Mississippi’s history of lynchings haunts grieving mother

A 21-year-old Black man was found hanging from a tree in 2018. It was ruled a suicide, but his family says he was lynched.
Tammy Townsend believes her son, Willie Andrew Jones Jr., was lynched in Scott County, Miss., in 2018. (Camille Lenain/for The Washington Post)

JACKSON, Miss. — Around midnight on Feb. 8, 2018, a 21-year-old Black man was found hanging from a pecan tree in the front yard of his White girlfriend’s home on a dirt road in Scott County, Miss.

Willie Andrew Jones Jr. was dangling from a twisted, yellow nylon rope attached to a low tree branch. He was wearing a gray hoodie, flip flops and blue “Super Mario” pajama pants. His right shoulder, which had been disabled by a high school football injury, had popped out of the socket, according to court records.

The belt wrapped around his neck belonged to a teenager who lived at the home. The tree where Jones was found was about 15 yards from the white clapboard, one-level house.

The 10 adults who were inside the house that night told inconsistent stories of what happened before and after Jones was found hanging, according to police statements and court records. Documents show that 40 minutes after Scott County Sheriff’s Department investigators arrived at the house, they declared Jones’s death a suicide.

But Jones’s mother, Tammy Townsend, 45, disputes the department’s quick conclusion. She believes her son was lynched.

The stories didn’t add up, she said. Jones and his girlfriend, Alexis Leann Rankin, had a 4-month-old boy, who was inside the house that night. Minutes before Jones was found, he had argued with his girlfriend and her White stepfather, who disapproved of interracial relationships and had threatened him with a gun, according to court records.

Townsend explained that her son, who was right-handed, had an old football injury that prevented him from lifting his right arm above his head. That injury, she said, would have made it impossible for him to hang himself. A few days after the death, a witness said that while Jones and Rankin were arguing, her stepfather had gotten a gun and threatened Jones. The witness said Rankin’s mother made the stepfather put the gun away, but that he had followed Jones outside. and closed the door.

“My son was lynched,” said Townsend, who lives in Scott County.

‘There didn’t appear to be any other evidence’

Mississippi is a state haunted by its history of lynchings and racially motivated killings. Jones’s death occurred 55 miles from Jackson, where civil rights leader Medgar Evers was killed in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1955, Chicago teenager Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was kidnapped by White men after they accused him of whistling at a White woman. Till, 14, was tortured, then shot. His body was wrapped in barbed wire, attached to a 75-pound gin fan and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. His death brought national attention to racial violence and injustice and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Since 2000, according to police records, at least eight Black men have been found hanging from trees in Mississippi — plus Craig Anderson, who was fatally beaten in a racial terrorist attack that a federal judge called a lynching. Although authorities have ruled the deaths suicides, many relatives believe their family members were slain.

“What most people don’t know is it’s still going on,” Townsend said. “I’ve heard of other lynchings in Mississippi. You hear stuff on the news. … But I never put in my head what’s going on, until it happened to my son.”

Scott County sheriff’s investigators arrived at the house in Lake, Miss., minutes after Harold O’Bryant, the stepfather of Jones’s girlfriend, called 911, according to court records. Investigators searched the scene and took photos of Jones’s body hanging from the low branch of that pecan tree.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Scott County Sheriff Mike Lee said Jones’s death was thoroughly investigated.

“We were called by Mr. O’Bryant, first name Harold,” Lee said. “When the officer arrived, they found Mr. Jones hanging by what appeared to be a belt fastened to a tree.”

Lee said officers took statements from the adults in the house — the girlfriend, her stepfather, mother, brother, uncle and a friend. They told police, Lee said, that Jones stated "he was going to go outside and hang himself.' I don’t think anybody took him at his word until they actually came out and the father saw what had happened.”

Lee said the case was ruled a suicide. “There were no signs to where the body was in a struggle on the ground. There would have been a kind of fight to put the young man there,” Lee said.

Jones’s feet were still on the ground when police arrived. “All he had to do to not hang himself was to stand back up,” Lee said. “That is how we see most suicides by hanging. It’s not like people jump off a chair. … There was no chair out there.”

