Jailer killed on duty memorialized 50 years later: the story of A. ‘Holly’ Koerper

Published 7:51 pm Sunday, July 7, 2024

When Warren County jailer A. “Holly” Koerper reported to work at 6 a.m. on the morning of July 6, 1974, he had no idea it would be his last day on this earth. Within an hour’s time, he was killed by an inmate he knew personally and thus began a quest for justice that lasted more than 40 years.

Saturday, Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace, who was only in high school when Koerper was killed, held a special ceremony honoring his life and service to his community, and making sure his sacrifice is never forgotten.

“It’s because of people like ‘Holly’ Koerper that the citizens of this nation are able to know with confidence that someone is standing between them and evil,” Pace said.

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On the morning he died, as was the usual routine, the 71 year-old Koerper and trustee Arthur Lee Stevenson greeted each other. Stevenson began breakfast preparations for the jail. He was serving a six-month sentence for strong-arm robbery.

At 6:30 a.m., trustee Wilbert Thames was awakened by loud voices. He reportedly heard Koerper say, “‘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 headed toward the noise and saw Stevenson kneeling over Koerper with a knife. Stevenson threatened to kill Thames if he didn’t leave, so Thames went back to his cell, listening as Stevenson took the keys from Koerper and went to the women’s unit to release his then-girlfriend Geneva Mitchell.

After both inmates had fled the jail, Thames found Koerper lying in a pool of blood in the dining area of the kitchen. Since the telephone was in a locked office, he ran outside and flagged down a passing motorist. Although it was too late, an ambulance was called and more police and sheriff’s deputies were summoned.

After a brief hunt, Stevenson and Mitchell were located in an abandoned house on Farmer Street and taken into custody. Koerper lay dead in the jail, with 27 stab wounds to his body, including nearly severed hands and a cut throat.

It would take more than 20 years to finally convict Stevenson of the murder. The first attempt ended in a mistrial. The second found Stevenson guilty and he was sentenced to death. That verdict was overturned on the basis that Stevenson should have been granted a psychiatric examination and the trial should have been moved out of Warren County due to pre-trial publicity. The third trial, in 1976 in Tupelo, also found Stevenson guilty and he was again sentenced to death and set to die in the electric chair. However, that verdict was also overturned when it was discovered one of the jurors was not old enough to serve.

During the fourth trial in 1978, Stevenson pleaded guilty, on the condition that the death sentence was removed and he would spend the rest of his life in jail without parole. But 19 years later, the high court in Mississippi found that a sentence of life without parole did not exist and overturned that decision.

A fifth trial commenced in 1997. Although the trial took place in Warren County, the jurors were brought in from Brookhaven. After three days, Stevenson was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison with the option of parole. Although this case was also appealed, the high court upheld the conviction.

In February of 2010, Stevenson was released on parole, but within 14 months he was arrested again and sent back to prison, where he remains today.

Family members, including Koerper’s granddaughter Ann Griffin, a great-niece, great-nephew, great and great-great grandchildren and a great-great nephew attended Saturday’s ceremony to remember and honor their fallen family member. He was remembered as a family man who was dedicated to public service.

The plaque to memorialize Koerper will be placed in the lobby of the jail.

“He paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Pace said. “And I think it’s our duty to remember him.”