Home State Wide ‘This doesn’t need to be a slap on the wrist,’ DA says of Noxubee County case

‘This doesn’t need to be a slap on the wrist,’ DA says of Noxubee County case


A capital murder investigation helped lead to unrelated federal charges against former Noxubee County Sheriff Terry Grassaree and his deputy that involved the sexual abuse of a jailed woman.

On Tuesday, Grassaree pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI when he denied receiving nude photos and videos from a woman locked in his jail. He faces up to five years in federal prison when he is sentenced Aug. 7.

Ex-Noxubee County Sheriff Terry Grassaree heads into federal court where he will plead guilty, Tuesday, May 7, 2024 in Jackson.

His former deputy, Vance Phillips, pleaded guilty last year to bribery, which experts say could have been the perks the woman received, including a contraband cellphone. No date has been set for his sentencing.

District Attorney Scott Colom said Thursday he would like to see serious punishment for Grassaree for such abuse. “This doesn’t need to be a slap on the wrist,” he said.

He said the discovery of this abuse began with a capital murder case. In 2015, Kristopher Haywood died in a convenience store attack in Macon when someone blasted the 28-year-old twice in the head with a shotgun.

A Noxubee County grand jury indicted Jonathan Shumaker, his girlfriend, Elizabeth Layne Reed, and Justin Williams and his brother, Joshua, on capital murder charges. Shumaker was also found in possession of a shotgun and charged with possession of a firearm by a felon. (These charges were dropped last year after an audio recording surfaced that exonerated them.)

But when Colom inherited the case as the new district attorney in 2016, he said he discovered the evidence and some of the witnesses contradicted the description of what happened.

Three years later, as he prepared for trial, he said his office interviewed Reed, who shared that deputies had been having sex with her inside the jail, “but you’re not going to do anything about it.”

Colom promised that he would.

He said he reached out to federal authorities in 2019 for assistance out of concern that it might be difficult to investigate law enforcement in such a small county. 

He said his office took the lead. One of his workers messaged Deputy Phillips from Reed’s Facebook page a photograph of a positive test for pregnancy.

“That’s how we got Vance to corroborate that Reed was telling the truth about the unlawful sex,” Colom said. “We knew we had a serious problem then.”

Any sex that an officer has with someone behind bars is a felony under Mississippi law and carries up to five years in prison. The maximum penalty under federal law is also five years.

There is no way for those behind bars to give consent, Colom said. “They’re in a vulnerable situation. Their liberty and freedom can be used against them.”

Reed told Colom’s office that the sex began with Phillips after he began transporting her to doctors’ visits. He first took her to his trailer to have sex and then had sex with her while the female correctional officers were at lunch, Colom said.

The encounters also took place in deputies’ offices, the interrogation room and even the evidence shed, he said.

The deputy continued to demand sex with her on an almost weekly basis between May 2017 and October 2019, according to a lawsuit she filed against Noxubee County and the sheriff’s office. “Reed, under the coercion of Phillips’ authority and her incarceration, acquiesced in Phillips’ demands.”

Another deputy, Damon Clark, who gave her cigarettes and a touchscreen cell phone, took her up front to a shower, where “he laid me on the floor [and] got on top of me,” she told authorities.

Clark has never been charged. “I never coerced Reed into sex,” he wrote in his response to the lawsuit, but he never answered whether he had sex with her.

Reed told authorities that one other deputy digitally penetrated her and another groped her and “sexted” her.

Colom said their investigation into sexual abuse corroborated much of what Reed alleged. It was then, he said, “we realized we had a serious problem with the Noxubee County Sheriff’s Office under the regime of former Sheriff Terry Grassaree.”

Their investigation showed Grassaree knew about his deputies’ activities, but rather than referring the matter to authorities, he sought to “get in on the action himself,” Colom said.

Reed’s lawsuit said Grassaree demanded “a continuous stream of explicit videos, photographs and texts” from her in jail. She also alleged in the lawsuit that Grassaree touched her in a “sexual manner.”

The county settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount.

Colom said he decided to turn over his investigation to federal authorities with the agreement they would prosecute since they could pull far more potential jurors. Getting enough people to serve as jurors has long been a problem in Noxubee County, which has a population of less than 10,000, much less finding impartial jurors, he said.

On July 13, 2020, an FBI agent interviewed Grassaree, who denied that he received nude photos and videos from Reed in jail.

Two years later, reporters from the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today and The New York Times began asking Colom about the case. Colom responded that he was waiting for federal authorities to prosecute as they agreed. Afterward, he contacted federal authorities again and told them reporters had reached out to him, asking questions.

In October 2022, a federal grand jury finally indicted Grassaree and Phillips.

Colom said federal authorities “never gave me a good reason for why they took so long.”

He said even more troubling in his investigation was the discovery of “illegal activities” by the sheriff’s office “that were unrelated to sex.” There have been no indictments in that case.

Noxubee County residents already have a lot of skepticism toward law enforcement, he said, “so when you actually do have corruption, it has to be aggressively handled. We can’t have police forces where the people we are trusting to protect and serve are only concerned about themselves and their own illegal agendas.”

He still hopes federal authorities will prosecute, he said. “It would send a strong message to the citizens in Noxubee County that you care about them.”

Asked if his office could bring state charges now, he said that was impossible because “the statute of limitations has run.”

Federal authorities have a five-year statute of limitations, but the statute of limitations in Mississippi is only two years.

Colom said he didn’t move sooner because federal officials “had agreed to prosecute the charges and kept telling me they were going to do something.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Jackson responded Thursday, “The Department of Justice follows the facts, law, and principles of federal prosecution when determining how to proceed in an investigation and what charges, if any, can be filed. Federal agents and prosecutors will continue working hard every day to hold public officials in Mississippi, like Sheriff Grassaree, accountable for corrupt use of their office and efforts to mislead investigators.”

Mike Hurst, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi

Former U.S. Attorney Michael Hurst, who served from 2017 to 2021, said prosecuting public corruption was one of his top priorities, especially when it involved law enforcement who “violated their oath and victimized our citizens.”

He said if the U.S. attorney’s office had sufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to prosecute, “we prosecuted them, no matter who they were, period. In many instances, federal prosecutors are the last line of defense in our society of ensuring that our citizens are protected, their rights are upheld, and that criminals — especially corrupt public officials — are held accountable.”

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