For 14 months, as rumors swirled around the burning death of Jessica Chambers, the mystery of who killed the 19-year-old Mississippi native went unsolved.
In court on Tuesday, during the first day of testimony in the retrial of her accused killer, jurors heard that Chambers was still alive when first responders reached her on the night of Dec. 6, 2014.
The former small-town high school cheerleader and her vehicle, a Kia Rio, had been splashed with fuel and set on fire on a rural roadside in Courtland. Burns covered 98 percent of her body. A passing motorist had called 911, drawing volunteer firefighters to the still-smoldering scene.
“Help me,” Jessica said quietly to rescuer Cole Haley, according to his testimony, reports Memphis TV station WREG. “I sat there and held her hand. That’s all I could do. I said, ‘Sweetheart, it’s going to be okay,’ and she said, ‘I’m going to die.’ “
Airlifted to a Memphis hospital 60 miles away, Jessica died hours later.
Prosecutors who are trying the case in Batesville allege she was set on fire by an acquaintance, Quinton Tellis. When he was publicly named as a murder suspect in early 2015, Tellis was already in jail in neighboring Louisiana after allegedly using the stolen credit card of a different murder victim, Meing-Chen Hsiao.
He later was charged in her murder, to which he has pleaded not guilty.
This week’s trial is the second effort by prosecutors to convict the 29-year-old Tellis of Chambers’ killing. A first attempt last fall ended in a mistrial when jurors failed to reach a unanimous verdict. He has pleaded not guilty.
Chambers’ family has long been waiting for answers, but her mother, Lisa Daugherty, tells PEOPLE that she’s “never lost hope.”
“I use my faith in God,” she says. “He gives me hope that there will be justice for Jessica. We will find out who did it.”
Authorities initially had few clues in the case and took months to find and then build a case against the suspect.
The most persistent whisper after Chambers’ death alleged that it was gang-related. While earning As and Bs in high school, Chambers built friendships across all spectrums in the tiny town, population 500.
More than a few observers interpreted some of those relationships to be trouble. A former boyfriend, Travis Sanford, was in prison on a burglary charge at the time of her murder.
Chambers’ father, has said that she shared concerns with him that some in her circle suspected she was “snitching” on them because her dad was a mechanic for the sheriff’s office.
“Nobody ever claimed she was a saint,” says Chambers’ mother. “She never treated anybody different. It didn’t matter what you’d done, because she wasn’t a judgmental person. Everybody deserved a fair chance even after they’d done their time, and she believed that.”
In the early stages, investigators with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the Panola County Sheriff’s Office questioned several possible witnesses, reviewed Chambers’ cell phone data for clues and scoured a piece of video footage that showed her outside an M&M mini-mart 90 minutes before first responders discovered her on fire about one mile from the gas station.
The grainy footage showed Chambers waving before she walked over to speak with someone. The surveillance camera also picked up a man in a striped shirt filling up a gas can before walking in the same direction as the teen. Soon afterwards, Chambers was seen returning to her car and driving off.
As fear and suspicion grew, the investigation eventually led authorities a year later to arrest 17 suspected area gang members on gun and drug charges.
However, District Attorney John Champion told PEOPLE in 2015, “I don’t anticipate any of these [arrests] being directly tied to the Chambers case. But in their plea negotiations, all will be given the opportunity to help themselves — and maybe that will bring us closer to the truth.”
Whatever that truth was, Champion had no doubt the attack was “very, very personal. Someone meant to cause her great pain.”
In February 2016, the district attorney announced the indictment of Tellis, whom he identified as a gang member and “habitual offender.”
Champion said authorities focused on Tellis after verifying information on the location of his phone.
“We knew he was the last person she was with,” he told PEOPLE at the time. Tellis and the victim “knew each other,” he told reporters. “They’re from the Courtland area. They had been introduced by a friend.”
The timeline authorities constructed showed that Chambers had been home just before 5 p.m. on the day of her attack, napping in a chair in her living room after watching CSI with her mother. After answering a call on her cell phone, she left in her car and reached the M&M mini-mart at 5:15 p.m., where she bought $14 in gas.
Around 5:45 p.m. she called her mom to say she’d be back “in a little bit” and then stopped by another Courtland home.
Cell phone records then placed her for 10-15 minutes in the area of a stoplight on Highway 6, headed toward Batesville. The subsequent 62 minutes — between 6:30 p.m. and 7:32 p.m., also known as the “mystery hour” — took time to untangle. when Jessica’s phone showed she reached the Herron Road location where her burning vehicle was spotted.
The prosecution eventually alleged that phone records placed Chambers and Tellis together before she died and said Tellis admitted to police that they were together that day. They also alleged they had evidence of his DNA on Chambers’ car keys.
In advancing a motive, authorities said recovered text messages between the two showed that Chambers had rejected Tellis’ requests for sex four times, reported TV station WMC.
During Tellis’ first murder trial, Champion argued that he and Chambers eventually had sex the night she was attacked, after which Tellis tried to suffocate her before setting her and her vehicle on fire, believing she was already dead.
At Tellis’ first trial, Palmer said he was at the store at the time of Chambers’ attack, though prosecutors contended that is where he went after setting Chambers on fire in order to give himself a false alibi, according to the Clarion-Ledger.
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Another allegation also was prominent — and seized upon by the defense: First responders at that trial testified they’d heard Chambers say a name that sounded like “Eric” or “Derek,” possibly identifying her attacker.
Authorities said they’d considered and pursued that lead prior to charging Tellis. But his defense attorney, Darla Palmer, argued that since Tellis did not go by that name, he could not be the person Chambers might have identified.
It remains a divisive — and potentially critical — link in the case going forward. Leading up to the second trial, Circuit Judge Gerald Chatham cleared Champion of misconduct after he was accused by Palmer of coaching a potential witness to say that Chambers called Tellis by that name, according to the Commercial Appeal. Palmer has appealed the judge’s decision.
In court on Tuesday, one of the first witnesses for the prosecution was Carolyn Higdon, a speech pathology expert, who said that injuries to Chambers’ mouth and larynx, as shown in an autopsy, would have restricted her ability to articulate words, WREG reports.
Asked specifically if Chambers would have been able to enunciate “Eric” or “Derek,” Higdon said no.
Chambers’ mother believes her daughter may have been trying to tell first responders something else, after possibly awaking from unconsciousness to find herself on fire and not knowing what happened.
“What if she thought she had a ‘wreck’?” Daugherty tells PEOPLE. “The medical examiner claimed she could not have enunciated anything. There’s no way she made the statement ‘Eric’ did this to me. She was unable to. … How was she supposed to know right then and there that somebody actually did it?”
Who did has not yet been determined. Tellis’ retrial is expected to last a week.