Ghosts Of Mississippi

A Small Town Grapples With A Series Of Murders

In many ways, Columbus, Miss., with a population of 30,000, is an unremarkable small Southern town.

"It's a nice place to live, there are a lot of nice people," resident Jane Harmon has said. "But there are a lot of strange things that happen."

Chief among those strange things is the fact that between 1996 and 1998 there were five murders that are still unsolved. Correspondent Harold Dow reports on what may be the work of a serial killer.
Four of the five victims were strangled. All were elderly, had been killed in their homes and had lived within a mile of each other. There were no signs of forced entry and no apparent motive.

Many people fear that the culprit might be a serial killer. "I'm going to use some country-boy logic here," said Police Chief Donald Freshour. "Once you get a dog started killing, eating chickens, you don't stop."

The five victims were Louise Randall, 80, Betty Everett, 68, Lawrin Wilbanks, 75, Robert Hannah, 61, a retired cafeteria worker, and Mack Fowler, 78, a retired farmer who lived alone.

"These were old people," said Harmon. "They didn't do anything; they weren't a threat."

After hearing of the murders, some residents have been trying to protect themselves. One elderly woman, Ellen Smith, who lived near two of the victims, recently learned to shoot. She has been practicing at the shooting range.

"This person's not going to stop," said Chief Freshour. "He's getting better or cleaner on his murders."

Many people think that someone from the town is the culprit. "I think it's a person who was raised here, that goes to church here; he does all the right things with the right people," said Trish Shephard, who owns a beauty salon in Columbus.

"The police said that there was absolutely no reason for this person to kill my mother," said Grady Randall, Louise's son. "She was defenseless; and they thought the only reason he killed her was simply because she knew who it was."

Columbus police have been tracking down hundreds of leads. They also hired two out-of-town serial-killer experts.

City prosecutor Dennis Harmon, Jane's husband, said Columbus has a long history of mysterious deaths.

"There are a lot of very interesting suicides in this town," he said. "There was one young man - there was a hole in the back of his head when they found him in the water. The hole was ruled a crawfish hole and that it somehow was a suicide in the water."

Harmon wonders if some of the bodies turning under odd circumstances might in fact be victims of foul play.

And the town has a violent streak: There are twice as many murders per capita in Columbus, Miss., than there are in New York City.

And while the police have been investigating the five killings, yet another murder, of a woman, has stirred controversy. The case was supposedly solved, but a lot of people think somebody goaway with murder.

In 1996, Liz Dill, in her 30s, vanished. Her body was discovered three days later in a field. She had been raped. Two men were arrested and convicted of the rape and murder. But suspicions remained about who masterminded the crime. Some suspected that her husband had something to do with it.

According to court records, her husband Brian Dill was seen with the killers on the night of the murder. But the two men convicted of the crime never implicated Dill in the killing. The district attorney said there wasn't enough evidence to make a case.

But when Dill went to court to try to collect his wife's life insurance money - more than $200,000 - the judge denied him the money, saying, "Brian Ellis Dill caused the willful and intentional death of his wife."

What happens? Find out in Police Under Fire.


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