Mississippi police arrest man in killings of two nuns – CBS News

LEXINGTON, Miss. – A man suspected in
the slayings of two Mississippi nuns who were found dead inside a residence within the community
they served has been arrested and charged with two counts of capital murder,
Mississippi authorities said.

Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko,
Mississippi, was charged in the deaths of Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula
Merrill, both 68, Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren
Strain said in a statement released late Friday night.

The bodies of both women were
discovered Thursday after they failed to show up for work at a clinic in
Lexington, Mississippi, about 10 miles from where they lived.

“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.

Rodney Earl Sanders of Kosciusko, Mississippi, is seen in an undated photo released by the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.

Rodney Earl Sanders of Kosciusko, Mississippi, is seen in an undated photo released by the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.

Meanwhile, in the poverty-stricken
Mississippi county where the two nuns were slain, forgiveness for their killer is hard to find,
even if forgiveness is what the victims would have wanted.

Held and Merrill were nurse
practitioners who dedicated their lives to providing health care to people in
the poorest county in the state. And as authorities sought the killer, many
residents wondered how they will fill the hole the women’s deaths have left.

“Right now, I don’t see no
forgiveness on my heart,” said Joe Morgan Jr., a 58-year-old former
factory worker who has diabetes and was a patient of Merrill’s at the clinic
where the two nuns
worked.

He said Merrill would want him to
forgive whoever killed the women, but he hopes the perpetrator is convicted and
executed.

“She doesn’t deserve to die like
this, doing God’s work,” Morgan said, shaking his head. “There’s
something wrong with the world.”

Both women worked at the clinic, where
they gave flu shots, dispensed insulin and provided other medical care for
children and adults who couldn’t afford it.

Their stolen car was found abandoned a
mile from their home, and there were signs of a break-in, but police haven’t
disclosed a motive.

Assistant Chief James Lee of
the police department in Durant, where the nuns lived, believes they were
victims of a robbery, CBS News correspondent Omar Villafranca reports.

“A double homicide in
a community this small and the fact that these two ladies were nuns – they
actually spent their entire lives serving this community right here – I’m sure
our community is completely devastated and grieving,” Lee told CBS.

Authorities have not said how the
women were killed, but the Rev. Greg Plata of St. Thomas Catholic Church in
Lexington, where the nuns
had led Bible study for years, said police told him they were stabbed.

The state posted a reward of $20,000
for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

Plata said both nuns’ religious
communities have asked that people pray for the killer or killers. Asked about
people’s struggles to forgive, the priest said: “Forgiveness is at the
heart of being a Christian. Look at Jesus on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them
for they know not what they do.’”

On Friday, a handwritten sign on the
front door of Lexington Medical Clinic said it was closed until Monday.

The clinic and the nuns’ home are in Holmes
County, population 18,000. With 44 percent of its residents living in poverty,
Holmes is the seventh-poorest county in America, according to the Census
Bureau.

The slayings did more than shock
people and plunge the county into mourning. They leave a gaping hole in what
was already a strapped health care system.

Dr. Elias Abboud, who worked with the
sisters for years and helped build the clinic, said it provided about 25
percent of all medical care in the county.

The two nuns cultivated relationships with drug
company representatives, who often left extra free samples, according to clinic
manager Lisa Dew.

“This is a poor area, and they
dignified those who are poor with outreach and respect for them,” Plata
said. “They treated each person as a child of God.”

Merrill’s sister Rosemarie, speaking
by telephone from her Stoneham, Massachusetts, home, said her sister had been
in Mississippi helping the poor since 1981 and had previously worked in Holly
Springs, where she used to ride around on a moped and was instrumental in
locating the source of a tuberculosis outbreak.

Merrill was raised in the suburbs of
Boston and came from a working-class family, her father a laborer and her
mother a bookkeeper, her nephew David said. He said his aunt had worked with
Held for many years.

“We always considered Margaret
just part of the family,” he said. “The word ‘sister’ has many
meanings, and they fulfilled all of them.”

Rosemarie Merrill said she doesn’t
know what will happen to the clinic now and worries about the effect on health
care in Holmes County. She said her sister and Held would often go into the
clinic on Sundays after Mass or on their days off.

“It’s just going to be a
disaster,” she said.

Genette Pierce, who works at a home health and
hospice business a few doors down from the clinic, said: “Their patients -
all of them – they’re going to be lost without them right now.”

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