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Suspect Confesses in Killings of 2 Mississippi Nuns: Sheriff

Rodney Earl Sanders was charged with two counts of capital murder in the deaths of Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Mississippi Dept of Public Safety
    Rodney Earl Sanders

    A man suspected in the slayings of two nuns found dead in their Mississippi home confessed to the killings, a sheriff said Saturday, in the latest twist to a crime that has horrified people in the small communities where the women served. 

    Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Mississippi, was arrested and charged in the deaths of Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill, Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain said late Friday. Both women were 68. 

    Willie March, the sheriff of Holmes County where the killings occurred, said Saturday he had been briefed by police from the town where the killings occurred and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation officials who took part in Sanders' interrogation. 

    Sanders confessed in the interrogation to the killings and gave no reason for the crimes, March said. 

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    The sheriff said police work and tips from the community led police to Sanders, and the investigation is ongoing. 

    Durant police could not be reached for comment. Strain, whose department includes the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, said the organization would neither confirm nor deny that Sanders confessed. 

    Sanders was convicted last year of a felony DUI, said Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections. 

    He was later released from prison and is currently on probation. 

    Sanders was also convicted of armed robbery in Holmes County, sentenced in 1986 and served six years, Fisher said. 

    People who knew the nuns, known for their generosity and commitment to improving health care for the poor, have been grappling with why anyone would want to kill them. 

    Dr. Elias Abboud, the physician who oversees the clinic in Lexington where the nuns worked, said Saturday that Sanders was not a patient there. 

    The Rev. Greg Plata, sacramental minister at St. Thomas Catholic Church in Lexington where the women led Bible study for years, said Saturday he does not think people at the church knew Sanders. 

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    The women's bodies were discovered Thursday after they failed to show up for work in Lexington, about 10 miles from where they lived. 

    The sheriff said they had been stabbed. 

    "Sanders was developed as a person of interest early on in the investigation," Lt. Colonel Jimmy Jordan said in the statement. 

    Authorities said Sanders was being held in an undisclosed detention center pending a court appearance. They have not given any details on why they think Sanders killed the women or whether he knew them.

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    Strain said he does not know if Sanders has an attorney. Authorities do not anticipate making any other arrests. Strain said "investigators believe Sanders acted alone." 

    Merrill's nephew, David Merrill, speaking by telephone from Stoneham, Massachusetts, said Saturday the family was "thankful" Sanders is off the streets. 

    But the family still has to deal with the loss. 

    Merrill said he agrees with the idea of forgiveness and that is something his aunt would want for whoever killed her but he's not sure if he's capable of completely forgiving. 

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    Merrill said he would not support the death penalty if Sanders were to be convicted but that decision will ultimately be made by the people in Mississippi. The capital murder charge leaves open the possibility Sanders would face the death penalty but that determination would be made by prosecutors later. 

    The order Held belonged to — School Sisters of St. Francis — thanked law enforcement officers working on the case and thanked people who offered prayers and support in the wake of the sisters' deaths. 

    In the poverty-stricken Mississippi county where the two nuns were slain, many people were still mourning their loss. 

    Jonell Payton, a Durant alderwoman, lives across the street and a few doors down from Held and Merrill's house. She said the nuns were "the most precious two people" and were known for helping provide medicine for those who couldn't afford it. 

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    Both women worked at the clinic, where they gave flu shots, dispensed insulin and provided other medical care for children and adults who couldn't afford it. 

    Their stolen car was found abandoned a mile from their home, and there were signs of a break-in, but police haven't disclosed a motive. 

    Plata said both nuns' religious communities have asked that people pray for the killer or killers. Asked about people's struggles to forgive, the priest said: "Forgiveness is at the heart of being a Christian. Look at Jesus on the cross: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.'" 

    The clinic and the nuns' home in Durant are in Holmes County, population 18,000. With 44 percent of its residents living in poverty, Holmes is the seventh-poorest county in America, according to the Census Bureau. 

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    The nuns' death leaves a gaping hole in what was already a strapped health care system. 

    The clinic provided about 25 percent of all medical care in the county, Abboud said. 

    Merrill's sister Rosemarie, speaking by telephone from her Stoneham, Massachusetts, home, said her sister had been in Mississippi helping the poor since 1981. 

    Held — impressionable and idealistic — was committed to ending racism and poverty, according to an interview she did earlier with her order's magazine. 

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    "The invitation to come to Mississippi provided me with the setting in which I hoped to make a difference with my life. I came here because of a dream and a cause but I stayed here because of the people," she said. 

    A former nun who knew Held said she had always been interested in working with the "poorest of the poor." 

    Darlene Nicgorski said Saturday that she had recruited Held to come to Holly Springs, Mississippi, to work as a social worker in a program there that ran schools and offered day care to help young mothers finish school. 

    Nicgorski said the sisters' deaths just don't make sense. She said they would have given the suspect anything he needed. 

    Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.