Jessica Chambers was just 19 years old when she was burned alive in her car. This Jessica Chambers wiki looks at her life and the investigation into a death that shocked the country.
Police in Panola County, Mississippi found her walking on the rise of a rural road near her burning car on the night of December 6, 2014. Jessica had been doused with gas and deliberately set on fire. It was later determined that she had burns on over 98% of her body. In fact, the only parts not burned were the bottoms of her feet. She died a few hours later in the hospital.
Quinton Tellis, a man who Jessica had a short-lived relationship with, was charged with her murder. The first trial ended with a hung jury. The second trial began in September 2018.
Jessica Chambers: Strong-Willed, Rebellious, Feisty, and Relatable
Jessica Chambers was born on February 2, 1995 in Panola County, Mississippi. She was the only child of Ben and Lisa Chambers.
Jessica had older siblings from her parents’ other relationships, including a brother, Ben Allen, and a stepsister, Amanda.
The family grew up in working-class Courtland, a small rural town in Northern Mississippi with a population of 500. The town is small enough that everyone knows everyone else. Jessica grew up on the same street her mother grew up on, across the road from her grandmother and a few doors down from her father.
“We don’t have a lot of haves and have-nots here,” said Rupert Howell, then the managing editor of rural Panola County’s family-owned newspaper, The Panolian. “Everyone’s in the same boat.”
Jessica’s aunt Sherry Hall described Jessica as a “blue-eyed cotton-topped little girl.” Her smile, she said, “would just light up a room when she came in.”
Her mother Lisa echoed what Sherry said. When she thinks of Jessica, she thinks of her daughter’s blue eyes.
Jessica Chambers’ blue eyes had seen a lot. Jessica grew up in a somewhat troubled household. Her father Ben, who has since divorced her mother and remarried, spent time in prison for manufacturing crystal meth and was arrested for driving under the influence in the early 2000s. And Jessica’s 28-year-old neighbor was shot in his front yard in 2006.
Jessica Chambers was tough and feisty. If her mother Lisa yelled at her, she’d yell back and sometimes move out for a few months. If friends, family, or boyfriends hit her, she’d hit back just as hard. It’s also been said that Jessica could be manipulative, and would allegedly lie and steal to get her way.
That’s not how Jessica’s family wants her to be remembered, though. Amanda Prince described her stepsister Jessica as being “very athletic” and outgoing. Prince said that at various times, Amanda expressed an interest in becoming a teacher, writer, and dentist. But her most consistent aspiration was to become a nurse.
“She was happy all the time,” Prince said. “She made everyone laugh. She lit up a room… She was just full of life.”
At 16, High School Cheerleader Becomes Rebellious Teen
Growing up in rural Mississippi, Jessica Chambers was, like most teenagers, strong-willed and rebellious. She was looking to find her own way, her own path, and her own identity.
Jessica attended South Panola High School in Batesville, Mississippi, where she excelled both academically and athletically. She was a cheerleader at her high school football games, the one who was thrown up in the air during stunts.
Jessica’s grandmother, Willie Berdain, remembers her as a “beaming pixie” on top of the cheerleading squad’s pyramid at football games.
“When she was cheering, she knew she looked good,” Berdain said. “And when they threw her up, she was so light you just about had enough time to go get you a hot dog before she’d come back down.”
At around the age of 16, Jessica no longer wanted to be a cheerleader. She started to explore who she was more, and became a bit of a rebellious teenager.
“She didn’t want nobody telling her what she could and could not do,” her father said.
A Death in the Family
It was during this period of her life that Jessica Chambers, then 17, was hit by a family tragedy. Her brother Ben Allen, aged 28, was killed on May 7, 2012 in a car accident on Highway 35 in Panola County.
Jessica’s stepmother, Debbie Chambers, said his untimely death was responsible, in part, for Jessica’s changing behavior. School no longer became a priority. In an effort to numb the pain, Jessica turned to drugs.
“Smoking weed was first priority to them,” she said.
“I think she was making friends with the wrong people, with drug dealers,” an ex-boyfriend, Bryan Rudd, said.
