After learning that Willie James Hemphill was an initial suspect in the murders at Tardy Furniture, reporters for In the Dark wanted to find out if he'd ever broken the law before. The answer was yes — many, many times.
Reporters spent months combing through police and court records in Mississippi, Tennessee and Indiana to compile his extensive, and at times violent, criminal history. He's shown a fearlessness about committing brazen attacks and thefts in daylight with high risks and low payoff, in places close to where he's lived and where people are more likely to recognize him. He's also targeted women in general and often women carrying purses. And he's shown a quick and violent temper, particularly with women who don't comply with his demands.
The Tardy Furniture murders were committed at a store on Front Street in Winona, Mississippi, at about 10 a.m., and around the time that one of the store's employees, Carmen Rigby, was returning with a bank bag. Though he was a suspect early in the investigation, according to law enforcement records, and questioned extensively, Hemphill was later released after 11 days in jail and ruled out as a suspect for reasons that remain unclear. However, In the Dark's reporting has uncovered no clear evidence linking him to the Tardy murders.
Hemphill was born on September 10, 1971. At the time of his first known arrest, in 1990, he was an 18-year-old high school dropout bouncing back and forth between his mother's house in Memphis, Tennessee, and Winona, where his grandmother lived. Following that arrest, Hemphill committed crimes nearly continuously for the next three decades. Yet despite a number of theft and drug charges, probation violations, at least four domestic violence convictions — and a girlfriend who alleges he stabbed her 13 times — Hemphill has managed to avoid a long stint in prison. His full criminal history is too lengthy to reproduce here. What follows are selected incidents from his past.