James Vanlaningham told friends and relatives he had set fire to his live-in girlfriend in some woods behind a church, though more than a month would pass before some parishioners would find her remains.
Other witnesses, some of whom were relatives of the victim, confirmed Vanlaningham had freely admitted to the fiery attack, but said he also claimed he had hit her in the head and set her on fire, Police Sgt. Nick Crocker said Monday.
Vanlaningham, 56, has been arrested on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of Amanda Hicks. He is being held without bond at the Jackson County jail.
Parishioners at Pine Grove United Methodist Church discovered the 37-year-old woman’s badly decomposed remains March 18 in a wooded area behind the fellowship hall. The state medical examiner’s officer used dental records to positively identify Hicks.
Vanlaningham was in court Monday for a preliminary hearing in his murder case. A judge ruled there was enough evidence to send the case to a Jackson County grand jury. He ordered Vanlaningham to remain jailed without bond pending indictment and a trial.
Crocker was among the investigators who went to the crime scene.
Near Hicks’ body, he said, investigators found ropes tied to a tree. Her head was detached.
Investigators are still investigating to determine if Vanlaningham had tied to the woman to the tree before setting her on fire.
The couple’s 15-year-old son, Crocker said, told police the family often set up for roadside sales near the wooded area. The son told police the family also participated in a big Easter egg hunt there at one time.
The church parishioners who discovered the body, Crocker said, assumed the smell was from a dead deer until they found the remains.
Searching for a loved one
Hicks was last seen Feb. 8, the same day Vanlaningham was later arrested on a DUI charge in Brewton, Alabama. When he was stopped, Vanlaningham was driving a truck that belonged to Hicks, Crocker said, and her wallet and cellphone were inside.
Gautier police arrested Vanlaningham on a charge of first-degree arson following his arrest in Alabama. He is accused of setting fire to the couple’s mobile home at Santa Maria RV Park Marina on Martin Bluff Road in Vancleave. The fire was started the same day Hicks was last seen alive.
The mobile home park is the same place witnesses last reported seeing Hicks and Vanlaningham, Crocker said. Witnesses reported seeing the couple argue before the fire. Neighbors also said they heard a woman scream before the couple’s mobile home went up in flames.
The pair was last seen leaving the mobile home park in the truck that belonged to Hicks.
A history of domestic violence
At Monday’s hearing, Crocker also testified he had learned through the investigation that the couple had a history of domestic violence.
“Everybody I have spoken to said they have known them to fight and there is violence in the relationship,” Crocker said, while also citing the domestic incident between the two at Treasure Bay Casino Resort in October.
The couple’s son had also called police to tell them he was concerned because he had not heard anything from his mother since the night before she went missing. The son, Crocker said, usually spoke to his mother on a daily basis.
Vanlaningham refused to cooperate with authorities in the missing person investigation.
He showed no emotion in court, but a couple of people showed up to support Hicks, their lost friend.
“She was just a gentle soul,’ friend Susan Montecino said. “I’d known her for 10 years.”