Crime

Man denies strangling woman but evidence differs, police say

Gulfport police arrested Willie Cenales, 34, of Gulfport on March 14 in the March 2 strangulation death of Tammy Brown Gills, a 52-year-old Gulfport woman.
Gulfport police arrested Willie Cenales, 34, of Gulfport on March 14 in the March 2 strangulation death of Tammy Brown Gills, a 52-year-old Gulfport woman. jmitchell@sunherald.com

A man accused in a Gulfport woman’s slaying testified at a preliminary hearing that he was alone with her in the apartment where she was later found dead, but didn’t kill her, a prosecutor said.

Evidence indicates Willie Cenales killed Tammy Juanita Brown, recently known as Tammy Gills, by strangling her and beating her in the back of her head March 2, Harrison County prosecutor Herman Cox said.

Cenales, 34, is in the Harrison County jail on a $2 million bond. A court document shows he is disabled, married and has children.

Brown, 52 — known to some as Gills because of a brief marriage, according to her family — was found dead in an apartment she shared with a roommate in the 4700 block of 11th Street. She had been a hair stylist, had earned an associate’s degree in business management and was a lifelong member of Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church in the Gaston Point community.

Police waited about two weeks, until after they’d arrested Cenales, to release information about the killing, saying they didn’t want to undermine the investigation and felt Cenales posed no additional threat to society.

The arrest warrant for him identifies the slain woman by her maiden name.

DNA found at the crime scene matches Cenales’, according to the testimony of Detective Clayton Fulks at a preliminary hearing Wednesday, Cox said.

Video-surveillance footage from a neighboring apartment complex is said to show the roommate and others leaving the apartment about 9 p.m.

“Video surveillance shows how long the defendant was in her apartment,” Cox said. “He can be seen leaving about 1 a.m.”

A state pathologist estimated Brown’s time of death between 7 p.m. and midnight, Cox said. She was found dead about 8 a.m. the next day.

She was found lying in bed and the back of her head was bloody. She was covered by a sheet and was nude except for her unhooked bra, Cox said. She had strangulation marks on her neck.

“His DNA was on a wall with her blood, and his DNA was on a ball cap stuck between the bed and the wall, “ Cox said.

Fulks rushed DNA samples to a state lab, driving them to Jackson to get results as quickly as possible.

“Preliminary investigation did not show she was sexually assaulted,” Cox said. “But DNA links him to the murder.”

Cenales testified he and Brown were friends and she was alive when he left her apartment.

Police arrested Cenales on March 14.

Justice Court Judge Albert Fountain declined a motion Wednesday to reduce Cenales’ bond.

Fountain ordered the case bound over to the next grand jury.

Brown’s family and her pastor have described her as optimistic, friendly and outgoing, but said she struggled with having people in her life who were a bad influence. She was a greeter at her church.

Why she was killed remains unclear.

Robin Fitzgerald: 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews

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