TUPELO • The Lee County Sheriff blamed an error by the Verona Police Chief for allowing a murder suspect to remain free. Now that 17-year-old is a fugitive wanted in connection with another homicide.
In April, Latavious Betts, then 16, was charged with murder but was released from jail by the Verona Police Department and Police Chief J.B. Long with only the juvenile’s signature.
On Dec. 7, the now 17-year-old Betts was in a vehicle going down County Road 45 in the Palmetto community when he fired a dozen or more shots into a house, killing a 66-year-old woman.
“Mr. Betts never should have been out on the streets,” said Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson. “The (April) initial appearance and $50,000 bond was not approved by a judge. The waiver of initial appearance was not signed by a judge. And he was allowed to walk out of (the jail) without any kind of promissory note or surety. He walked out of here on a signature bond.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Johnson pointed to a paper trail of documents from Long and the Verona Police Department as reasons why Betts was free to continue to commit felonies.
When reached by phone late Tuesday in Natchez, Long would not answer questions on why he released a 16-year-old charged as an adult with murder on a recognizance bond.
“I don’t have any of the papers with me so I am not going to make any comment,” Long told the Daily Journal.
Because there were no documents in Lee County Justice Court for the April murder charge, when Betts was arrested in July for a late night shooting at a Verona convenience store, he was released on bond.
“If Judge (Sadie) Holland had known he was out on bond for murder, she would have held him without bond,” Johnson said. “Instead, she set bond at $50,000. He posted a professional bond and was released again.”
It was only when the April and July charges went to the grand jury that officials realized the mistake. At that point, the court issued an order to hold him without bond.
But Betts was free, and he is still free.
“In my 15 years as sheriff, I have never seen anything like this,” Johnson said. “I can assure you that when we get our hands on him, he is not going to be getting out again.”
Betts is accused in the Dec. 7 drive-by shooting of a residence in Palmetto. There were eight people in the house at the time, including two children. Four adults were injured. Annie Walton died from her wounds. Arrest warrants have been issued, charging him with murder and aggravated assault.
Johnson said Betts should be considered armed and very dangerous. Anyone with information on his whereabouts is encouraged to call call the Lee County Sheriff’s Office at (662) 841-9041 or Crime Stoppers at (800) 773-TIPS.