The anguish of a Jackson, Mississippi mother made headlines last year. She spent almost the entirety of 2023 searching for her son, Dexter Wade, only to find out that a police vehicle had struck and killed him an hour after he left home, and that his body was buried by the state in a mass grave. This story would eventually reveal that 215 people had been buried anonymously in this same mass grave behind a Mississippi jail, with little to no effort made to contact their families.
Bettersten Wade’s son went missing on March 5, 2023. At first, she was hesitant to call the police. In 2019, Jackson Police Officer Anthony Fox had slammed Bettersten’s 62-year-old brother, George Robinson, to the ground, killing him. That experience had shaken her trust in law enforcement. But on March 14, after nine days without hearing from her son Bettersten, filed a missing person’s report with the Jackson police.
From then until October of 2023, Bettersten posted constantly on social media and checked in frequently with police. However, not only had Jackson police known her son’s whereabouts the entire time—a police vehicle had in fact struck and killed Dexter Wade an hour after he left the house.
That month, Bettersten visited her son’s resting place, which was a plot in a pauper’s field, or a mass grave for poor people, behind a jail, marked only with the number “672”. It is unclear how her son ended up buried anonymously, when Bettersten had been in extensive contact with Jackson police, and when police had found prescription medication with Dexter’s name on it on his person when he died. In addition, once Dexter’s body was exhumed and given a proper burial, it was discovered that he had been carrying a wallet with his identification.
“Ms. Bettersten is the named plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Jackson Police Department, because they killed her brother three years earlier,” Benjamin Crump, Bettersten’s attorney, told PBS NewsHour.
They knew where she lived. They knew how to get in contact with her if they really wanted to notify her that her son Dex had been hit by a police car. So it is very suspicious that they would just bury him in a pauper’s grave because they said they could not identify his next of kin.
When Dexter was finally scheduled to be exhumed on November 13, at 11:30 am, Bettersten arrived only to discover that her son’s body had been exhumed hours prior.
“I came to y’all for that help that I needed. Y’all covered it up that you killed Dexter, kept telling me, ‘No, no, we don’t know where he is.’ Then come to find out that in your department somebody did this?” Bettersten asked at the burial site, as reported by Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
Now I asked if I could exhume my child and try to get some peace – now y’all take that from me. I couldn’t even see him come out of the ground. Y’all didn’t give me the time to see him before he took his last breath, I didn’t get to see him come from the ground?
But an even more shocking discovery came this month, when it was revealed that 215 people had been anonymously buried in the same plot, leaving hundreds of families outraged at being robbed of their right to properly bury their loved ones. Crump, the Wade family attorney, called for a federal investigation and noted that there are several hundred more unmarked graves, Dexter was buried under number “672”.
“We’re seeking to have the federal Department of Justice come in and do an investigation to make sure that each and every one of these citizens, disproportionately Black citizens, whose lives matter will be identified, their families notified, and them given a proper funeral,” Crump told PBS NewsHour.
Soon after Dexter’s body was discovered, several other cases came to light of Jackson police failing to notify family members of their loved ones’ death, only for their loved ones’ body to be discovered in the same mass grave at the Hinds County Penal Farm.
After an analysis revealed that the Jackson Police Department had failed to disclose 24 homicides, Marquita Moore found her brother among the list of undisclosed names. She immediately went to JPD’s downtown headquarters where she was told no officer was available. Marrio Terrell Moore, aged 40, had been beaten to death and then left in the Hinds County morgue for months. He was later buried behind the Hinds County Penal Farm.
Jonathan David Hankins was found dead in a hotel room on May 23, 2022, three days after leaving home. The Jackson Police Department failed to notify his family, and the city buried his body in the mass grave marked only with the number “645.”
The hundreds of people buried in the mass grave have yet to be identified. “I think that this story out of Jackson about the 215 bodies being buried and forgotten about with callous disregard for the dignity of the deceased and indifference to the families points to a larger issue of which crime gets inflated, and which crime gets swept under the rug,” Leigha Ellis, a Jackson community organizer, told Peoples Dispatch. Ellis helped organize a rally calling for a full investigation into all the bodies buried behind the Hinds County Penal Farm.
Ellis mentioned the successive water crises that the city has faced and points to “a system that is set up to disregard the needs of especially the working class and poor residents of Jackson, a system that disregards dignity in life when it ignores the rights of people to access clean water, drivable roads, social services that are not underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed by a population in need, and even dignity in death when it shirks rights of people to proper burials and keeps families in the dark and without answers.”