosexual underground escape, took the stand as reluctant prosecution witnesses. Isabella's custody parent, Janet Jenkins, testified that she hadn't seen the girl since January 2009, eight months before the evangelists snuck her out of the country. The government rested its case on August 12. 2012.

     Defense attorney Joshua Autry put on a pair of character witnesses, then rested his case without bringing Pastor Miller to the stand to testify on his own behalf. On August 14, 2012, the jury, after deliberating four hours, found the defendant guilty of abetting international parental kidnapping. Outside the federal building, a group of 100 Amish-Mennonite supporters stood around singing gospel hymns. Pastor Miller remained free on bail until his sentencing.

     Just hours after the verdict, Janet Jenkins filed a civil lawsuit against Philip Zodhiates, Ervin Horst, and Janet Stasulli, the people who had helped Pastor Miller kidnap her custody child.

     On March 14, 2013, the federal district judge sentenced Pastor Miller to 27 months in prison. The Paster would not, however, begin his sentence until a federal appeals court reviewed and ruled on the case, a process that could take up to three years.

     On October 8, 2014, federal prosecutors charged Philip Zodhiates with conspiracy and international parental kidnapping for his role in the abduction. Zodhiates pleaded not guilty to the charges.