Jessica’s change in behavior caused friction in her family. Her father was not pleased with her taking drugs, the rough crowd she was hanging around, and the fact that she was dating black men. There were even rumors that some of Jessica’s boyfriends had ties with gangs.
Jessica’s mother doesn’t sound as if she was fond of her daughter dating black men, either.
In 2013, Jessica was dating Rudd, a black man from Panola County. According to Rudd’s mother, Theresa Fleming, when Jessica called Lisa to see if she could move back in with her, Lisa yelled over the speaker phone at Bryan’s place, “There’s no way you’re coming back to my house if you’re with that n****r.”
Rudd’s family let Jessica Chambers live with them for a while.
It’s not known how Jessica’s new friends, some of whom were drug dealers, felt about her father Ben working as a mechanic with the Panola County Sheriff’s Office.
Despite hanging around with a tough crowd, Jessica remained bubbly, loyal, and generous. She was, it has been said, the kind of person who would give you her last dollar if you needed it.
High School Graduation
Jessica graduated from South Panola High School with As and Bs. Despite only being 19, she was looking forward to the freedom that would come her way when she turned 21.
“Her whole life, she couldn’t wait until she turned 21 because I put some money in a trust fund for her years ago and she wasn’t going to be able to get it until she was 21,” said Ben Chambers. “She was going to buy a new car with it. She was excited.”
By May 2013, Jessica was living back at home with her mother. It had been ages since she’d broken up with Bryan Rudd and was seeing someone new. Her new boyfriend was a little rough around the edges, too, and went to jail for robbery.
Jessica was working to get her life back together. She spent a few weeks living at a Christian shelter that helps women “become productive citizens.”
She found a job working at a Goody’s department store. She was adored by her co-workers, who paid special attention to her, taking her on day trips and saving her clothing that was on sale in the juniors section—because Jessica was so tiny she could fit into junior-sized clothing.
Her father Ben also gave her back her car, which he had taken away from her and would only return once she stopped hanging out with friends he did not like.
Days Leading up to Chambers’ Murder
By late 2014, Jessica had been dating Quinton Tellis off and on. In the days leading up to her murder, the pair spent a lot of time together.
- December 2, 2014 – Jessica went to the emergency room for some medicine. Tellis joined her.
- December 3, 2014 – For the first time, Chambers received a text from Tellis asking her for sex.
“I’m horny,” he texted. Jessica replied, “Oh Lord.”
Chambers pointed out that his mother and sister are home and that they would “freak out” if she showed up. In fact, Chambers said she would not go to Tellis’ home while his family is there.
- December 4, 2014 – Tellis texted again, “I’m horny.” Chambers again replied, “Oh Lord.”
- December 5, 2014 – Chambers texted Tellis and asked him for money so she could grab something to eat. As expected, Tellis replied with a sexual proposition. She told him she only needed $6.00. Minutes later, surveillance video at a gas station showed Tellis walking across the street to meet Chambers, who was sitting in her car. He then walked back to his driveway.
December 6, 2014 – Jessica Chambers Burnt Alive
It was December 2014. Jessica Chambers, 19, lived at the home she shared with her mom and her dog Roscoe. She was getting ready for Christmas, her favorite holiday.
December 6 started off like any normal Saturday. After spending time with friends, Jessica went to the store, came home, and took a nap on the couch.
At around 5:00 p.m., Jessica got a call from a friend and told her mom she was going to run down to the gas station and convenience store, which was just down the road, to get some food and clean her car.
She left the house wearing camouflage sweatpants, with her hair in a bun. She promised her mother she would be back in a while and clean her room.
Surveillance video captured Jessica pumping gas and waving to someone off camera. Pings from her cellphone show that Jessica made a few more stops that night: one at an unnamed home and another in a town five miles away.
Two hours later, Jessica called home and told her mom she would be home soon. It was the last time Lisa would hear from her daughter.
At a little after 8:00 p.m., Jessica parked her car next to the gate of private land on rural Herron Road, about a mile from the gas station.
