First in a series. Read Part 2 here.
August 2002 – Lisa Sheffield had no maid of honor at her wedding on June 1, 2002. No one could take the place of her best friend, Leesa Marie Gray.
But Leesa could not attend the celebration at Morning View Baptist Church in Dorsey, Mississippi, that sunny day. She was lying in her grave – murdered by a 36-year-old pornography addict, apparently playing out a violent sexual fantasy.
Two years later, family, friends and classmates still grieve. Veteran law enforcement officials recoil at any reminder of the case. Not far below the surface, life
in the tiny Itawamba County community is changed forever because of what happened the night of June 22, 2000.
• • •
Leesa arrived at work around 2 p.m. that Thursday. Waiting tables at the family cafe may not have been where she wanted to spend her whole life, but the patrons loved the cute, outgoing 16-year-old. And who wouldn’t?
Petite and bubbly, Leesa was a ray of sunshine to the families, truck drivers, factory workers and local retirees who regularly enjoyed the food and friendships at Comer’s Family Restaurant. She was the All-American girl – not perfect, but “a real sweet girl, even if she was my daughter,” says Wanda Farris who also waits tables at the restaurant.
Mother and daughter were close, openly expressing their affection and admiration for one another. It was a love that had just started to take on a mature dimension of deep friendship. In a conversation that has replayed in her mind a thousand times, Wanda recalls that only a week or so before her murder Leesa had said, “Momma, I don’t ever want anything to happen to you.”
Wanda had replied that only God knows those things. Then she said, “Leesa, what would I do if something happened to you? It works both ways, you know.”
Leesa was in a particularly happy mood at the restaurant that afternoon. Her mother noticed it when she dropped by around 6 p.m. for pie and coffee and to plan their weekend trip to visit Leesa’s aunt in Gulfport. Later that night at home, Mike Farris also commented on his step-daughter’s carefree state of mind.
Perhaps it was her sweet, innocent effervescence that attracted the sick, pornography-fueled mind of the unfamiliar customer that summer afternoon. He flirted with Leesa. Others in the restaurant noticed the inappropriate come-on by the man more than twice her age. However, no one could know the evil Gunnery Sgt. Thomas “Eddie” Loden was planning. None of the employees or patrons of Comer’s Family Restaurant could have imagined his unspeakably depraved fantasies.
• • •
Pornography defenders argue that no connection can be proven that scientifically links pornography and crime. However, a number of statistical correlations confirm what many in law enforcement and victims of pornography have learned from experience.
In FBI research of 36 serial murderers, 81% (29) reported pornography as one of their highest sexual interests. In 1983 Dr. William Marshall found that 86% of rapists admitted regular use of pornography, with 57% admitting actual imitation of pornographic scenes in the commission of a sex crime. Michigan State Police Lieutenant Darrell H. Pope researched more than 48,000 sex crimes between 1956-1979. In 42% of the cases, police indicated that pornography was used just prior to or during the act of sexual assault.
Such statistics are interesting, even shocking, but not necessary to convince Dr. Sal Pellicano, veteran prison chaplain. Pellicano has served prison systems in Florida, North Carolina, and New Jersey. Currently he serves as director of Beginning Again in Christ, a Christian prison ministry in Mississippi. Dr. Pellicano says that during his 15-year career, 100% of the inmates he has known who have been incarcerated for a sex crime have been pornography users. Making bad matters worse, “pornography addiction is the hardest of all maladies to cure,” he says.
Dr. Victor B. Cline, clinical psychologist and professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah, has treated more than 350 sexually addicted men. He writes that in about 94% of the cases, pornography was a contributor or facilitator in their sexual compulsions.
Counselors and therapists often use Cline’s four progressive characteristics of pornography’s effects to understand and treat sex addicts:
1. Addiction – porn user gets hooked to the point that his addiction rules his life.
2. Escalation – over time, more and more deviant kinds of pornography are required to stimulate. The porn addict often prefers sexual imagery along with masturbation to sexual intercourse itself.
3. Desensitization – pornographic materials once considered taboo are seen as common.
4. Acting out sexually – reality and fantasy become blurred as the addict begins to act out the behaviors to which he has been regularly exposed.
