Rodney Earl Sanders is accused in the murder of two elderly Catholic nuns who worked with the poor in Mississippi and were remembered for their “sweetness” and devotion.
“This heinous crime has been resolved,” said the news release from the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, which released Sanders’ name.
The 46-year-old Sanders was charged with two counts of capital murder in connection with the killings of Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill, according to CNN and the news release.
The Catholic nuns were remembered as caring women who worked to help poor people receive health care in rural Mississippi.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Nuns Were Stabbed to Death Inside Their Home & Sanders’ Wife Says His Mother Was Killed
The nuns were killed in Durant, Mississippi. The coroner told The Clarion-Ledger newspaper that the nuns were stabbed to death. The newspaper said authorities are awaiting the results of autopsies before formally determining cause of death and won’t release many details until evidence is processed by the crime lab.
The Associated Press interviewed Sanders’ wife, who said he saw his mother killed at age 5, that he left their home after an argument a few days before before the nuns were slain, and that he sometimes stayed across the street from their house in a shed.
According to The Clarion-Ledger, authorities did say the two nuns were not bound or tied. The Associated Press said police believe Sanders acted alone.
Both nuns were 68-years-old. Fox News says there were signs of a break-in at the home, where the nuns lived together and their bodies were found. However, authorities said it was premature to say robbery was definitely the motive.
Fox News said, though, that Sanders was on probation for felony DUI and was a convicted armed robber, although the latter charge dated to 1986.
One man who knew Merrill said the nun would probably want people to forgive the killer, and he called Merrill an “angel,” The Associated Press said.
2. Sanders’ Wife Broke Down in Tears at a Court Hearing &Amp; The Nuns Lived in the Poorest Area of Mississippi
Sanders’ wife, Marie, broke down in tears at a court hearing for her husband, according to The Associated Press, and said: “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say to y’all. I’m so sorry … I’m so sorry. I can’t take this. Oh my God.” The president of Merrill’s religious order Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, who was also in the courtroom, then came over and hugged Marie Sanders, said The AP.
Police told CNN that a blue Toyota Corolla belonging to one of the sisters “was found on an abandoned road less than a mile from the home.”
The arrest in the case came quickly; the nuns were found dead on August 25.
Durant, where the nuns lived, is “one of the poorest areas of the state,” according to Fox News. The door to their home was open when an officer went to conduct a welfare check, said The New York Times.
Merrill was raised in Massachusetts but moved South because “she felt a connection and a need to serve the people,” according to a feature story from her religious order. Held was from Wisconsin and had worked as a teacher and community health nurse, said The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which quoted Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki as saying the killer “robbed not only the School Sisters of St. Francis, but also the entire Church of a woman whose life was spent in service.”
3. The Two Nuns Provided Health Care to Poor People in Mississippi & Were Remembered as ‘the Two Sweetest Sisters You Could Imagine’
Held led Bible study for years at a local Catholic church, said The Clarion-Ledger. Father Greg Plata told the newspaper that the sisters’ work “dignified the poor.”
Platz told the Clarion-Ledger, ““These were the two sweetest sisters you could imagine. It’s so senseless.”
The nuns worked as nurse practitioners at a medical clinic in rural Mississippi, according to the newspaper. Fox News says the nuns’ bodies were discovered when they didn’t show up for work. Fox News said that Sanders was not a patient at the clinic.
The nuns worked at Lexington Medical Clinic about 10 minutes from their home, said Fox News. A farm worker said of Sister Merrill, “She’s great. She’s an honest person. I can’t look for a better doctor. I’m telling you the truth. My friends would say the same thing,” according to a video posted on Vimeo by the nun’s order.
4. Sanders Is From Kosciusko, Mississippi & Became a Suspect Early in the Case, Police Say
According to the Sun Herald, Lt. Colonel Jimmy Jordan said, “Sanders was developed as a person of interest early on in the investigation.”
Police have not released details of what led them to Sanders. There was a $22,500 reward being offered in the case, but it’s not clear whether it played any role in the arrest. The nuns’ wake is scheduled for Sunday, August 28, according to The Associated Press.
Kosciusko is less than 18 miles from where the nuns lived. Sanders “is being held in an undisclosed detention center awaiting his initial court appearance,” said the public safety news release.
Meanwhile, the nuns were lauded for their caring nature.
The Mississippi Secretary of State previously released a statement that said, “Unbridled love and care for mankind has been met with unparalleled savagery. These faithful nuns worked tirelessly at the Lexington Medical Clinic to make the Holmes County community and Mississippi a better place to live.”
5. The Charges Came After an ‘Exhaustive Interview,’ Authorities Said but the Nuns’ Religious Orders Don’t Want the Death Penalty
According to the press release put out by the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, “after an exhaustive interview Friday evening, MBI agents were able to develop enough information to charge Sanders.”
The prosecutor in the case has said she will consider the wishes of the nuns’ families and religious orders when deciding whether to seek the death penalty; their religious orders have said they oppose the death penalty, the AP says.
A local sheriff told Fox News that Sanders had confessed but gave no reason for the crime, Fox News said. Community tips helped lead to his apprehension, said Fox.
The nuns lived in a town of under 3,000 people that rarely has homicides, said The New York Times. According to a Sisters of Charity of Nazareth article on Merrill, the clinic where the nuns worked was in an area where “The socioeconomic needs are great. Approximately 40 percent of the patients are uninsured or have only Medicaid, 41 percent of the county’s population lives in poverty, and 62 percent of those living in poverty are children.”