Warning: This report contains detailed descriptions of violence, including murder, substance abuse and associated trauma.
LAFAYETTE COUNTY, Miss.—Ollie Mitchell was at her rural home south of Oxford, Miss., on Feb. 2, 1991, when gravel crunched in her long driveway under the tires of the Lafayette County cruiser carrying F.D. “Buddy” East, the sheriff since 1972. To get to her home, the white man and his Black deputy had to turn off the county road, point the car west and pull down a small decline toward a backdrop of bare, gray forest behind the house of the mother of seven grown children, then in her 50s.
When the Black woman with a tall, sturdy frame and matter-of-fact demeanor opened the door that afternoon, East and his deputy, Henry “Pug” Wortham, were there bearing bad news.
They had found a body in the shallow water under the Taylor Creek Bridge just under half a mile from the little town of the same name, a tight-knit hamlet eight miles south of Oxford.
“Miss Mitchell, I don’t know, but I’m thinking—I’m thinking it’s Harry Mitchell, your husband,” Deputy Wortham told her.
East, who was 48 in February 1991, did not fit the macho, tobacco-chewing stereotype of Mississippi law-enforcement officers even as he would become one of those old-school sheriffs who ruled county policing in the state for decades, only leaving office when he died. Bespectacled, balding and slightly rotund, he often wore plain clothes rather than a uniform, with one photo showing him in an emerald button-down, two buttons undone, with a white shirt underneath and khaki pants.
Wortham, on the other hand, was the first Black deputy in then-73% white Lafayette County and built like a football player. A picture of the late deputy shows him smiling, with short-cropped hair and clad in a brown and tan deputy’s uniform with a dozen or more revolver rounds inserted into the leather gun-belt strapped to his waist.
The sheriff asked Ollie Mitchell to go with them to identify the remains, but because she was still grieving the loss of her youngest son the year before, she told them she was not up to the task. Instead, she joined the men in the squad car and told them that her brother, Douglas Hill, would be able to help them. Then 50, he was working as a barber just a short distance away in Oxford.
Douglas Hill was busy cutting hair at Goolsby Hair World off the town square that day when East and Wortham showed up and asked to speak with him outside. Harry Mitchell’s brother-in-law and long-time friend walked out of the shop and saw his sister waiting for him in the back of the cruiser. The lawmen told him they had found a body down in Taylor and needed him to try to identify the remains.
Hill, who was still close to Harry Mitchell, accepted the grim task and accompanied the trio to the hospital. “I recognized who it was immediately, and it was rough,” Hill said on Sept. 2, 2023, speaking to a bevy of his relatives and the Mississippi Free Press’ Rural News Network team about that brutal day.
Harry’s surviving family members were shocked upon seeing the condition of his body. Autopsy documents indicate that the killer struck him in the head multiple times with an unknown object, leaving several “V”-shaped wounds. Harry’s family members suspect a hatchet or ax might have created the wounds that were so deep they could fit their fully extended fingers into them when inspecting his body. Harry’s face was untouched, his family said.
“They chopped him up the way you would a piece of hamburger meat,” Ollie Mitchell described on an August 2022 afternoon, sitting with a group of family members in her son Dennis Mitchell’s garage with the large door open due to the coronavirus.
“We will solve this real quick,” Sheriff East assured Harry Mitchell’s wife and her brother that day in 1991.
Thirty-two years and several months later, the family is still waiting for justice or for pretty much anyone outside their family and friend circles to show they care, including the media. At the time, news coverage consisted of 7 inches of newsprint in the local Oxford Eagle and a death notice in The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.
“East said officials don’t have many leads in the case. The Oxford Police Department and Mississippi Highway Patrol are assisting in the investigation. Anyone with information that could assist in the case may call the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department at 234-6421. The identities of informants will remain confidential,” the Oxford Eagle reported on Feb. 4, 1991.
Harry Mitchell’s surviving family members have struggled over the years to stoke various law-enforcement agencies’ long-waned interest in solving the cold case, with most they reached deferring back to the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department. Several generations of Harry Mitchell’s family—including children and grandchildren—have talked to the Mississippi Free Press for more than two years about their belief that had the murder victim been white, the case would have been solved right away.
Or at the very least, they would not have been ignored for so long with far more updates along the way.
This historically dismissive treatment of Black families who have lost loved ones to violence has long been rampant in Mississippi and beyond, seeding fear, distrust of law enforcement, and even rumors about coverups and the possible involvement of lawmen and other prominent citizens. Multiple members of the Mitchell family, while not without trepidation, have together decided to go public with their story in hopes of both finally seeing justice for the loss of their patriarch but also to raise awareness about how Black families are treated and ignored during their most difficult moments.
‘If It’s The Last Thing I Do’
On the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 2, 1991, Dennis Mitchell cleaned up at the old Oxford Kroger on University Avenue. Then 27, he worked at the deli counter to support himself and two young children after he and his wife of eight years had agreed to divorce.
Dennis looked up and saw his mother and uncle approaching him as he wiped down the counter. He knew something was wrong. His mother rarely came to Kroger in the first place, but he could see she was upset.
“Come on with me outside. I have to tell you something,” Dennis’ mother said.
“What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” he asked her.
“Just follow me outside,” Ollie said to her eldest son.
Dennis told the other deli workers he would be right back, but he would not return to work that day.
The son recalled his uncle breaking the news to him: “Your dad’s been killed. They just found your dad’s body,” Douglas Hill told his nephew outside.
Buddy East waited nearby. When Dennis Mitchell walked up to him, the sheriff made a pledge to him. “Dennis, I’m gonna find out who killed your daddy if it’s the last thing I do,” he promised.
“OK. I’d appreciate it if you would,” Mitchell answered, distraught.
“Harry didn’t bother nobody. He might have been an alcoholic, but he didn’t bother nobody, and he didn’t deserve for that to happen to him,” East told him.
