Thomas Loden, convicted of rape and murder,was executed Dec. 14, 2022. Credit: MDOC

Editor’s note: This story contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or dial 988. Local resources include the Mississippi Department of Mental Health DMH Helpline at 1-877-210-8513.

UPDATE: Marine executed 22 years after rape and murder of teen

Today’s scheduled execution of Thomas Loden Jr. may bring some closure to his victim’s family but also, barring any last-minute stays, end to a troubled life.  

While no justification can be made for Loden’s assault and murder of a 16-year-old waitress, what brought him to that point may be found in his past.

In court documents, attorneys for Loden have told the story of a man who was physically and sexually abused as a child and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder from his military deployment. 

The 58-year-old has been on death row for over 20 years for the 2000 murder and rape of Leesa Gray in Dorsey in Itawamba County. 

He had no criminal record prior to Gray’s murder, his attorneys said. 

Loden was born to a mother who married his father at age 17 to escape a difficult home life, according to court documents. 

His father was physically and sexually abusive toward his mother, and it is likely Loden witnessed the abuse, court documents say. 

His parents divorced when he was a toddler, and Loden bounced between living with his parents. Court documents say his step parents physically abused him.  

Loden also experienced sexual abuse from a church staff member at Bible school. 

As a result of trauma, he had attempted suicide several times and had substance use problems, according to court documents. 

Loden gained stability when he went to live with his grandparents on their farm in Itawamba County, according to court documents. 

After graduating from Itawamba Agricultural High School in 1982, Loden joined the Marine Corps. 

His commanding officer described Loden as “a poster Marine” and the “hardest charging Marine I have ever had work for me,” according to court documents. 

He sought promotion opportunities, eventually reaching the rank of gunnery sergeant. Throughout his career, he received several awards and medals such as the Combat Action Ribbon, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and the Good Conduct Medal, according to court documents. 

Loden served in the Gulf War where his unit was often attacked. He witnessed deaths, including that of a close friend. 

That friend’s death experience changed him, Loden’s wife said in court documents, and she said he was different after the war. He drank heavily, took drugs, had nightmares and flashbacks and picked fights. He became less social, distant from loved ones and felt anxious in crowds. 

A psychologist who worked with Loden’s attorneys diagnosed him with chronic PTSD from combat, complex PTSD from his childhood and borderline personality disorder. 

After deployment, Loden was transferred a number of times, including in 1995 to Virginia to be an instructor for the Marine Corps’ Anti-Terrorism Security Team – a prestigious and high pressure assignment. 

In Virginia, he met his third wife. His two previous marriages ended when his wives were unfaithful, according to court documents. He had a daughter with his third wife, and the family moved to Vicksburg for him to work as a recruiter.

His third marriage also turned out to be troubled. 

Loden’s attorneys argued their strained relationship, paired with drugs and alcohol, influenced how he acted the night of Gray’s death. 

Days before the murder, Loden traveled from Vicksburg to his grandparent’s farm to care for his grandmother. He was also stressed from the recruiting quotas at work, according to court documents. 

He had been drinking and took drugs throughout the day when he received a call from his wife, who claimed she had telephone sex with a partner from the law firm where she worked, and that she planned to have sex with him while Loden was away, according to court documents. 

That evening he went to Comer’s Restaurant where Gray was his waitress and tried to flirt with the teenager. Loden waited until she was off work and found her parked by the side of the road with a flat tire. 

He offered help and told her he was with the Marines. He asked if she ever thought about joining, and Gray gave a response that angered him, according to court documents. Loden forced her into his van, where he repeatedly raped and murdered her. 

The psychologist said Loden experienced a localized episode of dissociative amnesia when he killed Gray, according to court documents. 

When her body was discovered in his car, law enforcement found Loden lying by the side of the road with self-inflicted wounds on his wrists and the words “I’m sorry” carved into his chest, according to court documents. 

During his 2001 trial, Loden admitted to killing Gray, as opposed to letting her go, because it would “tarnish [his] image as the perfect Marine.” In later appeals, mitigation evidence became a focus of his attorneys’ argument that Loden had ineffective assistance of counsel. 

Loden pleaded guilty to all counts and waived his right to a jury for trial and sentencing, hoping to spare Gray’s family and friends a long trial. 

“I hope you may have some sense of justice when you leave here today,” he said during his trial. 

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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.