Almost exactly fifty years ago at Florida State University, the Seminoles defeated Mississippi State 10-0. Seminole fans were screaming in celebration, elated for the win. The night was leading to be an unforgettable one for Tallahassee, and it was. After the 40,000 fans in attendance made their way back home, 17-year-old Jeanie Sims and 16-year-old Judy Sims were relieved of their babysitting duties, and they headed home in anticipation to celebrate the win with their family. Jeanie returned home first, where she made a gruesome discovery.
That night, around 11pm, Jeanie arrived back at her family’s home on 641 Muriel Court; no one came to welcome Jeanie upon her arrival, so she went to her parents’ bedroom. That was when she discovered the horrifying scene: her 12-year-old sister, Joy, was lying lifeless on the floor next to her mother, Helen. Joy was bound by her wrists and ankles, gagged, and had shot wounds and stab wounds. Her mother and father, who was lying shirtless on the bed, were also bound, gagged, and stabbed. The three had their limbs tied together with Mr. and Mrs. Sims’ personal stockings and ties. Jeanie’s parents were barely alive when she found them.
Urgently, Jeanie called the Bevis Funeral Home -it was customary at the time to use the local funeral home as an ambulance service. Rocky Bevis, 16, and his father were the first to arrive at the scene after Jeanie called. They were unable to save the father, Dr. Robert Sims, but Helen was transported to the hospital. She was in a coma, and passed away nine days later, never able to speak of what happened to her and her family the nightmare of a night that would affect the city long after the crime.
A normally quaint and wholesome town where neighbors felt safe among neighbors, Tallahassee residents became frightened for their lives overnight. Stores that sold guns and ammunition quickly ran out of supplies. Women filled water guns with ammonia in case they were confronted by an attacker. Halloween was nearly cancelled that year out of fear for child safety. The once sleepy town of Tallahassee became sleepless.
50 years later, the Sims family murders remain a cold case and remain in the hearts of those in Tallahassee who were disturbed by the tragedy. Although there have been suspects, an arrest has not been made. Some discoveries have been made on the case, but not enough to convict any possible suspects.
On October 27, a documentary titled 641 Muriel Court, filmed by Florida State University undergraduate students, could potentially change the case. Burning Tree Magazine had the opportunity to interview one of the directors of 641 Muriel Court, senior and Digital Media Production student, Kyle Jones.
The documentary began as a project for a documentary production course for Jones and his co-filmers- Elijah Howard, Deanna Kidd, and Michael Walsh. Though the class ended with the Spring 2016 semester, the project continued on, developing into investigative journalism. Eight months went by of interviewing, filming, and editing, a time of Jones’ life he described as “a lot of hard work, but it was worth it. If I could go back and do it all again I definitely would. No doubts in my mind.”
Jones, who has a job as an on-campus videographer and has done freelance work, including commercials and promotional videos, initially received the idea on what to do his group project about from author and Florida State Communications professor, Davis Houck, who sent Jones articles on the case to start the project. Burning Tree Magazine sat down with Jones to discuss what it was like to delve into one of the darkest crimes in Tallahassee, and what the project revealed on the case.
Burning Tree Magazine: The documentary began as a class project, and it evolved into eight months of research and interviews. What have these past eight months been like for you?
Jones: So spring was intense. This is a big case that’s been 50 years in the making, and a lot of people in the city care about it. We knew we had our work cut out for us and there was going to be no cutting corners. Many, many Friday and Saturday nights digging through documents, looking up papers, in the basement of Strozier library, looking through microfilm; we built it (the documentary) from a box of papers.
Burning Tree Magazine: How have the Sims family murders and the making of the documentary itself affected you?
Jones: The most valuable project I’ve done, ever. You spend all your spring digging and calling and getting exciting, break-through interviews. Things are going right and you step back and you realize, even though it’s fun making this, three people died and so two girls grew up without a family. Eventually you spend enough time with this case and the stories with it. It becomes real. Hopefully we’re able to make people who watch this feel that way, because it is three people that died and two girls who grew up without a family. That’s real. It’s neighbors who didn’t know how to feel afterwards.
Burning Tree Magazine: With that being said, how do you think the documentary is going to impact Tallahassee?
Jones: On one front I hope it’s going to give a lot of closure. For the small town of Tallahassee back then, this was the thing.
Burning Tree Magazine: I remember reading about this and how after the murders happened Halloween was practically cancelled, people started locking their doors, which they rarely ever did before.
