Tory Sanders walked out of the early morning darkness on May 5 and into the glowing lights of the Flying J truck stop. He was on the edge of the small town of Charleston in the Bootheel region of Missouri, nearing the end of a confused, winding journey that would ultimately end with his death.
At the time, though, he seemed like any other traveler. "I just give him a few cigarettes," says Jessica Housman, who was working the deli at the Flying J. "He seemed like a nice guy."
It must have been about 4 a.m., Housman figures, and Sanders sat around for a few hours. The truck stop has a laundry, and he was killing time while he washed a pair of pants. In between bumming L&M 100s from Housman, he began chatting with her and other employees. Eventually, he asked if they would call the police for him. He explained that he believed that he was wanted on a warrant back in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee; he wanted to clear it up with officers.
It had been a long night for Sanders. The 28-year-old married father of eight suffers from depression and had set out the day before on a road trip to "clear his head," an aunt says. He was apparently driving toward Memphis, where he had family, but made a wrong turn and drifted north into Missouri. He ran out of gas just across the state line near the town of Marston, population 500.
A stranger in an unfamiliar place, Sanders had ditched his green Toyota Avalon there and hitched a ride about 25 miles north to a Walmart. His travels after that are a bit of a mystery, but he eventually popped up another sixteen miles east, at the Flying J in Charleston.
For a city guy who'd spent the past twelve hours or so lost in the low farmlands of southeast Missouri, this latest stop probably seemed about the same as the others. But he had now crossed into Mississippi County, setting himself on a collision course with Sheriff Cory Hutcheson, a rural lawman of growing infamy. Hutcheson was out on bond following his arrest the month before on eighteen criminal charges, including accusations that he'd robbed and assaulted a 77-year-old hairdresser. He was also facing civil lawsuits in federal court, alleging he was responsible for the ghastly stillbirth of a pregnant inmate's baby and the overdose death of a young mom who'd been arrested for DUI after a fender bender.
Those are not the kind of things you know, however, when you're a stranger, lost and stranded nearly three hours from home.
At the Flying J, Sanders seemed clear-eyed and sober to Housman.
"He was very calm," she remembers. "He just sat there in the lounge for at least a couple of hours."
The staff did call police, but only because Sanders himself requested it. Eventually, a Charleston cop pulled up in a patrol car and met Sanders out front. Housman was not outside then and isn't certain what happened next. She assumed Sanders left with the officer. She didn't think much more about it. Even when she heard about a death at the Mississippi County Detention Center, she did not immediately connect the news to the nice man she met that morning.
Now that she has, she thinks of him and his family, and she wonders what happened.
"Everybody deserves an answer," she says.
Across the nation, both media and activists have paid increasing attention to black men and women who end up dead after coming into contact with law enforcement, sometimes for no greater reason than a routine traffic stop. Cases like that of Sandra Bland, who was pulled over in the Houston suburbs for failure to signal a lane change and later found dead in a jail cell in an apparent suicide, have generated serious discussion about why police sometimes escalate at exactly the moment when they should stand down.
As a young black man who initially reached out to officers because he needed help, Sanders fits the pattern of some of the more high-profile cases. But the facts of his final days seem even more disturbing because the sheriff who was present in his jail cell — and by some accounts led the fatal confrontation — was himself under indictment, even while Sanders was facing no charges in Mississippi County.