When Jones’s family insisted that the hanging could have been racially motivated, Lee said, the sheriff’s department called the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.

The MBI joined the sheriff’s investigation eight days after Jones’s death. MBI Commissioner Sean Tindel told The Post, “There didn’t appear to be any other evidence that anybody else had done it.”

Tindel added, “It was a combination of physical evidence, statements from witnesses there and the timeline of events that ultimately led to the conclusion.”

Lee said investigators also decided “there was nothing that could be found that was racially motivated. Especially looking at the house. Blacks and Whites were living together in the house.”

The FBI and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation both concluded Jones’s death was a suicide, Lee said.

“We don’t want someone to think we are trying to hide something,” Lee said. “If someone was murdered, we would have gone out of our way to find out what happened.“

The autopsy report for Willie Andrew Jones Jr. by the Mississippi State Medical Examiner's Office. (The Washington Post)

An autopsy report from the Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s Office, dated Feb. 9, 2018, showed the cause of death to be “Ligature strangulation. Manner of death: Undetermined.” Lee said he could not explain why the autopsy report listed the manner of death as undetermined.

When asked by a reporter whether the Justice Department or FBI was investigating the death of Jones and at least seven other Black men found hanging in Mississippi since 2000, a Justice Department spokesperson responded: “We were aware of all the matters and reviewed them all. We have no further comment.”

Jones’s family said the evidence the MBI and Scott County’s Sheriff’s Department compiled contains contradictions. Jill Collen Jefferson, a civil rights lawyer, found evidence in her investigation that authorities had overlooked.

“In the MBI file, we see grass in Willie’s hair,” said Jefferson, founder of Julian, a civil rights organization named after the late civil rights leader Julian Bond. “Willie’s mother told me there was grass in Willie’s wallet when she received it from authorities.”

If Jones hung himself, Jefferson asked, “how did he get grass in his hair? How was there grass in his wallet? How was his shoulder dislocated? You could see his shoulder had popped out of place in the photographs. It’s almost like they didn’t examine their own evidence. “That is evidence they had, because we got it from them.”

Jefferson compared witness statements with police reports. “If things had played out like Mike Lee said, why would his head have ever been on the ground?”

During her investigation, Jefferson drove the back roads of Mississippi, asking questions of neighbors who heard through “paper-thin walls” the argument that night. Investigating the case with co-counsels, Kendall Enyard and Thomas Bellinder, the lawyers kept detailed notes.

Jefferson measured the tree where Jones was found. The MBI file notes the branch where Jones hung was seven feet high, according to court records.

“But it’s not,” Jefferson said. “It’s 7.5 to 9 feet. … Willie was 5′8, with an arm injury. How could he have placed the rope around the branch and reached up to tie the knots?”

The pecan tree where Willie Andrew Jones Jr was found hanging on Feb. 8, 2018, in Scott County, Mississippi. (Camille Lenain/for The Washington Post)

In December 2020, Jones’s family filed a lawsuit in Hinds County Circuit Court against O’Bryant. “There was little to no evidence of Mr. Jones committing suicide,” the lawsuit argued, “but there is significant and substantial evidence that Mr. O’Bryant was engaged in negligent or wrongful conduct that caused or contributed to Mr. Jones’s death.”

In the lawsuit, the family argued that police ignored statements from the friend of Jones’s girlfriend, who was a witness in the house that night, who said that minutes before Jones was found hanging, “O’Bryant pulled out a gun with the intent to harm Mr. Jones.”

O’Bryant, who now lives in Jackson, Miss., failed to respond to the lawsuit and on March 9 a judge ruled against O’Bryant. Jones’s family and heirs won the judgment by default because O’Bryant failed to show up in court.

On April 15, the court awarded Jones’s family $11 million in damages. They have received nothing. In July, O’Bryant failed to show for a deposition to determine his assets.

‘I don’t know what to do’

Three years before the lawsuit was filed, on Feb. 12, 2018, in a “voluntary statement” to the Scott County Sheriff’s Department, O’Bryant wrote out his defense.

