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Steckler gone, but not forgotten

NATCHEZ — “Man lives by habits, indeed, but what he lives for is thrills and excitement.”

Those are the words Jon Steckler, a Cathedral High School senior at the time, chose to list below his senior portrait in the school’s yearbook — just one year before Steckler was shot and killed in rural Oktibbeha County.

Willie Jerome Manning, the man convicted of killing Steckler and Tiffany Miller, is scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. today at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, after nearly two decades of legal proceedings.

Steckler’s sister, Suzanne, said she and her family have chosen to not involve themselves with Manning’s legal proceedings or execution.

“Obviously, we hate the loss we experienced, but it’s just a bad situation altogether,” Suzanne said. “Our family just really doesn’t want to be involved in this.”

Manning was handed two death sentences for the slayings of Jon Steckler and Miller, who were both Mississippi State University students. The two were last seen alive leaving the Sigma Chi fraternity house on Dec. 11, 1992. Jon Steckler was a sophomore majoring in forest resources.

A passing motorist discovered their bodies that same day. Each was shot to death, and Miller’s car was missing. The vehicle was found the next morning.

Prosecutors said Manning was arrested after he tried to sell some items belonging to the victims.

Former Adams County Sheriff Tommy Ferrell assisted the Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Office with the investigation per Jon Steckler’s father, David Steckler’s, request.

“He called me and asked as a friend of the family if I would find out some details to help settle the family,” Ferrell said. “The sheriff up there at the time opened his investigation up to me and requested I be a part of it as well as act as a liaison for the family here, which meant a lot to me and them.”

Ferrell said he hoped his participation in the investigation also helped calm a Natchez community that was alarmed and worried.

“Our community was alarmed not only for their loved ones and relatives, but for the Steckler family as well,” Ferrell said. “The Steckler family were very popular in this community, and everyone in the community who had or would have a child going off to a university setting was terrorized by the thought of that happening to their children.”

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Manning’s last appeal hopes in March and allowed the Mississippi Supreme Court to set an execution date for Manning.

Manning’s attorneys have asked the state Supreme Court to stop the execution and allow Manning to seek post-conviction DNA testing of evidence from the investigation. The Supreme Court has declined the motions.

Those who knew Jon Steckler described him as a dedicated athlete who played defensive end for the Cathedral football team, a devout Catholic who took mission trips as part of the Catholic Youth Organization and an avid outdoorsman and hunter.

Ken Beesley, who coached Jon Steckler during his time at Cathedral, said Jon Steckler was a dedicated football player and student.

“You didn’t have to worry about when he came to the game whether he was ready or not — he was always ready,” Beesley said. “He also loved to hunt and fish and even took me turkey hunting one time.

“If you ever met him, you couldn’t help but be friends with him because he had such a great personality.”

Jules Michel, who was principal at Cathedral at the time, said Jon Steckler’s death affected everyone in the community.

“The Stecklers lost a family member, the community lost a fine young man, the university lost a student, the church lost an active member, but everyone lost a friend,” Michel, who now lives in Jackson, said.

“Most people would love to be many years older and have people say those things about them, and Jon managed to accomplish that at just 19 years old.”

Those sentiments can also still be echoed all the way in Saltillo, Mexico, where the church Jon Steckler visited during his mission trips was named in his honor shortly after his death, Michel said.

“He made such an impression on the people there that they named the church after him when they found out he was killed,” Michel said. “To this day, I’m told Jon’s picture is still on the altar way down in Mexico.”