Warning: The following column contains depictions of graphic race violence and sexual assault.
On Jan. 24, 2023, six armed intruders broke into a house in Braxton, Miss. Once inside, they found two Black men, Eddie Terrell Parker and Michael Corey Jenkins. The intruders brandished guns. Someone fired a shot into a wall of the home to intimidate Parker and Jenkins into submission.
The tormentors handcuffed, beat and brutalized the men; volleyed racial slurs like “n–ger,” “monkey” and “boy” toward them; and told Jenkins and Parker to leave Rankin County, to go back to Jackson or “their side of the Pearl River.”
Someone mounted a dildo on the end of a BB gun and forced it into Parker’s mouth. One of the assailants threatened to sodomize the men with the sex toy. He only stopped when he grabbed the back of Jenkins’ pants and realized his victim had defecated himself.
Continuing a series of additional humiliations, the intruders poured milk, chocolate syrup, alcohol and cooking oil over Jenkins’ and Parker’s heads and into their mouths; hurled eggs at them; and forced them to strip naked and shower together.
The assailants robbed the home. They took turns tasing Parker and Jenkins to see who owned the strongest taser. They discharged their tasers a collective 17 times during this cruel “game.”
One man shoved a gun into Jenkins’ mouth. While the barrel was inside, the gun inadvertently fired. The bullet sliced through his tongue, shattered his jaw and exited out of his neck.
Jenkins lay bleeding out on the floor while the criminals planned their getaway. Fortunately, he survived.
Not a John Grisham Novel
What appears above is not the dramatized plot of a John Grisham novel set in the segregated 1960s South, though it may seem that way at first blush.
These are the facts contained in criminal information the U.S. Department of Justice filed against five officers of the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office and one officer with the Richland Police Department in the year 2023.
What happened that night, and the offensive language the officers are accused of using, are relayed here not for a cheap shock, but to rebuff any effort to sugarcoat the depth of depravity at play. What occurred to Parker and Jenkins was dehumanizing.
The officers involved pleaded guilty to a vast assortment of crimes the Department of Justice laid out last week. The counts pled against each man carry maximum penalties that could put them in prison for the remainder of their lives.
Sentences should be proportionate to the crime at hand, which is to say it should be severe, particularly when the devastating abuse of power and erosion of public trust are considered. Sentencing should also contemplate not only what the consequence was—Jenkins living and being exonerated—but also what could have been: Jenkins dying or serving nearly 40 years in prison on trumped-up charges (more on that below).
The Department of Justice also obtained guilty pleas from Dedmon, Updyke and Elward in a separate incident in which Dedmon beat and tased a man to coerce a confession. C.J. Lemasters at WLBT has done a good job of documenting a long history of legal complaints filed against the officers involved.
The Lead Up
What preceded and followed Jenkins’ and Parker’s torture is, in some ways, as troubling as the abuse itself.
On Jan. 24, 2023, a neighbor notified Brett McAlpin, who at the time was the chief investigator of the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office, that two Black men were living in a nearby house at 135 Conerly Road in Braxton. The neighbor reported “suspicious activity.”
McAlpin reached out to Christian Dedmon, narcotics investigator at RCSO about the complaint. McAlpin and Dedmon, along with the other men involved that night were part of a group they called the ‘Goon Squad.’ The Department of Justice says it knows of more members of this squad, and its investigation into the sheriff’s office continues. The FBI is actively soliciting information on other cases.
At 9:28 p.m. that night, Dedmon texted RCSO Lieutenant Jeffery Middleton and patrol Deputies Hunter Elward and Daniel Updyke. Dedmon asked, “are y’all up for a mission?”
No warrant had been issued to search the premises of 135 Conerly Road or for the arrest of anyone on the premises. No reported “exigent” circumstances—imminent danger—were present that would have allowed for entry without a warrant.
Dedmon informed the group of the potential for cameras at the property and that they should “work easy.” The Department of Justice says this was understood as code to knock instead of breaking down doors. Upon being told to “work easy,” Elward responded with an eye-roll emoji and Updyke with a gif of a baby crying.
The men wanted some wild-west action.
Dedmon followed by noting “if we don’t see cameras go.” He warned the group “no bad mugshots,” a phrase understood to be a green light to use excessive force on the parts of the body that mugshots would not capture.
These are not the words and deeds of men engaging in rogue misconduct for the first time. These are the words and deeds of men with their own unique language and own experience handling matters off the books.
Middleton, Elward and Updyke met up at the Cato Volunteer Fire Department. Dedmon, who was en route, radioed that Richland Police Department Narcotics Officer Joshua Hartfield was riding with him. Dedmon and Hartfield drove by the staging area while Middleton, Elward and Updyke formed a convoy behind him in their RCSO vehicles.
The men arrived at the property, where Chief Investigator McAlpin had already been surveilling the property. Noticing a camera near the front entrance, the RCSO officers proceeded to a side-carport door while Richland officer Hartfield went to the back door. The officers kicked in the side and back doors and entered.
Once inside, Officer Dedmon tased Jenkins. Officer Elward tased Parker. The law-enforcement officers then handcuffed Jenkins and Parker and placed them under arrest without probable cause of any crime being committed. Then two hours of real nightmares began.
Each officer would play their own role in the torture. Dedmon and Elward fired shots—Dedmon at a wall and then outside during the mock-execution phase of the evening, Elward through the mouth of Jenkins.
