Tory Sanders walked out of the early morning darkness on May 5 and into the glowing lights of the Flying J truck stop. He was on the edge of the small town of Charleston in the Bootheel region of Missouri, nearing the end of a confused, winding journey that would ultimately end with his death.
At the time, though, he seemed like any other traveler. "I just give him a few cigarettes," says Jessica Housman, who was working the deli at the Flying J. "He seemed like a nice guy."
It must have been about 4 a.m., Housman figures, and Sanders sat around for a few hours. The truck stop has a laundry, and he was killing time while he washed a pair of pants. In between bumming L&M 100s from Housman, he began chatting with her and other employees. Eventually, he asked if they would call the police for him. He explained that he believed that he was wanted on a warrant back in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee; he wanted to clear it up with officers.
It had been a long night for Sanders. The 28-year-old married father of eight suffers from depression and had set out the day before on a road trip to "clear his head," an aunt says. He was apparently driving toward Memphis, where he had family, but made a wrong turn and drifted north into Missouri. He ran out of gas just across the state line near the town of Marston, population 500.
A stranger in an unfamiliar place, Sanders had ditched his green Toyota Avalon there and hitched a ride about 25 miles north to a Walmart. His travels after that are a bit of a mystery, but he eventually popped up another sixteen miles east, at the Flying J in Charleston.
For a city guy who'd spent the past twelve hours or so lost in the low farmlands of southeast Missouri, this latest stop probably seemed about the same as the others. But he had now crossed into Mississippi County, setting himself on a collision course with Sheriff Cory Hutcheson, a rural lawman of growing infamy. Hutcheson was out on bond following his arrest the month before on eighteen criminal charges, including accusations that he'd robbed and assaulted a 77-year-old hairdresser. He was also facing civil lawsuits in federal court, alleging he was responsible for the ghastly stillbirth of a pregnant inmate's baby and the overdose death of a young mom who'd been arrested for DUI after a fender bender.
Those are not the kind of things you know, however, when you're a stranger, lost and stranded nearly three hours from home.
At the Flying J, Sanders seemed clear-eyed and sober to Housman.
"He was very calm," she remembers. "He just sat there in the lounge for at least a couple of hours."
The staff did call police, but only because Sanders himself requested it. Eventually, a Charleston cop pulled up in a patrol car and met Sanders out front. Housman was not outside then and isn't certain what happened next. She assumed Sanders left with the officer. She didn't think much more about it. Even when she heard about a death at the Mississippi County Detention Center, she did not immediately connect the news to the nice man she met that morning.
Now that she has, she thinks of him and his family, and she wonders what happened.
"Everybody deserves an answer," she says.
Across the nation, both media and activists have paid increasing attention to black men and women who end up dead after coming into contact with law enforcement, sometimes for no greater reason than a routine traffic stop. Cases like that of Sandra Bland, who was pulled over in the Houston suburbs for failure to signal a lane change and later found dead in a jail cell in an apparent suicide, have generated serious discussion about why police sometimes escalate at exactly the moment when they should stand down.
As a young black man who initially reached out to officers because he needed help, Sanders fits the pattern of some of the more high-profile cases. But the facts of his final days seem even more disturbing because the sheriff who was present in his jail cell — and by some accounts led the fatal confrontation — was himself under indictment, even while Sanders was facing no charges in Mississippi County.
The fact that Sheriff Cory Hutcheson was still on the job when Tory Sanders came to town was part legal leniency and part stubbornness.
Elected in November, the 33-year-old had been in office less than four months when he was arrested on charges filed by Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley. Hutcheson, a Republican in a county that voted heavily for Trump even while most local office holders remained Democrats, had promised during a bitter campaign to rid the county of drugs and drug dealers. After he took office in January, he promoted his image as a man who could get things done, leading a newly assembled team of deputies to make dozens of narcotics arrests as he taunted suspects through Facebook and the local newspapers.
Hawley, however, had begun to see the brash young sheriff as a threat to the people of Mississippi County and the rule of law. On April 5, he filed criminal charges against Hutcheson and had him arrested.
At the bail hearing, Hawley says, a prosecutor from his office tried to get the judge to deny the sheriff bond or at least set conditions of his release that would keep him from continuing to run the sheriff's office while under indictment. Both requests were denied.
The charges against Hutcheson covered a pair of cases, filed in tandem. In the hairdresser case, the sheriff is accused of stepping in the middle of a dispute between his 23-year-old sister-in-law, Kasey Hall, and the elderly sisters who operate Joyce's Beauty Shop in his hometown of East Prairie. Hutcheson went in uniform in March to collect his sister-in-law's $428 final paycheck and ended up handcuffing 77-year-old Bonnie Woods' left wrist and snatching the check from her right hand, according to the criminal complaint. The confrontation led Woods to suffer a heart attack, authorities say.
