Murders of Mississippi couple found dead in freezer 17 years ago still fascinates. Story behind killers featured in television series.
Published 5:38 am Sunday, August 22, 2021
Many people have a fascination with true crime cases, of which Hattiesburg has had its fair share, including that of Roger Gillett and his then-girlfriend Lisa Jo Chamberlin, who killed Gillett’s cousin and girlfriend in 2004.
Interest in the case hasn’t faded in the last 17 years. Chamberlin, 49, recently was featured in an episode of Investigation Discovery’s “Deadly Women” along with Mary Farmer and Carol Dawson.
The case also was featured in a 2013 episode of “Wicked Attraction,” also by Investigation Discovery.
Gillett was 29 when he and Chamberlin, then 31, killed his cousin, 34-year-old Vernon Hulett, and Hulett’s girlfriend, 37-year-old Linda Heintzelman, in Hulett’s home in March 2004.
The couple placed Hulett and Heintzelman’s bodies in a freezer and transported them to an abandoned farm near Russell, Kansas, which belonged to Gillett’s grandfather.
Although Gillett and Chamberlin were arrested in Kansas after the bodies were found, authorities believed the slayings took place in Mississippi, so the couple was returned to Mississippi to stand trial.
They were charged with and convicted of capital murder with the underlying charge of robbery. Both were sentenced to death.
GILLETT: ‘THIS COURT SYSTEM MAKES WAY TOO MANY ERRORS’
In a letter written in the early months after he was charged with capital murder, Gillett wrote a letter to his aunt, explaining how the events leading up to his arrest had changed his life for the better.
“I believe this is a blessing in disguise,” he wrote. “It has brought my life to a complete stop, but in the process has showed me what’s important.”
Gillett, now 47, is serving life without the possibility of parole after his 2007 death sentence was overturned. Chamberlin, the only woman on Mississippi’s death row, was sentenced in 2006.
In the letter, sent some time before March 2005, Gillett told his aunt he believed he never would be convicted — if only Chamberlin would keep her mouth shut. He also took a jab at the state and county judicial systems.
“If she keeps quiet and takes no deals, we will be set free,” he said. “This court system makes way too many errors and steps on peoples’ rights all the time.”
That, to Gillett, was part of the good news, he wrote.
“It is all part of the blessing,” he said. “Nowhere else could a couple be charged with the highest crimes and even have a chance of winning.”
Gillett never denies the couple committed the slayings, nor does he talk about them in the letter, but tells his aunt, “I understand it for what I believe it to be (a blessing).”
The letter was entered as one of two exhibits in a lawsuit filed by Chamberlin in federal court to show why she needs to have her case reexamined.
PSYCHOLOGIST SAYS EFFORTS TO HELP CLIENT WERE ‘INSUFFICIENT’
The other document is an affidavit by psychologist Beverly Smallwood, who examined Chamberlin before her trial, in which she says the work she did on Chamberlin’s behalf was inadequate because she did not have the resources to conduct a complete investigation to present findings that would better serve her client.
“I recognize that my efforts were insufficient and that the services of a mitigation investigator would have yielded much additional and important information on which to base my assessment and testimony,” Smallwood said in the affidavit.
Her testimony alone was presented during the sentencing phase of the trial, according to a writ of habeas corpus Chamberlin filed in federal court in 2011. That case remains ongoing.
“In a transcript of 1,000 pages, the defense penalty phase evidence consumed only 62 pages,” Chamberlin says in her petition. “The jury returned a verdict of death. The entire trial, including jury selection and penalty phase, took four days.”
After their convictions, Chamberlin and Gillett, who were tried separately and both receiving the death penalty, started their respective appeals of their convictions.
Years later, Gillett’s death sentence was overturned. A new sentencing hearing was ordered but to spare the victims’ families going through another trial, he was offered and accepted the sentence of life without parole.
Chamberlin’s legal path, however, has been less successful. She is hoping her conviction will be overturned for a number of reasons including Smallwood’s lack of expertise and Gillett’s alleged control over her.
CLAIMS OF ABUSE, DRUG USE GIVEN AS REASONS FOR DISMISSAL
In her petition, Chamberlin claims she was abused by Gillett. She also says she was high on methamphetamine on the day she gave her statements to investigators yet those statements were entered in evidence against her.
Gillett’s letter, Chamberlin says, is proof of how Gillett was even using some of his family members to control her by sending her money and showing her affection.
The state has contested all of Chamberlin’s claims and currently is protesting Chamberlin’s claim that her case was stayed in federal court by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves so she could pursue further relief in state court.
Reeves has not ruled on whether the case will be returned to the state, but the state is asking the judge to rule in its favor, saying Chamberlin has not met the requirements he ordered for the case to be returned to a state court.
Capital murder cases typically take years to make their way through the courts, so 10 years is not a long time for one petition to remain open in the court system. Reeves is currently considering the most recent round of motions in Chamberlin’s case.
Gillett also has a petition in federal court in which he is seeking relief. He too is hoping to have his convictions overturned. U.S. District Judge Taylor McNeel has not ruled on the last round of motions in Gillett’s case.
NO EXECUTIONS IN MISSISSIPPI SINCE 2012
Mississippi has not executed a death row inmate since June 2012, and no executions are scheduled. But a new court filing shows that the state Department of Corrections in recent months has acquired drugs to carry out lethal injections, the Associated Press reported in August.
Mississippi has 38 people on death row, including Chamberlin.
Several Mississippi inmates have had their convictions overturned in recent years, including Curtis Flowers, who was tried six times for the same crimes, and Eddie Lee Howard, who was convicted on debunked testimony by an expert witness.
Both men spent over 20 years in prison before their convictions were overturned.