Hey, y’all. This week, I have the story of the abduction, sexual assault, and eventual murder of 16-year-old Leesa Marie Gray. Leesa was killed on June 22, 2000, by Thomas Edwin Loden, Jr., a former Marine who was then working as a recruiter. This is the story of a thirty-something-year-old man who hit on a 16-year-old and then murdered her after she spurned his advances. I think of cases like this when someone inevitably tells a woman who was raped that she should have said no. When you say no, sometimes you end up dead.
About Leesa Gray
Leesa Marie Gray was born on July 11, 1983, to parents John Gray and Wanda Farris.
In 2000, Leesa was 16-years-old and was about to start her senior year at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, and she was eager to start the next chapter of her life. During her senior year, she was an active member of the school chorus and participated in several school events.
Leesa was also a devout Christian and actively involved in her church youth group at Bethel Baptist Church. She looked forward to attending the weekly meetings and spending time with her friends and fellow church members.
Leesa was particularly close with her mom, Wanda Farris, who was always there for her when she needed her.
It was the summer before her senior year and Leesa was excited about her plans for the future. She was preparing for college to become an elementary school teacher.
Leesa’s best friend Lisa Darracott was always by her side, providing her with support and encouragement. Together they enjoyed listening to the Spice Girls and dancing to their favorite tunes.
I know it’s cliche, but from what I’ve read, Leesa was a good kid who had a happy future ahead of her.
It was Friday, June 22, 2000, and Leesa had just finished her shift at her uncle’s restaurant, Comer’s, around 11 p.m. She was on the mile-long drive to her home when she realized she had a flat tire while on a rural road. She stopped to inspect the tire, but it was dark and she was alone.
When Leesa didn’t arrive home, her mother became worried and called Comer’s Restaurant to see if anyone had seen her. One of the cooks informed her that he had seen a car on the side of the road with its flashers on during his drive to work.
Leesa’s family members soon located the car and found that it was unlocked with the flashers still on. Her purse and cell phone were inside the car, but there was no sign of the teenager.
Leesa’s mother immediately called the police, and a search for Leesa Marie Gray began.
The police investigation into Leesa’s disappearance began by interviewing her coworkers and patrons of Comer’s restaurant. And one person stood out: Thomas Edwin “Eddie” Loden, Jr. He had been to the restaurant twice on the Friday that Leesa vanished.
According to interviews, Eddie Loden had actually made an advance toward Leesa, which Leesa flatly rejected.
Oh, have I mentioned that Eddie was 35 years old? Because he was. Eddie was a former Marine who served during Desert Storm and now recruits for the Marine Corps. Yeah. Creepy.
Eddie was from a respected family in the area and had a wife and a two-year-old.
After learning about Eddie’s weird behavior with a teenage girl on the day of her disappearance, law enforcement paid Eddie’s grandmother a visit who gave them permission to search her home.
Apparently, Eddie had a room in the home. I don’t think he was living there but he had previously and still had his own bedroom. Eddie’s grandmother said that he was fishing at a pond on the large property.
But, anyway, investigators find a pair of shorts with blood on them, and in the grandmother’s car, they found rope. At this point, the cops obtained a search warrant to seize a green van that belonged to Eddie.
However, Eddie was nowhere to be found. That is until he’s found on the side of the road less than 24 hours after the last sighting of Leesa with the words “I’m sorry,” carved into his chest. He had also cut his wrists, so he was rushed to Mississippi State hospital for treatment.
Discovery of Leesa’s body and videotape
The day after Leesa went missing, her body was unfortunately discovered under the backseat of Eddie’s van. She was nude, and an autopsy revealed that the cause of death was suffocation and strangulation.
But the investigators also found a video camera and after taking it to the station, they watched the tape, which showed Eddie torturing, sexually assaulting, and strangling Leesa. The last clip on the tape is of her dead body, which Eddie was still violating.
That’s all the detail I really want to go into here, but I will also note that Thomas isn’t seen on tape but you can hear his voice as he taunts Leesa about being a virgin. And the tape indicates that the attack lasted four hours.
Thomas’s face was not visible in the video evidence, but his voice could be heard clearly. The authorities found his minivan and an object that Eddie used to sexually assault Leesa with his DNA on it. After Thomas was released from the hospital, he was taken into custody and the police searched his grandmother’s house, where they discovered a freshly dug grave in the forest with a shovel nearby.
Thomas’s wife visited him while he was in custody, and it was after this visit that he decided to confess to the sexual assault, although initially denied killing Leesa.
The motive behind Eddie’s violent crime seems to stem from his unrequited crush on Leesa. After she rejected his advances, it appears that he may have premeditated the murder because an object pierced Leesa’s tire at the restaurant that night. Did Eddie stab her tire to set the flat tire up? I think he did.
But Eddie claims that he was just trying to do a good deed until Leesa told him she had no interest in joining the Marines. That made him irate. He then forced her into his van and drove to his grandmother’s house where he tortured Leesa for four hours.
I personally think the unrequited romance is a more likely motive. It appears to me that the Marines excuse was made up by Eddie to justify his actions and potentially gain sympathy as a veteran.
But that didn’t work because Eddie was arrested and charged with capital murder, rape, and four counts of sexual battery.
Litigation (Plea deal, sentence, appeals)
When it came to Eddie’s trial, due to the high public attention and both families being well-known in the community, the judge granted a change of venue. Three weeks before the scheduled trial, Eddie took a guilty plea for all charges instead of waiting for a jury trial, even though it was a death penalty case. Despite being questioned about his decision, Thomas confirmed that he understood and wanted to proceed to sentencing.
During the sentencing, Eddie’s defense attorney did not cross-examine witnesses or object to anything, which puzzled the judge. The prosecution presented plenty of aggravating evidence, including a video recording of sexual torture.
When it was time for the defense to present mitigating evidence, the defense attorney stated that Thomas had instructed them not to present any evidence, but to protect himself, he shared information that could potentially be considered mitigating evidence.
The defense counsel informed the judge that Thomas had a history of childhood sexual abuse, was a great student, an honorably discharged Marine who served during Desert Storm, and had no criminal record. The defense also provided a summary of expert witness Dr. C. Gerald O’Brien who could testify that Thomas was suffering from extreme mental and emotional disturbance during the commission of the crime and could not appreciate the nature of it.
The prosecution countered by introducing their own expert witness who stated that Thomas could appreciate the nature of the crime. The prosecution asked for the death penalty, which was granted by the judge. Thomas eventually made a statement to the court expressing remorse and asking for justice for the victim’s family.
Thomas was sentenced to death for the first charge and 30 consecutive years for the remaining offenses. After his sentence, Thomas tried to file appeals, including a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, but all were denied.
21 years after being on death row, Thomas was executed by the state of Mississippi on December 14, 2022, by lethal injection. But not before enjoying a last meal of fried pork chops, a baked sweet potato, and peach cobbler with french vanilla ice cream.
I truly hope that Leesa’s family found a feeling of justice from Loden’s execution.
Leesa’s mother says that she has forgiven Eddie and has found peace in her life. But while she has forgiven Eddie, she will never forget Leesa.
- TEEN Murdered By Marine Recruiter (Thomas Loden Jr) // Leesa Marie Gray on YouTube