Murder of nuns shatters a small town’s innocence

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Held and Merrill's house in Durant. It has been cordoned off with police tape since police discovered their bodies last Thursday.

Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

The home were two nuns, Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill, lived in Durant. It has been cordoned off with police tape since police discovered their bodies last Thursday.

 

DURANT — Until last Thursday, it seemed like no one locked their doors in this sleepy town of 2,500 in Holmes County.

Even news of the murders of Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill broke quietly.

Neighbors report hearing no sirens or commotion, just two police cars rolling slowly down the street and, a few hours later, yellow police tape fencing off the yard where Sister Margaret spent every Saturday gardening.

On Monday, as the suspect, Robert Earl Sanders, was remanded without bail, signs of mourning dotted the community.

The Lexington Medical Clinic, where both women worked as nurse practitioners, has been closed since Friday. Two funeral sprays hung on its doors, and another small bouquet was tucked into the door handle.

Outside the women’s home, someone else had set up a makeshift memorial with flowers and candles.

Those closest to the nuns traveled on Monday to Jackson for their funerals.

And while many of those in town described the nuns as usually “keeping to themselves,” they also remained stunned that any crime, especially one so brutal, could happen to two people who had given so much to this community.

Bridget Hood and Charlie Bell, who work in the pharmacy at Fred's in Durant, said the nuns would often pay for prescriptions themselves when their patients couldn't afford them.

Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

Bridget Hood and Charlie Bell, who work in the pharmacy at Fred’s in Durant, said the nuns would often pay for prescriptions themselves when their patients couldn’t afford them.

“They were the nicest people, in one of the nicest parts of town,” said Bridget Hood, a pharmacy technician at Fred’s who had worked with both Sister Margaret and Sister Paula since she started the job fifteen years ago.

Hood and Charlie Bell, a pharmacist at Fred’s, said the nuns often helped their patients pay for the prescriptions they wrote for them. And if they couldn’t find a cheaper drug or negotiate a discount with a pharmacist, they’d often buy the prescription for the patients themselves.

“It’s a big loss for the community,” Hood said. “They helped a lot of people here. You know, this is a poor community.”

More than a third of residents here live below the poverty line. Many of the houses on Held and Merrill’s block, described by several here as one of the nicest in town, need a new coat of paint — if not a new roof. Around the corner on Jackson Street, a hand-written sign advertises a three-bedroom Victorian for $18,000 cash.

But it’s also a town where residents stop and wave at everyone, even people they don’t know. There is no local school bus because all students walk to class.

The last time anyone could remember an arrest for murder in Durant was more than a decade ago, and, according to Bell, “he wasn’t even from Durant. He was driving through.”

Sanders, the suspect, also is not from Durant. A resident of Kosciusko, neighbors say he was staying with friends who lived right across the street from Held and Merrill. Police have yet to name a motive, but many of the neighbors say Sanders stuck out on this quiet street.

Milton McGee lives two houses down and across the street from Merrill and Held. He said the nuns had treated his son, his wife and his mother. But Sanders, who he said arrived a couple of months ago, gave him a bad vibe instantly. He was one of the only adults who’d wander up and down the street in the middle of the day.

“Dude was a drunk,” McGee said. “I’m really the loudest guy on the street, and I keep quiet. I’ll play music from my car, but that’s it. But this dude was an a——. I’d see him passing through.”

A makeshift memorial for Held and Merrill outside their home.

Mississippi Today

A makeshift memorial for Held and Merrill outside their home.

Jason Davis and his fiance Kamesha Johnson, who live across the street from McGee, also said that Sanders seemed off.

“Who would do that? Just kill nuns and nice people,” Davis said.

“I think everyone feels a whole lot better now that they caught him … I don’t think nothing like this will ever happen again,” he said.

But Davis may be in the minority. Many others here, including his fiance Johnson, said that even with Sanders’s arrest, their faith in their town as a safe haven has been shaken.

“They helped people, and this is what happens to them. It makes you think,” Hood said. “I’m gonna tell you right now, next time someone’s standing out there on the side of the road and needs help, I’m gonna keep going.”