Editor's note: Stacey Cato is a freelance writer. Her stories often appear in the Sea Coast Echo.
Just before 8 a.m. on Tuesday, I awoke to the sound of my phone going "ding, ding, ding." I was being bombarded with notifications on social media and through text messaging, all inquiring about yet another shooting death in Bay St. Louis.
Soon after the messages, I received calls as I was getting dressed to rush to the scene. I knew very few details about the incident at the time, but as I was driving, I envisioned what I might see, wondering what I was going to find this time.
It’s always heartbreaking to know someone’s life has just ended, especially so tragically, in a violent fashion.
I knew there was a shooting and I knew a woman was dead. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was someone I knew, someone close to me, a classmate or a family member or friend. This is the life of a local news reporter who was born and raised in a small town. I called my children to make sure they were okay.
As a crime and spot news reporter, my children’s safety is always the first thought that runs through my mind, but I confirmed they were safe and at home, so I remained professional and in "work mode."
The adrenaline is pumping. It’s a feeling many may not understand and some may not be able to handle. When you do this for as long as I have, you almost become numb to the initial shock of a crime scene.
Once I made it to the scene, from a distance, I saw the victim’s body lying in the parking area across the street from where I had pulled up.
My goal then was to obtain as much information as possible, so I could quickly and accurately inform the public about the incident in a breaking news story.
The first question I wanted answered was whether the person responsible had been caught or was the public’s safety at risk. I write for the readers -- I want to know what the public needs and deserves to know.
After I saw the body — which was surrounded by yellow-and-black crime scene tape -- I noticed a couple of officers rolling out even more, further securing the area.
A massive crowd had gathered at that point from in and around the neighborhood. The Bay St Louis community is tight-knit. Everyone knows everybody. We expect the victim to be someone we know or know of. That’s just the reality of living in this small, coastal town.
In this industry we are taught to take pictures first and ask questions later. I immediately took my photos and then started interviewing witnesses who were close by as I waited to speak to Bay St Louis Police Chief Gary Ponthieux Jr. for more official details.
It can sometimes become overwhelming when you're being flooded with phone calls and information from people at the scene, but it’s part of the job. You have to sift through what people are saying and separate rumor from fact while you wait on authorities to give you the details they feel they can release without hampering the investigation.
Eventually, someone close to the investigation mentioned the girl had a tattoo on her foot of her last name. They couldn’t pronounce it properly, but it was enough for me to know it was my last name.
“Cato,” I asked? "Yes. That’s it. Cato.”
I said "that’s a relative. That has to be Misty! My children’s aunt!"
It was, indeed, my ex-husband's sister.
Once I confirmed her identity, I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. With my heart in my throat, I called my son and daughter to explain their aunt was the person who was just murdered. It’s the worst feeling, as a mother, to break this type of news over the phone.
I let the officer who I had seen rolling out the crime scene tape earlier know the victim was my family. He asked me her name. He went to inform the investigators.
At that point, everyone working the scene looked up and over at me. I didn’t know at the time that one investigator thought I was actually the victim when he saw the tattoo. I was told he even had my Facebook account pulled up, viewing my photos. The officer assured him I was nearby to cover the story. He then pointed me out to the other officers.
As the crime scene investigation wrapped up, about an hour later, the morticians came and took the body. I was asked to come by the funeral home to identify the victim.
Hancock County Coroner Jim Faulk unzipped the black body bag. It was her, I said. Even though she was hardly recognizable, I could tell exactly who she was.
She was a mother, she was a sister, she was a daughter and she was an aunt. She was human being and she didn’t deserve to die the way she did. No one does.
Anyone with information in the case can contact the Bay St. Louis Police Department at 228-467-9222. You can also contact Crimestoppers at 877- 787-5898 or submit a tip via the web at www.mscoastcrimestoppers.com.
Family and friends are organizing a candle light vigil for next Saturday at 5:30 p.m. More information about the event will be released later this week, along with details on a memorial.