Hutcheson also filed a bogus probable cause statement with the county prosecutor, alleging Woods kidnapped and assaulted his sister-in-law, authorities say. The sheriff has acknowledged in court filings that he at least tried to handcuff the septuagenarian after she used "physical force" and that he later deposited the check into Hall's bank account. He also admits he sent a document regarding the case to the county prosecutor, but he claims he did that before he saw Woods that day. Everything he did, according to the defense outlined in court documents, was done properly and within his duties as a law enforcement officer.
"If an injury occurred to Ms. Woods in the course of the facts alleged in the complaint, it was due to her unlawful acts in not submitting to the arrest," Hutcheson's attorney argued.
Hutcheson also denies wrongdoing in the second case, which originated in an FBI investigation in 2014, when he was still a deputy. Hutcheson is accused of forging paperwork to persuade a security company to release GPS data that allowed him to track the cell phone locations of a judge, five state troopers and the county's then-sheriff — the man he would successfully challenge in the 2016 election.
Hutcheson's arrest made statewide news, but he was unbowed. After a few hours in jail, he posted $75,000 worth of bonds and returned to work. Even when the state took emergency action to suspend his peace officer's license, Hutcheson continued to head the department.
He was supposed to be acting only as an administrator, prohibited from overseeing investigations, making arrests or even responding to emergency calls. All of those duties were to fall under the watch of the chief deputy. But even that fraught separation of powers proved to be too much authority for Hutcheson, Hawley says — something that became all too obvious on the day Tory Sanders died.
As the day of May 5 wore on, Tory Sanders' family went from concern to panic to disbelief. His mother, Quinta Sanders, had spent the night before and early morning fielding his phone calls, trying to help him figure out how to get home to Nashville.
"If I go to the police, will they help me?" he asked, according to his aunt.
His mother assured him that officers would at least direct him to the nearest bus station. About 4:30 a.m., Quinta Sanders had to get off the phone and go to work. With any luck, her son would sort out the problem by the time she was off-duty. But that is not what happened.
Sanders eventually made it over to Casey's General Store in Charleston later that morning, Hawley says. His first encounter with police at the Flying J had not led anywhere, so he tried again with officers at the convenience store. Sanders showed signs of distress and asked to see a counselor, according to Hawley. He also told the officers he had a warrant for his arrest as a result of an altercation with the mother of his kids before leaving Tennessee. It was now about 11 a.m., and he'd been on the road for almost 24 hours.
Charleston police agreed to check out the warrant. They took him to the Mississippi County Detention Center, where they asked for a mental health professional and ran a warrant check on Sanders.
He did have a warrant, but it was not a serious enough charge to extradite him to Nashville, according to Hawley. About noon, the mental health professional arrived, evaluated Sanders and found there was no reason to hold him.
Sanders was free to go, but there was a problem — Hawley says the out-of-towner did not want to leave.
"Details at this point are still unclear, but it appears Mr. Sanders declined to leave the holding cell in which he was waiting at this time," Hawley told reporters at a news conference. "Our early indications are that he became increasingly agitated at this point for reasons that are also still unclear."
Shortly before 4 p.m., Sanders borrowed a cell phone from the sheriff's chief deputy and dialed his mother. It was the first she had heard from him since that morning, and she was startled to learn he was in jail. Sanders' aunt, Natasha Nance, says the deputy told them that Sanders seemed to have suffered a mental breakdown. Deputies were supposedly trying to get him to a hospital.
Mother and son traded multiple calls during the next half-hour, according to the family and Hawley. About this time, jail staff called the mental health professional back to the jail for a second evaluation. This time, the counselor decided Sanders should be held for 96 hours in protective custody. Nance says the family was under the impression Sanders would soon be on his way to a hospital in Poplar Bluff, and Quinta Sanders tried to reassure her son on the phone.
"Calm down, Tory," she said, according to Nance, who was sitting beside her. "They're trying to help you."
But Sanders was frightened.
"They're not trying to help me," he told his mom. "They're trying to kill me." He claimed they were "electrocuting" him at the jail.
Indeed, according to Hawley, Sanders was shocked with a stun gun at least three times throughout the day. Nance says the family was told during a follow-up call with the jail that Sanders had been hit with a Taser twice but not to worry, because it did not seem to faze him.
Around 6 p.m., jail staff decided to move Sanders from the holding cell where he had spent the afternoon to another cell.
"Mr. Sanders was apparently unwilling to move," Hawley says. "This resulted in a series of exchanges and altercations between the jail staff and Mr. Sanders that lasted until approximately 6:45 p.m."