By the second day of summer in his eighteenth year as a Marine, Loden had descended into the hell of his own masturbatory obsession. He was apparently deep into Cline’s fourth stage. Feeding the beast seemed to be all that mattered.
Sometime after he left Comer’s Restaurant that afternoon and before 9 p.m., Loden inventoried the tools he would need to carry out his merciless plan: a utility knife, a length of rope, a gun, a video camera and recording tape. Brute strength was the only other thing he would likely need. At 6’4’’ and 195 pounds he was at the top of his game as a Marine recruiter. The size three teenage girl would prove no challenge.
• • •
The restaurant was busy that evening. The regular customers came and went in their normal manner until closing time at 9 p.m. That’s when Loden’s 1994 two-toned green Ford conversion van pulled into the gravel parking lot.
He asked for another of those tasty cheeseburgers he had enjoyed earlier in the day. Though it was technically after closing time, the cook obliged. Leesa and the other employees continued to clean tables and ready the restaurant for the next day’s business.
Meanwhile Loden stepped outside, pretending to tend to something in his van. It was parked next to Leesa’s 1992 opal green Honda Accord. A perfect plan and perfect execution, he must have thought, as he knelt down between his van and Leesa’s car, out of view of anyone who might happen along. Then he buried the business end of a utility knife deep into Leesa’s front passenger side tire. The blade broke off. He probably figured she would be a few thousand feet down the road toward home before the tire completely deflated and forced her to stop. He was right.
Loden walked back in, paid for his cheeseburger, got in his van and appeared to leave.
• • •
Around 10:30 p.m. Mike and Wanda were routinely preparing for bed. Before falling asleep, Wanda waited for the familiar sound of the front door opening announcing Leesa’s arrival.
At 10:40 the phone rang. It was one of Leesa’s friends calling to talk about an upcoming ski trip. Wanda said Leesa was expected home within minutes. She put a note about the call on Leesa’s pillow, then decided to call the restaurant. The voice on the other end said Leesa had just left, heading home. It was only a five-minute drive. Fifteen minutes passed. Leesa had not arrived. Wanda felt her first twinge of concern.
• • •
Thomas Edwin Loden was reared primarily by his grandparents on the family farm on Ballardsville Church Road near Dorsey. He graduated from Itawamba High School in nearby Fulton in 1982 and soon thereafter joined the Marines. By the summer of 2000 he had lived away long enough that many folks in the area no longer remembered him. One who did was Richard Tallant, the cook at Comer’s.
Loden had made the six-hour drive from Vicksburg where he worked as a Marine recruiter back to the family home place to do some work for his invalid grandmother. His wife and one-year-old daughter remained at home.
A Bible rested on the dash in the dark of the van. However, spiritual matters were the last thing on his mind as Loden lay in wait for over an hour on the west side of Comer’s restaurant.
At about 9:30 Loden called his wife in Vicksburg on his cellular phone. The call quickly became sexually explicit. She had no idea her husband was using the conversation to work himself into a state of violent erotic insanity.
• • •
Wanda called Richard at his house when Leesa had not arrived home by 11 p.m. Instantly he remembered passing a car with flashing lights on the side of the road at the intersection of Highway 178 and Dorsey School Road. Richard jumped in his car and returned to the spot. The car was unlocked. A purse and cell phone lay on the front seat. It was definitely Leesa’s Honda. A closer inspection revealed a flat right front tire.
Wanda and her husband hurried to the scene. While Richard and Mike changed the tire, Wanda drove down Bethel Church Road to see if Leesa was walking.
David Sheffield, an investigator with the Itawamba County Sheriff’s Department, was the first law officer at the scene. By then Mike and Richard had found the utility blade lodged between the treads on the flat tire.
Later, investigators from the Mississippi Highway Patrol arrived. As Comer’s employees and customers gathered to tell their stories, the big Ford van was mentioned several times. Richard identified the van’s owner as Eddie Loden, a former classmate who was visiting relatives on a nearby family farm.
• • •
Early the next morning when Mississippi Highway Patrol Investigators Rick Marlar and Bryan Jones visited the Loden family farm, Leesa’s torturous ordeal was over. But only one person knew that.
Mrs. Rena Loden, confined to a wheel chair, told the officers they could find her grandson fishing at a pond behind the house just a couple of hundred yards through a mowed pasture and over a small hill. Her directions took the officers past a customized Ford van. Dark tint on the side windows and Venetian blinds on the rear ones hid the contents. The van was locked.
