May 7, 2013 10:30:17 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
Neither Jon Steckler nor Tiffany Miller were from Starkville. They were just two of the thousands of students who have passed through Mississippi State over the years.
Even so, their murders on the night of Dec. 11, 1992 on a rural Oktibbeha County road has remained a vivid memory among the people of Starkville, particularly among law enforcement personnel who played a role in the drama.
Barring a reprieve, the man who was convicted of the murder, Willie Jerome "Fly" Manning of Oktibbeha County, will be executed by lethal injection today at 6 p.m. at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman.
Law enforcement had known of Manning, now 44, long before that eventful December evening.
Starkville Chief of Police David Lindley first met an 8-year-old Manning in 1977. Lindley was a sergeant with the SPD and said he and another officer repeatedly tried to get the troubled youth on the right track.
"Few people know Fly Manning the way I do," Lindley said. "Early in my career we attempted on several occasions to rehabilitate him. We made numerous attempts to put him with family members, find him a foster family and put him in a home for wayward youths that would give him another chance."
Lindley said Manning was eventually placed with his grandmother but the youngster always ran away.
"He wouldn't stay there," Lindley said. "He would always run."
Lindley said as a boy, Manning began breaking into automobiles and continued on his life of crime. He was eventually convicted of burglary and served time in the penitentiary.
"He was a career criminal from the time he was a small child," Lindley said.
Less than three months after his release from prison in October 1992, Manning was linked to a crime that would change not only his life, but the lives of his victims, their family members and an entire community.
According to his trial transcripts, Manning was attempting to break into a vehicle outside of the Sigma Chi fraternity house on the Mississippi State campus on the night of the murders.
The vehicle he was breaking into was parked next to a Toyota MR2 that belonged to Steckler.
Steckler and Miller were leaving the Sigma Chi house when they walked up on Manning in the middle of the robbery.
Manning forced them into Steckler's car and drove them to Pat Station Road in rural Oktibbeha County. There, Lindley said, Manning killed Miller, shooting her twice in the head. Manning also shot Steckler, but when the single gunshot didn't kill the young man, Manning ran over him twice with his vehicle, leaving him to die.
Manning fled the scene in the vehicle and drove back inside the city limits. He abandoned the car at the Canterbury Apartment complex, where it was discovered the next day.
A month later, Manning was linked to the murders of two women in the Brooksville Gardens Apartment complex in the Starkville.
Lindley said Manning knew the mother and daughter, Emiline Jimmerson and Alberta Jordan, and beat them to death before he slit their throats and took a small sum of money.
"They were very nice women, just sweet little old ladies," Lindley said. "He beat them to death with a laundry iron and then cut their heads almost off. He slaughtered them for very little money.
"It's not just the two college students. He is a very violent, dangerous individual."
As in the case of the Stecker-Miller murders, Manning was found guilty of capital murder and given the death sentence.
Because Manning was first convicted of the students' slaying, he will be executed for those murders today.
A wild chase
Brett Watson, Chief Investigator of the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Department, was just a young patrolman when the murders took place. In fact, Watson had graduated from the police academy at roughly the same time Manning was released from prison.
Watson never imagined that several months later he would come face to face with the killer.
"The detectives were looking for him, we were all looking for him," Watson said.
"He had been involved in an assault with his girlfriend earlier in the day and the detectives were looking for him so we on patrol were looking for him," Watson recalled. "We had heard that he was going to be on his way to Jackson. That was part of our briefing that day that he was going to be on his way out of town so we had been notified to just be on the lookout for him. We were about halfway through that night shift, maybe a little later, when we got a report of a burglary that had just happened at the corner of Lafayette and Gillespie.
"There was a person in the house that had confronted him with a firearm and he fled. We got up there and we got to looking and we found a pile of computer equipment in the backyard that was just kind of sitting there, that had been stacked out of the way, kind of undercover. So the sergeant on shift at the time decided to set up on it to see if the person would come back. We were out there for a while and, at some point, someone came back and we're assuming it was him but I never got close enough to see. Somebody starting coming back through the woods and I think it was my radio crackling that kind of scared him because he took off and I took off after him and started chasing him. I saw him one time and never saw him again."
As the burglar tried to flee from the young patrolman, Watson said Manning went through the sewer system to escape.
