That last Christmas: Family reflects on senseless tragedy and the end of their three-year quest for justiceBy BRYAN DAVIS PUBLISHER,
The moon was nearly full.
Joyce Hull and Linda Hull Arant were making the drive home from a picture perfect Christmas celebration in Oxford.
The Delta sky was clear, and they were just a few miles from Indianola when their lives were suddenly cut short.
As the two ladies came into Itta Bena, driving a 2002 Cadillac Seville, a 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis slammed into the driver’s side, as the automobile attempted to cross U.S. 82 onto County Road 515, seemingly without as much as a pump on the brakes.
Behind the wheel of the Mercury was then 53-year-old Jerry Lee Ross of Picayune.
According to Hull’s family, the impact was so hard it knocked the diamond out of the ring she was wearing.
“They never knew what hit them,” Judy Hull Job, Joyce’s daughter and Linda’s sister told The E-T in a recent phone interview. “I’ve found comfort in that. I really have. They didn’t suffer, and for that, we are so grateful…I’m sure Mama was asleep, and she woke up looking into the face of Jesus. For several years, her famous line had been, ‘I just want to wake up dead one day!’ So I feel like God gave her that gift.”
Both women were prominent members of the Indianola community.
Joyce Hull spent years as the office manager of Hull Brothers Clinic - now Indianola Family Medical Clinic - which was co-founded by her husband, Dr. Wallace Arnold Hull.
Linda Hull Arant made a name for herself early in life, earning high marks in school, as well as holding state records in track and field competitions.
“She was a track phenomenon,” Judy said. “She was so fast. She was also a long jumper. She won all the dashes, and she brought the relay team to victory at every race.”
She would go to Mississippi State College for Women (now Mississippi University for Women) and later return to Sunflower County where she was a music teacher for decades at North Sunflower Academy and Indianola Academy.
She also played piano at First United Methodist Church in Indianola, as well as numerous Mid-Delta Arts Association productions. She also appeared onstage in multiple MDA productions.
Their deaths left gaping holes within the community, but more than that, they crushed the family that had spent their final Christmas together just hours earlier, and the event sent the family on a three-year journey that ended in a strange twist of fate earlier this month.
Joyce Hull’s surviving daughters, Judy and Marsha Hull Tindall – along with the rest of the family and friends - waited an agonizing 23 months for Ross to be indicted.
It was another year before they would hear him finally plead guilty in court.
And on Feb. 1, just 10 days before Ross was set to be sentenced in a Leflore County courtroom, he died in Chicago. A cause of death has not been confirmed.
During the last three years, the Hull family has had no contact with Ross’ camp.
Judy said that during the plea hearing, he never looked in the direction of the family.
His passing brings the saga to a close, but it was not the closure Judy and Marsha had hoped for.
They will never forget the wholeness of Christmas that year, but the night of December 26 is a date that will live on in the fragments of information and seeming premonitions they still struggle to piece together today.
“The Kindest, Most Wonderful Person”
Joyce and Linda were passionate about their work.
And they spread love and joy through the arts and civic leadership along the way.
“Last night at a party, a lady said to me, ‘I just loved your mother,’” Judy said. “‘She was the kindest, most wonderful person I have ever known in my life.’ I think that everyone who knew her just loved her. She was so thoughtful of other people. I feel so blessed she was my mother.”
Aside from running the clinic, Joyce volunteered her time teaching a Sunday School class in the Junior Department at FUMC, one that was named for her prior to her passing. For years, she taught every kid in the church the books of the Bible through song.
She was involved in the Mid-Delta Arts Association.
She took her role with the MDAA very seriously and would often be the one to remind folks to buy tickets or pay their patron dues.
“Her heart was really in the Mid-Delta Arts Association,” Marsha said. “Mary Ruth Brindley told me the other day when I saw her, ‘I’ve taken up the Joyce Hull role in town. Every time I see someone, I tell them to pay their dues or buy their tickets.’ That’s what Mama would do.”
Her role with MDA wasn’t limited to behind-the-scenes. She appeared onstage multiple times, including a memorable performance in Steel Magnolias.
Joyce had always enjoyed playing bridge, which she was very good at, but she relished those games even more in her later years.
She adored all of her bridge friends, who often quipped about the fact that she could sleep through an entire hand and still win.
Linda was the All-American girl in high school.
If there was a title to be had, she was going to claim it, or she would be a close second.
She wasn’t just the school’s top female athlete.
She was Class Favorite, Star Student, Head Cheerleader and Valedictorian.
She was both musically and athletically gifted, and she made straight A’s in school.
During her senior year, she was named Miss Indianola Academy.
It’s at IA where she became known as both teacher and friend to many of her pupils.
“All the children loved her,” Judy said. “She was a standout in high school, and she came back from college to teach in Indianola, and “her children,” as she called them, just adored her…She made everything fun. She put everything she had into every musical pageant, production and first and second grade play. She worshipped those kids, and I know that it was reciprocated. She made a difference in so many people’s lives.”
“The Best Night of My Life”
Joyce was just shy of her 92nd birthday when Christmas 2015 rolled around.
It had become tradition that the Hull family meet in Oxford, where the Tindall family had two condos next door to each other.
“Oh my gosh. It was a Christmas to remember,” Judy said. “It was like a gift that God gave us that we would have in our hearts forever.”
Joyce and Linda arrived on Christmas Eve, where the rest of the family awaited them.
That night, Marsha’s husband Frank cooked a beef tenderloin, and several members of the family were present, including Joyce’s children, grandchildren and her sons-in-law.
