"This is revengeful, hateful killing"

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
December 21, 2015 08:00 AM

The residents of rural Courtland, Mississippi, were horrified when hometown teenager Jessica Chambers was murdered – set on fire in her car on the side of the road on Dec. 6, 2014.

After a passing motorist alerted 911, first responders fought to save the 19-year-old’s life, but couldn’t.

“They told us she was like the walking dead,” says Jessica’s mother, Lisa. Asks her father, Ben, “What could a [small] 19-year-old girl do to make you burn somebody alive? This is beyond murder. This is revengeful, hateful killing.”

Authorities investigating the case have agreed with Jessica’s family, calling the attack on Jessica “very, very personal.”

“Someone meant to cause her great pain,” says District Attorney John Champion.

But Champion says the Dec. 15 arrests of 17 suspected area gang members on gun and drug charges that came about because of the investigation into Jessica’s death may bring authorities “closer to the truth” about her shocking murder.

“I don’t anticipate any of these [arrests] being directly tied to the Chambers case,” Champion says. “But in their plea negotiations, all will be given the opportunity to help themselves – and maybe that will bring us closer to the truth.”

For more on the mysterious case of Jessica Chambers, including a timeline of her last day and new information from police, pick up this week’s copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Wednesday.

Jessica’s case frightened everyone in her tiny town of just 500 residents and made neighbors and friends suspicious of one another – and frightened. A reward of $54,000 has been offered to anyone for information that leads to an arrest in the case and more than 155,000 Facebook users have “liked” the Justice for Jessica page.

“When you have a homicide in a small community, we generally quickly have an idea who did it,” Champion says.

As the investigation continues, he says that authorities have meticulously traced Jessica’s last day, including the hour between her leaving town and being found near her burning car.

“That hour holds the key to solving our case,” he says. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

With reporting by ALEXANDRA ROCKEY FLEMING and CHRISTINE PELISEK

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