Dennis Mitchell, now 60, believed East then that the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department would figure out who had killed his father. He had no clue as he walked away from the sheriff that he would become his father’s strongest advocate in a generational struggle for justice.
In 1991 Mitchell’s relationship with his father was complicated by years of alcoholism and the domestic abuse that eventually drove Ollie to leave him. That personal struggle did not break their bond, however.
Mitchell demanded to see his father before he was embalmed and laid to rest. Behind his father’s visage, Mitchell saw the grisly evidence of his violent killing.
Dr. Lloyd White, then the Mississippi State Medical Examiner, detailed it in the autopsy report. “It is my opinion that Harry L. Mitchell, a 53 year old Negro man, died as a result of Massive Blunt Force Injuries of the Head and Brain,” the 1991 report states.
The report was clear that whoever killed Mitchell destroyed much of his skull. Then, the family believes, the killer or killers tossed his body into Taylor Creek and fled.
“I had heard what they had done to him, but I wanted to see before they got to doing what they do at the funeral home,” Mitchell said in a March 2022 interview in the dining room of his Oxford home. “And I saw what they done to him. Whoever it was, I saw what they had done to him.”
Artists, Catfish and Unsolved Murder
The Taylor Creek site where Harry Mitchell’s killer abandoned his body is roughly three miles along the same road from his residence on his mother’s property where he lived in February 1991. But it is just under half a mile from the small town of the same name. This fact has long troubled his surviving relatives.
The quaint, throwback village of Taylor, Miss., has long been known as a sort of backwoods bohemia. It is a place where well-to-do white townies drive in from Oxford, bringing their own booze to rub elbows with their rural counterparts over plates of fried catfish at the popular Taylor Grocery out in the 70% white county. Prior to 2021, possession of beer and wine was illegal in Lafayette County. If you brought your own drinks for dinner at the grocery, you had to be discreet, making sure to use paper bags and pour liquor from coolers stashed in the trunks of cars.
Today, new developments with dozens of costly pastel homes that could be mistaken for the same structure are cropping up around the edge of the village. The expansion of real-estate developments accommodate the retirement spillover from Oxford, the raucous and often bumptious college town just down the road. Wealthy University of Mississippi graduates frequently retire to Oxford and its environs, taking advantage of an active town square, pricey boutiques and upscale restaurants, as well as excursions to tiny Taylor.
The village is still rural Lafayette County despite the history of artists and Oxford adventurers. An expanse of wilderness borders the town center, bridge and creek where Harry Mitchell’s body was dumped on white-owned property, with the call of hounds on the run and accompanying gunshots heard regularly.
The hamlet is a microcosm of a typical American experience—a single, village-sized serving of Mississippi’s most troubling and influential historical issues mixed with white reluctance to discuss that past.The town was built on stolen Chickasaw land, turned into slave plantations and commerce to support that free-labor industry, and then industrialized by Black labor under the rule of white terror well into the 20th century.
The town was first called Taylor’s Depot after John Taylor. The large plantation owner from North Carolina enslaved many Black people and used their free labor to build the village when the state Legislature authorized a Mississippi Central Railroad line, financed by planters, to carry cotton from Lafayette County to LaGrange, Tenn. Taylor donated land for the depot as well as enslaved labor to build it.
White founders and their descendants made the village largely inaccessible to those whose families performed the hardest labor in its establishment and enforced racial stratification by justiceless violence, threats and lynchings. After the Civil War ended, Lafayette County became a hotbed for Ku Klux Klan and other white-terrorist activity, with prominent state leaders James Z. George, Edward Walthall and L.Q.C. Lamar successfully defending prominent Klansmen in a Lafayette County courtroom, as U.S. congressional hearings later revealed and Michael Newton reported in “The Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi.” All three lawyers worked to help end Reconstruction and roll back Black legal gains, and all have Mississippi counties named for them. Much of Oxford is named to honor Lamar, who is buried in the city cemetery.
The lines of demarcation by race still exist even if less prominent than the world Ollie, Harry and then Dennis Mitchell were born into in Lafayette County.
For Taylor’s 300-odd residents, the mythos of the village can exceed its population count. Like in towns and counties across Mississippi, there are really two Taylors. In one, white mythmaking has pardoned and ignored a troubling past, and in the other, Black families still grapple with the legacy of racism and violence doled out by their white neighbors who typically enjoy the lion’s share of the area’s wealth and upward mobility.
That can mean elusive justice such as in Harry Mitchell’s case regardless of the killer’s race.
To find the real Taylor, Miss., you must go beyond the kitsch and nostalgia of the town’s main drag, past the graffitied walls and rusted-out signage, and get onto the hardscrabble roads into segregated cemeteries and lush woodlands. You might find Taylor’s heart of darkness among the loblolly pine and tattered Confederate flags, then further out into longtime Black communities held at arm’s length by white citizens since the days of old.
‘We Love You, But God Loved You Best’
Harry Mitchell rests near his late son, Kenny, on County Road 321 beneath a sparse stretch of oak and pine trees in the New Hope Cemetery, six miles from Taylor and four miles south of the vaunted Oxford Square. The constant parade of trash trucks on their way to the nearby town landfill, kicking up gravel dust as they go, has turned the roadside foliage gray.
The Black cemetery exemplifies the longstanding social makeup of Taylor and other parts of Lafayette County. Since the mid-1800s, well-to-do white residents have owned businesses and housing in Taylor proper as well as land in the country. Black citizens in Taylor built their homes and businesses on the outskirts of the pint-sized village.
After 32 years, moss too hard to remove by hand has formed on Harry’s small headstone, covering an engraved dove flanked by floral design. The sun has faded the plastic, red roses his family placed there leaving them a whitish-pink color.
“Rest,” Harry’s headstone reads. “We Love You But God Loved You Best.”
Harry Mitchell’s family laid him to rest a week after his murder. Dr. Lloyd White and his team of pathologists returned Harry’s body to Hodges Funeral Home from Jackson where they autopsied his remains. Hodges is a Black-owned funeral home; many in Mississippi are still segregated.
