I appreciate everything that Ben and Erin Napier and the HGTV show “Home Town” has done for Laurel and Jones County. It has shone a spotlight on all that is good and vibrant in our little part of the South.
Unfortunately, the Windermere shooting death of Katherine Sinclair that culminated in one of the most talked about trials in this county’s history has cast not a spotlight, but a blacklight on our home town. And, like a blacklight, it has illuminated all of the stains, blemishes and sinister spatter about our home town that we all knew existed yet most are too scared to even talk about in public.
But it is time.
It’s time that we admit to ourselves that the blacklight that has been cast upon us shows that all of us have specks of Katherine Sinclair’s blood on our hands.
A lifelong resident who is now in his 80s summed it up best in a handwritten letter that he sent me at the very beginning of this tragedy: “City Beautiful has a sickness … It has two faces … The wealthy and power-brokers don’t like change but change has been slowly coming. When their ‘historic district’ became threatened, they moved it out of town, built a wall around it and called it ‘Windemere.’ They still pretend the historic district is there and they come to town and sit in their offices and get elected and play their games.”
And we all know what “their games” consist of and we have been letting them get away with it, and tragically, if we hadn’t, Katherine Sinclair would be alive today.
The main “game” is special privileges for “special” people, and it consists of the rich and powerful making sure that friends, relatives and business associates are elected or appointed to be judges, legislators and top law enforcement officials. It’s about secret meetings in airplane hangars, under-the-table campaign contributions and powerful businessmen doing special favors (drugs, money and sex) for public servants who quickly become beholden to the rich and powerful instead of the general public.
And all of it leads to a privileged class who believe they are above the law because, quite frankly, they are … they own them. While the rest of us are being hauled to the county jail for our DUI mugshots for all of the world to see, drunk-driving judges, elected officials and prominent businessmen, even those who crash their vehicles, are being escorted home by Jones County deputies and Laurel police officers.
When a girlfriend of Greg Burroughs called the Laurel Police Department back in 2014 because he was being abusive toward her and the girlfriend winds up being the only one arrested, that is all part of the “privilege” game. How dare she try to report a crime against one of the “special” people! Another part of that game is having that particular police report mysteriously disappear from the LPD’s records.
When Greg Burroughs was charged with serous crimes in 2016, including DUI, child endangerment and resisting arrest, and a former Jones County deputy and current LPD officer shows up late for court and Judge Howell Beech uses that as an excuse to dismiss or find Burroughs not guilty on all charges, that is part of the same corrupt “game.”
So when Greg Burroughs’ girlfriend is found dying with a bullet in her head, of course, as one of the “privileged,” he fully expected he would be the one taken care of. It’s why he called his best friend, Judge Kyle Robertson, before he called 911. It’s why Robertson, in turn, called LPD Chief Tyrone Stewart. It’s why Burroughs was left off the jail docket. It’s why the Burroughs family was allowed to clean up the crime scene. It’s why Greg Burroughs got to spend a year hanging out at the Laurel Country Club instead of being locked up behind bars after being charged with taking the life of a 23-year-old young woman, whom I’m sure he viewed as nothing more than his property to dispose of at his whim.
Greg Burroughs is the product of a system of privilege, corruption and power that has governed Laurel and Jones County for more than a century — and we let it happen. All of us, including this newspaper, helped create the monster that is Greg Burroughs. A monster who would call his judge friend before dialing 911 while his girlfriend is dying in his garage. A monster, who on police video seemed a lot more concerned with his own welfare than that of his dying girlfriend, only asking “Is she still breathing?” twice in the hour after police arrived on the scene.
But Greg Burroughs isn’t alone, not even close. We had a well-known and longtime business owner call us up to tell us that “of course Greg Burroughs got special treatment, we all get special treatment,” and he told us that with not even an ounce of guilt associated with it. He truly believed in his heart that there was absolutely nothing wrong with special treatment for the rich and powerful.
But it is wrong. Very wrong. Everyone should be treated equally under the law. We should all be able to agree on this very basic human right.
But here is the hard part: people must be willing to stand up and demand it. We can no longer be afraid to stand up for what is right, even at the threat of financial and physical harm. We’re going to have to fight for it.
I understand why people are scared. I know the history of corruption, abuse of power and the unsolved murders. We have received dozens of anonymous letters and phone calls about corruption and dozens more warning us that our lives are at stake.
And yes, we have first-hand knowledge that retribution is a real thing. Sanderson Farms retaliated against our coverage of the Burroughs case by pulling its sponsorship of Bobcat Jr., a publication that is aimed at promoting reading in our grade schools. Greg’s sister-in-law Hillary Burroughs is Sanderson Farms’ marketing director official and the company’s fleet of trucks is furnished by the Burroughs Company, owned by Greg’s uncle.
And, sadly, this retribution by the rich and powerful worked because there is little doubt that the reason WDAM virtually ignored one of the biggest stories of the past decade was because the station executives didn’t want Sanderson to pull all those chicken ads from their airwaves. WDAM may be OK with sacrificing what is right in exchange for the almighty dollar, but the people who work at this newspaper are not OK with it.
But guess what, this newspaper can’t go it alone. If you don’t want another Katherine Sinclair tragedy … If you don’t want a class of citizens who believes they are above the law … If you don’t want the corruption and special treatment to continue, we need more citizens who are not scared to stand up for what’s right.
Even if you are rich and privileged and benefitting from the status quo, one day you will have to stand before God. Do you really want to do so knowing that you willingly took part in a corrupt and unjust system?
No matter what the verdict ends up in Greg Burroughs trial, no one is going to be able to bring Katherine Sinclair back, but we certainly should honor her memory by being brave, standing up for what’s right, calling out our elected leaders and law enforcement officials for their corrupt double standards and by making sure that from this day forward, we as a community start insisting that our public servants serve the welfare of the general public and not at the whim of the rich and powerful.
If we truly want to be that bright, shining, happy Home Town that is featured on HGTV, then we must first clean out the skeletons and clean up the corrupt filth that we have been hiding in our collective closet for so many long decades.
Jim Cegielski is publisher of the Leader-Call. He lives in Laurel.