Elward’s latter shot was cruelty gone awry. Elward believed his trigger pull to be a dry fire or without a bullet in the chamber. He was wrong. Panic set in.
While Jenkins lay bleeding on the floor, the officers concocted a cover-up. The story became that Dedmon had observed Jenkins in the driveway, had obtained consent to search him without a warrant and had found two bags of methamphetamine.
From there, the story would go that Elward took Jenkins inside the house to conduct a drug buy over the phone, removed Jenkins’ handcuffs, and Jenkins reached for a gun, which prompted Elward to shoot him in self-defense.
They apparently did not contemplate the difficulty of explaining a self-defense shot from inside Jenkins’ mouth, nor whether the story would line up with the text messages among the officers. Syncing up how you just happened upon a man loitering outside a residence when your texts demonstrated a plot ahead of time to breach the home proved more difficult than they had guessed.
Lieutenant Middleton offered to plant a “throw down” gun he kept in his patrol vehicle, a .38 snub-nose revolver that was not registered to him. Elward chose instead to use the BB gun to which he had earlier affixed the dildo. He set it down beside Jenkins, who was still seriously wounded and without medical attention.
Dedmon offered to take care of the drugs, producing some methamphetamine he had previously confiscated from an informant but had not turned into evidence. The officers began trying to clean the scene, looking for spent cases and collecting spent taser cartridges.
Middleton and Dedmon being ready to plant a gun and drugs may suggest something much more insidious and systemic than a first-time blunder.
Hartfield attempted to burn the clothes Jenkins and Parker had been wearing when doused with cooking oil, chocolate, milk and eggs. When he could not figure out how to do that because they were too wet, he tossed them in the nearby woods.
Hartfield also ripped out the hard drive of a home-surveillance system and later threw it in Steen Creek in Florence.
Meanwhile, McAlpin worked to get witnesses in line. He attempted to convince Parker to go along with their story, promising he could make sure Parker did not do prison time. McAlpin and Middleton also threatened to kill any of the officers that did not stick to the story.
Elward and Dedmon filed false felony charges against Jenkins, the man Elward had shot, for assaulting an officer and for various drug offenses. The crimes carried a combined maximum of 39 years in prison. Those charges remained pending until July 5, 2023, when they were remanded.
In late June, though, Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey announced that some of the involved officers had previously resigned but that those who were still on the force during the department’s internal investigation had been terminated. The announcement lacked specificity on which officers fell into which category.
Reckoning with the Present
For quite some time I have been critical of the way the media treats Mississippi. No doubt my love of our state and its people drives part of that opinion.
But a bigger part of my disdain for the coverage of our state is a belief that even today we unfairly battle the perception that Mississippi has made no progress from the dark days of the fight for civil rights. I hold no illusion that we are perfect, but I think the way we are painted, more often than not, is in false light.
As a guy who has lived and worked in New York, D.C., New Orleans and Nashville, and who has traveled all over the country, Mississippi’s warts are the nation’s warts. The human heart is prone to failures no matter where it resides. Our past just makes it cheaper and easier to score points on our present than most places.
What happened on Jan. 24 in Rankin County poses a challenge to my belief that we have made real progress, however. It demands an answer. It demands an uncomfortable reckoning. In the interim, all the scorn the media and the general public can muster is deserved.
Without a warrant, without probable cause, these officers of the law should have never been at 135 Conerly Road that night. But even if a warrant had existed, even if Jenkins and Parker had been doing something illegal, nothing in our system of justice affords officers the power to sadistically torture suspects.
Jenkins and Parker were owed due process. Their abuse at the hands of the very people entrusted to serve and protect them cannot be swept under the rug, minimized or ignored if fundamental justice is at all a goal.
These officers dishonored their badges, their fellow officers and their duty to the public. Their actions provide a foothold to every critic of our state, and more generally, of policing in America.
McAlpin, Middleton, Dedmon, Elward, Updyke and Hartfield plainly existed in a culture where they felt little fear of reprisal for their own vigilante lawlessness. The stain of their deeds will not end with their sentencing.
We should make clear that we are not what they are. That involves being unafraid to shine a light on their actions—to tear out root and branch any part of the system that would make men comfortable abusing their power this way.
For their part, Jenkins and Parker have filed a $400-million lawsuit in federal court. As a recovering lawyer, I cannot fathom a scenario where they receive a settlement or verdict anywhere in that ballpark. But, Rankin County, and by extension its taxpayers, could be on the line for millions.
The exposed misconduct of the “Goon Squad” cast a pall over all of the cases these officers were involved in solving. This should not be a jailbreak moment, but their previous collars probably need some systematic reviews. It is frightening to think that after torturing Jenkins, had the officers’ story not cracked, he could have sat in prison for 39 years as part of their cover-up.
We must also safeguard against future abuses of power. One very simple way to do that is by requiring body cameras and making it so that the public can access footage when a controversy of public trust arises. That move could help protect both officers and citizens from false accusations.
Finally, a word about how tribalism can prevent accountability. Too often in modern discussions of policing, we have the tendency of retreating into our side’s “safe space.” At their extremes, one tribe blindly “backs the blue,” while another would “defund the police.” Those are childish poles for unserious people.
Police officers serve an important function in society. They deserve much of the honor they receive. But they are people and people are fallible—that fallibility comes into particular focus when people are granted unique power. Imbued with the great power of life and death over the people with whom law enforcement interacts, there must be real accountability when that power is misused.
This article was originally published in the Magnolia Tribune. Read that version here.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.