The passing of three decades robbed Mitchell’s survivors of much of his memory, leaving only pieces of his life in their minds. But for the last two years, they have worked with the Mississippi Free Press to stitch that history back together for both the public and for their own children.
In September 2023, Harry’s family members met with the Mississippi Free Press team for the final time before their story would go public, again in a circle of chairs in Dennis Mitchell’s garage. There they discussed their murdered loved one and the impact of his loss on their lives—and how they still dared to hope for belated justice.
‘One Year, Two Weeks and Two Days’
Halleane Isom, 61, struggled to remember the details of her father Harry’s funeral. Her eyes blinked again and again behind cat-eye frames as she wrestled with her memory, hands on her lap as if bracing herself on a bumpy car ride.
She remembered Feb. 9, 1991, as a cloudy day. She recalled a crowd of friends and family milling about, all there to mourn her father. Isom thought then that the funeral home had done a nice job of preparing for his open-casket service, but that is all her grief allows her to remember now.
“My brain is blank,” she said.
But through the haze of time sits a sequence of numbers, a record of life and death burned into Isom’s memory. “One year, two weeks and two days,” Isom suddenly told us after a pause. That was the amount of time between her brother Kenny’s death and the discovery of her father’s body in Taylor Creek.
One year, two weeks and two days.
While the funeral service is hazy for Isom, the last couple of conversations she had with her father remain clear. He was upset with her during another drunken episode at her former residence on Old Taylor Road. While visiting his daughter, Harry began to act out in a way that made her uncomfortable.
She had seen this behavior before, but this time things were different. Her dad wasn’t acting boorish under his own roof, but under hers. She was independent and young, but by then old enough to say when enough was enough. “We don’t do that over here,” Isom told her father.
That angered Harry. “Well, since you feel like that then I just won’t come back to your house no more,’” he told her.
She didn’t speak with her father for three months, but eventually he softened.
“Finally one day I was at home, and there came a knock at the door, and when I went to answer the door it was him,” Isom said. “When he came in, he sat down. He was sober, and he was at himself. And we sat there, and we had one of the best conversations that we had ever, ever had. We laughed awhile. We joked awhile,” the daughter recalled.
The father asked his daughter to drop by his place and see him later. She told him she would.
“So, I went to his house, that trailer, that day and knocked on the door. There was no answer, but the door was unlocked, and so I opened the door, but he wasn’t home. And after I saw he wasn’t home, I turned around, and I left,” she said.
She told herself she’d go back soon. Then a call came on Saturday.
“The next thing I know, the next message I get is that they found Daddy dead in Taylor at this creek. I never got a chance to see him,” Isom said.
“It gives me peace that at the end we had a good conversation,” she added.
‘I Would Just Keep Asking’
Sheriff Buddy East was busy fueling up his cruiser at the county depot in Oxford when Dennis Mitchell spotted him; it was several years after East promised to find Harry’s killer. It would not be the last time the two crossed paths at the Lafayette County maintenance center where government workers repaired or refueled their vehicles. Dennis drove a large truck, hauling gravel for Lafayette County back then.
The son asked then and kept asking every time he saw the sheriff there: “Have you found out anything about my father’s murder?”
“No, but my department is still looking,” East would tell him each time.
“I got to the point where I would just stop asking, because he would tell me the same thing every time,” Mitchell told the Mississippi Free Press in August 2022 at his home. He no longer lives in Taylor, but out in West Oxford.
While Harry’s murder case languished in Lafayette County, Sheriff East and his department cleared a triple homicide in the summer of 1991 after Jack Talley, a white Lafayette County man, murdered three of his family members. Unlike Harry’s murder, the triple homicide garnered statewide and regional headlines and was resolved quickly.
East’s peers named him the Oxford Citizen of the Year for 1991.
As time marched forward, the Mitchell family heard continual snippets and rumors about specific suspects from people claiming to know more about the murders. They would pass them to the sheriff, but when nothing seemed to happen with their tips, they tried other options and agencies.
The family sought help from the Mississippi Department of Public Safety a few years after Harry’s murder occurred. Mississippi Highway Patrol investigators with the Criminal Investigation Bureau, now the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, told the family they would look into it, but never had anything to share when they asked for updates. Those believed to have been the MHP investigators at the time could not be reached for comment.
In September 2023, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety’s public-relations department confirmed that MHP troopers assisted in the case in 1991 and added, “No further information can be given unless released from the lead investigating agency, the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department.”
The family also visited the U.S. Attorney’s office in Oxford, whom they say assured them they would get with Sheriff East and discuss Harry’s killing. Robert Whitwell, who was a U.S. attorney based in Oxford in 1991 and now a senior chancellor in the Lafayette County Chancery Court, told the Mississippi Free Press that he does not remember the family reaching out.
“I don’t remember this guy,” he said, referring to Harry Mitchell. “And you know, what was interesting when you asked that question is, I was involved in every civil-rights case that ever popped up like that. And I just can’t imagine that these people talked to me because I would remember,” Whitwell said.
Dennis Mitchell also tried getting in touch with then-Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood only to be told once more that he would have to talk to his local sheriff. Hood had led the effort to finally convict Klansman Edgar Ray Killen in June 2005 for the manslaughter of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County in 1964, one of many cold civil-rights cases in Mississippi, a few of which saw decades-late convictions of killers involved.
Like the Mitchell family, the passion of family members was the fire that drove successful convictions in civil-rights-era cases after they had waited decades for justice.
Harry Mitchell’s estranged wife also kept asking for justice to no avail. “So, everywhere I would go, that’s what I would get,” Ollie Mitchell said about the circular advice of various agencies to ask the sheriff to help—even as he had made no progress after so many years.
Dennis Mitchell has no short supply of faith, though. Once an athletic football player, he was left paralyzed in 2004 following a traffic accident. This has not hindered his ability to seek justice for his father. A battery of medications, regular visits to the doctor and on-site nurses now help him carry on an active life.