It was here that Jessica Chambers was doused with gasoline and set on fire in her car. The fire was so hot that it turned her black Kia Rio white.
At 8:04 p.m., Jessica’s phone made its last communication with a cell tower. The phone shut down when it got too hot in the burning car.
Against all odds, Jessica managed to escape the burning car and stumble down the road.
She was spotted at 8:07 p.m. by LaTroy Rudd and Glenn Williams, two motorists who called 911.
It is thought that Jessica’s car had been on fire for at least 30 minutes before the fire department got there two minutes later, at 8:09 p.m.
Firefighters would later recount how Jessica looked like “the walking dead.” Her clothes were incinerated, she was blind, and burns covered 98% of her body. She also had a massive gash on her head. The only parts of Jessica’s body that weren’t burned were the bottoms of her feet.
Cole Haley, a first responder on the scene, said that Jessica “had her arms out, saying, ‘Help me, help me, help me.’” Her hair, he said, “was fried like it had been stuck in a light socket. Her face was black, and her body was severely burned.”
When he asked her what her name was, she responded, “Jessica Tambers.” Her mouth was charred black. It was later alleged that the murderer had squirted lighter fluid down her throat and in her nose.
Haley said Chambers then told him that someone named “Eric” had set her on fire. Investigators interviewed more than 150 people but still haven’t been able to identify Eric—or determine if that was the actual name she uttered.
Jessica’s car was incinerated, destroying any possible evidence inside.
Jessica, while still conscious and in excruciating pain, was airlifted to Regional One Health-Memphis, 60 miles away. She was put on a ventilator and lived for a few more hours, just long enough to say goodbye to her family.
Police questioned everyone connected to Jessica and even drug dealers who might have known her. Eventually, prosecutors zeroed in on Quinton Tellis after tying the two of them together through cellphone tower communications.
Prosecutor John Champion believes Chambers and Tellis had sex in the passenger seat of her car. Tellis then smothered her and, believing she was dead, set her and the car on fire. Tellis was indicted in February 2016 in Chambers’ death.
Find out more about the man charged with Chambers’ murder: Quinton Tellis Wiki: The Man Who Allegedly Burned a Mississippi Teen Alive in Her Car
2017 Murder Trial of Quinton Tellis Ends in Mistrial
On October 9, 2017, Tellis went on trial for the murder of Jessica Chambers in Batesville, Mississippi.
A week later, during deliberations, there was some confusion. The jury returned a number of times, but the judge reminded them that any verdict had to be unanimous. He sent them back at least three times to continue deliberations.
Finally, they returned with what appeared to be a verdict. The bailiff handed the verdict to the judge, who read it over and handed it to the clerk. The clerk then read out that the jury could not unanimously make a verdict of guilty or not guilty.
On October 16, 2017, the judge declared a mistrial and set a new trial for Monday, September 24, 2018.
New Murder Trial for Quinton Tellis Started September 24, 2018
On Monday, September 24, 2018, Quinton Tellis’ retrial began with jury selection in Starkville, Mississippi. By the end of the day, 300 potential jurors were whittled down to 12 jurors and two alternatives.
The 14 people were bused to Panola County where the trial started on Tuesday morning the next day.
Over six days of testimony, prosecutors again relied on surveillance video, cellphone location technology, and texts to place Tellis at the scene of the crime.
A brand-new witness was called to the stand, and claimed that she’d picked up an unidentified black man along the side of the road that night—not far from where Chambers’ car keys were found.
District Attorney John Champion also urged jurors to look past firefighters’ assertions that Chambers had named “Eric” or “Derrick” as the arsonist. Medical and speech experts testified that Chambers could not have formed words properly at that point, due to her extensive injuries.
But defense attorneys argued that the name “Eric” was significant, and that prosecutors’ evidence linking Tellis to the death was merely circumstantial.
By Monday, October 1, 2018, Judge Gerald Chatham declared a second mistrial. Once again, a jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision in the horrific case.
Champion did not say whether he would try the case for a third time.
Tellis is expected to return to Louisiana, where he faces another murder indictment in the stabbing death of university student Meing-Chen Hsiao.
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