Hurley, Miss. — Deputy U.S. Marshal Josie Wells moved away from this rural, tight-knit community to become a federal law enforcement officer, but always maintained an attachment to home.
He’d relocated to near Jackson for his job and was expecting his first child with his wife. But friends recalled Wells, 27, as someone who remembered his roots, ready to come back to give a presentation at his old high school or ride horses and motorcycles.
On Tuesday, his life came to a sudden end. A member of a team that arrived at a north Baton Rouge motel to arrest Jamie Croom, wanted in a New Roads double homicide, Wells was struck by a bullet to the neck. He died from severe blood loss, the coroner said.
Investigators said Croom, 31, fired at the deputy marshal. Croom was also shot and taken to a hospital, where he died of his injuries the next day.
Wells was the first member of the U.S. Marshals Service killed in the line of duty since 2011.
Though he had not yet turned 30, he made a powerful impression on his home community near Hurley, the small eastern town near the Alabama border where he grew up.
The area around Hurley is anchored by a sprawling school complex and red-brick library. The surrounding open country is marked by highways, strip malls and a nearby railroad track. Hurley is home to about 1,500 people as of the last U.S. census.
Wells’ neighborhood of Harleston, Mississippi, is even smaller, with about 100 people living on a winding stretch of remote houses where many people raise livestock outside.
While growing up, Wells was known for his charisma and his almost infectious smile. One of Wells’ greatest passions was riding horses, so much so that as a teenager he had his arm in a cast after he broke it falling off the horse, in a cowboy-style incident that earned him the nickname “The Outlaw Josie Wells,” said Alex McGee, who grew up down the road from Wells and was one of Wells’ closest friends. The name comes after the Clint Eastwood title character in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
Wells was one of seven siblings in the family to attend East Central High School, and though Wells graduated in 2006, almost a decade ago, his former teachers still vividly recall his presence in the classroom.
“He was probably one of the greatest students I’ve ever had,” said Robert Magee, an East Central teacher for 13 years who taught Wells in world history and also coached him in football. “If I had a class full of kids like him, I’d be in heaven,” he said.
Outside of class, Wells played on the football team as a defensive lineman, and his three brothers all joined the team as well.
While in Kristal Sisson’s theater class, Wells was “a natural” in front of an audience.
“He loved the stage, and the stage loved him,” said Sisson, who has taught at East Central for 23 years, and taught Wells in theater. “I used to tell him all the time, he had a million-dollar smile.”
After high school, Wells seemed practically destined for two things: Jackson State University and law enforcement. It was essentially a family tradition, McGee said. Wells’ brothers are police officers, one other brother is a private security guard, and one of his three sisters is studying criminal justice at Jackson State.
“It was guaranteed,” said close friend Zenith Dock III, who also grew up down the road. “There was no question what he was going to do with his life.”
But friends said they were impressed when they learned Wells became a deputy U.S. marshal, part of the country’s oldest branch of federal law enforcement, even older than the FBI.
Wells ultimately joined in January 2011 and came back to East Central to speak to a class of students about his work. He dressed in full gear, with badge and helmet and bullet-proof vest.
“The kids were in awe of him,” Sisson said. “He had a captivated audience that day.”
Anesha Fairley, who also lives in Harleston, was also in awe. “That was the greatest accomplishment in our community,” she said. “That was the grandest thing we had. Everybody was so proud of him.”
About three years ago, Wells married Channing Wells, who learned the day after his death that their child would be a boy. She said their son will be named Josie Wells Jr., after his father.
Wells said that despite her husband’s death, she doesn’t regret encouraging him to join the U.S. Marshals Service. He originally hoped to join local law enforcement, but she said she encouraged him to think more broadly.
“He wouldn’t have been happy just being stuck in one position, not knowing there was more — that he could have a higher potential,” she said.
Wells joined the U.S. Marshals after completing a four-month college internship in the Jackson district branch. He had recently returned home to Mississippi after a three-year stint in St. Louis.
“He was a supervisor’s dream. He was the ultimate professional, who showed up ready to work each and every day,” said James McIntosh, a supervisory deputy who oversaw Wells.
McIntosh called Wells a “do-it-all deputy,” whose responsibilities included providing security for judges.
“To him, I don’t think it was work,” McIntosh said. “He got out of his car every day with a smile on his face.”
But Wells’ true passion was in fugitive investigations, the kind of work that brought him to Baton Rouge, McIntosh said.
“He paid the ultimate price, fighting like a hero, doing what he loved,” he said.
McGee said Wells’ intense commitment to his work rubbed off on him. Years ago, after the two spoke by phone about what it meant to follow one’s passion, McGee went back to school and now works at a school for children with special needs.
But even after leaving Harleston and joining the Marshals, Fairley said that Wells was the same person as always.
And friends said he would continually downplay his new role.
“I was more proud than he was,” McGee said. “I bragged to everybody. I knew he would be great. … Marshals was what he loved to do. Knowing the risks of the job, he still wanted to do it.”
Advocate staff writer Matt McKinney and The Associated Press contributed to this story.