Sheriff Joey East: It Will Take Time
Lafayette County Sheriff Joey East pulled up in front of Dennis Mitchell’s West Oxford home in the summer of 2019 with Douglas Hill in the passenger seat. Like his late father, East dresses modestly, often in cowboy boots, khakis, a polo and sometimes a sports jacket instead of his sheriff’s uniform. By then, he had transitioned from his previous role as Oxford Police Chief to take over his dad’s long-time job in the county. Hill had asked the second East sheriff over to his house to talk about his brother-in-law’s case and then asked him to go with him to visit Harry’s son.
In a development near Oxford proper, East sat across from a still-grieving son and his uncle Douglas in his tidy home that emphasizes open space. Photographs of family stand on shelves and line his walls. Hanging above a bedroom doorway, a sign reads, “Faith will see us through.”
Joey East was just there to talk, not taking notes, just listening. His father, Buddy East, had died in 2018 after almost a half-century as the county sheriff, with no progress on Harry Mitchell’s murder 27 years after he had promised Dennis he would catch the killer.
The elder East’s passing presented another hurdle in the Mitchell family’s pursuit of justice for Harry. They had received no updates from the sheriff before he died, and now had to lobby his son to work the case. Soon after inheriting his father’s office on an interim basis, East ran for Lafayette County sheriff and won the role handily.
Mitchell and his uncle, Douglas Hill, once again pleaded with law enforcement that day to find Harry’s killer. “Joey, if you’re going to do anything for me, do this one thing. I—we—want to find out who killed him, our dad,” Dennis told the new sheriff that day in his home.
The new sheriff told them he would try. “They provided me with one name in particular that I remember,” he told Mississippi Free Press editor Donna Ladd in an interview after declining to speak with this reporter. “It may have been two.” The sheriff said the men “threw around” names. “I didn’t have a notepad. … I was just there talking.”
East agreed to take up the unsolved murder case and told the men it would take some time. He later told Ladd that investigators had looked into names provided to them and turned up nothing.
The uncle was skeptical then and still is four years after that visit with no apparent progress toward an arrest. Hill, now 83, grew up in virulently segregated Lafayette County. He and other Black men around his age have detailed their realities to the Mississippi Free Press.
As outspoken as his sister, Hill says today that he might have been the best barber in the state of Mississippi back then. He still hasn’t fully retired, sometimes making him late for family gatherings because of his barbering schedule. Hill’s head is shaved bald, and over the years his mustache has turned from solid black cables of hair in earlier family photos to wiry strands of silver he strokes and fusses with as he speaks, often leaning in close to make his point.
“I come up under Jim Crow laws. That stuff still exists. But it’s in a nicer way,” Hill told the Mississippi Free Press in August 2022.
“So today, it’s not much different than it was in the 1960s. The only thing is we have a little bit of law on our side,” Hill said, noting the progression of civil rights in America.
“I’ve seen both sides. I’ve been on this side, and I’ve been over there,” Hill continued. “We want to be good citizens. We’ve tried to be that. But we did it under adverse circumstances.”
Hill paused as he often does to add emphasis to his next words. “To be a good citizen you sometimes have to take a lot of crap that you don’t want to take. And that’s what we’ve done. Now, I believe if it’d been your folks that had been murdered down here, they’d have found somebody,” Hill said to this white reporter.
A Thin, Brown Murder File
Sheriff Joey East told Mississippi Free Press editor Donna Ladd at a meeting in his office on Nov. 18, 2022, that a potential racism-motivated murder is something that both the initial and current investigation have taken into account as a possibility.
“Race is always in the back of someone’s mind,” East said while sitting behind his desk in a khaki sports coat, jeans, cowboy boots and magnetic glasses pulled apart around his neck. “Is this racially motivated? Is this a hate crime? Or possibly, is law enforcement not looking it over because of race? So, how do you eliminate those things? You always bring in outside resources. So that’s why the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation was called; that’s why they met with the FBI,” the sheriff said.
East spoke with a thin, brown expanding folder on his desk in front of him, pointing out about halfway through the conversation that it was the entire original file. “I thought you were going to tell me that there were boxes to sort through!” Ladd responded as East shook his head.
The sheriff has declined to share any files related to his case since Lafayette County Administrator Lisa Carwyle wrote that the cold-case investigation had been reactivated when she responded to a July 2021 email inquiry from this reporter asking for documents related to the case. The Mitchell family has not seen the complete case file, either, in the 32 years they have waited for answers—nor been told pretty much anything that is in it.
“We’ve had to find a lot of things that hasn’t been looked at in a long time,” East said with investigator Jeff Davis sitting across the desk next to the editor. Davis is a retired U.S. marshal now helping re-investigate the case along with Creekmore Wright, a retired Mississippi Bureau of Investigation agent. Both are white.
“So, (we’ve been) getting reports, talking to polygraph examiners, talking to old investigators—people that are still alive that worked on this case. You know, we’ve tried to reach out to them. And we’ve just tried to compile—refresh ourselves with what all took place then, what all (law enforcement officers) did, and try to learn as much as we could about the case,” East told Ladd last year.
Sheriff East said that the investigation is using techniques unavailable to his father’s department, namely analyzing DNA evidence.
“We’ve also had evidence that was found, at the time it was placed in evidence, that we’ve taken and sent to the crime lab, because now, you know, forensics are better, so there’s DNA technology, there’s things that they didn’t have at the time. So we’ve done that, waiting … hopefully something will come about, and be positive in that aspect of it.”
Almost a year later, East updated Ladd on his investigation. He said in a phone interview on Sept. 28, 2023, that he is only aware of one DNA identification from the scene—and it was Harry Mitchell’s. He added that because Investigator Davis has been caring for his sick wife, however, that more follow-up was needed on other DNA tests and mentioned the fact that Mississippi’s crime lab is notoriously backed up, which can hamstring investigations.
