A superintendent, a country singer, and the Grenada County sheriff were among the 69 friends, family and local officials who wrote letters last month asking a Lafayette County Circuit Court judge to release Sheldon Timothy Herrington, Jr., the University of Mississippi graduate charged with the murder of Jimmie “Jay” Lee.
As nearly a dozen protesters outside chanted so loudly they could be heard in the second-floor courtroom on Aug. 9, the letters from many of the people who sat behind Herrington advocated for a different outcome to the nearly six-hour hearing – for Judge Gray Tollison to release the 22-year-old to his parents.
One family friend put it this way: “Truthfully, I cannot think of anything negative when speaking on behalf of Sheldon Timothy Herrington.”
The letters to Tollison – all written before evidence was presented at the hearing – described the Herrington that his community in Grenada knew: Not Tim, but “Timmy,” the soft-spoken son of an “influential” family who wore glasses in high school, sang in the choir and played guitar at church, and always called his teachers “sir” and “ma’am.”
“He was an excellent student and worked extremely hard toward reaching his educational goals,” wrote David Daigneault, the superintendent of the Grenada School District who taught Herrington’s father, aunt and uncle at Grenada High School. “Timmy is well respected by his fellow classmates and teachers.”
It’s typical for friends and familyto write character letters to help their accused loved one obtain bond. In Herrington’s case, the amount of letters is notable and reflects the esteem his family hasin Grenada, a small town of about 12,500 people an hour’s drive south of Oxford on MS-Highway 7.
To Tevin Coleman, Herrington’s half-brother, the number of people who wrote letters is demonstrative of his brother’s innocence.
“I mean, you seen the people that got up and the people that have known him since he was a child all the way to now,” Coleman told Mississippi Today. “When it comes down to it, we’re all in shock, we’re all devastated, and we are all looking forward to proving his innocence.”
Despite these pleas, Tollison denied Herrington bond after the prosecution presented evidence that he was planning to move to Dallas and had, the day before Lee was murdered, looked up flights to Singapore. He’ll wait in the Lafayette County Detention Center for a grand jury hearing, likely some time next year.
Meanwhile, police still have not found Lee’s body more than 75 days after he went missing. Lee is the third feminine-presenting queer person killed in Mississippi this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign – a number that reflects the high rate of violence against the state’s small LGBTQ community.
The Oxford Police Department has not shared new information about the case since the preliminary hearing when Ryan Baker, a detective, testified that Herrington drove a moving truck to Grenada the same day that he allegedly killed Lee and retrieved a shovel and wheelbarrow from his parent’s house in the GlenBrook neighborhood.
But it’s unclear to what extent OPD is working with law enforcement in Grenada. The sheriff, Rolando Fair, told Mississippi Today he could not comment because “the investigation is not my investigation” and no one from Oxford has reached out to him personally even though officers executed a search warrant on Herrington’s parent’s house in late July.
In his letter to the judge, Fair wrote he has known Herrington’s family for over 20 years.
“They have been pillars in our community and in the church,” Fair wrote. “Sheldon and Tina Herrington are members of various organizations that have helped and changed so many people’s lives. I have also known Sheldon Timothy Herrington, Jr. since he was a small child, never had any problems with him.”
Lee’s killing has garnered national attention and sparked a movement – called Justice for Jay Lee – to keep his legacy alive by protesting outside Herrington’s hearings and pushing for more protections for LGBTQ people in Oxford.
Braylyn Johnson, a member of Justice for Jay Lee who was his roommate in college, also knew Herrington through campus organizations like the Black Student Union and the student government Black Caucus.
She said the evidence against Herrington does not sound like the person she knew, but that the disconnect did not make her believe he is innocent. She referred to the Snapchat messages Herrington sent Lee after they hooked up on the morning of July 8 and his Google search, “how long does it take to strangle someone gabby petito.”
“It was cryptic to me as somebody that had been around Tim for all of these years and had been acquainted with him,” she said. “Those messages did not seem like they came from Tim, but … from I don’t know, John Wayne Gacy, somebody weird.”
Coleman said he thought the prosecution made assumptions about his brotherduring the preliminary hearing and that he couldn’t tell if all of the evidence presented was factual.
“I don’t truly know in regard to, if that was really Tim that sent the Snapchat messages,” he said. “I mean, they’re saying it is, so there’s a possibility that it is him in the Snapchat messages, so I mean, that could be factual.”
At the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor, Tiffany Kilpatrick, argued Herrington lived a double-life unknown to his family and friends in Grenada.
Many people from Grenada wrote that the crime did not sound like the Herrington they knew.
“We continue to follow the unbelievable news that Tim has been arrested and is facing an incredible charge,” country singer Charlie Worsham and his parents wrote to the judge. “We find this difficult to believe and completely incongruent with the person we know.”
According to the Worshams’ letter, Herrington taught guitar classes with a minority outreach program for their nonprofit, Follow Your Heart Arts, minority outreach program.
Multiple letters describe Herrington’s family as “exceptional” and “god-fearing,” a reputation that comes in large part from Abundant Life Assembly, an Apostolic Christian church founded 40 years ago by Herrington’s grandfather, James. Herrington’s father, Sheldon, is also involved as an assistant pastor.
The brick church sits on a grass hill a few minutes from downtown. Herrington grew up following his grandfather around the property like a shadow, James wrote in his letter to the judge, assisting with clean-up after fellowship dinners, playing guitar at worship, teaching Sunday school and mentoring young boys.
“He has always wanted to be like his Papaw,” James wrote, adding later, “He really is a great young man.”
Herrington’s arrest on July 22 was devastating, James wrote, and he was praying not just for his family, but for Lee’s. If the judge granted Herrington bail, James wrote that “with his influence,” he knew his grandson would comply with any stipulations.
Mississippi Today called the church to reach James. Sheldon answered and said the family is “not permitted to talk to anyone,” but Coleman called a reporter a few hours later.
Several members of Herrington’s family work in the school district. His mother, Tina, is an administrator in the central office and his uncle, Reginald, is an assistant principal for an elementary school.
Daigneault, the superintendent, was subpoenaed by his attorney, state Rep. Kevin Horan, to testify during the bond hearing. Herrington’s father was subpoenaed too, though neither were called to the stand. When reached by a Mississippi Today reporter, Daigneault said he will help any student in the school district but had no additional comment.
Twenty-six letters were from current and former teachers and administrators in the district, as well as the principals of the elementary, middle and high schools. Many recalled watching Herrington grow up and how he was respectful in the classroom.
“‘Yes Mam’ and ‘No Mam’ are just a natural part of his vocabulary,” one teacher wrote.
His teachers noted Herrington had never been in trouble before.
“I never saw Timothy act violently toward anybody,” wrote a former principal of Grenada Middle School who now works with Herrington’s mom in the central office. “From my experiences with Timmy, I can’t imagine him committing this charge of murder. I can’t even imagine Timmy getting in a fight.”
Herrington’s family’s reputation is proof he would not flee the state, a former elementary school counselor in Grenada wrote.
“For generations, the Herringtons have worked hard, studied well, earned college degrees, chosen admirable careers to make a true difference for others, and established successful lives in their community,”the counselor wrote. “Their accomplishments do not make their child a flight risk.”
Johnson, the member of Justice for Jay Lee, said that she feels like people in Oxford who had initially defended Herrington stopped talking about the case once they saw the evidence from last month’s hearing.
She said that when communities ignore cases like Lee’s, it contributes to continued violence against queer people.
“These aren’t the type of stories that people should be using for a ‘wow factor,’” she said. “These are the types of stories that should be used as an example so that actual change can happen.”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.