Jones: Yeah this was the thing. Nobody ever did (lock their doors). I talked to people who would leave their car keys in the front seat of their car, that’s just the kind of town Tallahassee was. So this murder was the thing. 50 years went by and nothing happened. Nobody got charged, there were no answers. The people haven’t forgotten about it that were here. It’s still very real to them. 9/11 we can put a face to that, we know who did that, but the people in Tallahassee that were around for the Sims murder and are still around can’t do that. They still don’t know what happened. They need closure. And hopefully it (the documentary) will put some hard old feelings to rest, maybe answer some questions.
Burning Tree Magazine: After the documentary premieres, will the case be over for you? Are you still going to try to investigate the situation and discover what actually happened that night three members of the Sims family were brutally murdered? Are you still going to be active in the case?
Jones: I’ll be active with the film in regards that I hope it goes out to a lot of festivals. We’ve got some festivals lined up that we hope the documentary goes out to, we’ve got some more showings, one on campus and one in December as well. As far as staying with the case, I think that any developments that we are going to find out are going to be new. I won’t speak out of line but there’s a possibility that this film could cause new, just developments. Some of the things that you will see in the documentary are pretty substantial and if law enforcement decides to look into it further I don’t think too many people would be disappointed.
Burning Tree Magazine: What is one example of something substantial in the documentary?
Jones: There’s a new interview in the film, with one of the prime suspects, the prime suspect really, and he interviewed with us.
Burning Tree Magazine: Is this person anonymous?
Jones: Vernon Fox is the suspect in this. He and his girlfriend, Mary Charles Lajoi, were the two prime people. Fox interviewed with me for the film. There are some inconsistencies with what he told me and what he said in the 60s and what he said in the 80s.
Burning Tree Magazine: How did you meet him?
Jones: Well he started posting online pretty actively, commenting on articles (about the case) saying, ‘Hey we couldn’t have done this, I wasn’t there.’ So he was the suspect, he was trying to clear his name. I shot him a message saying, ‘Hey, I’m making a documentary on this and I would love to talk to you.’ And he said, ‘There’s nothing to talk about.’ Then a week later he calls me and we talked on the phone for about an hour and a half and wanted to interview; He wants to clear himself.
Burning Tree Magazine: Why is he the main suspect?
Jones: Lots of reasons. Watch the film. He and his girlfriend are very interesting characters.
Burning Tree Magazine: There are accounts that the front door to the Sims house had no signs of forced entry. Do you think whoever committed the crime was someone the family knew?
Jones: Well, it could’ve been someone they knew, but also, the other thing you have to remember is that in 1966 Tallahassee, Florida, somebody knocks on your door saying, ‘My car broke down and I need to call someone,’ then you let them in and you make them dinner. That was the kind of town Tallahassee was. So, they could’ve walked in. I read somewhere that the Sims tended to lock their front door, they were one of the only families who did that. The thing though is that in 1966 when someone knocked on your door you weren’t talking to them through the screen, you were inviting them to sit in your living room. So I don’t think it was that much of a surprise, especially given that there was a 12-year-old girl home. So, doorbell rings, she gets up and runs and answers it, doesn’t matter who it is.
Burning Tree Magazine: You had the opportunity to interview prime suspects, neighbors of the Sims family that still live in the neighborhood today, and Rocky Bevis, the first person to arrive at the crime scene. How did interviews go?
Jones: I was in the position of asking a prime suspect questions he did not want to answer. So it was tense, some of the interviews were tense. (Rocky Bevis) is a strong, Southern man, where emotions are not the first thing you lay on your sleeve, but he was affected and it was a very serious matter for him. It’s something that he doesn’t talk about a lot, and something he doesn’t want to talk about a lot.
Burning Tree Magazine: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers? Anything that you learned that you wish you had known before?
Jones: The best advice I could give is that you just have to commit to it. Thinking time is important because the more hours you spend thinking, the more you figure it out. You don’t figure it out in an editing room just piecing things together. The more time you can commit to it and if you can figure out how to make it a passion project, you’re good.
Burning Tree Magazine: Did it turn into a passion project for you?
Jones: Absolutely. Doing something like this you have to give it your all, and this consumed me. It became all that mattered and it was worth it. We are all excited to share the documentary with people. We put a lot of work into it, we are proud of what we have put together. If you like Making a Murderer you’re going to like it.
641 Muriel Court premieres October 27th at The Moon. Doors open at 7pm, screening will start at 8pm. The event is open to the public and free admission.