Expert: Gasoline found on clothes near teen burned alive

BATESVILLE, Miss. — Gasoline was detected on a piece of clothing found at the scene where a Mississippi woman was fatally burned, but other items submitted for testing didn’t have the ignitable liquid on them, a forensic analyst testified Friday.

Matthew Simon, an explosives and fire debris expert with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was called as a witness in the trial of Quinton Tellis. Tellis has pleaded not guilty to capital murder in the December 2014 death of 19-year-old Jessica Chambers.

Firefighters have testified they found Chambers, clad only in underwear and burned over 93 percent of her body, walking down a back road near her burning car in Courtland, Mississippi. Prosecutors say Tellis thought he suffocated Chambers during sex in her car, and then used gasoline to set her and the vehicle ablaze.

Chambers died at a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, about 50 miles north of Courtland.

District Attorney John Champion said Chambers suffered an agonizing death.



“Horrific burns, horrific pain,” Champion said in his opening statements Tuesday. “I would venture to guess if all of us sitting here were to know we’re going to die, that the very last way we would want to die would be by fire. But Jessica was set on fire.”

Testifying on the fourth day of the trial in Batesville, Simon said he tested a piece of clothing and debris from Chambers’ car, and both had gasoline on them. However, other items taken from the scene, including burned hair and a blanket used by firefighters to wrap Chambers did not have an ignitable liquid on them.

On Thursday, FBI agent Dustin Blount testified that Tellis told him he was miles away buying a prepaid debit card when Chambers was set on fire.

Blount said Tellis told him during an interview that he was returning to his Courtland home from buying the card in Batesville when he saw vehicles with emergency lights. He also said Tellis acknowledged having sex with Chambers once, but he didn’t mention an exact date.

Blount said a photo taken from a surveillance video from a Fred’s pharmacy shows Tellis, who had a dirt bike, buying a pre-paid debit card in Batesville, about 5 miles from the tree-lined road embankment where her car was found. The photo had a time stamp of 8:26 p.m.

But during questioning by defense attorney Alton Peterson, Blount acknowledged he did not try to confirm the time stamp was accurate.

Authorities say Chambers was found on the road by a passing motorist shortly after 8 p.m. Prosecutors contend Tellis, 29, has lied about his whereabouts that night. Blount said Tellis told him he found out about Chambers’ situation from someone at a convenience store just steps from his house.

Blount also said Tellis told him 11 days after Chambers was found burned that he erased all communications with her from his cellphone.

On Friday, jurors saw video recordings of Tellis’ November 2015 interview with investigators in which he was confronted with cell phone records and appeared to change his story about the last time he saw Chambers.

Tellis, who was friends with Chambers, could receive life in prison without parole if convicted of capital murder at trial in Batesville, about 50 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee.

Chambers’ words to first responders emerged as a key point of contention during opening statements this week. Before Chambers died about four hours later at the Memphis hospital where she had been airlifted, she tried to name her killer, Champion said. Multiple firefighters who tried to help the teen testified Chambers told them someone named “Eric” or “Derek” burned her.

Champion acknowledged Tuesday that that’s not the name of the man he’s prosecuting, but told jurors he believed evidence in the case would “change your mind.” 

But defense attorney Darla Palmer, who says Tellis is falsely accused, cautioned jurors against discounting the victim’s own words. Palmer said at least eight first responders heard Chambers say the name “Eric,” and also reported she said she didn’t know his last name.

“She knew Quinton,” Palmer said Tuesday. “She knew his name is Quinton Tellis. But she did not say that that day.”

Prosecutors say she could have been trying to say Tellis, but damage to her mouth and throat didn’t allow her to speak clearly.

On Thursday, prosecutors used witness testimony from a burn doctor and an investigator to help discredit the defense’s theory that the killer was named Eric or Derek. Dr. William Hickerson oversaw Chambers’ treatment at the hospital. He said she suffered so much damage to her mouth, throat and chest that she would have had trouble clearly saying words.

Under cross-examination by Palmer, Hickerson acknowledged that Chambers’ injuries could have worsened from the time she spoke with firefighters to when she arrived at the hospital two hours after she was found. Hickerson also acknowledged he was not at the scene and didn’t hear Chambers speak there.

Maj. Barry Thompson of the Panola County Sheriff’s Department testified investigators interviewed about 15 people named Eric or Derek and none were identified as suspects. Tim Douglas with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation testified Friday that detectives pulled Chambers’ phone records and asked for a list of everyone named Eric or Derek in Panola County, reports CBS affiliate WREG.

He testified all those individuals were “100 percent eliminated.”

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