"Maybe an hour later, we get a report that there was a stolen car over at the corner of Whitfield Street and Gillespie. A silver Volkswagen, I'll never forget that. The girl had told us that she had come outside to get her cigarettes and locked her car, went back in and the second she closed the door she heard the car take off," Watson said. "He had to be in the car at the time because she was adamant that she had locked her doors before she got out of it and there's no way he could have gotten into it that quickly. So we got out and got to looking for the car."
Watson said that an officer on shift that night got a tip that the car was at a convenience store. By the time law enforcement arrived, Manning had fled.
"Apparently he had left and we knew he was on his way to Jackson so I head out down (Highway) 25 to see if I could catch him."
Watson said he reached the county line, and with no suspect in sight, turned back around and headed back into Starkville. That's when he spotted Manning.
"I came back into town and got back up on Highway 12 and just as I was going down Highway 12, the car pulled across in front of me. And when he pulled across the intersection, I turned on my lights and he started to get out of the car. When he started to get out the car I could see it was Fly. I got out my shotgun and just told him to get back in the car. When I did he hopped back in the car and boom, it was a race from then on."
The pair sped through Starkville on a "high, high speed chase" on South Montgomery but due to radio interference, Watson's fellow officers thought he was heading on North Montgomery, leaving him alone to chase a killer.
Recalling the turn-by-turn of the chase, Watson tells the story like it was yesterday:
"It was just dust, dust, dust, you couldn't see. I could see his tail lights way up ahead of me and it was just pouring dust. He got to the intersection of Reeves Road and Williams Road and crashed, he couldn't make the turn. He went across the road into the ditch and bailed out and ran out into the woods. I chased him for about 100 yards trying to manipulate my radio, I had a flashlight a radio and a shotgun, I'll never forget that, three things in two hands and nobody knew where I was because you still couldn't hear me on the radio and back then nobody had cell phones. I turned around after I lost sight of him because I thought, 'That's not a smart thing to do.' So I turned around and came back out."
Watson said once he was able to radio his location officers descended on the area to search for Manning but came up empty handed. Then one of the dispatchers remembered Manning's mother lived in the area.
"So we went over to the house, two or three deputies, and we talked to mom and she said, 'He's not here.' So we went out walking around the house and there were fresh footprints on the back doorstep, muddy footprints, and so we went back around and finally his mom let us in the house. He was back in her bedroom, sitting in the closet in his boxer shorts and had this little thing of Spaghetti-O's laying on the floor beside him and we ended up taking him to jail."
Watson said when Manning's girlfriend was interviewed, one of the detectives noticed she was wearing a leather jacket that was identified as belonging to Miller. When asked where she got it she responded "Fly gave it to me."
Making the case
Other evidence was admitted during the trial including shell casings from a tree behind Manning's mother's home. Those slugs were removed from the tree and compared to the bullets found in the victims. It was a match. The murder weapon was not found.
A jury, brought in from George County, found Manning guilty of murdering Steckler and Miller and sentenced him to death. He has been on death row for nearly twenty years.
Years after Manning's conviction, Watson said a pair of teenagers found a gun in a shallow riverbed behind Manning's mother's house. The detective said the gun matched the shell casings from the murders.
Dolf Bryan was the Sheriff of the Oktibbeha County when Manning was convicted of murdering Steckler and Miller.
Bryan first met Manning when he was six years old. Manning had broken into a store in Oktibbeha County and tried to steal a motorcycle.
"He couldn't have pushed it if the man had given him one," Bryan said.
The former sheriff speaks passionately about the case and says there is not a shadow of a doubt in his mind that Manning is guilty of murdering not only Steckler and Miller but Jimmerson and Jordan as well.
"He's convicted. He doesn't have the presumed innocence anymore,' Bryan said. "He is guilty of murdering four people."
Bryan recalled the trial of Manning and said he barely spoke a word.
"He just sat there with a pair of stolen eye glasses on his nose and looked down at everybody," Bryan said. "He's a terrible person. There is no redeeming factor about him. He is a wild murderer."
Bryan said Manning's execution today will be the last chapter, not only for the families, but for a community.
"It will be the final chapter in this book," Bryan said. "The final chapter should have been written a long time ago. The family can close the book on this terrible, terrible tragedy that happened. There are no winners here -- not society, not the court system, not the sheriff's office. Everybody is a loser. Fly is going to lose his life over it."
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.