BATESVILLE, Tenn. – A man charged with burning to death a Mississippi woman told an FBI agent he was miles away buying a debit card when she was set on fire.
The agent, Dustin Blount, testified Thursday in the trial of Quinton Tellis in Batesville, Mississippi. Tellis has pleaded not guilty to killing 19-year-old Jessica Chambers in December 2014.
Prosecutors say Tellis thought he suffocated Chambers during sex in her car, and then used gasoline to set her and the vehicle ablaze along a road in Courtland.
Blount said Tellis told him during an interview that he was returning to his Courtland home from buying the card in Batesville when he saw vehicles with emergency lights. He also said Tellis acknowledged having sex with Chambers once, but he didn't mention an exact date.
Tellis, who was friends with Chambers, could receive life in prison without parole if convicted of capital murder at trial in Batesville, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Memphis. A firefighter has testified a severely-burned Chambers looked like a zombie as she walked down the road near her burning car the evening of Dec. 6, 2014. She died hours later at a Memphis hospital.
His lawyer says he's falsely accused. Firefighters who treated Chambers testified they heard her say someone named Eric or Derek set her on fire. Prosecutors say she could have been trying to say Tellis, but damage to her mouth and throat didn't allow her to speak clearly.
Agent Blount said a photo taken from a surveillance video from a Fred's pharmacy shows Tellis, who had a dirt bike, buying a pre-paid debit card in Batesville, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the tree-lined road embankment in Courtland where her car was found. The photo had a time stamp of 8:26 p.m.
Authorities say Chambers was found on the road by a passing motorist shortly after 8 p.m. Prosecutors contend Tellis, 29, has lied about his whereabouts that night. Blount said Tellis told him he found out about Chambers' situation from someone at a convenience store located just steps from his house.
But during questioning by defense attorney Alton Peterson, Blount acknowledged he did not try to confirm the time stamp was accurate.
Blount also said Tellis told him 11 days after she was found burned that he erased all communications with Chambers from his cellphone.
Also Thursday, prosecutors used witness testimony from a burn doctor and an investigator to help discredit the defense's theory that someone named Eric or Derek may have burned Chambers. Dr. William Hickerson oversaw Chambers' treatment at the hospital. He said she suffered so much damage to her mouth, throat and chest that she would have had trouble clearly saying words.
Chambers had 3rd-degree burns on most of her body, Hickerson said. Soot was found on her tongue and in the back of her throat, and her lips did not work properly, the doctor said.
Pointing at graphic photos of a burned Chambers displayed for the jury, Hickerson said the scorched skin on her chest became tight like leather and she could not speak correctly because of lack of air.
"You cannot enunciate any of those words that you want to say" with such serious burns, Hickerson said.
Defense attorney Darla Palmer challenged Hickerson, who acknowledged that Chambers' injuries could have worsened from the time she spoke with firefighters to when she arrived at the hospital two hours after she was found. Hickerson also acknowledged he was not at the scene and did not hear Chambers speak there.
Maj. Barry Thompson of the Panola County Sheriff's Department testified investigators interviewed about 15 people named Eric or Derek and none were identified as suspects.
Testimony is set to continue Friday, the fourth day of the trial.