COURTLAND, Miss. – Jessica Chambers was a regular at the rural convenience store gas station where Ali Fadhel worked, and the two often chatted.
On Saturday, she came by in a dark-colored sweater and pajama pants that looked like sweatpants. She bought $14 worth of gas, more than the $5 or so she usually purchased, he said.
“I asked her, ‘Why are you putting so much gas?' She said, ‘I’m going somewhere,’ ” Fadhel said.
An hour and a half later, she was found along a back road, severe burns all over her body. Someone had set her on fire, and she was able to briefly talk to firefighters before she died of thermal injuries.
Chambers, 19, had told the cashier she was going to make a stop before going home, he told The Associated Press.
“If she knew she had a problem with somebody, she would have told me,” Fadhel said.
On her way out, Chambers got a call on her cellphone, he said. After she pumped gas, she re-entered the store, bought cigarettes, and drove away, headed south on the highway, he said.
On Thursday, officials said they were still working to determine who doused her with a flammable liquid and set her on fire. They said they’d made no arrests and didn’t expect any in the near future, but that they would continue to follow up on all tips.
“In all the years I’ve been doing this, this is an absolutely horrendous, horrendous case,” district attorney John Champion said at a news conference. He described Courtland as a small community rocked by the death and said he hopes people will come forward with information.
“There’s just not a lot of street talk out there about who may or may not have done,” he said, but “we feel like somebody out there has heard something.”
Jay Hale, an assistant district attorney who handles cases in Panola County, confirmed that Chambers spoke to firefighters – perhaps giving them clues – but said he cannot discuss what she said before she was taken to a hospital in Memphis, where she died.
“She was able to communicate. It was difficult,” Hale said.
“We know what she said but we are not commenting on what she said,” Champion confirmed at the news conference.
Champion told The AP that officials have a preliminary autopsy report and are awaiting the final one but won’t release either because they are part of the ongoing investigation.
Among the clues police are examining: surveillance video showing Chambers at the gas station, cellphone records from numerous people and interviews with potential witnesses, Hale said.
The surveillance video shows Chambers walking toward the front door of the convenience store in Courtland, which is about an hour south of Memphis, Tennessee. She then stopped, turned to her left, and walked out of the picture.
Hale said he could not comment on Fadhel’s statements about Chambers’ time there.
Relatives of Chambers were trying to cope with the loss. A woman who answered the door of the home of her father, Ben Chambers, on Wednesday said he was feeling bad and was unable to speak with reporters. Chambers told The Huffington Post that his daughter had left her mother’s house in Courtland not long before she was found.
Chambers’ grandmother, Dot Boatright, said the family was doing as well as can be expected. Boatright said she “went all to pieces” when she heard about Chambers’ death.
Not much was immediately revealed about the woman’s background by authorities, but Boatright said of her granddaughter, “She was just a sweet little girl.” At Thursday’s news conference, officials said she had just graduated from high school and was about to start her life.
Amanda Prince, who identified herself as Jessica Chambers’ older sister, told CNN Wednesday night that the family is “shocked, lost … confused, angry, hurt.”
“I have so many questions,” she said. “I want to know why.”
Asked whether she knew of anyone who had a grudge against her sister or might want to hurt her, Prince replied, “No one. She was loved by everybody. I don’t know who would want to do this or why.”
Prince described her sister as “very athletic” and outgoing, and said that at various times she had expressed interest in becoming a nurse, a dentist and a writer.
“She was happy all the time,” she said. “She made everyone laugh. She lit up a room. … She was just full of life.”