In 2022, East described the steps law enforcement were taking to find Mitchell’s killer beyond DNA testing. “So, we compiled a list of everybody that was interviewed, Black and white, we’ve read it, gone back over it, and now we’re in the process of locating who they eliminated then, versus who may still be a suspect,” he said.
This month, East shared that he had convened “a roundtable, so to speak” of active and retired law enforcement and prosecutors to look at all the available evidence about three months ago. They went through the historic evidence, the pictures and polygraphs for three hours to get new ideas. “A 30-year-old case is hard. … We needed new eyes,” he said.
But the brainstorm session yielded little, East added: “Unfortunately we haven’t found a smoking gun.”
The Mitchell family, however, did not know this roundtable happened until the Mississippi Free Press told them in early October 2023.
Making Law Enforcement Accountable
Frustration with the indifference and poor communication of authorities is something Oresa Napper-Williams knows intimately. In 2006, her son, Andrell Napper, was caught in an exchange of gunfire in Brooklyn, N.Y., and killed. When an NYPD officer called to tell her about her son’s shooting, he told her he would inform her if her son was innocent: “I’m just calling to tell you that I’m the detective on your son’s case, and I’ll let you know if he was involved in any way.”
Then her son’s emergency-room doctor came out as she waited to hear about Andrell’s condition. First, before providing an update, he asked her if she knew what her son was doing where he was killed. Only after that statement that felt accusatory to the mother, the physician told her her boy had died.
The entire culturally incompetent experience, steeped in stereotypes and assumptions about Black criminality, around her son’s death turned Napper-Williams into a nationally known activist and consultant to help law-enforcement improve. She works to both reduce violence among young people and advocates for Black and Brown families who are often mistreated by law enforcement and others in the system after losing a family member to violence. She now runs Not Another Child, a nonprofit advocacy organization that helps families who have lost loved ones to gun violence navigate the aftermath of loss.
Napper-Williams has since worked directly with the New York Police Department on community anti-violence initiatives, as well as instilling cultural competence in its officers. She has suggested and helped implement solutions that help bridge the divide between grieving members of the Black community and disrespectful, callous, or disinterested law-enforcement agencies who may blame the victim or believe the case is not important to spend too much time on.
Or, they may not see the importance of consistent and substantive family updates.
“I think that in some ways, our law enforcement do not do their due diligence because of the stigma that comes along with African American males being murdered,” she said in a phone interview.
“The stigma of ‘What were they doing?’ You know, ‘Who were they?’, ‘Were they in a gang?, ‘Were they doing something wrong?’ That stigma, and that racism, I know, in New York, starts anywhere from the detective telling you that your loved one was murdered all the way to applying for victim’s compensation,” Napper-Williams said.
Since losing her son, Napper-Williams knows from experience the steps that might be taken to mitigate the suffering that comes along with loss.
“One is having that relationship with the agency—the police-department agency and the community—making the police department see the additional layer of trauma that this causes a family. Forget about the layers of trauma before your loved one is murdered, now you’re facing layers of trauma after,” Napper-Williams said of those navigating the judicial and policing systems that can traumatize and retraumatize families.
Napper-Williams is a proud New Yorker, but believes the solutions she is pursuing in cities on the East Coast will help law-enforcement agencies serving rural communities. In Brooklyn and Queens, the intersection of community policing and technology now is helping hold investigators to higher standards of ethics and professionalism.
Through regular Zoom meetings in New York City, families connect with senior law-enforcement officers and their subordinate detectives to get updates on cases and hear them explain what steps are underway in the investigation—a far cry from what has happened in Lafayette County in response to Harry Mitchell’s brutal murder.
“It makes them accountable, doing some sort of due diligence,” Napper-Williams said of law enforcement. “With the chief of detectives on (the call), it’s not always acceptable, (to just say) ‘we have no further information.’”
Napper-Williams emphasized the importance of actively protecting people who could come forward with information that may aid investigators as they try to solve cases. In Harry Mitchell’s case, many members of the Black community have expressed fear of even talking generally about the case, much less about what they may have heard about it over the years or who might have been involved.
“A solution could be protecting those who do come and say that they saw something because a lot of times they don’t do that because they’re not protected. And although they may know that that’s the right thing to do, they’re not going to put their life on the line for it,” she said.
“I know that every case won’t be solved, but a family should not have to wonder what is going on. A family should not be the detective in the case and bringing back information,” Napper-Williams emphasized. “Those things really should not be in play, and so I think that’s when the hierarchy of the police department needs to come in and set strategies and protocols into place, being realistic with both sides.”
“And I don’t care if it’s every six months or if it’s a case 30 years down the line, but that communication shows a matter of respect, not to the deceased, but to those that are still living. When you don’t have that respect, that’s when it makes it difficult,” she added.
Taylor in Black and White
Not unexpectedly, white people and Black people in Lafayette County often look at Taylor, Miss., and rural Lafayette County through vastly different lenses, colored by whether they acknowledge or have experienced local racism.
Throughout the years, one particular business with several iterations, Taylor Grocery, has stood as a central pillar of the white community, back to its days under owner Mary Kathrin McCain Hudson, a businesswoman whose fried catfish laid the foundation for the restaurant’s modern mythos.
A peek inside Taylor Grocery—which used to be the town general store—through its foggy windows plastered with aging handbills routinely reveals mostly white people loading up on country fare and taking in performances by local musicians. Locally famous artists such as Obie Clark have lived and worked along the tiny strip of historic buildings or in historic homes nearby—as well as the former mayor, photographer Jane Rule Burdine.
Oxford’s own William Faulkner used Taylor as a setting in his novel “Sanctuary”—as the place where Temple Drake’s abduction and rape begin to unfold—solidifying the hamlet’s place in local lore among white residents.
Several rounds of door-knocking drew little to no response or interest from Taylor’s white residents about the Harry Mitchell murder even if they had heard about it over the years.
