Crime

Investigator: Body found in Jackson County may be missing Gautier woman

Gautier police are looking into whether a decomposed body discovered behind a church over the weekend is that of a woman reported missing in February.

“We have reason to believe it is her,” Lt. Danny Patrick said Monday, though he could not go into more detail.

Police are investigating the death as a homicide.

Members of Pine Grove United Methodist Church discovered the decomposed remains of a woman in the woods behind their church over the weekend.

Since then, Patrick said investigators have been working to determine if the remains are that of Amanda Hicks, 37, of Gautier.

Hicks hasn’t been seen since Feb. 8, when her live-in boyfriend, James Vanlaningham, 56, is accused of setting fire to the home they shared at the Santa Maria RV Park Marina on Martin Bluff Road. Vanlaningham, authorities said, also goes by the alias, James Mills.

He is jailed on a $100,000 bond in Jackson County on a first-degree arson charge. He is accused of setting fire to the couple’s mobile home, and he has refused to cooperate with authorities in the missing person investigation.

Neighbors reported last seeing Hicks on Feb. 8 when she left the trailer park with Vanlaningham in her 2009 Dodge Ram pickup truck.

The neighbors recalled hearing a woman, believed to be Hicks, scream shortly before the fire started. The neighbors also said they saw the couple arguing outside their home before the fire, Sgt. Neil Crocker said.

The couple had a history of domestic violence in which Hicks was the suspected victim.

In October, for example, the couple was staying at a Biloxi casino when guests reported a ruckus in a room there and described it as a domestic violence incident. Hicks and Vanlaningham were staying in the room.

In addition, relatives, including the couple’s son, told authorities they have not heard from Hicks since her disappearance. They said that was unusual, Crocker said, because they usually spoke to someone in the family every day.

Vanlaningham was first taken into custody about eight hours after he was last seen with Hicks in Mississippi. Authorities in Escambia County, Ala., made the arrest on a charge of DUI after Vanlaningham was involved in a wreck there. He was in his girlfriend’s pickup truck.

Inside the truck, Crocker said, authorities found the woman’s wallet and cellphone.

Since the remains were discovered Saturday, Patrick said, investigators have collected a DNA swab from a relative of the missing woman.

The remains, police said, appeared to be that of a woman who was a multicolored blouse and a pair of blue jeans.

An autopsy is scheduled Tuesday morning to determine a cause of death and identity. The investigation is continuing.

To report information, call the Gautier Police Department at 228-497-2486 or Crime Stoppers at 1-877-787-5898.

Margaret Baker: 228-896-0538, @Margar45

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