TUNICA, Miss. – To hear his neighbors tell it, James Willie was just a regular guy who sometimes played with the neighborhood kids. Police describe him as a cold-blooded killer who stalked his victims on dark stretches of Mississippi's highways and shot two of them dead.
Authorities said Friday that the 28-year-old unemployed ex-convict is responsible for two fatal shootings that prompted fears that a police impersonator was preying on motorists late at night. The shootings terrorized parts of north Mississippi and made some people afraid to go out after dark.
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. He had been traveling to Florida to pick up his grandson. Three days later, local casino employee Lori Anne Carswell was found dead in her car on Mississippi Highway 713 after working a late shift.
"People were terrified," said Johnny Island, who was working Friday on the front door of his apartment at the Tunica Courts complex.
Island's fear became shock when he found out the suspected shooter lived across the way in a complex of a single-story white apartments with red tin roofs.
"As far as I know, he didn't bother anyone here. I have talked to him a couple of times and he was very polite, courteous. It was a shock," Island said, peering across the street to apartment D2.
Authorities say the hunt for the highway shooter ended in that apartment when a woman climbed out a window Tuesday and went running for help, later telling authorities that Willie abducted and raped her. A 9mm gun and shell casing found during that investigation linked Willie to the highway shootings, Tunica County Sheriff K.C. Hamp said Friday.
"It's just shocking to me. It just don't add up," said Carolyn Gross, who lived next door to Willie and his girlfriend. "It just didn't seem like he would do something like that. He was out here playing with our kids."
The arrest brought a sense of relief and not just to people who live around here.
Anita Shaffer was in town with her mother, Cheryl Ross, from Ann Arbor, Mich., to try their luck at the flashy Mississippi River casinos.
She said they arrived on Thursday and one of the first things they did was to locate the police station so they could drive there if someone tried to pull them over. They breathed easier Friday morning after learning a suspect had been arrested.
"It was scary," Shaffer said. "I was freaking out."
Police had warned drivers that a fake officer might be pulling over victims. But Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain said it appears that Willie had not been posing as an officer. Authorities are still investigating why the victims ended up pulled over the side of the highways.
Willie was being held on charges of kidnapping, aggravated assault and rape and was charged with capital murder in Tunica County. He's expected to be charged with capital murder in Panola County, too.
A capital murder charge in Mississippi carries the possibility of a death sentence or life without possibility of parole, but Kamp said it would be up to prosecutors to decide on whether to seek the death penalty.
At a news conference on Friday, Hamp said he believes robbery — possibly connected to drugs — was Willie's motive, but the reason for the killings remains under investigation. Hamp said Willie has been "cooperative to a certain extent" but did not confess to the crimes.
Willie's arrest unfolded after a woman who was involved in a domestic dispute in Tunica County asked him for a ride to the Sheriff's Office on Tuesday morning. Instead of taking her there, authorities say he drove her to a field in these flat Delta farmlands and raped her.
Hamp said the woman tried to run but Willie fired a shot then drove her back to his girlfriend's apartment, where the victim slipped out a window.
Deputies went to the apartment later that morning and arrested Willie without incident on the sex charge, Hamp said.
A shell casing in the field and Ruger pistol found in a car belonging to Willie's girlfriend were linked to the highway shootings, Hamp said. He said the unidentified girlfriend has not been charged, though neighbors said she was taken for questioning Thursday and hasn't come home since.
Willie is a convicted felon who has served time for residential burglary. Hamp also said he's a known drug abuser.
Strain, the Public Safety spokesman, said the motive for the shootings remain under investigation. He also said authorities are trying to figure out why the victims pulled over because they had no apparent reason to stop on those dark, desolate stretches of highway.
Fears that a fake officer may have been behind the shootings prompted authorities to urge drivers to use caution when approached by any vehicle with flashing blue lights, even telling people they should call 911 if they were being pulled over.
Strain said it doesn't appear that Willie was posing as an officer, but authorities don't regret telling motorists to be wary of impersonators because that was one of several theories developed during the investigation and people needed to know that.
"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."
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