“I was building a shead [sic] with my brother in law Randy at our house [.] went inside the house. Was in the Living room in my chear [sic] when my daughter Alexis, Shay, and Willy got there my daughter Alexis and Willy went in one of the back bedrooms when they came in.”

O’Bryant wrote that someone told him they were fighting. “Me and Alexis mom went to the back of the house to see what was going on,” O’Bryant wrote. “There were not fighting they were arguing over a phone that belong to Alexis and Willy had it.”

O’Bryant claimed that he and Melissa Rankin, Alexis’s mother, told Jones to give the girl her phone back. “He gave her the phone back went through the house mumbling to his self and out the front door,” O’Bryant wrote.

O’Bryant followed Jones outside. “I figured that Willy would come back in a few minuts [sic]. Willy and Alexis has had augured [sic] before in the past and he would go outside and come back in after a little bit.”

When Jones did not come back inside, O’Bryant wrote, “After a few minuts [sic] I walked out on the pourch [sic] to see where he was did not see him right off after looking for him. I seen him in the tree.”

O’Bryant went back in the house and called 911, according to his statement to police.

Harold O'Bryant's witness statement to the Scott County Sheriff's Department on Feb. 9, 2018. (The Washington Post)

In a recording of the 911 call, O’Bryant is heard saying: “I need ya’ll to send somebody out here right now. There has been an argument between my stepdaughter and her boyfriend. And he had hung hisself in a tree.”

He pauses. “

“Oh God,” the Scott County dispatcher responds.

“I don’t know whether I need to cut it down and give it CPR,” O’Bryant says, referring to Jones as “it.” “I don’t want to touch it because I don’t want to be in this stuff.”

The dispatcher can be heard asking a question of someone offline: “I can’t give him medical advice?”

She returns to the line: “No, you just leave him alone until they get there. How old is he?”

“He ain’t that old. He’s dead. He’s dead. I just walked up and touched him. He’s dead.”

The dispatcher asks: “How long has he been out there, baby?”

“Ma’am," O’Bryant answers, "a good 20, 30 minutes or so.”

The 911 call fades as the dispatcher calls for help.

In a statement to Scott County sheriff’s investigators, Jones’s girlfriend, Alexis Leann Rankin, described the fight they had that night.

“He starts to go thur [sic] my phone and seen where I was texting somebody else I then ask for my phone back N he said nawl You not getting it back so I keep driving N he said who is this n----- you texting. I said somebody I talk to he said nawl you aint talking to nobody else you don’t have no choice but to be with me I told him to give me my phone so I can call you moma to come get you he said no.”

Rankin said Jones then “reaches up and hits me N the head and grabs the wheel and makes us go to the left side of the road then I stop N put the car N park and get out and try to get away but he chase me and started grabbing me and telling me he loves me and I cant be with nobody else that he wanted his family back.”

Alexis Leann Rankin's statement to Scott County sheriff’s investigators. (The Washington Post)

Rankin wrote that when they finally arrived at her home, she got out of the car and ran into the house.

“I got to my oldest brother and start to cry to him he then comes in grabs me and trys to take me to my room my gradma [sic] said put her down she don’t wanna be bother so I go in another room crying N he said I done messed up yall and walks out and after that I don’t know what happen until my step daddy come back and told my moma to give him his phone I kept trying to go outside N they woudn’t let me they made me stay inside till the police got there.”

According to court records, on Feb. 4, 2018, four days before Jones was found hanging, O’Bryant threatened Jones after he and Rankin argued at her job at the Burger King in Lake, Miss.

After Jones left the restaurant that day, O’Bryant came in. According to court records, employees who were later interviewed by the MBI recalled O’Bryant telling Rankin: “ ‘If this happen [sic] again, you know what I told you I’m gone do to that nappy-headed thug.’ ”

O’Bryant later told MBI investigators that he “never had a problem with Willie,” explaining, “she’s had a couple different boyfriends — all of ‘em colored. … I ain’t never had no problem with none of ‘em except one of the guys my real daughter dates,” according to court documents.

