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Murder in Brownstown: The Death of James Skinner

            In 2017, the quiet town of Brownstown, IL was shocked to learn that a local Fayette County man had died in his home. At first, it was suspected suicide, but further investigation proved the crime to be a homicide. No one could understand who would want to kill fifty-six-year-old James “Jim” Skinner. Jim was known to most people in Brownstown as a hard worker who helped haul cattle for local farmers. There was nothing to explain why or who would kill Jim.

               James Skinner was born January 31st, 1961, in Vandalia, Illinois. Jim was married until 1998 when he divorced. He had a son, Ryan, whom he was very close to. Jim worked as a carpenter, handyman, cattleman, and was a member of the Carpenter’s Union- Local 377. He was a friendly man, well known in his community. He had been known as a generous and fun-loving person. He worked hard and enjoyed living a simple life in rural America.

               On September 17th, 2017, Ryan Skinner arrived at his father’s home in Brownstown. When he entered the home, he found his father lying in bed covered in mass amounts of blood. There were no signs of a struggle. Initially, Ryan and the police believed it was a suicide. Ryan explained that his father had recently been to the doctor, and he was concerned that possibly his father had been given bad news leading to his suicide. According to 911 calls, however, Ryan waited thirty minutes between finding his father and calling 911. This immediately arose suspicions.

               When investigators moved the body of Mr. Skinner, there was no gun found. When the medical examiner saw the body, she immediately said that the blood was not from a gun shot wound, but a blunt force trauma wound to the head. This was definitely not a suicide. Back at the scene, police found a sledgehammer on the ground outside of Jim’s home. The weapon had blood and human hair on it, which was linked conclusively to Jim Skinner. Police had found their murder weapon.

               With the case now ruled a homicide, police had to shift their investigation. Murder is relatively rare in Fayette County, particularly in Brownstown. Who would do this and why? When Jim’s brother first learned that his brother had been killed, he immediately thought it had to be related to a woman. Jim was somewhat of a ladies’ man, so his brother suspected he had upset someone by dating the woman they loved.

               At the scene, police had collected Jim’s cell phone which showed twelve recent calls. The police also retraced Jim’s steps in the days prior to his murder. He had hauled some cattle for a local farmer and was paid in cash for two hauls. According to his friends and family, Jim often had large amounts of cash on him from hauling cattle and other jobs. In Jim’s home, however, no cash was found. Investigators believed they had their motive and that it was money.

               The first suspect in this case was Jim’s son Ryan. Ryan had been the first to find Jim’s body and it was odd that he didn’t call 911 for about thirty minutes. Under interrogation, Ryan insisted that he did not hurt his father and never would do that. He got upset being questioned, asking the police to focus on finding his father’s murderer. Investigators told Ryan that they were processing fingerprints they believed would link him to the crime, but Ryan maintained his innocence. Ryan provided an alibi that was substantiated, so he was ruled out as a suspect.

               The small community of Brownstown was devastated and shocked by the heinous murder of Jim Skinner. Some residents believed that Jim may have been a target of someone passing through the area who randomly broke into his home. Jim never locked his doors. Other residents believed that someone who knew Jim had killed him and stole his money. Yet others believed that it may have been a jealous lover. Jim was known as a flirt, and according to an ex-girlfriend, Jim liked the thrill of chasing women and taking them away from other men. One of those women was Melissa Watkins.

               Melissa Watkins went by “Missy” and was well known in the area. Missy was known to be sort of manipulative and had a history of run-ins with the police including multiple restraining orders. In the months prior to his death, Jim had been hanging out with Missy. According to Missy, she worked as Jim’s housekeeper. Jim was helping the woman financially, but many in the community suspected there was more going on that that. Afterall, Missy had a boyfriend.

               Since Missy had worked as Jim’s housekeeper, she had intimate knowledge of Jim’s schedule and home. She was a small petite woman, so police did not believe she had been the one to actually swing the sledgehammer into Jim’s head, but they believed her to be involved. The investigators pushed the woman to provide information on who may have committed this crime. Witnesses thought they may have seen a white pick-up truck at the scene. Missy indicated that she has another male friend with a white pick-up truck.

