Written by Robert A. Waters
Note: Some content in this story is graphic. Just a warning!
On June 22, 2000, at 10:30 p.m., sixteen-year-old Leesa Marie Gray left Comer’s Restaurant in Dorsey, Mississippi to drive home. A part-time waitress and high school junior, Leesa felt edgy. A strange man had come into the cafeteria around noon and tried flirting with her. He stood well over six feet tall, looked to be in his mid-to-late thirties, and had a hard face with weird-looking green eyes. Leesa ignored him, and after he ate a cheeseburger, the stranger left.
Unincorporated, the community of Dorsey lies in Itawamba County, Mississippi with a population of about 4,000. Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley, is about 20 miles away.
At 9:00 that night, Thomas Edwin Loden, Jr. returned to the restaurant and ordered another cheeseburger to go. The day before, he had driven from his home in Vicksburg to visit his ailing grandmother. Years before, Loden had grown up in Dorsey, attending the same high school as Leesa Marie.
As she left for the night, Leesa saw the strange man leaning against his two-tone green Ford Econoline van. He gave her the creeps, so she scurried into her car and sped off. Out on the highway, she suddenly felt and heard the tell-tale sign of a tire rim grinding against the asphalt. Oh no, she must have thought. A flat tire. Leesa pulled off the road, less than a half-mile from her home.
Court documents report that “when Leesa did not return home from work as expected, her mother, Wanda Marie Farris, became worried and began making phone calls in an attempt to locate her daughter. Mrs. Farris called Comer’s Restaurant cook, Richard Tallant, who told her that as he was driving home, he had seen a car on the side of the road with hazard lights flashing. [After the call], Tallant immediately returned to the abandoned car, saw that it was Leesa’s, and drove to Mrs. Farris’ home. They discovered that one of the tires on the vehicle was flat, the doors were unlocked, and Leesa’s purse and cell phone were inside the car. They called the Itawamba County Sheriff’s Office, and an investigation began into Leesa’s disappearance.”
During questioning, Tallant stated that he had recognized Thomas Edwin Loden, Jr. in the restaurant earlier that day. The cook informed detectives that Loden had driven 400 miles to visit his grandmother who owned a farm nearby. Loden, he said, had made inappropriate comments to the attractive blonde high schooler.
Detectives quickly drove to the home of Rena Loden, grandmother of the suspect. In the driveway, they noticed Loden’s van and a beige Oldsmobile 88 Regency that belonged to Mrs. Loden. They learned the suspect was in the house asleep. At the time, they had no warrant to search the home or the vehicles, so they left. Investigators soon located two witnesses from the restaurant who identified Loden’s van as the one seen on the premises that night.
Deputies returned shortly with a search warrant. In the house, investigators found a pair of shorts stained with blood. Inside the Olds, they located a “rope fashioned into a handcuff style knot.”
Detectives towed the car and van to Highway Patrol Headquarters in New Albany. There “Leesa’s body was found pushed under a fold-down seat in Loden’s van. Along with other evidence, a JVC camcorder was recovered from the van, and a VHS compact video cassette was removed from it. Footage from the video depicts Leesa Marie Gray being forced to engage in fellatio on Loden, Loden vaginally raping her, and anal penetration of Leesa with his fingers.” In addition, the killer used a cucumber to repeatedly assault the teenager. According to court documents, “footage depicts Loden twisting the breast of an unconscious Leesa in an apparent attempt to bring her back to consciousness.” *
The coroner ruled that Leesa’s death had been caused by suffocation and manual strangulation.
Cops, stunned by the brutality of Loden’s crimes, expanded their search for him.
In a bizarre twist to an already strange case, a passerby found Loden lying in a ditch beside the road and called 911. Using a broken beer bottle, the suspect had carved the words, “I’m sorry,” across his chest. He also had superficial cuts to his wrists. After treatment for his injuries, detectives questioned Loden. He initially denied having murdered Leesa, but the evidence against him was so strong he later admitted he “may have” done it, although he claimed not to remember.
Loden had never had any serious run-ins with the law. After graduating from high school, he joined the United States Marine Corps. He worked his way up to gunnery sergeant and at the time of his arrest had spent four years as a Marine Corps recruiter. He fought in Operation Desert Storm. Standing six-feet-four inches tall, and weighing nearly two hundred pounds, Loden could have easily subdued Leesa.
In an article form the AFA Journal, Rusty Benson writes, “Loden stepped outside [the restaurant], pretending to tend to something in his van. It was parked next to Leesa’s 1992 opal green Honda Accord. A perfect plan and perfect execution, he must have thought, as he knelt down between his van and Leesa’s car, out of view of anyone who might happen along. Then he buried the business end of a utility knife deep into Leesa’s passenger side tire. The blade broke off. He probably figured she would be a few thousand feet down the road toward home before the tire completely deflated and forced her to stop. He was right.” Investigators later found the blade wedged between the threads of the flat tire.
Addicted to hard core pornography, Loden had likely acted out a violent sexual fantasy on the innocent girl. Leesa Marie Gray had endured more than four hours of extreme sexual torture before being killed.
Pleading guilty to murder, rape, kidnapping and sexual battery of Leesa, the court sentenced Loden to death. For more than twenty years, he has fought justice through appeal after appeal, but Mississippi has now set a date for the killer’s execution: December 14, 2022.
It can’t come too soon.
*(The court stated that a copy of the videotape had been placed in a vault to be protected from public scrutiny.)
NOTE: Thomas Edwin Loden, Jr. was executed at 6:12 p.m. on December 15, 2022.