Monday was Betty Jones’ birthday.
It was also the day Starkville Police Department investigators announced they may finally have her killer in custody.
Sgt. Bill Lott at times appeared emotional as he announced in a press conference Monday morning that a suspect has been charged in the city’s oldest cold case — the Sept. 3, 1990, attacks that led to the deaths of Jones, 65, and Kathryn Crigler, 81.
“Kathryn and Betty were strong women,” said Lott, who has worked the case for 14 years, in an interview after Monday’s press conference. “They were leaders in their community. Kathryn was an elder in her church, the Presbyterian church. She was well involved in the community. (Betty) helped refugees. … With it being (Betty’s) birthday, it’s really special to be announcing the arrest of her killer.”
Michael Wayne Devaughn, 51, of Rienzi, was charged Saturday with capital murder and sexual battery. He was in the Tishomingo County Jail for unrelated drug charges, when a DNA sample linked him to the cold case.
According to an affidavit SPD released Monday, Devaughn allegedly attacked the two women in Crigler’s home at 306 Highway 82 E. on Labor Day 1990. He cut Jones’ throat with a knife before sexually assaulting Crigler, who was taken to the hospital where a DNA profile was developed from a rape kit.
Crigler later died from her injuries.
The crimes were committed while Devaughn was robbing the women, according to the affidavit.
Getting a DNA sample
The DNA profile from Crigler’s rape kit was matched to DNA from a cigarette butt on Devaughn’s person, according to information read during his initial Monday evening appearance in Starkville Municipal Court. It is, however, unclear whether the cigarette butt was secured while Devaughn was in the Tishomingo County Jail or prior to that.
Lott said at Monday’s press conference police identified Devaughn through a DNA match. He said SPD sent a DNA sample to the Scales Lab in Brandon on Friday evening and received notification about the match on Saturday morning. Police arrested Devaughn later that day.
Police declined to speak about what led to securing a DNA match for Devaughn.
“There’s a difference when you’re talking about a cold case and you know nothing,” Lott said. “Now we have a person who has been arrested. That person is innocent until proven guilty. It’s not his job to prove his innocence — it’s our job to prove it and we do not want to be loose-lipped with any information other than what we can speak to and what we do know.”
SPD Chief Frank Nichols said the department has tested more than 60 potential suspects through the years in an attempt to find the perpetrator.
Devaughn is being held in Oktibbeha County Jail on a total of $11 million bond. He is scheduled to appear again in municipal court on Thursday.
If convicted, Devaughn could face death or life in prison without parole for the capital murder charge, and up to 30 years in prison for the sexual battery charge.
Persistence pays off
Lott started working on the Labor Day murder case in 1998 until he left SPD in 2009 to serve with the military in Afghanistan. When he returned in 2013, according to Starkville Police Chief Frank Nichols, he asked to be put back on the case.
Lott initially had to serve with the patrol division upon returning to SPD, but Nichols said Lott insisted on continuing to try to solve the murders.
“I said, ‘Bill, I don’t know if we can do it because we’re so short — I don’t know if we have the manpower to do it,'” Nichols said. “He says, ‘I’ll do it on my time off. … When I get off from doing my regular job, I’ll work the cold case. For free.'”
Nichols, during Monday’s conference, lauded Lott’s persistence in working on the case through the years.
“It was that kind of dedication that he was driven to make sure that this person was brought to justice,” Nichols said. “He’d come and brief me about once a month, or he’d send me an email at 3 o’clock in the morning and it’d be about two pages. He’d be telling me all this stuff about DNA that I didn’t really understand, and I’d get him in my office and say ‘Bill, break this down in layman’s terms so I can know what’s going on,’ and he would explain to me the progress that he was making.'”
Moving the case forward
Sixteenth Circuit District Attorney Scott Colom, who attended Monday’s press conference, said his office will do all it can to move the case forward quickly.
“It’s on an expedited track,” Colom said. “It’s going to have the No. 1 priority in my office. We’re going to present it to the grand jury as quickly as we can. We’re going to work with the courts to make sure due process is upheld for this young gentleman. But there’s no doubt that this case can’t linger like some cases that are fresher because of the reality of the family has suffered and delayed too long.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.