Bizarre Billiot murder case continues to twist through courts 28 years later

Published 3:20 pm Friday, November 27, 2009

On Thanksgiving Day, 28 years ago, James E. Billiot bludgeoned his family to death in the Leetown Community.

Billiot, now 48, has been ordered either placed in the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield — or freed. For most of the past 28 years, he has been in a cell on Death Row at Parchman. A federal judge has found him insane and vacated his death sentence.

He murdered the three members of his family on Thanksgiving in 1981, in the Leetown Community about seven miles east of Picayune, just across the Hancock-Pearl River County line.

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In this latest twist in the saga surrounding Billiot, on Nov. 3 Federal District Judge Tom Lee told state authorities to transfer Billiot to the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield, the state’s facility for the insane and those with other serious mental disorders, or release him.

He gave the state 60 days to implement his order.

In addition to stating that he must be immediately released if not transferred, Lee’s order also suspends Billiot’s death sentence for capital murder.

Lee’s order blocks Billiot’s execution after declaring him insane, The Associated Press reported.

Billiot has for 27 years sat on death row after being found guilty in a December 1982 trial in Gulfport for capital murder in connection with the killings of three members of his family — his stepfather, Wallace Croll, 53; his mother, Audrey Croll, 47; and his half-sister, Cheryl Ann Croll, 14.

The Associated Press reported that Billiot sits in his death-row cell in Parchman, his mind still spinning delusions of grandeur, delusions he also exhibited at the time of his capture and trial 28 years ago.

The AP also reported that Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has filed a motion requesting that Lee amend his order to release Billiot and said in the motion that Whitfield is not equipped to take care of a high security risk such as Billiot.

At the time of the murders, here is what the Picayune Item and the AP reported:

Billiot’s half brother and Wallace Croll’s teen-aged son, Steve Croll, testified that he and a friend were riding down a country road on Thanksgiving Day when they passed Billiot, walking along the road. When they drove back up the road, they again passed Billiot, who this time was in his mother’s car.

They knew something was wrong because Billiot was not supposed to drive his mother’s car.

Steve immediately went home and found three members of his family bludgeoned, lying on the floor. Wallace Croll was in the kitchen gasping for breath. The two female victims were lying on the living room floor with no movement.

A neighbor, Lawrence Lee, testified that Steve came running over to his house, screaming, “Little Jimmy has shot my daddy!”

Lee ran to the house and found Wallace, lying in the kitchen barely gasping for breath, and the two females in the living room, motionless, evidently already dead. Lee, testifying to a 11-man, one-woman jury at the trial, said it was a scene of total carnage, blood and brains. Hancock authorities said they found an 8-pound sledgehammer they believed was used in the murders.

Lee testified that Wallace Croll’s head “was mush.”

Sheriff Ronnie Peterson said it appeared from the condition of the living room that the two female victims had “put up a struggle” before they died.

Immediately, Peterson and his deputies began going door-to-door in the Leetown Community, searching for Billiot who was believed to be armed because a .25-caliber pistol was missing from the Croll house.

Peterson contacted Pearl River County Sheriff Lawrence Holliday, who immediately put his deputies to searching for Billiot. Holliday’s men turned up a witness who said he had picked up Billiot on Thanksgiving Day hitch-hiking along Mississippi Highway 43 and had dropped him off at the Ole Salem Meat Packing Co. right on the county line.

Billiot was known to have family in St. Bernard Parish, La., so a manhunt began covering southwest Mississippi and southeast Louisiana.

Two days later an Orleans Parish police officer spotted the car parked along a street in the Elysian Fields section of New Orleans. Next a man fitting Billiot’s description was spotted walking down a street.

The officers stopped him and asked him his name. He told them he was Jesus Christ. They picked him up and took him to the police station. On the way he told them he was actually Romeo Machiavelli and later said he was really Led Zeppelin.

Hancock County authorities had charges made out against Billiot for three counts of capital murder and immediately began extradition proceedings to have Billiot returned to Hancock County for trial.

Louisiana authorities set the extradition hearing for Dec. 28 and set bond at $310,000. Billiot was unable to make bond so he remained in a New Orleans jail until the extradition hearing.

Billiot’s Louisiana court-appointed attorney, Numa Bertel, Jr., had asked for a delay after Billiot said he wanted to fight extradition. Bertel also asked for a sanity hearing. However, Louisiana authorities forgot to tell Hancock authorities and Peterson and three deputies showed up for the extradition hearing anyway.

Then a judge polled the Louisiana Supreme Court justices to see if it would be okay to proceed with the hearing. The judge was given the okay to proceed, over Bertel’s objections. The judge ruled against Bertel’s motions, and Billiot was turned over to Peterson after the hearing.

Peterson later testified at the trial that when he and his deputies transported Billiot to Hancock County, he began talking about the murders. Peterson said they had read him his rights and advised him to not say anything until he had talked to a lawyer.

“He insisted on talking anyhow,” Peterson said. “He said he had been right behind the devil when the devil killed his three relatives with the sledgehammer and that he did not kill them.”

Billiot was considered so dangerous that he was not held in Bay St. Louis. Hancock authorities transferred him to a high security cell in Biloxi.