White people you ask around Oxford tend to see Taylor as an arty place with a funky old court square. If you mention the village in Oxford, many Oxonians will tell you, “Be sure to get you some catfish at Taylor Grocery.”
But it has been an ugly place for many who grew up Black in the rural Taylor area; it’s hard to find a Black person in the county who points romantically at the Main Street drag. Even in September 2023, on a busy Friday night in Taylor, as locals ferried their children to and fro in 4×4’s and sipped from cups filled in their trunks, they did so in a parking lot noticeably devoid of Black patrons.
In a town with a few hundred residents, it is easy to know who has power and who is at the mercy of power. That dynamic, some Black residents suggested with their names withheld, came into play in the aftermath of Harry Mitchell’s murder.
Numerous Lafayette County residents told this reporter that the now-deceased decades-long county sheriff was known to let things slide for white residents—grapevine talk his son vehemently denies even as it fuels local Black distrust. East grew up in a now abandoned area of rural Lafayette County called Dogtown; his first wife and Joey East’s mother, Margaret Hurdle Laney, and her family are from Taylor. Her son has thus spent a lot of time there.
“I grew up knowing Mr. (Douglas) Hill; his sister married Mr. Harry,” East said on Sept. 28, 2023, adding, “we were close.”
“I grew up with his sons and grandsons.” Those connections inspire him to stay on the case, he says, while acknowledging that the family is frustrated with law enforcement.
“I sat with Dennis and Mr. Hill and watched them cry and saw the emotion, and I can feel it,” he said of their meeting back in the summer of 2019. “I want to give them peace and satisfaction, but I’m just unable at this time to do that.”
‘They Didn’t Want Us There’
Regardless of the truth of rumors and theories about Harry Mitchell’s death, entanglements and relationships among powerful white Lafayette County residents make it difficult for the Black community to trust local law enforcement, prompting some to question whether or not Mitchell’s death was investigated in good faith.
Even Sheriff Joey East said the family is less forthcoming over what they have heard about the murder than they used to be back when they believed law enforcement would solve the case. “Some of the family members have even shut the door in our face,” he said.
Time erodes trust.
Members of the Black community in Taylor cannot say with certainty what happened to Harry in 1991, or who killed him, but they want to see the case finally resolved, or at least feel like real effort has gone into sorting the rumors from the reality and keeping them apprised.
In Taylor’s Black community, streams of whispers have flowed out of cautious mouths and into nervous ears for the last three decades about Harry’s murder, increasing the fear of residents to talk openly or even for most members of the Mitchell family to have current photos of their faces appear.
One former Black resident of Taylor, Lawrence Hide, whose name has been changed by request, recalled instances of racism to this reporter and the Mississippi Free Press editor from his time there during the 1980s and 1990s.
‘I was a n—r every day,” he said. Hide said Taylor has not been a welcoming environment for Black people. “They didn’t want us there,” he said.
Outside a Black club in Taylor, Hide said, white residents set up and burned a cross to intimidate Black residents as the 1980s began. When the flames were extinguished, Hide said, he picked up the charred remains of the cross, put them in his truck and transported the burned cross to the town center and threw it on the front porch of Taylor Grocery so white citizens of the little town would be sure to see it.
Lafayette County was also a historic hotbed of race violence. The county saw multiple lynchings in the 20th century with the help of law enforcement and elected officials, with no justice following. Despite efforts to reverse and expunge that history, the county and Oxford have seen more recent incidents of racism from educators and local businessmen in 2018 and University of Mississippi students in 2019.
Those incidents came even as the institution has gradually let go of, or at least moved, significant symbols of its white-supremacist past due in no small part to the work and protests of Black students and faculty determined to help what they consider to be Mississippi’s “flagship university” be far greater, and more equitable, than its past.
Based on unconfirmed tips and rumors, at least some members of the Mitchell family fear that their patriarch died in 1991 at white hands. So do some Black Lafayette County residents—and that belief, along with too little communication from law enforcement over the years, has created a culture of fear that many have a hard time leaving behind decades later.
The brutality of Harry Mitchell’s murder is a major piece of circumstantial evidence, Black family members and Taylor residents insist.
“You know, Black folk have a way of doing crimes. White folks got a way of doing crime,” Douglas Hill said in an August 2022 interview in his nephew’s garage. “Black folks ain’t gonna take you out and beat your head in. Black folks shoot you down, knock you down, whatever. There are certain things—we just don’t do those types of things,” Hill said.
‘I’ll See You In The Morning’
Curlie Hill has long said he believed that his brother-in-law’s murder was being swept under the rug. Now a resident of Oxford, Ollie and Douglas Hill’s brother avoids being in Taylor, but has had acquaintances there who kept their ears to the ground for him over the years, he said.
Still a mountain of a man at 82, Curlie Hill sports a silvered mustache, but shorter than his brother Douglas’. In his nephew’s West Oxford garage on Sept. 2, 2023, he sat in quiet observation, his tan flat cap pointed down, hands folded together, listening until it’s time to speak about Harry’s final day.
Curlie Hill was the last person to see Mitchell alive on the evening of Feb, 1, 1991. He and his brother confirmed that police questioned and polygraphed him during the original investigation under Sheriff Buddy East. Curlie and Harry were close friends and often spent their free time together. Harry and his wife had separated after nearly three decades of marriage and seven children, but his friendship with Curlie survived the couple’s split.
“He helped me with my hog pen, I think. I had a bunch of hogs,” Hill said.
Curlie Hill recalls that the two went to work constructing hog pens during the 9 a.m. hour on his property between Oxford and Taylor. They labored until about 3:30 or 4 p.m., Hill said.
After hours of work, the duo drove to buy alcohol, then went to Harry’s trailer where they hung out until what Hill estimates to be 10 p.m. “We was laughing, talking, you know, like we always did,” Hill said.
Then, Curlie left his friend with what remained of a bottle of whisky and drove home, he said.
As he left, Harry spoke what would be his final words to his friend. “I’ll see you in the morning,” Harry told him.