“It was a beautiful, clear night,” Judy said. “It was unseasonably warm, with a full moon. Marsha and Frank had twinkling lights in the trees surrounding the patio. It was just gorgeous.”
They found a jacket for Joyce and she joined them outside.
“It was a magnificent night,” Judy said. “The food was wonderful. The conversation was great. I remember sitting next to Mama, and she said, ‘I think this is the best night of my life.’ I have chills when I think about it. It was all just so perfect.”
Later that evening, and again on Christmas night, Judy and Marsha would see Joyce to bed.
“After the wreck, I was laying there in the wee hours of the morning, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I got to tuck her in and tell her how much I loved her the last two nights of her life. What a gift that was,’” Judy said.
During the Christmas Day festivities, Judy made it a point to gather her sisters and Joyce around the Christmas tree for a family photo. This is something they had always intended to do at Christmas gatherings, but it did not always happen.
For some reason, Judy said it seemed important to take a picture during this particular year.
“That ended up being a beautiful treasure,” Judy said.
On the 26th, Joyce had two deep conversations, one with her grandson Jonathan Martin Job and the other with her son-in-law, Chris Job.
“We found out later, she said, ‘Jonathan, I just want you to be the very best person that you can be, and I know that God has a plan for your life…I’m going to heaven. I just want to know that I’m going to see you in there one day.’”
She talked with Chris for about two hours, going down his family tree, naming his siblings and all of his nieces and nephews, asking about each one.
“It was like she was taking a final inventory,” Chris said.
When it came time for Linda and Joyce to leave, Judy said they shared hugs and kisses. In the past, Joyce was usually looking back at her family, fighting back tears, wanting more time than Christmas would afford.
But that didn’t happen.
“She was always looking up at me with tears in her eyes, having a hard time saying goodbye, wondering when she was going to see us again,” Judy said. “This time, she got in the car, she faced forward, and she was staring straight ahead. It was so different. That action, that look, haunted me, because she always looked back longingly, like I love you and I don’t want to leave. It was as though she had already begun to slip away.”
“Our World Just Stopped”
Joyce and Linda made at least one stop on their trip from Oxford to the Delta.
They pulled off for gas in Batesville, Judy said, a move that placed them exactly at the intersection of 82 and 515 when that Mercury came onto the highway at a high rate of speed.
“I got a call on my condo phone from the Indianola Police Department,” Marsha said. “I could not understand a word he was saying. I had to keep saying, ‘Could you repeat that? Could you repeat that?’ I finally got that he was saying the Cadillac that was traveling got hit. He said, ‘Both of the occupants are deceased’…Through the conversation, I heard something that made me think they couldn’t get in the house.”
Marsha struggled to make sense of the call.
“My mind was racing, because I had no idea why the Indianola Police Department was calling me, because they didn’t have time to get home,” she said. “I didn’t expect the Indianola Police Department to call me…I finally figured out what he was telling me. He said the tag number. I finally put together car, two people, deceased.”
She walked out to the patio, where the family was preparing to celebrate Marsha’s daughter-in-law, Georgia Tindall’s birthday.
“I saw her put the phone down,” Judy said. “She walked out, and she turned the TV off, and I thought ‘this is not going to be good.’ Her words were, ‘Mama and Linda have been in a wreck. They’re both dead’…Our world just stopped.”
A Bitter-Sweet Ending
By all accounts available, Jerry Lee Ross was born on August 7, 1962 in Leflore County and was raised in Itta Bena.
He was a graduate of Leflore County High School, where he was a standout athlete, according to his obituary. He received a full athletic scholarship to Kentucky State University, and he was known for his live fastball.
He was a dedicated Christian, and he had even married in 2017, two years after the crash.
At the time of the wreck, he was living in Picayune, according to Mississippi Highway Patrol reports at the time.
His struggle with the demons of alcohol and drug use would turn deadly that December night
According to Leflore County Assistant District Attorney Timothy Jones, Ross’ blood tested positive for alcohol, cocaine and marijuana on the night of the accident.
Ross was transported to Greenville’s Delta Regional Medical Center with minor injuries immediately after the wreck.
Months went by before the Hull family heard the results of the toxicology report. They had originally been told there were no drugs or alcohol involved.
Month-after-month passed without an indictment, until November of 2017, when Ross stood in a Leflore County courtroom for the first time.
His bond was set, and according to Judy, he spent at the most two days in jail before his bond was posted.
The family would have to wait another year to hear Ross plead guilty to the charges, two counts of DUI Death.
Judy and Chris, who live in Houston, Texas, traveled to Greenwood with Marsha, Frank and other family members and friends for the trial, expecting a plea and a sentencing in the same week.
Facing a minimum of two five-year terms running concurrently, Ross’ attorney asked the court to postpone sentencing until the winter session.
The judge complied and moved the date to Feb. 11. The original bond was deemed satisfactory, and Ross was again a free man.
“We came away saying, ‘What about us?’” Judy said. “We want the sentencing now.”
The courts in the Mississippi Delta are often backlogged, and justice can be slow to come by at times, but for this family, the result of the repeated postponements has made it difficult for their own closure and peace for Joyce and Linda.
The three-year fight for justice has left the family with less faith in the system.
They had to suffer through months with no indictment, a year-long wait to trial and a delayed sentencing, all things that lead some to believe that had there been a sentencing, it may have resulted in the minimum sentence of five years and probation.
“I really think that might have happened, and that would have been really hard to deal with,” Judy said.
The Jobs and the Tindalls got together on February 11. There were no lawyers. There were no judges. It was just the family – in Oxford – where they had spent that last Christmas three years ago.