crimesider

Suspect indicted in case of Mississippi teen burned alive

Jessica Chambers

AP Photo/Chambers-Prince Families

PANOLA COUNTY, Miss. --A grand jury has indicted a 27-year-old man in the death of Mississippi teen Jessica Chambers, who was burned alive in her car on a rural road in December 2014.

The indictment, returned Tuesday morning, charges Quinton Tellis with capital murder, Panola County district attorney John Champion said at a Wednesday press conference. Tellis is being held in Washington Parish, Louisiana in connection with the August 2015 murder of a University of Louisiana Monroe foreign exchange student, reports the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Meing-Chen Hsiao, 34, of Taiwan, was reportedly found stabbed to death in her apartment Aug. 8.

tellis.jpg
Quinton Tellis
WREG

Tellis hasn't been charged in that death, reports CBS affiliate WREG, but he is a suspect and is being held on charges of using the woman's bank card.

Champion wouldn't speak to the nature of the relationship between Chambers, 19, and Tellis, beyond saying that they both grew up in Courtland, Miss. and were friends. WREG reports the two had been romantically linked. Champion alleged that Tellis is a gang member, but said Chambers' murder was not related to gangs or drugs. He called it a "personal crime against Jessica," though he wouldn't comment on a motive.

Mississippi Bureau of Investigation spokesperson Warren Strain said it was edifying investigators could offer some closure, "if there is some," to the teen's family.

"It's rewarding to know someone capable of this degree of evil will have to answer for his actions," Strain said.

Chambers' father Ben Chambers also addressed the media Wednesday, thanking investigators and the DA's office for "never giving up" on his daughter's case.

"Jessica will be at peace since this step has been taken," Ben Chambers said.

Jessica Chambers was found with burns over nearly 98 percent of her body on Dec. 6, 2014. She was doused with gasoline and set on fire in her car, next to a gate leading to private land in Courtland, police said. She got out of the car and was found on the road with burns over most of her body. She died hours later at a hospital in Memphis.

"This has been the most unusual case I've ever dealt with," Champion said. "The nature of how she died is very brutal, very horrendous."

Champion said Wednesday he wanted to dispel a rumor that accelerant had been poured down her throat. He wouldn't discuss media reports that the teen tried to tell responders who killed her before she died.

The teen was seen on surveillance video at a gas station shortly before her death. Tellis is believed to have been the last person to have been with Chambers that night, the Clarion-Ledger reports.

Champion described the roadblocks investigators ran into early on in the case, saying detectives had interviewed more than 150 people - all of whom cooperated - but none of the interviews led to an arrest. He said investigators were surprised about the lack of information coming from "street sources," believing initially that because many in the community knew Chambers and because of a reward being offered, people would come forward with tips.

"A big hurdle was the lack of information we were getting from the streets - it put our focus back on the belief that one person did it who did not say anything to anybody," Champion said.

He said on four occasions investigators received information they felt would solve the case - traveling to Iowa, Chatanooga, Tenn. and eastern Mississippi to track down leads - but nothing panned out. Eventually, he said, investigators re-reviewed technological evidence including cell phone records, and that's when the case against Tellis began to gel.

Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby told the Clarion-Ledger in December investigators had sifted through more than 20,000 phone records trying to find Chambers' killer. That month, investigators announced the Chambers murder investigation had resulted in the arrests of 17 suspected gang members, though none are charged in her death, the paper reported.

Those were not related to Chambers' murder, Champion said Wednesday. He said he's confident Tellis acted alone.

Tellis his three prior convictions in the county on burglary and felony evasion charges, and was released from jail in October 2014, Champion said.

Champion says he doesn't expect Tellis to return to Mississippi to face the capital murder charge until the case against him in Louisiana is complete. He's charged with killing Chambers during the commission of third-degree felony arson, making him eligible for the death penalty.

Champion said he hasn't decided whether he will pursue the death penalty.

  • Erin Donaghue

    Erin Donaghue covers crime for CBSNews.com's Crimesider.