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News / Nation & World

Sheriff: Man confesses in killing of nuns in Mississippi

By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS and REBECCA SANTANA, Associated Press
Published: August 27, 2016, 2:42pm
2 Photos
A memorial is placed outside the Crime scene tape at the home in Durant, Miss., Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, where Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill were found slain Thursday morning.
A memorial is placed outside the Crime scene tape at the home in Durant, Miss., Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, where Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill were found slain Thursday morning. (Elijah Baylis/The Clarion-Ledger via AP) Photo Gallery

DURANT, Miss. — A man suspected in the slayings of two nuns found dead in their Mississippi home confessed to the killings, a sheriff said Saturday, in the latest twist to a crime that has horrified people in the small communities where the women served.

Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Miss., was arrested and charged in the deaths of Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill, Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain said late Friday. Both women were 68.

Willie March, the sheriff of Holmes County where the killings occurred, said Saturday he had been briefed by police from the town where the killings occurred and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation officials who took part in Sanders’ interrogation. Sanders confessed in the interrogation to the killings and gave no reason for the crimes, March said.

The sheriff said police work and tips from the community led police to Sanders, and the investigation is ongoing.

Durant police could not be reached for comment. Strain, whose department includes the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, said the organization would neither confirm nor deny that Sanders confessed.

Sanders was convicted last year of a felony DUI, said Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

He was later released from prison and is currently on probation.

Sanders was also convicted of armed robbery in Holmes County, sentenced in 1986 and served six years, Fisher said.

People who knew the nuns, known for their generosity and commitment to improving health care for the poor, have been grappling with why anyone would want to kill them.

Dr. Elias Abboud, the physician who oversees the clinic in Lexington where the nuns worked, said Saturday that Sanders was not a patient there.

The Rev. Greg Plata, sacramental minister at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington where the women led Bible study for years, said Saturday he does not think people at the church knew Sanders.

The women’s bodies were discovered Thursday after they failed to show up for work in Lexington, about 10 miles from where they lived.

The sheriff said they had been stabbed.

“Sanders was developed as a person of interest early on in the investigation,” Lt. Colonel Jimmy Jordan said in the statement.

Authorities said Sanders was being held in an undisclosed detention center pending a court appearance. They have not given any details on why they think Sanders killed the women or whether he knew them.

Strain said he does not know if Sanders has an attorney. Authorities do not anticipate making any other arrests. Strain said “investigators believe Sanders acted alone.”

Merrill’s nephew, David Merrill, speaking by telephone from Stoneham, Massachusetts, said Saturday the family was “thankful” Sanders is off the streets.

But the family still has to deal with the loss.

Merrill said he agrees with the idea of forgiveness and that is something his aunt would want for whoever killed her but he’s not sure if he’s capable of completely forgiving.

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