May wanted no relationship with Wardle, testimony shows

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 17, 2010

PURVIS — Witnesses for the state testified here Tuesday that James Neal May had told Jennifer Wardle he wanted to break off their relationship and that she was angry and had a gun the night before his body was found in a mobile home off West 4th Street on May 1, 2002.

Wardle, then nine months pregnant and now 29, is being tried for murder in the death of May, a Vicksburg native and senior at the University of Southern Mississippi whose death was ruled suicide by investigators.

According to testimony, May had joined a hometown friend and her then-fiance in nearby Hattiesburg for a few beers and conversation the night before he died.

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Wardle, indicted in October 2007 after state investigators reviewed the local findings, gave birth a few weeks after May’s death. Tuesday, she sat in the courtroom quietly and listened to May’s friends testify.

Jennifer Wilson, Samantha Tarnabine and James Benge each said that they had been drinking at one point or another with May on the night of April 30 and into the morning of May 1.

Each also described the arrival of a nine-months pregnant Wardle at Tarnabine’s mobile home around 10:30 p.m. April 30.

“She came screaming in the driveway, got out of her vehicle and instantly started yelling and screaming, ‘You have your cell phone turned off! What if I was in the hospital?’” said Benge, who worked at Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg, adjacent to The Mahogany Bar where Tarnabine, her fiance and May had started the evening about 7 p.m.

Benge said Wardle was enraged that May wasn’t with her and accused him of cheating on her.

“It didn’t stop,” Benge said. “It was a solid argument, all night long. She was like a dog with a bone, and wouldn’t let it go.”

May and Tarnabine’s fiance left and went to the End Zone, a pool hall, but returned.

“We were talking with her, and she was just pacing around,” said Tarnabine, who had been friends with May since their childhood days in Vicksburg. “She went back outside.”

Benge said he went to look for Wardle and found her in May’s truck, going through his glove box, and then pulling a handgun from between the seat cushions.

“She had been through his cell phone, and I was just standing there thinking how I was going to extricate myself when she reaches between the seat cushion and pulls out a pistol,” Benge said. “She made me very uncomfortable.”

Eventually, the three girls went for cigarettes, and then made a quick detour to the End Zone.

“We went in, and he went out and talked to her for a minute, and then we left,” Tarnabine said.

About 2:30 a.m. May returned to Tarnabine’s trailer, and Wardle started to question him about the calls on his cell phone.

“She confronted him almost immediately about his list on the phone,” Benge said.

May denied it at first, but then told Wardle that he had been seeing someone else for the past few weeks.

“He had made it pretty clear,” said Wilson, a friend of Tarnabine’s. “He wanted to take care of the baby, but he did not want to be romantically involved with her any more.”

May’s high school girlfriend, Kristin Day, testified that the two had kept in contact over the years, and that they had rekindled their romance in the weeks leading up to his death.

Day said Wardle called her the morning after the death, not only to tell her of the death but to demand the details of her relationship with May.

“She said that she had driven May home, and that after they got there, he laid his head on her stomach and then started to cry,” Day said. “He said he needed his keys to his truck, and she said she told him, ‘No, you’re not going to get that gun.’”

Day said May took the keys to get his cigarettes from the truck, but then also got the gun, went into the trailer, locking Wardle out.

“She was outside then, she said, when she heard a shot, and that she kicked down the door of the trailer and found he had shot himself.”

Three testified that later Wardle changed her story. Wilson and Tarnabine said that after May’s funeral they had gone to May’s trailer, and Wardle was there.

Both said that Wardle said May had been sitting on his bed with the gun, when he was startled by a cat and the gun went off.

Day said Wardle later told her that after hearing the shot, she went and got a neighbor before returning to kick the door down.

Defense lawyers Jim Dukes and John Colette said the witnesses’ stories Tuesday varied from the sworn statements they had given to MBI agents in 2003.

Dukes had Benge read from his statement, where he had said that Tarnabine’s fiance had  given May prescription Valium “to celebrate the birth of his baby” that night.

But Carmen McIntire of the state Crime Lab testified that tests on two blood samples and a urine sample from May were negative for any drugs, including Valium.

May’s mother, Peggi, testified that her son had first brought Wardle to Vicksburg in early 2001. But after another visit in 2001, she said the next time that she saw Wardle was in the courtroom this week.

She said that for a while Wardle had called at times, looking for her son, but that she had not heard from her since April 29, 2002, when she picked up her home phone to find Wardle on the other end.

“She was asking, ‘Is Neal there? He was supposed to come by and see me,’” Peggi May said. “I was frightened of her and Neal’s relationship with her.”

Wardle was not permitted to attend May’s funeral.

Lamar County Coroner Blake Davis, who was a deputy coroner at the time of May’s death, testified that the cause on the death certificate read “self-inflicted GSW (gunshot wound) to head.”

MBI investigator Eric Johnson said in his testimony that the entry wound was in the lower, right-hand rear portion of the skull. Peggi May and her son’s friends all testified that James Neal May was lefthanded.

Jurors were empaneled to hear the case Monday and may deliberate before week’s end.

Tim Doherty writes for The Hattiesburg American