In 2019, O’Bryant told a reporter at the de Volkskrant newspaper, that he did not approve of interracial dating.

“I think what actually caused the racist situation with me is when we moved out there and the kids started seeing the black folks and they started dating, I was against it,” O’Bryant said, according to court records. “Not because I’m racist but because it ain’t right in God’s eyes. It ain’t right. There aren’t red birds and blue birds f----ing out there.”

Two years before Jones’s death, according to the lawsuit, O’Bryant threatened another Black man that Rankin dated. In 2016, O’Bryant allegedly tried to kill Rasheen Lee, who is the father of Rankin’s first child.

“Harold called him ‘n-----,’ “ according to the lawsuit, “busted a beer bottle, and gripped the bottle’s neck to use its jagged edge as a weapon.”

Rankin’s mother, Melissa Rankin, tried to calm O’Bryant down. Lee “ran half a mile to Green Grove Church and hid as Harold searched for him. Deputies arrested Harold and took him to jail. That same day, Lee packed up and moved out,” according to court records.

“When he heard about Willie’s death," according to court records, "he thought, ‘That could’ve been me.’ Then, he cried.”

Jefferson said Lee told her that authorities never spoke with him about O’Bryant.

On June 2, Jefferson filed a motion requesting that a judge charge O’Bryant with second-degree murder, manslaughter and providing false information to an officer in connection with Jones’s death.

The motion explained that it was implausible that Jones committed suicide within six minutes after arriving at the house that night.

A time-stamped video from a surveillance camera attached to a neighbor’s house shows Jones exiting the car and going into the house six minutes before O’Bryant called 911.

Jones’s family also argued that he “had no history of self-harm. He had also made plans with his mother for the following day. Further, Mr. Jones and Ms. Rankin had a newborn child.”

Although O’Bryant failed to appear for the hearing regarding the lawsuit, he did appear on July 12 in Hinds County Circuit Court for a “debtors hearing" to determine how much he could afford to pay in damages to Jones’s family.

O’Bryant told Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Winston L. Kidd that he had not received notice of the lawsuit — a claim Jones’s lawyer’s disputed.

Leaning on a podium in the middle of a courtroom, O’Bryant told Kidd he did not kill Jones.

“All this is lies,” O’Bryant said.

O’Bryant told the court, “The argument in the house, that was a verbal argument. I didn’t touch him. I’m so tired of being called a racist. And look, they got me down for murder I didn’t do.”

Jefferson rebutted O’Bryant’s claims of innocence in a detailed recounting of evidence collected in the investigation, including new statements collected from witnesses.

“The court has the authority to issue an arrest warrant for the crime that occurred in Hinds County,” Jefferson told the judge. “We ask the court to appoint a special prosecutor.”

As Jones’s family looked on from the first row in the courtroom, O’Bryant again tried to plead his case. "Scott County investigated,” he said. “The Mississippi Bureau investigated. It went all the way to the FBI. If they didn’t charge me with anything, why are these folks trying to do me wrong?”

The judge explained that the lawsuit was a civil matter, not a criminal one. “They are two different things," Kidd said. "Do you understand the difference? I’ve not ruled on their motion for prosecution by affidavit.”

The judge concluded the hearing, saying he would consider the motion.

O’Bryant and Melissa Rankin raced from the courtroom.

Jill Collen Jefferson, a civil rights lawyer who took the case for the family pro bono, said her investigation found evidence authorities had overlooked. (Camille Lenain/for The Washington Post)

‘Come get your son’

On the night Willie Jones Jr. was found hanging from a tree, his mother received a frantic call.

“At 10:44 p.m., her phone rang,” Jefferson wrote in her notes. “I have phone records from the night of February 8, 2018, which show that Ms. Townsend, Willie’s mother, received this call from Melissa, the mother of her son’s girlfriend at 10:45:07 p.m. I wrote 10:44 because that is when Ms. Townsend first saw the call. When she answered seconds later, it was 10:45.”

The woman on the end of the line screamed, “Come get your son!”

