In less than three weeks, at least six women were killed in Mississippi — five of them allegedly at the hands of their partners.
On July 28, Booneville police discovered the body of Laura Ann Rutledge. Rutledge, 35, had been led into the woods, mere feet from where her mother and children slept, with her hands tied behind her back. She was beaten with a stick and stabbed repeatedly. Her body was found several days after she died.
Her husband, Mike Rutledge, reportedly told two people he "killed that girl." Police say he confessed to the crime. Rutledge has been charged with capital murder in Laura's death. The couple was in the middle of a divorce.
Forty-eight hours later, on the opposite end of the state, the body of Khristie Shoats, 45, was found in the driver's seat of a parked car in her Woodville driveway. She had a gunshot wound to the head.
Her husband, Rudolph "Rudi" Shoats, was named as a suspect and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Shoats, a fire captain in Louisiana, fled to Colorado. Shoats shot himself in an emergency room parking lot before going over a cliff in his car. He died on scene.
The day after Khristie Shoats was killed, Priscilla Carter, 36, was found inside of her apartment complex in Tupelo. She died of a gunshot wound to the neck. Her death is being treated as a homicide. The investigation is ongoing. Police have not named a suspect.
The following day, on Aug. 1, Chelsea Pace, 21, was shot multiple times inside her Brooksville home. Her body was dragged from the house, a trail leading into the wood where she was then set on fire. Her 4-year-old son was also shot but survived.
Police launched a manhunt for her boyfriend, 22-year-old Marcus Gardner. Hours later, Gardner was arrested.
He has been charged with murder and aggravated assualt.
Less than a week later, Carol Sharp, 23, was shot with a handgun inside the apartment she shared with her husband. She died of a gunshot to the head, according to Lee County Coroner Carolyn Green.
Her husband, James Sharp, 24, called 911 and said the shooting was accidental, according to Capt. Charles McDougald. Sharp has been charged with murder.
Two days after Sharp's death, 42-year-old Sierra Jefferson was shot outside of the Gulfport clinic where she worked. Moments before her death, Jefferson and her husband, Jerome Jefferson, 47, had been in the middle of an argument. Sierra turned and walked away. Authorities say that's when Jerome Jefferson shot his wife with a handgun.
Jerome Jefferson fled the scene and drove to the Harrison County Jail where he turned himself in.
Sierra Jefferson was airlifted to an Alabama hospital. She died four days later.
Jefferson has been charged with murder.
Each of the women have a story. They range in ages, are of different races and professions. Some were mothers, others were not. However, at least four of the five women have one thing in common.
They were all reportedly killed or injured by a man they were in a relationship with.
Just like the women they are accused of killing, each of the men are different. Their ages, race and background varies. Some have dozens of arrests while others have no criminal record. One confessed to killing his wife. Another shot himself on the run. All are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Before his arrest for capital murder, Rutledge had more than a dozen run-ins with law enforcement. His arrests range from destroying public property — a church and cemetery — to simple assault and malicious mischief.
He has pleaded guilty to simple assault three times since 2013.
According to an incident report obtained by the Booneville Police Department, in 2013, Rutledge "picked up a pipe from the roadside" and hit a woman's car before he begin kicking the vehicle's taillight. Rutledge then allegedly busted the tailpipe and told the woman he was "homicidal" and would "get a knife and gut her."
In another instance, in 2014, Rutledge was charged with "harassing/threatening phone calls" for texting someone "a gang would be coming for them."
One report from 2016, where he allegedly shot at someone, listed an alias for Rutledge as "Krazy." Rutledge was charged with aggravated assault in that incident.
Rudi and Khristie Shoats married last year, according to their Facebook pages. Rudi Shoats was a 13-year veteran of the Zachary Fire Department and was Firefighter of the Year in 2015 and 2016, according to Zachary Fire Chief Danny Kimble.
When asked if domestic violence had ever occurred in the relationship, Kimble responded, "I wouldn't have any knowledge of that." He added that Rudi Shoats did not have a disciplinary record at the fire department.
Gardner and Pace had reportedly just moved from Starkville into a mobile home together in Brooksville. Gardner does not have any prior arrest history with the Starkville Police Department, the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Department or the Macon Police Department.
The Noxubee County Sheriff's Department would not release any information on Gardner, directing all questions to Sheriff Tony Grassarree. Grassarree could not be reached for comment.
Capt. Charles McDougald with the Tupelo Police Department would not discuss James Sharp, including any possible prior arrest record, citing department policy.
Lee County Justice Court would not release any information relating to Sharp. The Lee County district attorney's office referred all questions to the Lee County Circuit Court. Sharp does not show up in the system with the Lee County circuit clerk.
Jerome Jefferson Sr. is listed five times in the online jail docket in Harrison County. The charges, which begin in 2011, are all misdemeanors and range from suspended driver's license to disturbance to public drunkenness in a public place.
‘There isn’t a cookie-cutter abuser’
In addition to the six women who were killed in 18 days, a Tupelo woman and her daughter were kidnapped at gunpoint allegedly by the mother's boyfriend.
Wendy Mahoney, executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said there is no such thing as a textbook abuser or victim.
"There isn't a cookie-cutter abuser," she said. "There is not a cookie-cutter victim or survivor. There is no script for it.
"The thing about domestic violence is it has no socioeconomic status. It’s not about a person's religious affiliation, educational attainment or any of those things. We know that domestic violence is not about a person having a mental illness or being an alcoholic or getting addicted. That’s why it’s so hard to thread the needle because there is no thread."
Green said she has a seen a "spike in homicides in general," not just in the deaths of women.
"I don't know if it's just the environment we're living in compounded with the economy and the drug environment," she said. "People don't fight any more really, they just shoot and kill. It's just a combination of issues, I think."
While Carter's death is unsolved, it's being investigated as a homicide. Sharp's death is a "definite domestic case," Green said.
In a single day in September 2016, 484 women in Mississippi sought help for domestic violence, Mahoney said, citing data from the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Mahoney said she isn't sure if there is an uptick in domestic violence cases, saying, "I think we're just paying attention to it more."
She encouraged those who are in an abusive relationship, whether it's physical, emotional, sexual or psychological, to seek help.
"People are hurting and don't know what to do or how to get out and the fear keeps you in the relationship," she said. "There is a way out. There really is a way out."