Decades pass, memories don’t: Jailer slain in July 1974

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 12, 2004

Jailer A. Holly Koerper sits in the Warren County Jail in 1972, two years before he was stabbed to death. (FileThe Vicksburg Post)

[7/11/04]On a summer morning 30 years ago, the man charged with keeping the Warren County Jail safe and sound was slain by an inmate one considered among the most trusted.

At about 6 on Saturday, July 6, 1974, 71-year-old A. Holly Koerper arrived for his 8-hour shift in what’s now called the “old jail.”

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Thirty minutes later, he was stabbed to death.

Trusty Arthur Lee Stevenson, then 24 and serving a six-month sentence for a strong-arm robbery, fled the jail with his jail girlfriend, Geneva Mitchell, whom he had freed from her cell.

Thirty years later, family and friends still remember “Mr. Holly” fondly, and Stevenson, having escaped a death sentence, remains in prison.

Another trusty, Wilbert Thames, saw most of what happened.

In Stevenson’s first trial three weeks after the slaying Thames testified that he awoke at about 6:30 to loud voices.

“I heard Mr. Holly beg, Arthur Lee, don’t do that to me. I’ve got the keys in my pocket, and I’ll give them to you if you let me up.”‘

Thames said he went to the door of the room, saw Stevenson standing with a knife over the jailer. The orginal police report showed that Thames told officers he saw Stevenson stab Koerper repeatedly.

“I told him Please don’t do that,’ and he said to me, Keep quiet,’ or he’d kill me,” Thames testified.

Thames left the room, and minutes later he saw Stevenson run from the room and unlock Geneva Mitchell’s cell. She had been the reason, testimony later showed, that Stevenson had become angry with Koerper.

The inmate had asked for private time with the woman, and Koerper refused permission.

Mitchell, then 19, was serving time for grand larceny.

“I’ve did something. Come and go with me,'” Thames said he heard Stevenson tell Mitchell. Stevenson asked Thames if he wanted to be freed and Thames declined.

When the couple left the jail, Thames left his cell and found Koerper in a pool of blood near the dining area of the kitchen.

The jail’s telephone was locked in the room, so Thames ran outside, flagging down a passing motorist, a fire department battalion chief who stopped and called for an ambulance and police and sheriff’s officers.

Then-Sheriff Paul Barrett was phoned and told the news. Stevenson had apparently locked the jail from the outside and Barrett had an extra key at home.

“They called and told me what Arthur Lee had done, and I grabbed the key I had here” and headed to the jail, Barrett said last week.

What he saw when he arrived was devastating, said Barrett, who was sheriff for 28 years before leaving office in 1995.

“I’ve worked some gruesome murder sites, but that hurt me more than any of the others,” Barrett said.

A manhunt with police and sheriff’s deputies was on including a search in a helicopter.

Charles Riles, then the county coroner, got a call that someone had died at the jail, but never imagined it would be a jailer.

“I walked over and saw his body,” Riles said. “He had been mutilated butchered.

“It was the most horrible, heinous thing I’d seen at the time or even up until now,” said Riles, who has worked in the funeral business for 44 years. “He was stabbed repeatedly with slashings. It was totally uncalled for.”

Riles said Koerper was a kind-hearted, but firm, man. “He was just a good man, and to die in that way, you just can’t reason it out.”

Riles later determined that Koerper had received 27 stab wounds five in the chest, six in the upper and right side of the abdomen, seven on his right hand and right arm, more on his left hand and arm. His left wrist was nearly severed, apparently from an attempt to shield himself, and a slash on his neck indicated an attempt to cut his throat.