At the beginning of the confrontation, jail staff called in Charleston police to pepper-spray Sanders. The showdown continued into evening, heading toward a crescendo around 7 p.m. That's when Hutcheson himself arrived at the jail and started organizing his staff and the Charleston cops, Hawley says.
Fifteen minutes later, a crew of at least six stormed the cell, according to the attorney general. Ten minutes after that, at about 7:25 p.m., they called for an ambulance. Sanders was down, and his life was slipping away.
He was transported to the Missouri Delta Medical Center in nearby Sikeston, but it was already too late. The county coroner confirmed his death shortly after 8 p.m.
Tory Sanders' relatives still cannot figure out what happened inside that jail.
Mississippi County Coroner Terry Parker says an autopsy showed no signs of trauma on Sanders' body, and he will have to wait for a toxicology report and review the 28-year-old's medical history before determining the cause of death.
"In the efforts to restrain him, he collapsed, which we think there must have been some kind of medical or medicine issue involved here," Parker says.
The U.S. Department of Justice has warned against repeatedly tasing people, because research has shown the practice can increase the chance of death. And manufacturer Taser International, which has changed its name to Axon, warns against using the drive-stun mode, in which the device is jammed directly against the target's body, on mentally ill people.
"Drive-stun use may not be effective on emotionally disturbed persons or others who may not respond to pain due to a mind-body disconnect," says a company warning. "Avoid using repeated drive-stuns on such individuals if compliance is not achieved."
The circumstances of Sanders' tasing have yet to be revealed publicly. Parker did not respond to follow-up questions about Taser use in the case.
Until May 5, Sanders' relatives were blissfully unaware of Mississippi County's problems or Sheriff Cory Hutcheson. Quick Google searches that night turned up the news about the sheriff's arrest from the month before, and they have begun to sort through the disturbing allegations contained in multiple civil lawsuits.
The suits include the cases of Tara Rhodes and Somer Nunnally, both of whom were inmates in Mississippi County while Hutcheson was the jail administrator, his post before he was elected sheriff. Rhodes, who was pregnant, spent five days begging for medical help as she went into preterm labor in December 2014, according to the complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on her behalf. It was not until Hutcheson's staff transferred Rhodes to a women's prison across the state that she was seen by a doctor, and by then the baby was as good as dead. The child was stillborn on Christmas Eve.
Nunnally was a young mother, arrested at the scene of a one-car crash. She was dangerously high, and both the Charleston cops who arrested her and jailers knew it, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of her children. Instead of getting her help, corrections officers laughed after she urinated on herself and slumped onto the floor of her cell, the suit says. She died right there.
Sanders' family called the NAACP in Tennessee after his death. They have been speaking to attorneys in hopes of uncovering answers.
A lawyer for the family says they will wait on the full investigation to decide their next steps, but what they have heard so far is troubling.
"This is not how you respond to a mental health crisis," Nashville-based attorney Michael Hoskins told reporters at a news conference. "If someone is having a mental health crisis, you do not detain them and forcibly restrain them and tase them and brutalize them in a cell. This is not the way you treat people with mental health issues in America. This is a complete travesty."
Nance says there are just too many questions. She wants to know the jail's protocol for dealing with the mentally ill. She wants to know why the only signs of trauma on her nephew's body were from a Taser when Hutcheson has claimed that Sanders put six officers in the hospital. And she wants to know why Hutcheson, a man facing eighteen criminal charges, was still running the sheriff's office.
The answers are slow in coming, but Hutcheson and his crew will eventually have to answer, Nance says.
"They've got a long road ahead of them," she says. "They better get ready to see us."
Cory Hutcheson remains defiant.
After Sanders' death, he told the Riverfront Times in an email that Sanders had become "combative" and had "seriously injured six officers before he could be restrained." All of them had to be hospitalized, he claimed.
Hutcheson has not responded to additional questions from the RFT, but he reportedly sent text messages to KFVS 12 news anchor Kathy Sweeney after Hawley announced plans to investigate the incident.
"I wish you would ask Hawley how the six officers hospitalized that night are doing," he wrote, according to Sweeney. "Were they able to re-attach the jailer's thumb? How'd the other jailer's shoulder surgery go?"
The state attorney general toured the jail after the May 5 confrontation and asked a judge for a writ of quo warranto — a rarely used legal maneuver to strip the sheriff of his office. Within hours, Judge William Syler granted a temporary order that barred Hutcheson from entering the sheriff's office and installed Parker, the coroner, as the acting sheriff.
Parker tells the RFT that the work of the sheriff's office is still getting done, despite the ongoing turmoil. He even has a full staff, a fact that might seem surprising given Hutcheson's comments about severed thumbs and shoulder surgeries.
