Fire final chapter in mystery of Vicksburg home

Published 1:07 am Sunday, January 30, 2011

In 1986, an elderly woman living alone disappeared from her home on China Grove Road in Warren County. In 1994, three college students were found shot to death in the empty house.

On the evening of Jan. 15, what was left of Mary Franklin’s homeplace, where she and her family had lived for years, burned to the ground, ending an eerie chapter in Warren County history books.

When volunteer firefighters arrived at the house, they found it fully engulfed in flames.

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“The walls were just about to cave in,” said Kelly Worthy, Warren County’s volunteer fire coordinator. “There wasn’t anything we could do but watch it burn.”

“We just made sure nothing around the house caught fire,” said Fisher Ferry assistant chief Tommy Stewart.

No one had lived at the home since the 71-year-old Franklin was last seen there on July 26, 1986, said her niece, Sandra Williams, a sergeant with the Vicksburg Police Department.

“For several years after, people would break into the house and take whatever was of value,” she said.

In the early 1990s, Franklin’s grandchildren and other relatives took their tools and their memories to the house, committed to cleaning it up and preserving what they could of its former dignity.

“I was sad to see pictures and newspaper clippings and things that my great-aunt treasured just thrown on the floor by the people who took things,” Williams said.

For days, weeks and months after Franklin went missing, the Warren County Sheriff’s Department searched. They combed the 16 acres on which the house sat, they interviewed, they even had a confession from a man who then-Sheriff Paul Barrett said could not be prosecuted because no body had been produced and the suspect’s mental capacity was questionable.

Mary Franklin is still missing — with no signs. The house showed no sign of forced entry or struggle when she disappeared. Some said she might have left willingly with someone, but her glasses and wig were at the house. Family members said she never left without them.

Sheriff Martin Pace, who trudged as a deputy through the scrub and overgrowth during that hot July and August, said the case remains open, but still no answers.

In 1994, another page was turned in the gruesome chapter.

Three students at Hinds Community College’s Utica branch were found murdered in the house. Their hands had been taped behind their backs, and each had been shot once in the head.

Two men were arrested and charged with murder in the deaths of Dorian Martin, 20, of Heidelberg; Michael Garrison, 20, of O’Fallon, Mo., and Clifton Brown, 19, of Jackson. An autopsy indicated they had been dead in the vacant home for 11 days when their bodies were found on Oct. 23, 1994.

Shawnderic Horton, 23, of Vicksburg, and Dennis Berry, 18, of Glendale, Ariz., were arrested and charged with kidnapping — authorities believe the students were forced from Martin’s car, taken to the house, robbed and killed. They were believed to be carrying a large sum of money authorities said came from dealing drugs.

Horton was convicted of murder, armed robbery and aggravated assault and was given a life sentence for the murders and 15-years for the robbery and assault. Berry was convicted of two counts of armed robbery and was sentenced to 18-years.

Authorities never linked Franklin’s disappearance to the killings — except the house — which sits as less than a shell today at a spot with no numerical address. The once-overgrown acreage is nearly clear after loggers worked there in the days and weeks before the fire. It is not known if they were there on the day of the fire.

Worthy said he has no reason to believe the blaze was set, so unless evidence is found, no further investigation is planned. State fire authorities who normally are called to investigate suspicious fires have not been called.

The property’s owner, Wayne McMaster, who bought the house and the 16 acres around it in the early 2000s, did not have insurance on the house. He said that for now he plans to bulldoze what is left and continue to sell timber from the land.

“I was going to clear it all out and graze horses,” McMaster said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”

Standing near the remains of the house — one of few visits since her great-aunt disappeared — Williams recalled happy memories there.

“We had lots of fun here,” she said. “As kids, we used to come here and stay for days. After the murders though, I never came back to the house. It was just too eerie.”