Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated what the consequences would be if pardoned murderer Joseph Ozment failed to comply with a subpoena to appear in court. According to the Mississippi attorney general's office, a judge has the authority to hold Ozment in contempt. We regret the error.
Reward offered for information leading to Joseph Ozment
Outgoing Mississippi governor pardoned Ozment, more than 200 others
Ozment is free, but is sought to appear at a civil hearing on the pardons
The “Reward” sign being nailed above the convenience store counter takes on a little more meaning here in Desoto County, Mississippi. At the Old Road Store, it’s personal.
In 1992, this is where Joseph Ozment, the man whose photo is on the reward poster, gunned down a store clerk. He was sent to prison for life, and no one imagined they’d hear from him again. In this small town, south of Memphis, Tennessee, his picture is back up and people are wondering how someone who committed such a brutal crime could be pardoned by their former Gov. Haley Barbour – and law enforcement authorities can’t seem to find Ozment.
“It’s just an every minute, constant, in the back of your mind, where is he, what is he doing?” said Mary McAbee, the sister of Rick Montgomery, the store clerk shot to death by Ozment.
“I’m fearful. He’s a cold-blooded murderer to do what he’s done and if he thinks that he may go back to prison, what’s he got to lose?” she said.
Mississippi authorities are looking for Ozment. He received one of more than 200 pardons issued by Barbour during his final days in office. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is challenging the validity of the pardons. He said Ozment and three other murderers did not meet the constitutional requirements to be granted a pardon, and he wants to see the men put back in jail to finish their life sentences.
A Jackson, Mississippi, judge will hear the case next week. In the meantime, she has issued subpoenas, commanding all the men to appear in court, but Ozment has yet to be found to be served his subpoena. He was picked up by his mother on January 8 from the governor’s mansion, where he was a trusty, serving his time. He hasn’t been seen since.
“He’s avoiding service. His mother knows it. All of his relatives know,” Hood said.
“We’ve been to all of their houses knocking on doors. I know he’s gotten the word and he’s trying to run and avoid service,” Hood said.
Hood has announced that a reward is being offered for anyone who can help locate Ozment. Police can’t arrest him because he has been pardoned, and he has committed no new crimes. If he does not comply with a subpoena, a judge has the authority to hold him in contempt, the attorney general’s office said.
Authorities said they believe Ozment may be in northern Mississippi. One of the men who worked the murder case in the early 1990s said the latest developments are incredibly troubling.
“Ozment already proved he can’t live in our society, by our rules,” said John Champion. “He committed the ultimate act by taking somebody’s life, so, no, he should never be out,” he said.
Champion was a young assistant district attorney working his very first case in the office. Today, he is the district attorney.
He was there in court when Ozment pleaded guilty to murder in the case and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
According to a transcript of Ozment’s confession to police, Ozment admitted being part of a robbery so he could have “Christmas money.” He entered the convenience store with a friend who shot the clerk, Montgomery, three times. Montgomery crawled from around the counter and Ozment looked at him and shot him twice.
“I didn’t want him to identify me or the other guy, so I shot him twice. … I shot him in the head,” Ozment said in the police confession.
Ozment said his share in the robbery was “between 50 and 60 dollars.”
“When he was shot, and he fell to the ground, they said he was begging for help. … You can’t imagine how that feels,” said McAbee, Montgomery’s sister, as she began to cry.
“And then for him to shoot him in the head … to know that he was all alone. That’s the worst feeling, to know that you can’t help someone that you love,” she said.
Champion said he remembers the day well. He said he passes the convenience store every day on his way to work and remembers the brutality and cold-bloodedness of the crime. He said he never dreamed he’d see the day that Joseph Ozment walked free.
“All of the healing that’s done over the last 18 years is all for naught. And all of the work that we did, all of the work that law enforcement did on this case, is all for naught. Why were we there?” he asked about Barbour’s pardon.
Barbour has defended his pardons. On Friday, he appeared live on CNN’s “John King USA.” He told King that Ozment and the others have been rehabilitated.
“He has no obligation to do anything. He’s been pardoned. He’s a free man,” said Barbour.
But that’s not the kind of thing a sister who lost a brother wants to hear.
“Its just the pain that we have to live with every day and now we’re doing it all over again,” she said.
Kind of like the reward poster. No one ever dreamed they’d need one again.