A Visitor In the Dark
Curlie Hill told the Mississippi Free Press that he spoke with Harry Mitchell’s mother, Olivia Mitchell, the day after her son was found dead in Taylor Creek.
Someone arrived at her doorstep in the early hours of Feb. 2, 1991, he said. The town of Taylor was still enveloped in dark and cold when the report of a knock roused her from bed. When she called out in response, the stranger at the door had questions.
“Is Harry Mitchell here? Is he in the house?” the visitor asked.
Olivia hollered through the window, not opening the door to strangers, Curlie Hill recounted.
“He lives out there in that little trailer,” she told them, according to her family after her death. She directed the visitors’ attention to the camper-trailer on her property Harry was living in after separating from his wife.
The family would not see Harry alive again.
It is unknown how exactly he left the Mitchell property that night. Lafayette County was still dry then, and Harry would often walk late at night in pursuit of more alcohol, another of his habits that worried his family. The roads in the area are narrow, desolate and surrounded by dense woodland.
“Ain’t nobody going to bother Harry Mitchell, ‘cause Harry Mitchell ain’t bothered nobody,’” Ollie recalled him often saying.
Curlie Hill said he struggled with his anger after discovering Harry had been murdered. He grabbed his guns and went looking. He wanted to find Harry’s killer, but Sheriff Buddy East warned him to let his department handle the situation. Unsure of what to do, Hill said he sought counsel from his lawyer at the time, hoping they might have a solution.
The attorney had an ominous warning for Hill, he said.
“He called me in, and me and him sat down and he said, ‘Curlie, I want to tell you something. I’m gonna tell you something. Some things—you understand—some things, you don’t f-ck with,’” Hill recalled.
Curlie said he took this to mean that the question of Harry’s murder would never see an answer, and they should let it go. He maintains that the killing was covered up and glossed over like so much violence against Black people before.
A White and A Black Way to Remember
Correspondence, legal pads and writing utensils litter Joey East’s desk. A sign with his last name and a thin blue line cutting through the middle of the text flanks the right side of his desk along with a crucifix and a 9/11 tribute.
In his office with Mississippi Free Press editor Donna Ladd on Nov. 18, 2022, Sheriff East talked about the possibility of Harry’s murder being covered up, and what he knew of his late father’s experience on the case, including concern that the Black community would think it was racism that kept it from being solved.
“He knew that without solving this crime that people would think that it was—that maybe some people would think that he wasn’t solving it because it could possibly be racially motivated, or Black-white. And that bothered him more than anything. That just wasn’t him. That just wasn’t true,” East stated about his father.
With the thin Harry Mitchell file on the desk in front of him in November 2022, East insisted that his father and his team tried to fully investigate the murder.
“It absolutely is not, you know, it’s been open,” East said. “The sheriff’s department at that time did everything they knew to do, they followed every lead they could follow. They contacted outside agencies to help allow them the freedom to investigate it willingly. With them. Without them. They contacted the FBI.”
He also showed a determination to specifically defend his father’s legacy. “I think if he didn’t go back in the previous five or six years it’s because he just didn’t have nothing. Just nothing for him to say. It’s hard to say, ‘I’ve failed you,’” East said in his office in late 2022.
“So there’s no doubt in my mind that was never a cover-up. There was never anything. If it was anything it was ‘please come in and help us to help solve this crime,’” East said.
The sheriff told the Mississippi Free Press that he has not frequented the Mitchell family’s doorstep because he did not yet have good news. “You know, it may come across hard or something or I don’t have feelings, but it’s just hard going in, and you’re saying ‘I don’t have anything, I can’t take this burden off of you,’” East said.
East told the Mississippi Free Press on Sept. 28, 2023, that he does plan to update the family—after the investigation progresses further. “We’ll sit down with them again when we get back together,” he said. “We have two or three more people to check off the list to interview here. … Whatever the facts are, we’ll share with them.”
Experts Like Oresa Napper-Williams of Not Another Child would like to see East and other law-enforcement leaders move toward more community-facing and culturally competent responses rather than waiting to be asked or shrouding investigations in secrecy. And the updates need to be frequent.
“Just making some type of a forward movement towards resolving would really help families on the road to healing,” Napper-Williams said.
‘If We Were Brave Enough’
April Grayson, the director of community and capacity building at the Alluvial Collective in Oxford, Miss., notes the key differences between how white and Black residents and communities in Lafayette County, and the South at large, grapple with memory related to fear-instilling violence against people who are not white.
Black people do not forget the violence—even as white people often cover their ears. “In my experience, as a white person working across communities of different races, I would say that I think white people are discouraged from remembering racialized violence episodes because they’re afraid that it fosters guilt and implicates either them personally or family members who they love,” said Grayson, whose organization is the former William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.
Grayson is a witness to the collective memory of North Mississippi around unresolved or unprosecuted violence against Black people. She has worked with Black families of lynching victims in Lafayette County, like Elwood Higginbottom, to help them honor their loved ones, and she was part of an inclusive local coalition to erect a marker to seven lynching victims on the courthouse square in Oxford where a Confederate monument still stands.
That means Grayson has seen up close how Mississippians in the northern foothills carry the burden of memory. “I think that many southerners are almost obsessed about memory of the past, but the ways that we remember it are very different based on racial identities and our personal experiences,” Grayson said in a late September interview.
Grayson urges white leaders to find the courage to take unpopular actions—and to fully communicate with Black families who have lost loved ones.
“Often Black communities have very different experiences of remembering. Because so often, their communities and even their families were victimized. And so I think that that creates both a potential for disjointedness or disconnect,” Grayson noted. “But also, in my experience, if we’re brave enough, it creates some really wonderful opportunities for connection and for learning and for seeing way past our own racialized experiences.”
Grayson made clear that these problems will not be solved by the efforts of community members alone. Residents must also hold their leaders accountable.
