After authorities found 19-year-old Jessica Chambers burning alive nearly three years ago on a back-road in Courtland, Mississippi, she told them she’d been set on fire by someone named “Eric” or “Derek” — or, at least, that’s what it sounded like she said.
Chambers’ statement, made only hours before she died of her injuries in the hospital early the next morning, was the subject of debate in the opening of the murder trial for her accused killer, Quinton Tellis, according to multiple news reports.
DeSoto County, Mississippi, District Attorney John Champion contended in his opening remarks, on Tuesday, that Chambers could have been trying to say Tellis’ name, but her mouth and throat were too damaged by burns, the Associated Press and Fox News report.
What’s more, according to the prosecution’s case, phone records allegedly show Chambers and Tellis, 29, were together on Dec. 6, 2014, the day she died, the Commercial Appeal reports.
PEOPLE previously reported that, according to a source on the scene after Chambers was found, she whispered either “Eric” or “Derek” — information that prosecutors said at the time they could not confirm.
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Chambers’ friend Kesha Myers, one of five witnesses who testified on Tuesday after the opening statements, said she was with Chambers and Tellis earlier that December day, according to the Appeal.
Chambers’ mother, Lisa Chambers, also testified Tuesday and said she talked to her daughter by phone at 6:48 p.m. — a little more than an hour before Jessica was found, the Appeal reports.
Lisa said she believes “somebody was with” her daughter during their phone conversation, according to local TV station WMC.
The prosecution reportedly argued that Tellis — previously described as a “habitual” criminal offender — tried to suffocate Jessica after the two had sex in her car that night.
Thinking he succeeded, Tellis then doused Jessica’s car with gasoline and set both it and her on fire, the district attorney alleged. The pair had met only weeks before.
Jessica was found walking near her vehicle just after 8 p.m., Champion said. She had burns over 98 percent of her body.
Champion said her car keys were found at the scene, allegedly with Tellis’ DNA on them.
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“When we start showing you the number of lies that he told and how he had to when he’s confronted with the physical evidence and the cell phone data, there was no way out for him,” Champion said of Tellis, according to station WATN. “None whatsoever.”
In her own opening statements, however, Tellis’ defense attorney Darla Palmer said he could not have been the person responsible because he was at a store purchasing a pre-paid debit card at the time of the attack, according to Fox News.
Palmer also stressed the apparent discrepancy of Jessica’s description of her killer.
“She said, ‘Eric set me on fire,’ ” Palmer argued in court. “She didn’t say any other name, she didn’t mention any other person. She said ‘Eric did this to me.’ … She didn’t know the person’s last name. She knew Quinton. Quinton Tellis is his name.”
“He insisted this is not something he would do,” Palmer said.
‘Help Me, Help Me, Help Me’
Among Tuesday’s five witnesses was Cole Haley, a former volunteer fire chief and one of the first responders who found Jessica burning. At times tearful, Haley described the teen’s condition, the Appeal reports.
“When I got there, Jessica came towards me saying, ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ ” he recalled, according to WMC. “Her hair was fried like she had stuck her finger in a socket. Her face was black, and she was burned all down her body.”
“There appeared to be a zombie coming out of the woods,” Jody Morris, a volunteer firefighter, also reportedly testified. “I know that sounds harsh, but that’s what it looked like. Her hair was completely singed.”
“I laid her down on the ground and she reached out for my hand,” Haley said. “I held her hand.”
Tellis was indicted in Chambers’ death in February 2016. His murder trial is expected to last up to two weeks, according to the Appeal. Prosecutors have reportedly said they will call approximately 35-40 witnesses.
If convicted, Tellis faces life in prison without parole.
In an unrelated case, he has been indicted for murder in the death of Meing-Chen Hsiao, a 34-year-old Taiwanese graduate student in Louisiana.
It was not immediately clear Wednesday if Tellis had pleaded in Hsiao’s death. A trial date in Louisiana is pending the outcome of his trial in Mississippi.