Emily Wagster Pettus and Rebecca Santana
DURANT, MISS.: A man suspected in the slayings of two nuns found dead in their Mississippi home confessed to the killings, a sheriff said Saturday, in the latest twist to a crime that has horrified people in the small communities where the women served.
Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Miss., was arrested and charged in the deaths of Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill, Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain said late Friday. Both women were 68.
Willie March, the sheriff of Holmes County where the killings occurred, said Saturday he had been briefed by police from the town where the killings occurred and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation officials who took part in Sanders’ interrogation.
Sanders confessed in the interrogation to the killings and gave no reason for the crimes, March said.
The sheriff said police work and tips from the community led police to Sanders, and the investigation is ongoing.
Durant police could not be reached for comment. Strain, whose department includes the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, said the organization would neither confirm nor deny that Sanders confessed.
Sanders was convicted last year of a felony DUI, said Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections. He was later released from prison and is currently on probation.
Sanders was also convicted of armed robbery in Holmes County, sentenced in 1986 and served six years, Fisher said.
People who knew the nuns, known for their generosity and commitment to improving health care for the poor, have been grappling with why anyone would want to kill them.
Dr. Elias Abboud, the physician who oversees the clinic in Lexington where the nuns worked, said Saturday that Sanders was not a patient there.
The Rev. Greg Plata, sacramental minister at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington where the women led Bible study for years, said Saturday he does not think people at the church knew Sanders.
The women’s bodies were discovered Thursday after they failed to show up for work in Lexington, about 10 miles from where they lived.
The sheriff said they had been stabbed.
“Sanders was developed as a person of interest early on in the investigation,” Lt. Colonel Jimmy Jordan said in the statement.
Authorities said Sanders was being held in an undisclosed detention center pending a court appearance. They have not given any details on why they think Sanders killed the women or whether he knew them.
Authorities do not anticipate making any other arrests. Strain said “investigators believe Sanders acted alone.”
Merrill’s nephew, David Merrill, speaking by telephone from Stoneham, Mass., said Saturday the family was “thankful” Sanders is off the streets.
In the poverty-stricken Mississippi county where the two nuns were slain, many people were still mourning their loss.
Jonell Payton, a Durant alderwoman, lives across the street and a few doors down from Held and Merrill’s house. She said the nuns were “the most precious two people” and were known for helping provide medicine for those who couldn’t afford it.