“All of us in our communities can only benefit when our leaders are willing to listen to a huge range of experiences and perspectives and not elevate what they think is their experience over others, and do that with humility, and be really willing to be brave,” Grayson added.
That bravery may anger some white residents—but the lack of it devastates Black survivors.
‘Do You Think the Murderer Was Black or White?’
It was the summer of 2023 and two years after they started telling their story to the Mississippi Free Press before Harry Mitchell’s family started hearing from Sheriff Joey East’s investigators. It was also re-election season for East, as one of the family members pointed out, and the Black vote is always welcome.
Investigators, without East, visited both Hill brothers and Dennis Mitchell in August 2023.
“Do you think the murderer was Black or white?” the men tasked with solving the cold case asked all three of them, puzzling Harry Mitchell’s family members about how their guess about the killer’s race would help the investigation.
East said in late September that he could not speak for why the white investigators asked that question, but he guessed why. “The family has alluded to me personally that they felt like someone in the white community (killed Harry Mitchell),” he said. “They may be reluctant to talk about that. If they’re afraid there’s a coverup, it may be a way to get them to open up.” He posited that the question might have been to “break the ice.”
The family saw it a different way, shaking their heads vociferously under the carport in September at the question they believe investigators should answer themselves. Plus, they believe the investigators are missing an obvious point.
“Why would a Black person go down in a white neighborhood, kill a man, then throw him in the creek right in front of a white man’s house?” Douglas Hill asked, wrinkling his face with confusion.
The family barber’s personal observation has merit, former FBI Special Agent Gregg McCrary explained while providing insight into violent offenders’ crime-scene behavior, noting the importance of body-disposal sites chosen by offenders.
During the commission of a crime, offenders respond specifically to the physical boundaries within the environment: the landscape, roadways and structures around them. Additionally, psychological boundaries may also influence an offender’s method of operation.
Douglas Hill may be correct in assuming a Black offender would avoid criminal activity in areas with majority-white populations, where they would be more likely to stand out, McCrary explained. McCrary agreed that it is a question that deserves consideration.
That means that Black men dumping another Black man they just killed over a bridge close to a very white town on property belonging to white families is indeed unlikely or at least uncommon, McCrary said. “If this is a predominantly white area, it would be unusual for a Black male to feel comfortable dumping a body in that area,” McCrary said.
‘We’re Human, Too. Our Blood Is Red’
About two hours into another long conversation about justice for their relative, several of Harry Mitchell’s loved ones—his wife, two brothers-in-law, two daughters and a son—sat circled up in his son’s garage smiling and fighting tears as they remembered him in happier days.
It was the second time his daughter and granddaughter, Arletha and Briauna Sutton, had made the trip, this time in Briauna’s red Chevy Camaro down Route 78 from Memphis to join the garage chat with the Mississippi Free Press. Again, Briauna mostly sat quietly and listened to her elders open up about the past. The September 2023 meetup was the first time she had heard some of the details of her granddad’s life as she listened to stories about how her grandparents met as children picking cotton and Harry’s social life, as well as his alcoholism and dark moods.
Now 32, Sutton never met her grandfather. Her elders have shouldered the burden of Harry’s loss for three decades, but often did so quietly, leaving younger family members without a full picture of who their lost relative was.
“It affected our family down through the generations,” the younger Sutton said, adding that it was too painful for her family to sit down and talk about his murder until now. “… That had effects on my family, my grandmother.” She looked at Ollie sitting two family members to the right of her.
Sutton then addressed her family directly about the need for justice, adding that this conversation was needed: “It’s important to find out, to get closure for y’all. You told me stories about him; I wish I could have met him. It was nice to hear who Harry Mitchell was.”
Yet, however closer these intimate family conversations might bring them, the gathered family members together demand information and justice. They’ve mustered their courage to speak out for themselves and on behalf of other Black families who live in limbo after losing loved ones to unsolved violence.
They all agree with Douglas Hill that law enforcement would have made an arrest had the victim of the crime been a white person.
Daughter Halleane Isom summed up her feelings about the situation in September in the circle.
“I feel dismissed,” she announced after saying little for much of the Sunday afternoon. “Overlooked. Like we don’t matter. That’s how I feel. We’re human, too. Our blood is red. We feel like anybody else. Everybody else.”
She paused, then continued: “We have thoughts, we have concerns, so why dismiss us and act like we don’t matter?”
Sheriff East responded on Sept. 28 that he is not dismissing the family, but pursuing leads regardless of race—and that he is also hurting over the lack of justice for the family.
“The emotion is you see someone hurting, and they’re innocent. They haven’t done anything to deserve this pain they’re receiving. You want to deliver them the answers. The hard part is, I just can’t. I don’t have the answers. I don’t have enough evidence to get that answer. There’s someone out there that knows it. Either we haven’t talked to that person, or that person is gone, or they’re holding it from us. We have not been able to solve this; that is as hurtful to me as anything.”
East added that he hopes this story will bring in new leads. “If anyone has information about this, call us,” he said. “… Please get the information out to somebody. Anybody that wants to help is more than welcome. I’d beg them to call us.”
“We’ll never close it. We’ll never stop. We’ll revisit it.”
If you or someone you know has information regarding the murder of Harry Mitchell, you can reach out to the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department at 662-234-6421 as well as reporter Christian Middleton at email@example.com. The Mississippi Free Press will keep communications secure unless you opt to speak for publication.
“Gone But Not Forgotten: Who Was Harry Mitchell?” by Christian Middleton
“Stop Shifting Blame, Ignoring Black Families Who Lose Loved Ones To Violence” by Donna Ladd
Harry Mitchell’s story is part of a new Rural News Network series. The nearly 14 million people of color who live in rural America face unique challenges that run the gamut—from industry land grabs to struggles with access to justice to broadband and a lack of representation in business and in government that make it near impossible for many to cultivate generational wealth. This six-part RNN series by six newsrooms, with support from the Walton Family Foundation, elevates the issues these communities are facing and what some are doing to change their fates.