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Peaceful vigil in Picayune to raise awareness of missing man

A peaceful vigil was held at J.P. Johnson Park Wednesday night and the message was clear: #BringChillHome. Willie Ray Jones has been missing since Monday, July 6, and many came to the prayer vigil to show support to his family, who want to see their loved one returned home.

Jones‘ younger brother, Maurice Jones, planned to lead a search party for Willie Jones Thursday morning at 11 a.m.

“He’s a loving person. He’s caring. You’re going to get a good vibe whenever he’s around the room,” said Maurice Jones. “Everybody loves him. You can tell by the support he has that everybody loves him.”

Attendees listened attentively to prayers and speeches during the vigil. The park was filled with lights from cellphones and candles as a thunderstorm moved in overhead.

“We aren’t going to stop until he’s found,” Maurice Jones told the crowd.

The family has been leading searches for Jones in the community. Maurice Jones said the police department is doing their job, but the family wants to get more help in the search for Willie Jones.

“We’ve been out looking everywhere—on boats, on ground,” said Jones. “Spots that you would think somebody would put somebody at or spots that the person that he was last with was familiar with. We just try to go and look everywhere we can if possible. You never know.”

Pilikia Coleman said she grew up with Willie Jones and has been participating in the searches.

“I think he’s really maybe fighting for his life somewhere. I really still believe in my heart that he’s not gone. I’m prepared for the worst but praying for the best,” Coleman said.

Willie Jones’ elementary PE teacher Kim Williams said the community needs to keep his family lifted in prayer.

“He was a great kid growing up, funny, he was a jokester. Up until this day, he was still a jokester,” said Williams. “We’re just trying to find him and bring him home safe. If not, whatever the Lord’s will is, we just want closure.”

Both attendees and speakers expressed frustration with rumors spread online that out of town protesters would incite violence at the vigil.

“I don’t know who started the rumor about the Black Lives Matter coming from out of town. We (are) right here in Picayune, Mississippi, where Black Lives Matter here in Picayune. We don’t need anybody coming from out of town and I want to prove to the police that we come in peace,” said Coleman.

Several Picayune locals were wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts, along with the many “#BringChillHome” shirts.

“All that ‘All lives matter’ stuff, stop that,” said Russell Whitehead. “All lives don’t matter until Black lives matter and that’s real. Six months ago, before George Floyd got killed, anybody saying all lives matter? No, but as soon as a Black life matters, your rebuttal is all lives matter.”

Speaker Omar Muhammad connected the rumors of violence at a prayer vigil to the history of racism in Pearl River County, like the lynching of Mack Charles Parker in 1959. Parker was kidnapped from a jail cell in the Pearl River County Courthouse, before being beaten and murdered. No one was ever charged, indicted or convicted in Parker’s murder, according to previous coverage.

Whitehead said he was frustrated that some seemed more worried about a building burning down than about Jones being missing. The law office of Jim Gray burned down early Tuesday. Gray is the father of a person of interest, Dustin Gray, in the missing persons case concerning Willie Jones. Jim Gray said he believed the fire was set intentionally, because people thought he was hiding his son, according to previous coverage.

“Now we have National Guard, highway patrolman, everybody’s involved, but last week when this man was missing, where was everybody then?” said Whitehead. “Now that a building burned down, and like I said earlier, I don’t give a damn about a building, that building can be replaced.”

District I Supervisor Donald Hart told the audience that law enforcement wanted to be proactive rather than reactive to the “chatter that was going on, on Facebook”.

“They know that other factions, outside factions, have been trying to incite something. This family’s been about peace from the start and so we want to keep it like that and make sure Willie comes home,” said Hart.

Hart’s statement received pushback from the audience, with a few calling for law enforcement to intensify their search for Jones instead of focusing on the vigil.

Hart closed the vigil out with a prayer before the rain began to pour.

Willie Jones is a 28-year-old black man who stands 5’7, and is about 216 pounds, with brown eyes and short black hair. He was last seen wearing a black shirt and gray and white shorts. He was last seen in the Ponderosa subdivision in Picayune on Monday, July 6 at 3 a.m.

Anyone with any information on his whereabouts is asked to contact the Picayune Police Department at 601-798-7411, CID Commander, Capt. Rhonda Johnson at 601-337-6544, or Assistant CID Commander, Lt. Mike Deceille at 601-916-9411. Anyone who wants to give information and remain anonymous may also call the Mississippi Coast Crime Stopper’s Hotline at 1-877-787-5898, a departmental release states.