OXFORD — Red and white posters pleading for help finding Jimmie “Jay” Lee – the University of Mississippi student who has been missing for 10 days – cover this small college town.
The posters, created by Lee’s family and local volunteers, are stapled to bulletins across the Square or taped inside bus stations on Jackson Avenue.
Some are tucked beneath the windshield wipers of cars parked at Campus Walk, the beige student housing complex where Lee, a 20-year-old Black student who is well-known in Oxford’s LGBTQ community, was last seen at 5:58 a.m. on Friday, July 8. He was wearing a silver robe or housecoat, a gold cap, and gray slippers.
From there, police think Lee may have driven to Molly Barr Trails, another student apartment complex where his car was taken by a towing company that Friday afternoon. Police found his car three days later at Bandit Towing’s impound lot.
As gaps in the timeline remain and several days have passed since authorities have offered new details about their search, questions are swirling in Oxford. The most recent update in the case came on Friday, July 15, from the Oxford Police Department, which is working on a joint investigation with the University of Mississippi Police Department. It was a short statement saying OPD had gotten reports that Bandit Towing had received “on-going harassment and threats due to towing” Lee’s car.
On Thursday, July 14, OPD said officers had conducted “numerous” interviews and are waiting for information to be returned from “around a dozen” search warrants it has “executed on both physical and digital entities.”
Meanwhile, Lee’s family, who have posted a $5,000 reward, are searching for their son. The family has canvassed Campus Walk, passed out fliers in Batesville and even gone out to Clear Creek Lake, a conservation area north of Oxford. On Friday, Tayla Carey, Lee’s sister, spent seven hours in the woods with his parents, walking on and off the paths and leaving posters at trail markers.
“We literally went on a full-on walk through the woods yelling, screaming his name,” Carey said.
Carey said her family is considering going to Molly Barr, where police walked dogs last week, to do their own search through the bushy, wooded area that surrounds the complex, because they know what to look for.
“I know what earrings he wears, what jewelry,” she said.
The last time the family heard from Lee was at 2 a.m. on July 8 when he texted his mom to wish her happy birthday. Carey said the family realized Lee was missing that Friday evening after he didn’t show up to a baby formula donation drive that he had organized as part of his internship with the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services in Lafayette County.
Lee was then reported missing to UMPD at 8:28 p.m., according to an incident report. The report, one sentence long, shows that officer John Boyd conducted a welfare check at Lee’s apartment that night but there was “negative contact.”
Sydney Hughes, a UM student who lives at Lee’s apartment complex, talked to a Mississippi Today reporter Sunday afternoon as she was letting her dog out. The weekend after Lee went missing, she said she was sitting on her balcony with her roommate when they saw four police cars drive through the parking lot in the span of 30 minutes. The next day, the university sent a campus-wide alert.
Hughes said she didn’t know Lee well but that she met him last fall in the Grove when he was campaigning to become homecoming king.
“He was just walking around campus handing out stickers and that’s when he introduced himself,” she said. “He was just cool, he was trying to get himself out there and get involved on campus.”
An open, confident person who often wore feminine clothes, Lee ran on a platform of promoting “self love and living your truth,” according to the Daily Mississippian. He wanted to push the university to be more diverse and inclusive – values he held deeply as a social work major. After he narrowly lost, Lee used his social media to call out the harassment he’d encountered on the campaign.
In an Instagram story titled “a message to UM,” Lee wrote, “black and especially queer people are often looked at to be the bigger person, ignore things, not speak out. ‘just ignore them(,)’ ‘be the biggest person(.)’ But it won’t be me. not Jay Lee.”
To members of the LGBTQ community in Oxford, even people who didn’t know Lee personally, his disappearance is terrifying. Lee, so bright and bubbly, seemed like the last person who could go missing.
“There was always a crowd when he was around, I’ve never seen him by himself,” said Cam Norwood, a bartender at the Blind Pig, a restaurant that has trivia hosted by a drag queen.
Carey said her family has received an outpouring of support from the Oxford community – several volunteers have passed out fliers and gone on searches with the family.
“That really means a lot to us, and that just – that shows us that it’s actually people out here that really care,” Carey said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a stranger or not, we all care about each other in some way, form or fashion. We all care about each other.”
As Lee’s family recuperated on Saturday from the search at Clear Creek Lake, his sister vowed to keep a positive attitude.
“I woke up and I told my mom, ‘Honestly this might all just be one big misunderstanding.’ I feel like Jay is gonna pop up out of nowhere and be like, I’m sorry,’” Carey said.
“I said, ‘Mama today, we are just going to do nothing but uplift Jay Lee and send out nothing but positive energy so he can come back home.’ And she said she really needed that.”