NEW: The victim and the suspect were friends, prosecutor says without elaborating
Quentin Tellis held in Louisiana on charges of using debit card of another homicide victim
Jessica Chambers died in late 2014 after police found her with burns over 98% of her body
For 14 months, a town of 500 in northwest Mississippi grappled with the mysterious burning death of one of its daughters, Jessica Chambers, a 19-year-old who left her mother’s house in pajama pants, reportedly to clean her car. She never returned.
When police found her later the night of December 6, 2014, not far from her mother’s Courtland home, her car was on fire and Chambers had burns over 98% of her body. She said something to a firefighter – authorities wouldn’t say what – before she was rushed to a hospital, where she died the next day.
Courtland and Panola County residents didn’t get all their answers Wednesday, but they learned that a man being held in Louisiana in connection with another homicide victim was indicted this week in Chambers’ death.
Quinton Tellis, 27, faces a capital murder charge in her slaying, said John Champion, district attorney for Mississippi’s 17th Circuit Court. The charge is capital murder because her death occurred during the commission of another crime, third-degree arson, he said.
Champion added he was “very, very confident” that there would be no additional charges or suspects.
“We do feel like, at this point, that he acted alone in this case,” he said.
Capital murder opens the door for a death penalty case, but Champion said he isn’t sure whether he will pursue it. That decision will come “down the road” after he consults with the Chambers family, Champion said.
Until Wednesday, investigators had released few details about how the former high school cheerleader and her car ended up severely burned in a wooded area near Courtland.
That could be because authorities had ascertained so little about her death until late last year. Champion explained how police interviewed about 150 people, and each agreed to cooperate, he said. That’s odd in a case such as this, according to the prosecutor.
On four occasions, Champion said he thought the case had been solved, but he was wrong. Investigators received no information from their street sources, he said, and though authorities chased leads as far-flung as Tennessee, Iowa and eastern Mississippi, nothing panned out until they started taking a close look at cell phone and other data evidence.
Tellis had been a suspect early during the investigation, the prosecutor said, but he did not become investigators’ focus until the fall.
“Things started to match up for us, and that’s when we began to take a second look at Mr. Tellis,” Champion said, adding that forensic evidence will be integral to driving the prosecution.
Jessica’s father, Ben Chambers, a mechanic with the Panola County Sheriff’s Office, said he’d been in close contact with investigators throughout the investigation, and he’d witnessed their long nights, skipped vacations and the rings under their eyes.
“I’ve seen it day in and day out. The hard work they’ve done never stopped,” he told reporters, a cap bearing the sheriff’s office’s logo atop his head. “They said some day it would come, and it did. They would not give up, and I take my hat off to them.”
The teen’s mother, Lisa Chambers, did not speak at length but said she was satisfied an arrest had been made and was proud of the work investigators had done.
Asked if he had a message for Tellis, Ben Chambers said, “Whatever the law allows, whatever Mr. Champion does to him, that’s what I hope happens to him.”
Already in prison
Tellis is being held in the Ouachita Parish Correctional Facility in Monroe, Louisiana, almost a four-hour drive from Jessica Chambers’ hometown.
He once lived in Courtland, and that’s where, Champion said, he and Chambers became friends. He didn’t elaborate. Tellis moved from Mississippi to Louisiana in the summer of 2015, the prosecutor said.
Tellis was arrested in August on three counts of unauthorized use of an access card, connected to a homicide victim, whom The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson identified as a 34-year-old University of Louisiana-Monroe student from Taiwan.
According to a probable cause affidavit in that case, Tellis used a bank debit card belonging to the missing woman on April 7, the day before the newspaper reports her body was found, and then again on August 18 and 19, withdrawing $500 both times.
Authorities procured “photo evidence” and interviewed Tellis on August 20, at which point, “he admitted to using the Chase Bank debit card on the three listed transactions and stated that he was the individual seen in the ATM photos,” the affidavit said.
It appears the suspect may be a newlywed. A wedding registry found online shows that Quentin Tellis was scheduled to wed Chakita Tellis in Monroe on August 8, the day the student’s body was found.
Following the probe into the debit card, police executed a search warrant at Tellis’ Monroe home and discovered a quarter-pound of marijuana in his bedroom, packaged for sale.
The suspect “stated he sold marijuana for profit. Tellis was arrested and booked” on an additional charge of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, according to the affidavit.
Panola County officials will file a governor’s warrant to have Tellis transferred to Mississippi, Champion said. That could take anywhere from four to six weeks to arrive on the Louisiana governor’s desk.
Tellis has an early May court date in Louisiana, and his charges there will need to be adjudicated before he is transferred to Mississippi. Champion doesn’t “anticipate us having him back here anytime soon,” he said.
“We’re in a relay race,” the prosecutor said, “and this is hurdle No. 1. We’re nowhere near the end.”
Tellis is a gang member with a rap sheet and has served time previously, the prosecutor said, but his gang affiliation does not appear to have anything to do with Chambers’ killing. Nor do drugs appear to be a factor in her death, Champion said.
One of the few publicly disclosed developments before Wednesday came late last year when authorities told CNN affiliate WREG-TV that the FBI had rounded up 17 suspected members of three street gangs. However, Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby told the station none of those arrested was linked to Chambers’ death, but the investigation into her killing had illuminated the gang problems in his county.
Mississippi Department of Corrections records indicate Tellis was convicted of fleeing police in 2010 and sentenced to five years in prison. He was later convicted of residential burglary in December 2011 and again in February 2012. He received five years and eight years, respectively, on those convictions.
He was incarcerated in June 2011, according to court records. Tellis was released from a Mississippi correctional facility on October 2014 after serving time for the burglaries, Champion said. That’s two months before Chambers was killed.
‘She just seemed normal’
On December 6, 2014, Chambers was seen at a gas station about 2 miles from her mother’s house. Her hair was in a bun, and she was wearing camouflage pajama pants.
She put $14 worth of gas in the car and called her mother, saying she would be home right after she cleaned her car, her older sister, Amanda Prince, told CNN.
A store surveillance video shows Chambers prepaying for gas. She walks to the store’s front door when something or someone catches her attention.
She waves and walks off camera briefly, comes back into the camera’s view and enters the store as three men chat by the doorway. She spends about a minute at the counter before going back outside and pumping gas.
The gas station owner who helped her said nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
“She seemed normal,” Ali Alsanai told WREG in 2014. “She didn’t seem like something was going wrong, you know? She just seemed normal. She just pumped some gas, we had a talk and she left.”
Champion said Wednesday he did not believe Chambers’ visit to the gas station had anything to do with her death.
She was found later that Saturday night on a rural road near Courtland, her car on fire. She was not on fire when emergency responders arrived, but she had burns across 98% of her body.
Chambers approached one of the firefighters and spoke, Champion said at the time. Authorities didn’t disclose what Chambers said, but Champion told reporters, “It has certainly given us a lead we’re following up on.”
Chambers died the next day at a hospital.
CNN’s Devon M. Sayers and Martin Savidge contributed to this report.