Jared Hillman and son Kendall
By Dennis Griffin
On August 9, 2009, 23-year-old Jared Hillman was found dead of a gunshot wound to his head in the woods behind his father's home in Hickory, Mississippi. A .40-caliber pistol was gripped in the young man's lifeless hand. The authorities quickly determined that Jared had taken his own life. The Army Reservist who had served in Iraq and returned home only three weeks before his death, was chalked up as one of the 309 military suicides reported last year. In addition to any possible depression over his military service, Jared was also in the process of ending a failed marriage. And that could have contributed to his desire to kill himself.
On the flip side, Jared had a powerful reason for wanting to live: Kendall, his two-year-old son from a previous relationship. He had gained temporary custody of the boy in February and was scheduled to be awarded permanent custody during an uncontested hearing the next week. According to family and friends, Jared was eagerly awaiting the court appearance and looking forward to getting on with civilian life. So there was a reason for Jared's family to have been shocked when he died, apparently by his own hand..
There were other causes for skepticism as well. And they had to do with Jared's estranged wife, Amanda. Jared and Amanda were married in May 2008, shortly before he deployed to Iraq. Upon his return home on July 19, 2009, Jared confided to his friends that while he was away Amanda began having an affair with Meridian, Mississippi police officer Derek Thomas. He said he didn't want the marriage to end, but Amanda said she wanted to be with Derek, and in fact left Jared and moved in with Thomas. Jared and Kendall took up residence with Jared's aunt, Kim Busbea.
Busbea, says that after the separation the relationship between Jared and Amanda was stormy, with frequent arguments. And Jared also had multiple confrontations with Derek Thomas, with threats being made on both sides. At one point Jared told his aunt that he suggested to Thomas that they meet somewhere and settle their differences man to man. He said he wasn't afraid of Thomas and knew how to handle himself.
Another cause of concern to Jared's family was the matter of his $400,000 life insurance policy. Joe Hillman had originally been the beneficiary. But Jared replaced him with Amanda prior to going to Iraq. Days prior to his death Jared told his aunt that he was going to remove Amanda from the policy. Was Amanda aware of that? Busbea doesn't know. But she feels it is entirely possible that during the heat of an argument Jared might have made his intentions known.
And the sequence of events on the night of Jared's death set off additional alarm bells. Jared spent the day of August 8 at his father's. He mowed the lawn, ate dinner, and got Kendall bathed and ready for bed. At some point he removed the .40-caliber pistol from his father's gun cabinet and slipped out of the house unnoticed.
At 8:22 p.m., Jared’s grandmother, Cherry Todd, answered the telephone. It was Amanda. She said, "Granny, you need to call the sheriff’s office. I was talking to Jared, and he said he was going to kill himself and I heard a click,” Mrs. Todd said Amanda told her Jared was behind his father's house.
“I just panicked,” Todd said. “I ran out in the yard to see if he would hear my voice.” She told Jared’s father, who also began searching for his son. There are more than 100 acres of thick woods behind the home, making the search a monumental task.
Mrs. Todd said Amanda called a second time 10 minutes later, again telling her to call the sheriff’s office.
The troubling question here is why didn't Amanda call 9-1-1 herself and then call the Hillman residence? If Jared's life was at stake, that would seem to have been the fastest means of getting medical and law enforcement personnel on the scene.
After Amanda's initial call, Joe Hillman and a friend began searching the woods, yelling for Jared and calling his cell phone. The sheriff's department was called and officers arrived on the scene at around 10 p.m. The search continued until about 12:30 a.m. And at dawn, dozens more family members and friends gathered to renew the hunt.
Kim Busbea said that during the break she called Amanda at 5:44 a.m. Amanda told her she had not heard anymore from Jared. Busbea said, “I asked her what was the last thing Jared had said to her, and she said, ‘He said something about having a .40-caliber pistol and wanted to know if I would take care of Kendall if something happened to him.’ ”
Around 9:30 a.m., the search ended with Busbea’s husband and others finding Jared’s body beside a tree. He had a bullet wound to the right side of his temple, and the gun was in his right hand with his finger on the trigger of the weapon.
As soon as Jared’s body was found, Busbea called Amanda and told her Jared was dead. “She really didn’t say anything,” Busbea said.
Because the family knew Jared had been speaking on his cell phone to Amanda prior to his death, they scoured the area for the phone, but couldn’t find it. And it wasn't present when the coroner emptied Jared’s pockets.
The state medical examiner's office conducted an autopsy, after which Jared's body was cremated. When his father went to the mortuary to pick up his son's belongings, the missing cell phone was mysteriously among them.
Authorities passed off the reappearance of the phone as nothing more than the coroner's failure to find it earlier. But when the family was able to obtain and examine the phone records, more questions arose.
First was a "private call" listed at 8:15 p.m. that lasted two minutes. After that, there was a series of calls answered by voice mail until another "private call" was answered at 11:13 p.m. That call was placed from Amanda's phone and lasted just under five minutes. If Amanda's earlier calls to Mrs. Todd were accurate, this call was made and answered well after Jared was dead.
Seeing that call upset Joe Hillman. "How in the hell can my son be dead and answer his cell phone?" he said. "Either he wasn't dead, or somebody else had the telephone."
Records also show there was a 5:56 p.m. call from Derek Thomas' phone to Jared that lasted 46 seconds.
Although Jared was distraught, Hillman questioned whether his son would kill himself, especially since he was going to soon have permanent custody of Kendall.
Coroner Danny Shoemaker said from everything authorities saw, Jared's death appeared to be a suicide. He said no time of death was determined. When asked about the nearly five-minute conversation that took place on Jared's phone at 11:13 p.m., he replied, "That's news to me."
In a September 19, 2010 article, The Clarion-Ledger printed an email it had acquired that Amanda had written to the Army on Oct. 14, 2009:
"Someone told me that they thought someone had sad (sic) something about his benefits. I plan to
put this aside for Kendall (his son) if there is anything, but I knew that no one has contacted me yet. ... If you have any information, it would be appreciate."
That same article reported that before the end of 2009 Amanda received $400,000 as the beneficiary of Jared's life insurance policy.
Kim Busbea adopted Kendall in June, 2010. She says that contrary to Amanda's statement in her email to the Army, Kendall has not seen a penny of that money. Over the summer she filed a lawsuit against Amanda and Derek Thomas seeking to get the insurance money for Kendall. She alleges that Kendall suffered an alienation of affection due to the affair between Amanda and Thomas.
The suit says in part:
Jared made his wife the beneficiary "with the understanding that, should he die, the insurance proceeds would be used for the care and benefit of his minor child. It is inconceivable that, given Defendant Hillman's affair, that he would want his life insurance proceeds going to (his wife) with not a penny being used for the benefit of his minor child."
In addition to Kim Busbea's lawsuit, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation is reviewing the case. Joe Hillman said he wants authorities to thoroughly investigate and find the truth, even if they conclude his son committed suicide. "All I've ever wanted is the truth."
And that doesn't seem like too much to ask.