In a country cemetery, two dozen mourners trudge to the grave of an 11-year-old girl – her stone marked with pink letters and lined with stuffed rabbits.
They hold hands, sing hymns and release bunches of white balloons, tributes to a murdered fifth-grader who dreamed of becoming a nurse.
Then they file slowly back to their cars, wearing T-shirts that read “Justice for McKenzie,” praying the girl’s killer will face justice.
“Maybe McKenzie’s angel will send us a hint,” said Dudley Starke, her grandfather.
In September 2013, McKenzie Sessoms was found unresponsive on a couch in her father’s double-wide trailer, which sits at the end of a long dirt road in Sampson County. She had been sexually assaulted and asphyxiated, according to a coroner’s report. She had fallen asleep on a school night while an older brother held a party outside, and her father found her the next morning.
Since then, the family’s search for justice has been marred by frustration, doubt and few answers. After four years, they see the investigation dragging on without a conviction in sight, and they doubt the lone suspect – a teenage boy being detained at home by an electronic monitor – actually committed the crime.
They believe far more people attended the party than the few people described in official accounts, and they suspect many of them hold clues to what really happened. They fear McKenzie Sessoms’ murder will go unpunished – forgotten in a remote town of 427.
“I know God’s got this,” said Cathy Sessoms, her grandmother. “I really do. I need to let that young’un know I’m doing all I can. Maybe then I can let God take over.”
For eight months, investigators scrambled for leads without an arrest, and the small town of Salemburg railed against the slow pace.
“A child killer is walking free,” said a December 2013 post on the Justice for McKenzie Sessoms Facebook page. “That is not acceptable.”
Then in May 2014, sheriff’s deputies charged a 14-year-old neighbor and high school freshman, Antonio Trey Jones, with the girl’s murder and rape. Though a juvenile and not initially identified publicly, he was charged as an adult. Sessoms’ family described Jones as a special education student who suffers from epilepsy.
But their relief at Jones’ arrest would be short-lived. The case has not come to trial. Three years later, Jones was released from juvenile detention into his mother’s custody in Franklin County 100 miles north, where he is kept on an electronic monitor with bail reduced from $2 million to $100,000.
At a 2017 hearing, his attorney, Kevin Kiernan, told a Superior Court judge that no physical evidence existed against his client – only his statement to investigators that is widely contradicted. He would not discuss where the case will go next.
“The best that I can give you, information-wise, on that is it is still pending,” he said.
Sessoms’ family now believes that Jones – who at the time of his arrest stood 5-foot-3 and weighed 110 pounds, only 18 pounds more than the 11-year-old victim – did not commit the crime.
“He didn’t weigh 80 pounds soaking wet,” said Cathy Starke, Sessoms’ grandmother. “McKenzie was bigger than he was.”
At the girl’s grave, four years after her death, the family finds no solace.
Salemburg sits only 60 miles south of Raleigh, but life there is starkly rural. Country roads are lined with tobacco and soybeans. Turkeys peek out of houses on Butterball farms. The grill on Main Street serves chicken livers and gizzards.
McKenzie Sessoms lived what the coroner described as a “tumultuous” life, molested at age 7, sent to live with her father after a custody battle. Her mother, Patricia Faircloth, said social workers sent her daughter to live with Donnie Rae Sessoms because she would have her own bedroom in his mobile home, though renovations there kept her temporarily on the couch.
Still, if the girl’s own Facebook page is a guide, she stayed happy enough. She posted pictures of horses and country singer Luke Bryan and herself.
“Its time for school again IM GLAD,” she wrote before starting fourth grade.
On the night she died, she studied, swam in a family pool and went to sleep on the couch at 9, according to the medical examiner’s report. Her father and an older brother both went to bed afterward. A middle brother went out back “to party” with two friends.
After his granddaughter’s death, Dudley Starke investigated the case on his own. He interviewed people around town, “going places I shouldn’t have been,” and later estimated that at least a dozen people had attended the party – many more than the official account listed.
Sessoms, the father, could not be reached for comment for this story. A tall gate stretches across his dirt road, blocking the property from visitors.
The Sampson County district attorney and sheriff would not discuss details of the case. But the Starkes said they were told by both offices they would have to pay for DNA samples to be tested in Texas. The testing was to cost $1,300 for each sample, and the family made plans to raise more than $20,000 on a GoFundMe page.
Those instructions changed, the Starkes said, and they did not pay for any DNA analysis. But they described conversations with investigators in which, at one point, they were once told that 19 samples still needed to be tested. In another conversation recently, they said they learned that no further testing could be done.
At any rate, the Starkes maintain their account and see the possibility of DNA testing elsewhere as a lost opportunity. “They should have gone to Texas,” said Cathy Starke in the cemetery Sunday.
‘I’ve been tied up’
Both District Attorney Ernie Lee and Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton insisted that the Starkes were never instructed to pay DNA testing costs.
“We wouldn’t ask no one to do that,” Thornton said.
Neither would discuss the case in detail, but they said the murder charge against Jones is still pending.
“Oh, yeah,” Thornton assured. “We would have preferred the bond not being lowered, but you have to consider his age.”
Lee’s district covers Onslow, Jones, Duplin and Sampson counties – a large and mostly rural slice of North Carolina. A prosecutor since 1987, Lee counted 39 pending murder cases among the four counties.
He said as far as he knows no other suspects are being pursued and all DNA samples have been examined. While Jones’ trial has not been placed on the calendar, “it’s only because I’ve been tied up with so many cases,” Lee said.
Meanwhile, Jones no longer lives with his mother at the Louisburg address listed in court papers. A new tenant there said the family moved out more than a month ago. She did not know where they moved, and Jones’ attorney would not discuss his client’s location.
Lee said he schedules trials 12 to 18 months out, making it less likely the case will be resolved before late 2018.
So McKenzie Sessoms’ family waits, holding vigils to keep her memory vivid. Last Sunday, as they released balloons, her mother pleaded for information she knows someone is hiding. Dudley Starke finished his service with a warning that would, under normal circumstances, seem obvious.
“If you’re going to have an adult party, send your children away,” he said. “Take care of them. Watch them grow. This was totally unnecessary. Totally uncalled for.”
And he walked away from the grave.
Can you help?
Investigators ask anyone with information about the murder of McKenzie Sessoms to call the Sampson County sheriff at 910-592-4141.