NEW: "We were able to put the gun in the right man's hands," sheriff says
NEW: James Willie is charged with murder, kidnapping and rape
Authorities believe he killed 2 strangers on highways 55 miles, and days, apart
Drugs and robbery were the motives for killings, the sheriff says
Mississippi authorities said Friday that they have caught the man they believe gunned down two strangers last week along interstate highways in the northwestern part of the state.
Tunica County Sheriff K.C. Hamp said charges were filed Friday against James D. Willie, 28, for kidnapping, rape, illegal possession of a firearm and murder in the death of 48-year-old Lori Anne Carswell. Willie also faces “pending murder charges” tied to the shooting death of 74-year-old Tom Schlender in Panola County, the sheriff added.
“It was a glorious day,” Panola County Dennis Darby said Friday, reflecting on a call he had made hours earlier to one of Schlender’s relatives. “I called (the relative) at 3 something this morning and told him, ‘We’ve got our man.’ “
Police arrested Willie – who Hamp said lived in Tunica, though authorities earlier indicated he was from Sardis – on Tuesday after getting a call about an alleged sexual assault near the borders of Tunica and Coahoma counties, which both border Arkansas and are not far from Memphis, Tennessee.
The woman had been fleeing an alleged domestic assault from another person when she reported that she was raped, authorities said.
Willie was taken into custody in that case, and investigators determined that a weapon went off during the course of the crime. Also that day, a weapon was recovered from a 2007 maroon Chevy Equinox that belonged to Willie’s girlfriend, according to Hamp.
On Thursday, the Mississippi Crime Lab informed local authorities that this semiautomatic Ruger handgun matched the one used in the killings of Carswell and Schlender, who were found dead along the sides of state roadways about 55 miles, and several days, apart last week.
Based on that and other evidence, Willie was tied to both killings, police said.
“We were able to put the gun in the right man’s hands, (and) we’re charging him today,” Hamp said.
While there have been reports that the suspect may have used blue police lights to pull over both Carswell and Schlender, authorities said Friday that it hasn’t been determined exactly how they ended up on the side of the road.
“We can’t confirm or deny if the car was already parked, or if he happened to cross her, or if he flashed (his lights) to get her to pull over,” Hamp said, referring specifically to what happened before Carswell’s death.
The killings stirred panic and fear for drivers across the state.
On Friday, Hamp characterized the deaths as “isolated incidents” that “could have happened anywhere in the United States.”
“I don’t think it was planned out. I think it was very reckless, because he’s here with us today,” he said.
Willie had served eight years in a Mississippi prison after being convicted of burglary, though Hamp noted he’d been “out for a while” at the time of the shootings.
Hamp said authorities questioned four others in relation the case. One person arrested Thursday was a man named James Lucas, who was driving a blue Mercury Marquis that used to be a police car and had flashing blue lights behind its grille, Humphreys County Sheriff Investigator Sam Dobbins said.
But Hamp said Friday that he’s confident that the only person responsible in this case, Willie, is arrested.
The sheriff described Willie as being “cooperative to a certain extent” since his arrest, though he had not confessed to killing Carswell or Schlender.
No bail has been set, and Willie will “probably get … an Initial appearance by Monday,” according to the sheriff.
“We have a lot of information and evidence that link him to the crime, and we’re good without a confession,” Hamp said.
CNN’s Ed Lavandera contributed to this report.