As the hearings progressed and more news stories appeared, it was reported that Billiot was a “former mental patient.” An Item reporter in one story quoted a spokesperson at Whitfield, who said that Billiot had been a patient there but would not say for what. The reporter did not identify the source.

A preliminary hearing was set for Jan. 13 before Hancock County Judge Horatio Frierson. Frierson appointed Nicholas Haas and Yvonne Sills as Billiot’s attorneys.

At the preliminary hearing, the AP reported, another one of Wallace Croll’s sons, James Croll of Chalmette, La., testified that Billiot had been a patient twice at the Miss. State Hospital. The AP reported that a hospital spokesperson said that Billiot had not been a patient for “at least two years” but would say nothing else.

Peterson told the AP that two psychiatrists, Dr. Henry Maggio and Dr. Leonard Ball had testified that they had examined Billiot and that he was “fit to stand trial.”

Billiot was bound over to the Grand Jury, scheduled to meet in January 1982. The Grand Jury indicted him on capital murder charges, which, if he were convicted, would allow the court to apply a death sentence.

Billiot, in his April 5 initial appearance in Hancock County Circuit Court before Judge Leslie B. Grant, pleaded not guilty, and the judge set April 15 for hearing defense motions. Billiot’s attorneys also asked the judge for a change of venue because of publicity and asked that Billiot’s statements to arresting authorities be suppressed.

Peterson was quoted by the AP as saying that Billiot told him that “he had watched as the devil killed his relatives.”

A decision by the judge pushed the hearing into July.

On July 20, the judge ruled that Billiot must undergo further psychiatric evaluation at the Miss. State Hospital to determine if he was mentally fit to stand trial. He ordered that Billiot’s records at the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center in Gulfport be transferred to the hospital.

After the psychiatric evaluations came in, Judge Griffin ruled on Oct. 20 that Billiot was competent to stand trial and set his trial date for Nov. 29. The ruling came after three grueling days of hearings. Griffin said that the examinations showed that Billiot was “capable of aiding his attorneys in his defense.”

Griffin granted a change of venue to Gulfport from Bay St. Louis and ruled that the statements Billiot made to police were admissible in a trial since he had given them voluntarily and after he had been read his rights.

In the hearing, Dr. A.G. Anderson, a former director of forensic psychiatry at Whitfield and staff member at the Veteran’s Administration in Jackson, told the court that the majority of psychiatrists at the Miss. State Hospital determined that Billiot was responsible for his actions at the time of the crime.

Dr. William G. Johnson, a consulting clinical psychologist at the hospital, said Billiot’s IQ was 91, a normal average, and that his score on the Georgia Court test put him in the normal competency range.

Maggio and Bell, both Gulfport psychologists, said their examination of Billiot led them to believe that he “was sane the day of the killings” because of the actions he took after the crime. Maggio said there was no evidence that Billiot was “out of touch with reality.” He said Billiot, however, did exhibit anti-social behavior, suffered from drug abuse and claimed, at one point, to be a reincarnation of Attila the Hun.

During the Nov. 29 trial in Gulfport, Billiot did not testify. The judge allowed Billiot’s alleged confession and statements to law enforcement authorities to be entered into the court records because they were given freely and after he had been informed of his rights.

The trial lasted three days as a parade of witnesses and psychiatrists took the stand. Peterson and two of Wallace Croll’s sons testified. So did the neighbor Lee.

On the second day of the trial, Peterson testified that Billiot blamed the devil for the murders. “I was standing right behind him when the devil killed all three of them,” Peterson said Billiot told him.

“He said he was right behind him (the devil) when the devil went to the barn, got the sledgehammer and walked into the house and killed all three of them,” testified Peterson.

Defense attorney Haas told the jury that Billiot had a long history of “mental illness,” and that if “in fact he did commit this crime, he did not know right from wrong.”

Prosecuting attorney Albert Necaise asked the jury that if Billiot was insane why did he flee the scene and why did he steal his mother’s car. Necaise said that Billiot told a doctor at the state mental hospital, “I am up here to prove I’m crazy.”

Some medical witnesses described Billiot as a paranoid schizophrenic who was suffering from real delusions.

Ball testified that Billiot believed that his family worshiped the devil, had placed a curse on him and that he had to kill them to release the curse.

Ball said he interviewed Billiot in 1979 for a lunacy hearing and that Billiot told him then that “he believed he would hurt somebody if he wasn’t put away.”

Added Ball, “He claimed to be an agent of the devil. He still had the same fixed delusions and bizarre religious delusions before and after the killings. I think he knew that killing was wrong, but he felt like he was on some kind of religious mission.”

Dr. Wallace C. Johnson testified, “I believe he did know the difference between right and wrong.”

However under cross-examination by Haas, Johnson said he believed that “Billiot was in a totally different world” and that society’s rules “don’t mean a thing to him.”

The jury deliberated most of the afternoon, and then came out and read a verdict of guilty.

Press reports then said Billiot, after hearing the guilty verdict, showed no emotion, and then he addressed the judge, “I am in need of help,” he said in a low voice. “I have a case, you know. I figure the prosecuting attorney (Albert Necaise) thinks I am a pretty bad guy. I have a case to prove that I did not do it.”