The Oxford Police Department released a statement Friday afternoon that the killing of Jimmie “Jay” Lee, a Black student who was well-known in the town’s LGBTQ community, is an “isolated incident” that does not reflect a broader threat to queer people in Mississippi.
The statement comes three days after a Lafayette County judge determined there was probable cause for police to arrest Sheldon Timothy Herrington Jr., a 22-year-old Ole Miss graduate, for Lee’s murder, and that he should be held without bond.
“Based on the information collected to date, our investigators believe this crime represents an isolated incident stemming from the relationship between Jay Lee and Tim Herrington,” the release states.
Members of the LGBTQ community in Oxford have been asking police to release more information about the nature of the case ever since Herrington was arrested three weeks ago. Many members said more transparency from police would help them make decisions about how to stay safe.
Police nodded to this perspective in the release: “More broadly, we want to stress that our agencies are committed to doing all that we can to maintain a safe environment for everyone in our community.”
Members of the LBGTQ community are more likely to be the victim of physical harm from domestic and intimate partners. This is especially true for Black queer people who face compounded discrimination due to homophobia and racism — a routine threat of violence that is personal and systemic, with roots much deeper than any one case.
The release also follows a story Mississippi Today published earlier this week based on accounts from 11 LGBTQ students, faculty and University of Mississippi alumni who said they no longer felt safe in Oxford. At least one community member is afraid to leave their house, said Jaime Harker, the director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at UM and the owner of Violet Valley, a feminist bookstore near Oxford.
Harker said she felt that OPD’s silence contributed to harrowing rumors in the community about the nature and reason for Lee’s killing.
“I think people are filling the void with what their biggest fears are,” she said.
Lee, 20, was a well-known member of Oxford’s LBGTQ community who regularly performed at Code Pink, a local drag night. An open, confident person, Lee ran for homecoming king last year to promote a platform of “self love and living your truth.” He repeatedly spoke out about the harassment received for wearing women’s clothing.
For many people in the community, Lee’s outspokenness made his disappearance all the more terrifying.
Lindsey Trinh, a senior journalism student at Ole Miss, told Mississippi Today that after weeks of receiving no information about Lee’s killing, she decided she was too fearful and anxious to return to classes in person. She wrote an email to the university provost and her professors explaining how Lee’s case had affected her.
“At the time and because of the unknown of why this has happened to Jay and the whereabouts of his body, I have decided that I cannot physically come back to Oxford for my last semester this Fall,” Trinh wrote in her email. “I fear for my safety and well-being as an outspoken and proud gay person of color.”
Authorities believe that Lee’s body, still missing, is somewhere in Lafayette or Grenada County. But the circumstantial evidence that police have so far gathered was enough to bring charges, Lafayette County Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Kilpatrick argued in court on Tuesday.
“In 2022 you do not need a body,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s not the 1870s.”
During the preliminary hearing, Kilpatrick alleged that Herrington’s casual relationship with Lee was unknown to his friends and family. She said that early in the morning on July 8, Herrington “lured” Lee to his apartment, strangled him, and then “staged a cover up” by driving Lee’s car to Molly Barr Trails, a student housing complex.
Herrington then picked up a box truck belonging to his moving company, Kilpatrick said, and drove it to his parent’s house in Grenada where he retrieved a long-handle shovel and wheelbarrow.
Kilpatrick argued that Herrington should have been denied bond because his charge – first-degree murder – will likely be elevated to capital murder as police uncover more evidence; some of which is still being processed at a private crime lab. Kilpatrick also argued Herrington was a flight risk, noting that a forensic search of his MacBook showed he had searched for flights from Dallas to Singapore.
Herrington’s defense attorney, state Rep. Kevin Horan, disputed that Herrington, who has $1,910 in his bank account, could afford to flee the state. In his closing statement, Horan said the prosecution’s case amounted to “suspicion, conjecture and speculation.”
Horan called four witnesses who testified, in an effort to obtain bond for Herrington, to his character and connections to the community in Grenada. The witnesses included Herrington’s mother, an elder at his church, one of his teachers, and ??Emily Tindell, the principal of Grenada High School.
Tindell said that Herrington and his family have “the best of character in Grenada County.”
In her closing statement, Kilpatrick said that Herrington was not the same person that his teachers and family described.
“They don’t know this other Tim Herrington, his double life,” she said. “They don’t know the Tim Herrington who lives in anonymity. This Tim Herrington, your honor, is the Tim Herrington who killed Jay Lee.”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.