At the pond there was no fishing gear and no response when the officers called out Loden’s name several times. Returning to the house they once again passed the van. “Mamaw” Loden was confused when Eddie didn’t respond to three sharp blasts of the car horn – their signal for him to return to the house.
The officers asked permission to search the residence and Mrs. Loden consented. Entering through the back door, Marlar and Jones had to walk through Eddie’s bedroom. That’s when Marlar saw the pair of cargo shorts on the floor with what appeared to be dark red blood stains.
In a search of Mrs. Loden’s car, Marlar found a three-foot length of green military rope. The former S.W.A.T. team member identified the knot in the rope as a “slip handcuff.” His suspicions about the use of such a knot would prove right.
Through the van’s front window Marlar could see a pair of soiled Elkwood boots between the front and middle seats, as well as a pair of soiled gloves. Based on what they had seen so far, the investigators had the vehicle transported about 40 miles to New Albany to be processed by the Mississippi Crime Laboratory.
The officers thought no one was in the van. Loden, now the subject of an intense manhunt, knew better.
• • •
Only Circuit Court Judge Tommy Gardner and a handful of others involved in the case have viewed the contents of the videotape found in the camcorder in the van. Gardner would have Loden’s visual trophy of his crime destroyed if not for future court proceedings.
Late Friday afternoon, a passerby found Loden lying in a ditch on Charlie Donald Road north of the farm. He had lacerated his wrists and with a broken beer bottle carved “I’m sorry” in his chest. The wounds were superficial. After pleading guilty to murder, kidnapping, rape and four charges of sexual battery, he now sits on death row at the State Penitentiary at Parchman in the Mississippi Delta.
About a week after the murder, investigators discovered a partially dug, well-hidden grave behind the pond in a pine thicket. They surmised that Loden’s plan to bury Leesa’s body was interrupted when he saw them approach his grandmother’s house.
Leesa was also found, her body stuffed under the back seat of the van. The official cause of death: suffocation and manual strangulation. She now rests in the Dorsey Memorial Cemetery about a mile from where she was kidnapped.
• • •
Law officers hunted for the suspect. Investigators looked for physical evidence. Forensic specialists tested and interpreted that evidence. Prosecutors found witnesses. Defense lawyers filed motions and made legal arguments on behalf of the defendant. The judge ruled with fairness and justice. Wanda, her family and all of Itawamba County just wanted to survive.
Everyone asked, “Why?” Why would a man with no criminal record, a successful military career, a wife and young daughter, savagely rape, torture, and murder a beautiful, young, innocent girl?
Ironically, the answer may be found in evidence never mentioned in court. For what investigators eventually uncovered was a large stash of hardcore pornography – pictorial and print. Internet logs on Loden’s home computer revealed that he had visited Web sites with unimaginably depraved content such as how to rape a teenage girl. Another focused on sexual relationships between fathers and daughters.
According to his former wife, Loden ruled a dark world that orbited around an unquenchable thirst for pornography and sexual perversion. Without hesitation, she sees the rape and murder of Leesa Marie Gray as one of Loden’s “sick sexual fantasies that just went too far.”
• • •
June 11, 2002 – By 2:15 the lunch crowd is all but cleared out of Comer’s. Two men stand in the cashier’s line and talk about metal fabricating. A truck driver enjoys his last bite of chocolate pie. Wanda, in jeans and a t-shirt that reads “Comer’s Restaurant, 30 years of family tradition,” refills iced tea glasses.
A workday that began at 5:20 a.m. ended with the delivery of a plate of steaming french fries to the table occupied by a man and what appeared to be his four daughters. Chalk up one more work day since the day that would define the rest of her life.
The two-year anniversary of Leesa’s deathday as well as her birthday are just around the corner. Only ten days ago Wanda attended the wedding of Leesa’s best friend. “I survived, barely,” she says.
Wanda cries at odd times, but it’s not her nature to emotionally fall apart – at least she hasn’t yet. “I know my friends have been worried about me lately, because I’ve been withdrawing from people. Maybe I have been a little depressed,” she says without apology. “But I’m not in bad shape. I’m just dealing with it the best I know how.”