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Heart of Darkness: 1991 Lafayette County Cold Case Spurs Black Family’s Struggle for Justice

Warning: This report contains detailed descriptions of violence, including murder, substance abuse and associated trauma.

LAFAYETTE COUNTY, Miss.—Ollie Mitchell was at her rural home south of Oxford, Miss., on Feb. 2, 1991, when gravel crunched in her long driveway under the tires of the Lafayette County cruiser carrying F.D. “Buddy” East, the sheriff since 1972. To get to her home, the white man and his Black deputy had to turn off the county road, point the car west and pull down a small decline toward a backdrop of bare, gray forest behind the house of the mother of seven grown children, then in her 50s.

When the Black woman with a tall, sturdy frame and matter-of-fact demeanor opened the door that afternoon, East and his deputy, Henry “Pug” Wortham, were there bearing bad news.

They had found a body in the shallow water under the Taylor Creek Bridge just under half a mile from the little town of the same name, a tight-knit hamlet eight miles south of Oxford.

“Miss Mitchell, I don’t know, but I’m thinking—I’m thinking it’s Harry Mitchell, your husband,” Deputy Wortham told her.

East, who was 48 in February 1991, did not fit the macho, tobacco-chewing stereotype of Mississippi law-enforcement officers even as he would become one of those old-school sheriffs who ruled county policing in the state for decades, only leaving office when he died. Bespectacled, balding and slightly rotund, he often wore plain clothes rather than a uniform, with one photo showing him in an emerald button-down, two buttons undone, with a white shirt underneath and khaki pants.

Harry Mitchell’s body was found just under half a mile from the town of Taylor, Miss., under the Taylor Creek Bridge. Lafayette County Sheriff, F.D. “Buddy” East investigated the case, but did not bring Harry’s killer to justice. Photo by Imani Khayyam

Wortham, on the other hand, was the first Black deputy in then-73% white Lafayette County and built like a football player. A picture of the late deputy shows him smiling, with short-cropped hair and clad in a brown and tan deputy’s uniform with

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