OXFORD — A Lafayette County Circuit Court judge on Tuesday found police had probable cause to arrest Sheldon Timothy Herrington Jr., a 22-year-old University of Mississippi graduate, for the murder of Jimmie “Jay” Lee. 

Judge Gray Tollison then denied bond to Herrington as Lee, a 20-year-old Black student who was well known in Oxford’s LGBTQ community, has been missing since July 8. 

As sheriff’s deputies led Herrington down the front steps of the courthouse and into a squad car, nearly a dozen protesters – many of them students who were friends with Lee – shouted in unison: “Where is Jay?” 

Lee was well-known on campus for his involvement in the LGBTQ community. Credit: Courtesy Oxford Police Department

Over the course of nearly six hours, the prosecution laid out a theory that Herrington and Lee had a casual relationship. Lafayette County Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Kilpatrick argued that following an argument in the morning of July 8, Herrington “lured” Lee to his apartment, strangled him, and then “staged a cover up” by driving Lee’s car to Molly Barr Trails and disposing his body somewhere in Lafayette or Grenada counties.

“In 2022 you do not need a body,” Kilpatrick said in her closing statement. “It’s not the 1870s.” 

The preliminary hearing occurred on Tuesday as part of the bond hearing because Herrington was entitled to hear the evidence that Oxford police used to obtain an arrest warrant. 

The prosecution argued that Herrington should be denied bond because his charge – first-degree murder – will likely be elevated to capital murder as police uncover more evidence; some of which is still being processed at a private crime lab. Kilpatrick also argued Herrington was a flight risk, noting that a forensic search of his MacBook showed he had searched for flights from Dallas to Singapore. 

Herrington’s defense attorney, state Rep. Kevin Horan, disputed that Herrington, who has $1,910 in his bank account, could afford to flee the state. In his closing statement, Horan said the prosecution’s case amounted to “suspicion, conjecture and speculation.” 

“We’re not supposed to be sensational in these cases – we’re supposed to come in and treat everyone the same … no matter how many cameras are up there or how many people are outside,” Horan said, gesturing to the windows of the second-floor courtroom. The protesters’ chants could be heard throughout the proceeding.

The hearing began with Kilpatrick calling Lee’s mother and Oxford Police Department Detective Ryan Baker to testify. 

Stephanie Lee recounted all the signs that led her to realize Jay was missing on July 8. The first sign, she said, came around 7 a.m. when Jay, who had texted her, “Mom, it’s your birthday,” did not respond to the smiley-face emoji she sent in reply.

Baker testified he arrested Herrington on July 22 based on the “totality of the evidence.” This included Snapchat messages, Google searches on Herrington’s computer, and DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department K-9s who he said identified the smell of a dead body in Herrington’s apartment, car and moving truck which belongs to his company, T&T Moving. Other evidence included video surveillance on July 8 of a man that Baker identified as Herrington running from Molly Barr Trail, where police believe he parked Lee’s car that morning, then retrieving a shovel and wheelbarrow from his parent’s house in Grenada.

The most damning evidence in Baker’s testimony was a Google search that Herrington made on July 8, minutes after Lee sent a Snapchat message saying he was coming over. At 5:56 a.m., Herrington searched, “how long does it take to strangle someone gabby petito.”

Gabby Petito was a 22-year-old who gained national attention last summer when she went missing; it was later determined she was killed by strangulation. 

After Baker read the Google search, multiple people gasped in the courtroom, prompting Kilpatrick to ask him to repeat the line. 

Baker then testified that 156 seconds later, Herrington made another Google search: “does pre-work boost testosterone.” Kilpatrick argued in her closing statement that Herrington “probably” took pre-work — a type of energy booster typically taken before exercise — prior to killing Lee. 

During Baker’s cross examination, Horan argued that the K-9 evidence – without accompanying DNA evidence or bodily fluids – is not admissible in court in Mississippi and that OPD could not prove the dogs utilized by DeSoto County had ever successfully identified the smell of a dead body. 

Horan then called four witnesses who testified, in an effort to obtain bail for Herrington, to his connections to the community in Grenada. Herrington’s mother, Tina Herrington, read several pages listing Herrington’s religious and academic accomplishments, including that Herrington was voted “most likely to be president” when he graduated high school in 2018. 

Emily Tindell, the principal of Grenada High School, testified that Herrington and his family have “the best of character in Grenada County.” 

During the hearing, Tayla Carey, Lee’s sister, sat in the front row next to her mother. The hearing was a “rollercoaster,” she said.

“I’m mad, I’m sad, I’m irritated,” she said. “I’m all over the place, honestly. I just want justice, I just want peace.” 

Spectators steadily left the courtroom as the hearing continued. Before the hearing started, dozens of people were protesting outside the courthouse, including LGBTQ rights activists fron across Mississippi. 

The next step in the case is the grand jury hearing; the date has not yet been set.

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Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today. She works in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on investigating higher education. Originally from Melbourne Beach, Florida, Molly reported on public housing and prosecutors in her home state and worked as a fact-checker at The Nation before joining Mississippi Today. Her story on Mississippi's only class on critical race theory was a finalist for the Education Writers Association National Awards for Education Reporting in 2023 in the feature reporting category.