Mississippi nun killings: suspect charged with capital murder, police say


Margaret Held and Paula Merrill were found dead in their home and Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, was a person of interest early in the investigation, police say

A man suspected in the killing of two Mississippi nuns who were found dead inside a residence within the community they served has been arrested and charged with two counts of capital murder, Mississippi authorities said.

Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Mississippi, was charged in the deaths of Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill, both 68, Mississippi department of public safety spokesman Warren Strain said in a statement released late on Friday night.

The bodies of both women were discovered on Thursday after they failed to show up for work at a clinic in Lexington, Mississippi, about 10 miles from where they lived.

Sanders was developed as a person of interest early on in the investigation, Lt Col Jimmy Jordan said in the statement.

Authorities said Sanders was being held in an undisclosed detention center, pending a court appearance.

The nuns were nurse practitioners who dedicated their lives to providing healthcare to people in the poorest county in the state. As authorities sought the killer, many residents wondered how they would fill the hole the womens deaths have left.

Right now, I dont see no forgiveness on my heart, said Joe Morgan Jr, a 58-year-old former factory worker who has diabetes and was a patient of Merrills at the clinic where the two nuns worked. He said Merrill would want him to forgive whoever killed the women.

She doesnt deserve to die like this, doing Gods work, Morgan said, shaking his head. Theres something wrong with the world.

Sister Paula Merrill moved to Mississippi in 1981, her sister said. Photograph: AP

Both women worked at the clinic, where they gave flu shots, dispensed insulin and provided other medical care for children and adults who couldnt afford it. Their stolen car was found abandoned a mile from their home, and there were signs of a break-in, but police havent disclosed a motive.

Authorities have not said how the women were killed, but the Rev Greg Plata of St Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington, where the nuns had led Bible study for years, said police told him they were stabbed. The state posted a reward of $20,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

Plata said both nuns religious communities had asked that people pray for the killer or killers. Asked about peoples struggles to forgive, the priest said: Forgiveness is at the heart of being a Christian. Look at Jesus on the cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

On Friday, a handwritten sign on the front door of Lexington medical clinic said it was closed until Monday. The clinic and the nuns home in Durant are in Holmes County, population 18,000. With 44% of its residents living in poverty, Holmes is the seventh-poorest county in America, according to the US census bureau.

The killings did more than shock people and plunge the county into mourning. They leave a gaping hole in what was already a strapped healthcare system. Dr Elias Abboud, who worked with the sisters for years and helped build the clinic, said it provided about 25% of all medical care in the county. The two nuns cultivated relationships with drug company representatives, who often left extra free samples, according to clinic manager Lisa Dew.

Sister Margaret Held worked as a nurse practitioner with Merrill. Photograph: Michael O’Loughlin/AP

This is a poor area, and they dignified those who are poor with outreach and respect for them, Plata said. They treated each person as a child of God.

Merrills sister Rosemarie, speaking by telephone from her Stoneham, Massachusetts, home, said her sister had been in Mississippi helping the poor since 1981 and had previously worked in Holly Springs, where she used to ride around on a moped and was instrumental in locating the source of a tuberculosis outbreak.

Merrill was raised in the suburbs of Boston and came from a working-class family, her father a laborer and her mother a bookkeeper, her nephew David said. He said his aunt had worked with Held for many years.

We always considered Margaret just part of the family, he said. The word sister has many meanings, and they fulfilled all of them.

Rosemarie Merrill said she didnt know what would happen to the clinic and worries about the effect on healthcare in Holmes County. She said her sister and Held would often go into the clinic on Sundays after mass or on their days off.

Its just going to be a disaster, she said.

Genette Pierce, who works at a home health and hospice business a few doors down from the clinic, said: Their patients all of them theyre going to be lost without them right now.

Read more: www.theguardian.com


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