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Investigator: Suspect confessed to killing 2 nuns


    Rodney Earl Sanders leaves the Durant Municipal Building after an initial appearance in court in Durant, Miss. on Aug. 29. Sanders was charged with two counts of capital murder in the slayings of Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill, both 68.

DURANT, Miss. » A man charged with killing two nuns confessed to investigators that he went into their home, struggled with them, stabbed them to death and stole their car, a state law enforcement agent testified today.

Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Mississippi, is charged with capital murder in the slayings of Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill, both 68. Their bodies were found Aug. 25 after they failed to show up at the health clinic where they worked as nurse practitioners in one of the poorest counties in the nation.

Sanders was arrested Aug. 26. Dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, he sat quietly by his defense attorney today as Mississippi Bureau of Investigation agent LeCarus Oliver testified just a few feet away.

Oliver said Sanders had been staying in a shed across the street from the sisters’ home for three days before the slayings. He testified that he was not in the room when Sanders confessed, but Sanders’ questioning by other investigators was captured on an audio recording.

“He did acknowledge killing Paula Merrill and Margaret Held,” Oliver testified.

Sanders told investigators that he went through the back door of the sisters’ home, uninvited. Sanders said Merrill saw him first before a struggle took place with both women, Oliver testified.

Oliver also said Sanders told officers that after stabbing the women, “He washed himself up because his hands were sticky.”

One of Sanders’ defense attorneys, Richard Carter III of Kosciusko, asked Oliver if Sanders had revealed a motive for the alleged crime. Oliver said he had not.

Today’s hearing was to determine whether there is enough evidence against Sanders to send the case to a grand jury, which will consider indictment. Durant Municipal Judge Jim Arnold ruled there is, and he denied Carter’s request that bond be set. Sanders has been jailed since his arrest on two counts of capital murder, one count of burglary and one count of grand larceny. Arnold also denied bond for Sanders on Aug. 29.

Oliver testified that a knife was recovered from the shed where Sanders had been staying, and it is among items being tested at the state Crime Lab. He also testified that the nuns’ partially clothed bodies were found in the hallway of the home. He said the crime could have occurred late Aug. 24 or early Aug. 25.

Rape kits are pending at the Crime Lab, Oliver said. Sanders has not been charged with rape, however.

The nuns’ relatives and colleagues have said they oppose the death penalty, including for Sanders. Holmes County District Attorney Akillie Malone-Oliver said outside court today that she had not decided whether to pursue it.

Under Mississippi law, capital murder is a killing that occurs with at least one other felony, and it is punishable by lethal injection or life in prison.

The nuns’ funerals were Sept. 2. Merrill was buried in Kentucky, where she belonged to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Held was buried in Wisconsin, where she was a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee.

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