               Missy had a younger boyfriend who was tall and muscular. He was certainly capable of causing the injuries that led to Mr. Skinner’s death. However, her boyfriend had an airtight alibi, so he was ruled out as a suspect. After Missy told investigators that a friend of hers drove a white pick-up truck, they wanted to talk to her friend. This man was sixty-seven-year-old David Bright of Mulberry Grove. Missy had befriended this man, who was also helping Missy out financially.

               David “Leroy” Bright was brought in for questioning. Missy had indicated that the two men had met, through her, a few months prior to the murder. Leroy admitted to knowing Jim Skinner but denied knowing anything about his death. He stated he was home all night, an alibi that could not be proven or disproven. Leroy Bright lived alone in a very rural area with no close neighbors. He was still a suspect, but the police had nothing else to go on for now.

               Jim’s brother had been shocked and devastated by the murder.  In the days following the murder, he would often drive past his brother’s home to see if investigators were still there looking for evidence. One day, he arrived as his brother’s property to find a van, but no police officers. He followed the van for about twenty minutes as it drove away from the scene. The van eventually came to a stop, at which point Jim’s brother had a conversation with the driver, an unkempt elderly white man. He had a chill run down his back, realizing he may be talking to his brother’s killer.

                Leroy Bright was called back in for questioning. He was identified by Jim’s brother as the driver of the van. Leroy’s cell phone records place him at Jim’s residence as well. Leroy bought a new cell phone just hours after the murder took place. Police had enough to make an arrest on theft, but not on the murder. Yet.  They searched his van, which matched the description of the van that Jim’s brother had followed and found clothing with blood on it.

               The clothing obtained from Mr. Bright’s vehicle included a pair of pants with blood on them. After forensic examination, the blood on Leroy Bright’s pants was positively identified as that of James “Jim” Skinner. Leroy did not confess when confronted with this evidence, but he surrendered to arrest. Leroy denied that Missy Watkins had any knowledge of, nor had she participated in the crime. The detectives believe that Missy was a part of the crime, but Leroy was covering for her.

               David “Leroy” Bright was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. At trial, forensic experts testified that the blood found on Mr. Bright’s pants was a DNA match for victim Jim Skinner. Experts were able to pinpoint Bright being at the crime scene the morning of the murder. In fact, Bright had been the person who called Jim twelve times the morning of his murder. Mr. Bright also contacted a female, likely Missy, promising to loan her money and later letting her know he had money. He spent the rest of that day with Missy shopping.

               The defense argued that Mr. Bright would not have been able to “sneak up on” Jim with a sledgehammer because Leroy was seventy-one years old and weighed three-hundred pounds. The defense also argued that had Leroy committed the murder, he would not have left the sledgehammer behind at the scene. Furthermore, the defense attorney said that Bright would not have kept the bloody clothing if he knew it was from a murder.

               Although the defense claimed that Leroy was too smart to have so much evidence, the jury found the evidence damning. David “Leroy” Bright was found guilty of both counts of first-degree murder in September of 2020. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison without the possibly of early release. He was also charged with failure to register as a sex offender after having been convicted of aggravated sexual abuse of a victim under age 13 in 2012.  Leroy Bright will be eligible for release in 2047, at which time he will be ninety-eight years old.

               As in many small towns, gossip continues to be passed around and whispered about. Many in Fayette County believe that Missy was culpable and likely helped plan the attack, but Leroy never implicated her. This woman “has a way with men” I was told by a local citizen while investigating this case. Some suggest Missy was not directly involved, but that Leroy killed Jim to “have Missy all to himself”. Yet others believe the motive was pure greed. One thing is for sure, this crime touched the lives of the residents of Brownstown forever.



Murder in the Heartland “The Killing Kind” Available on Discovery +

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