Murder of Leesa Gray still haunts childhood friend 22 years later as killer's execution nears. Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Darracott

Lisa Darracott recently found her 2000 yearbook from her junior year at Itawamba Agricultural High School with an entire page reserved for her best friend since kindergarten, Leesa Gray. 

In half a page of writing, Gray thanked Darracott for being a great friend who supported her and made her laugh, but Gray didn’t get the opportunity to finish the message. 

The final bell let students out for the summer. Weeks later in June, members of the Dorsey community and students learned that Gray was murdered. 

“For those of us who were around when it happened, it still feels like it just happened,” Darracott said. “It doesn’t feel like 22 years.”

On Wednesday, Darracott will travel to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman for the lethal injection execution of Gray’s killer, Thomas Loden Jr., who received the death sentence for Gray’s rape and murder. 

Family members, including Gray’s mother Wanda Farris, are expected to witness the execution. 

Darracott remembers Gray as a friendly person with a nice smile who liked to do makeup and style hair. They could look at each other and know what was on each other’s mind, she said. 

Gray finished the school year as junior class vice president and had just left work at her family’s eatery, Comer’s Restaurant, when Loden abducted her. 

She was a member of groups that reflected many interests: chorus, juniorettes and Future Educators of America, according to her obituary. Gray explored a future in business as a member of Future Business Leaders of America and secretary of DECA, the competitive student entrepreneurship organization. 

“She was a sweet Christian girl, loved the Lord, had a lot of life ahead of her,” Wanda Farris told the Associated Press last month. 

Gray left behind her mother, stepfather Mike Farris, father John Gray and younger brother James Farris. Mississippi Today reached out to several family members, but they were not available for comment. 

The Dorsey community was left reeling after Gray’s death on June 23, 2000, the Daily Journal reported at the time. A day earlier when she went missing after work, her family, community and law enforcement launched a search before finding her body in Loden’s van. 

Loden, a gunnery sergeant and Marine Corps recruiter, was arrested and pleaded guilty.

Over 1,000 people attended Gray’s funeral services at her high school. 

The senior class of 2001 and senior youth group at her church, Bethel Baptist Church, were honorary pallbearers. 

Finishing high school without her was hard, Darracott said, and Gray’s absence was felt at milestones like prom and graduation. 

When Darracott married, she pictured Gray there as her maid of honor. If Gray were still alive, Darracott wondered what kind of career her friend would have, the person she would marry and whether she would have children of her own. 

“There was always a hole where she should have been,” Darracott said. 

Lees Gray’s handwriting and words are etched into a bracelet her friend Lisa Darracott had made. Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Darracott

Over the years, Gray’s family, friends and community members have kept up with developments in Loden’s case, which has included state and federal appeals over the last two decades. 

Last month, Farris and several friends traveled to Jackson for a hearing before U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate, who is hearing a case challenging Mississippi’s use of a three-drug mix for lethal injection. 

Loden joined that case and the judge considered whether to grant Loden a stay until it was decided, but Wingate ultimately denied that request, a week before the scheduled execution. 

“I forgave him a long time ago,”  Farris told the news outlets last week. “You need to forgive to move on. You can’t keep all that bitterness inside.”

A prayer vigil is scheduled for Wednesday, 5 p.m. the day of the execution, at Bethel Baptist Church in Fulton. People are asked to wear purple to show support for Gray. 

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.