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He was everybody’s family,’ granddaughter says

Sitting with a photo of slain jailer A. Holly Koerper are his great-niece, Lisa Counts, left, and granddaughter, Ann Griffin, both of Vicksburg. (Meredith SpencerThe Vicksburg Post)

[7/11/04]”Mr. Holly,” the Warren County jailer who was stabbed to death 30 years ago this month, was known by family, co-workers and friends for a kind-hearted nature and gentle manner.

August Holly Koerper was even on good terms with the inmate who would be convicted of killing him.

“They were friends,” said Koerper’s granddaughter, Ann Griffin of Vicksburg.

Arthur Lee Stevenson was in the Warren County Jail that Saturday morning serving six months for robbery. He had earlier served as a trusty, an inmate who is accorded privileges because he has proven trustworthiness, but he had been returned to regular inmate status because of “some trouble.”

Four days before his brutal stabbing death, the 71-year-old jailer asked then-Sheriff Paul Barrett to allow Stevenson to be a trusty again.

“Granddad was like, Come on Paul, I’ll watch him,'” Griffin said.

Today, Barrett said, that’s a request he still regrets granting.

“That’s a move you make that you wish you could take back,” Barrett said.

Stevenson had been in jail for a string of burglary, larceny and trespassing arrests dating to 1965, and Koerper came to trust the man over time.

“He found the good in everybody,” Griffin said.

Though Griffin’s family moved around the country because her father was in the military, they frequently visited Vicksburg and her grandparents.

Koerper was married to Dennie Koerper, who died in 2001.

Griffin has snippets of childhood memories with her grandfather they fed the birds in the yard of his Grove Street home; he read to her; he bought her bananas at a nearby grocery; and she ate them even though she hated them.

And on the Thanksgiving holidays that her grandfather worked, the family had dinner at the jail with the inmates.

“Officers would come in and have dinner. We’d spend the whole day up there,” she said. “I’d want to stay up there and play with the inmates all day, but he’d say, No.'”

And though Koerper had three grandchildren (Griffin has two brothers who live out-of-state) the deputies and even the sheriff considered “Mr. Holly” their own.

“He was one of those people who is like your grandfather. He was a big old fellow with a big belly,” said Charles Riles, who was Warren County coroner at the time of Koerper’s death. “He had a coin purse just like your grandfather might have.”

Riles recalled visiting the jail and Koerper’s offering the then-county coroner a leftover biscuit the two were friends from then on.

“He was one of the most down-to-earth, sweetest fellows you’d ever want to meet, but he was the authority on the jail and its operations.

“He would get on that radio and talk to those deputies, even the sheriff, like they were his children,” Riles said. “He was fit for that job.”

Barrett agreed.

“He was like a second father to me. He helped me in every way. He took care of the jail and was good to everybody.

“I admired the man to the highest.”

And the men who knew him well former colleagues, his boss and acquaintances all utter almost the same line about him.

“He was the finest man you’d ever want to meet,” they say.

Kenny Channell, who may have been the last deputy to visit with Koerper on the day of his death, remembered the jailer as a good friend.

“He’d do anything for you and give you everything he had,” said Channell, whose shift was ending as Koerper’s began at 6 that July morning.

“I got off work and went by the jail and drank coffee with Mr. Holly,” said Channell, now the ordinance officer for the Warren County Board of Supervisors. “We were just talking, I can’t remember what we were talking about, and I was polishing my boots.

“Arthur Lee came in and said he’d polish my other boot while I drank my coffee.

“I got ready to leave and I told Mr. Holly that I was going to my daddy’s in Hazlehurst and I’d see him when I got back.”

Channell heard of his friend’s death in a phone call at about 11 a.m. The killing had happened at 6:30.

Griffin remembers her mother getting their phone call at their North Carolina home.

“She dropped the phone and just fell on the ground,” Griffin said.

Griffin was 13, and her father told her and her brothers to pack their bags. They’d just returned from a trip to Mississippi and weren’t looking forward to another long haul. Their parents broke the news during the drive.

At her grandfather’s funeral at Glenwood Funeral Home, Griffin remembers being told to look at him as if he were sleeping.

“And that’s the way I remember him,” she said.

After the services, Griffin stayed behind at her great-grandmother’s home on Mission 66 and watched the funeral procession to Cedar Hill Cemetery.

“I was standing on top of a hill, and my cousin and I counted the cars that passed. We stopped at like 200. I didn’t think I could count that high.

“He was everybody’s family.”