"No one was to the point where they can't work," the coroner says.
Hutcheson is hoping he can return to work, too. His attorneys have called the attorney general's bid to have the sheriff removed from an elected office a "drastic" move that will not hold up in court. While he awaits a decision, Hutcheson has stayed mostly quiet, aside from rallying supporters online and posting a few jabs at Hawley.
"Upon taking office, I did exactly what I promised I would do," Hutcheson wrote on Facebook, "and I will fight the state's heavy handed bureaucracy with that same resolve. While the wheels of justice may move slow, I am confident we will prevail."
In case his message was not clear enough, he later switched his Facebook cover photo to an image of chess pieces.
"They're not playing fair so they have an early lead," he wrote. "I'm looking to the end game & know I'll prevail."
He is fighting a multifront battle. He has hired Blitz, Bardgett & Deutsch, which has offices in Clayton and Jefferson City, to challenge the suspension of his law enforcement license and the order forcing him out of office. Cape Girardeau attorney A. M. Spradling III is defending him in federal court against the civil suits. And he has retained prominent St. Louis defense attorney Scott Rosenblum for the criminal case.
In a flurry of filings, his lawyers have contested all the charges against Hutcheson.
For his part, Hawley has asked a judge to revoke Hutcheson's bond as a result of Sanders' death. He describes the county's former top cop as a "danger to the community" who needs to be locked up.
"Three people have died at the Mississippi County jail on his watch," Hawley says in a statement. "The court should act now, by revoking his bail, to prevent further tragedy and any interference in our investigation."
A hearing on the request has been set for June 22. Hawley says his office is conducting a criminal investigation into Sanders' death, and he has hinted that he is reviewing numerous other incidents linked to Hutcheson. In court filings, the deaths of Rhodes' baby and Nunnally were both listed among the reasons to remove the sheriff from office.
"We are learning about troubling events and troubling actions regarding Hutcheson all the time," Hawley told reporters at a news conference. "We're looking at all that very carefully."
Natasha Nance says her nephew was a "jokester" who liked to spend time with his eight young children. They recently all spent Easter together.
"I tell myself it's like a dream, like a bad dream I have to wake up from," she said during a May 10 news conference in Nashville. She sat beside a pair of attorneys and leaders from the local chapter of the NAACP. They were already suspicious about the circumstances of Sanders' death, but the accusations swirling around Hutcheson have made them skeptical of everything they hear out of Mississippi County.
NAACP leaders say they're worried people will try to make Sanders seem like a monster — violent, frightening, powerful — instead of a lone man in a cell.
"One of the things we've been concerned about is there seems to be a prevailing attitude to dehumanize, particularly black males, to make it easier for people to attack them, to kill them, to brutalize them," Clyde Poag of the NAACP says. "You hear code words like, 'He looked like the Hulk.'"
Online in Mississippi County, it had already begun. Hutcheson's supporters started sharing a February 2016 news story out of Nashville in which police accused Sanders of resisting arrest and threatening an officer's family during a traffic stop. There does not seem to have been a follow-up story, but online court records show Sanders ultimately was convicted of four misdemeanors.
There were also the Facebook posts from the Mississippi County jail's nurse, Emily Brown, written in response to criticism of Hutcheson. She claimed Sanders possessed "super human strength," almost certainly fueled by the "drugs he had consumed."
"I have never seen anything like the rage and strength that this man presented," wrote Brown, who was hired by Hutcheson. Brown has since deleted her posts.
Around the county, this version of a superman able to shrug off Tasers and pepper spray as he throttled at least a half-dozen cops and jailers has taken hold among Hutcheson supporters. They suspect their sheriff is the victim of a conspiracy, or at least a politically ambitious attorney general. Even as the county prosecutor has acknowledged the allegations against Hutcheson are serious enough to warrant review of the cases he built, and that some will almost certainly have to be thrown out, he continues to find support.
On May 18, nearly two dozen Hutcheson backers took seats in the Charleston library, having persuaded the local TV station to listen to their thoughts on the controversial sheriff. They had printed "INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY IN A COURT OF LAW" on sheets of white copy paper for the occasion and designated two women to speak for the group.
They are certain of several things: Hutcheson was cleaning the streets like never before, media coverage has been one-sided and they need their sheriff back. Toward the end of a 28-minute amateur video recording of the interview, the reporter asked specifically about allegations that Hutcheson had personally played a role in the final confrontation with Sanders.
One woman declined to answer, saying she was not there to know what happened. The other, Alberta Bishop, decided to weigh in.
"I think Cory is the one that, if he was needed, if he was seeing his fellow officers being beaten up, their thumbs torn from their body, anybody would help," Bishop says. "If he used a Taser, more power to him."