VAUGHAN, Miss. (AP) - Truth is, most of Earnest Lee Hargon's people had been wiped out by the time he went to death row, and those who knew the family weren't sorry to see him go.
He got there by killing his cousin, the cousin's wife and their 4-year-old boy - the one who was supposed to carry on the Hargon name - over getting cut out of a will. He told his wife about it over Valentine's dinner five years ago, hours after the murders.
"I got them, all three," he said.
If the Bible didn't trump superstition around here, some people might call the Hargons cursed. The patriarch, his wife, the young family, the grieving sister, the jealous, murderous cousin - the better part of three generations gone, most of them before their time. Even Earnest Lee died before he was supposed to, stabbed in a prison fight before the state could put him down.
"Maybe pride was our sin that caused this to happen," matriarch Diane Hargon once wrote, looking for the why behind all that befell her family. "We were so proud to be Hargons. This family did anything and everything for friends, family or even strangers in need."
The Hargons were the heart of Vaughan, a community about 40 miles north of Jackson where meandering, tree-lined roads divide sprawling farms. It's best known as the spot where railroad folk hero Casey Jones was killed in a crash in 1900. Everyone knows their neighbors here, and social activities revolve around churches, front porches and pitchers of sweet tea.
And everyone still talks about what happened to the Hargons.
"Everything just lined up the wrong way against this family," said James Powell III, the district attorney who prosecuted the case.
The Hargons' hub was Fowler Road Grocery, the one-story brick building they used as a convenience store for years until 1994, when the killing started.
The robbers arrived on a Friday, when they knew the store would have money on hand to cash checks. One waited in the car while two others went inside. Haywood Hargon (pronounced HAR-gihn), the proprietor and father, was shot and killed before a customer interrupted the robbery. The thieves made off with $114.
The store closed and the Hargons turned the building into a home. Haywood's son Michael eventually moved in with his wife and their boy, undeterred by living in the house where strangers shot his father down. Michael was an easygoing construction worker with a quick wit and a generous personality.
"All you had to do was say you needed something and Michael was scouting around to find it," recalled his aunt, Katherine Hargon Alexander, the lone survivor from her generation of Hargons or the next.
Michael, 27, and his wife Rebecca, a physical therapist's assistant, doted on their son.
"Rebecca was like an angel sent from heaven," Alexander said of the petite 29-year-old. "She was always loving. Always willing to help."
The vibrant couple had much vested in their son, named for his great-grandfather.
"James Patrick was to carry on the family legacy," Michael's mother, Diane Hargon, would later write.
Earnest Lee Hargon, a trucker often described as a modern day cowboy, was adopted into the family when as a young child his mother married a Hargon. Earnest Lee began to unravel in his early 40s with an addiction to crystal methamphetamine, which he began using to stay awake during his long trips hauling cattle.
In January 2004, his adoptive father wrote Earnest Lee out of his will and died soon after, leaving a 50-acre cattle farm in Madison County to Michael instead.
Earnest Lee, simmering over the will weeks after the fact, arrived before daylight that cold Saturday morning in a 1974 Corvette and banged on the door of his cousin's home.
Michael Hargon slipped on his boots and answered the door. They fought. Michael apparently tried to get to his truck where he kept a gun. Some of his teeth were found near the open door of the vehicle. Earnest Lee shot him in the head with a .22-caliber pistol.
His own blood pumping quickly, Earnest Lee stalked through the house. He shot Rebecca in the arm, beat her and choked her but didn't kill her, not right away. Then he choked the child into unconsciousness too.
He threw Michael's body across the Corvette's seats, torso on the passenger side, then heaved Rebecca atop her husband's corpse and stuffed their son in on top of her. Then Earnest Lee got behind the wheel, with his dead cousin's feet against his back, and drove nearly 100 miles south to his Taylorsville farm, ditching the pistol along the way.
Rebecca and the child were still alive when he arrived. This time he strangled the life out of them.
Earnest Lee told police how he cinched a leather strap around the boy's neck and walked away, and how Rebecca died with the child in her arms.
"The baby didn't even cry," he said.
He piled the bodies into a truck and hauled them down a rural road to an isolated field. He buried the family together in a shallow grave and covered it with several pieces of rusted tin.
That night, Earnest Lee took his wife, a veterinarian named Lisa Ainsworth, to a Mexican restaurant for Valentine's dinner. He told her what he'd done: "I got them, all three."
She told police, eventually. More than two weeks after the family disappeared and authorities undertook a massive search, Earnest Lee confessed to authorities and drew a cryptic map to the bodies.
Michael's mother, Diane, was battling colon cancer at the time and had pleaded for the family's safe return. Her hopes dashed, despair became hatred.
"He may have the name of Hargon," she said of the killer, "but no Hargon blood runs through his veins."
In November 2005, 20 months after the killings, Diane Hargon declined an interview with The Associated Press, saying cancer treatments were taking a toll and she needed to save her strength for Earnest Lee's trial.
She died a month too soon.
"God has a weird way of working sometimes," Michael's sister, Jennifer Hargon McBride, said after the trial, lamenting that her mother did not see justice. "But we're strong enough to get through it."
Six months later she was gone too, dead at 26 of an accidental overdose of sleeping medication. She left three children.
Like the other Hargons, Earnest Lee got less time than he expected. Most condemned killers in Mississippi spend 20 years or more on death row waiting to die, but not him. A little more than a year after Jennifer Hargon died, a gang member broke out of his cell at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and stabbed Earnest Lee 30 times with a homemade knife.
"I thought, pretty much, Earnest Lee got what he deserved and the type of death he had was appropriate for the pain he inflicted," said Powell, the district attorney. "I'm not encouraging anybody to do that, but I'm not sad that it happened."
Today, Michael and Rebecca Hargon's home sits empty, surrounded by barbed wire to keep out the vandals and gawkers. On a recent afternoon, the place was eerily still. A large hawk swooped down into the dead grass behind the house, the leaves of a few cedar trees the only green in the dull winter landscape.
"It is a like a giant cemetery monument to them," Diana Hargon once wrote of the site.
Just down the narrow road, Katherine Hargon Alexander can stand on her front porch, look through the pecan trees and across a field and see the home in the distance.
Somehow, it comforts her. This land has been in her family for generations.
"Sometimes I tear up and I have to stop and think, 'Who I am tearing up about?"' she said. "We've lost so many."
Editor's note: Holbrook Mohr covered Earnest Lee Hargon's trial for The Associated Press. The information in this story is based on testimony, Earnest Lee Hargon's confession, court records and numerous interviews with Hargon relatives and the district attorney who prosecuted the case.
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