Townsend hurriedly dressed, climbed in her car and sped to pick up her son from his girlfriend’s house. It would have been about a 35-minute drive, mostly back roads, passing cow pastures and mobile homes. At night, the back roads through this part of Mississippi are dark and narrow. Some houses display Confederate flags.

Four minutes later, at 10:48 p.m., Townsend called the girlfriend’s phone to see what was going on. Someone answered and yelled, “He hung hisself! He’s dead!” according to court records.

Upon hearing that her son was dead, Townsend crashed in a ditch.

In shock, Townsend got out of the car and started running the miles toward the girlfriend’s house. “The person who is with her gets the car out of the ditch, catches up with her and gets her back in the car,” Jefferson said.

They drove 25 more minutes.

When Townsend arrived at the O’Bryant home, the sheriff investigators were already there.

Forty minutes later, a sheriff’s department investigator walked up to Townsend and said, “It was suicide. It was nothing else,” Townsend recalled.

“How could he know so fast?” Townsend remembered thinking.

Jefferson said surveillance footage shows Jones, Rankin and a friend, Shaniya Pace, arriving at the house at 10:35 p.m.

“Pace gets out. The car starts again and stops seconds later. Rankin jumps out and runs in” the house, Jefferson said. “Willie parks and stays in the car. A surveillance camera shows he’s still near the car at 10:44 p.m.”

Six minutes later, at 10:50 p.m., O’Bryant called 911, according to court records.

“We’re dealing with a very small time frame — six minutes,” Jefferson said. “The time between Willie exiting the car and Harold calling 911. There were 11 people inside the house, including Rankin’s older brother, uncle and Harold. None of their stories add up.”

Jefferson said that six days after Jones’s death, Pace came forward with new information. “Inside the house, Willie’s argument with Rankin had continued,” said Jefferson, who found the details in a Scott County sheriff investigator’s report and interviews. “Harold went to his room and grabbed a gun. Rankin’s mother made him put it back. Willie walked outside. Harold walked out after him and closed the door.”

A neighbor near the house reported that she heard “a commotion” outside O’Bryant’s house that night. “Three male voices cursed and yelled, ‘bitch,’ ” according to court records.

“Then there was a loud noise, machine-like, that drowned the voice,” Jefferson said. “Her account contradicts every statement taken from individuals in Rankin’s house that night, except for Pace’s. Authorities have never questioned her.”

Rankin and Pace could not be reached for comment.

Tammy Townsend holds a photo of her and her son on a phone. (Camille Lenain/for The Washington Post)

One of the last photos of Jones shows him riding his horse.

“He loved horses and dogs,” his mother said. “He was always talking about working on a pipeline. That is what he wanted to do.”

“‘Why is that?’ I asked. He said, ‘Mama, I want to be able to take care of you.’ ”

Townsend remembers sitting at the table with her son hours before his death.

“He was happy. No worries like he always is, that big old smile on his face and making everybody laugh,” she said. “My mama thought he was the silliest clown ever.”

She remembers he started getting the baby’s stuff together. “Said he was getting ready to go.”

Townsend recalled that Rankin and her friend came by her house to pick him up.

The night keeps repeating itself, like it’s on rewind.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Townsend said. “Unbelievable, like a nightmare. The way I lost him. It’s like every day, every minute, every hour, I think about my baby.”

In the months after Jones’s death, Townsend called Rankin, who allowed her to see her grandson.

Once she filed the lawsuit, she said, Rankin would no longer allow her to see the baby. Townsend said she used to look at photos of the baby on Facebook. But, then the Facebook page was taken down.

“This is a pain I can’t describe,” Townsend said. “I think of him everyday.”

Townsend said she still has not heard from investigators.

“They threw him away like he was nothing,” she said. “Just completely treated my baby like he was nothing. He meant the world to me.”

Tammy Townsend said she was denied visits with her grandson after she filed a lawsuit. Mississippi. (Camille Lenain/for The Washington Post)
About this story

Editing by Victoria Benning. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Copy editing by Karen Funfgeld. Design by Betty Chavarria.

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