‘We have questions … but this is not the time for that’: Family, friends reflect on life of woman who died in Natchez jail

Published 2:23 pm Sunday, September 3, 2023

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NATCHEZ — Four best friends of Lacey Robinette Handjis, along with her mother, brother and grandmother, sat around the dining room table of her mother’s home on Friday morning, talking about Lacey.

Amid the tears was lots of laughter as they recalled stories about Lacey, who died sometime early Tuesday morning from an unknown cause in the Adams County Jail.

The circumstances surrounding Lacey’s death were not discussed.

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“We want this to be about Lacey and who she was,” said friend Denver Coats. “This is a time to celebrate her. We have questions about what happened, but this is not the time for that. We want to remember Lacey and the amazing person she was.”

Lacey was transported by the Winona Police Department on Monday, arriving at the Adams County Sheriff’s Office on an order of committal, issued by the Adams County Chancery Court.

She was discovered dead in a padded holding cell in the jail just before 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Exactly when she died is not known, nor is the cause of her death. Coroner James Lee said her body was delivered to the Mississippi State Crime Lab, where it will be autopsied.

Coats and Lacey went to nursing school together at Louisiana Technical College and worked together at several different places during their careers, including Compassus Hospice, where Lacey was a nurse and a hospice marketer.

Those gathered to talk about Lacey — best friends Stacy Alexander, Coats, Whitney Bradford, Madison Stampley, her mother Connie Robinette, brother Charlie Robinette and grandmother, Jane “Hammaw” Gibson — were each in a different stage of grieving.

“I think we are just numb,” Connie Robinette said.

“I think we all grieve in different ways,” Coats said.

“We don’t want to talk about anything that has anything to do with the last three months. We want to remember Lacey and who she was,” Mrs. Robinette said.

They looked through photos of Lacey as a toddler, which prompted sweet memories.

She takes after her grandmother, who is an artist.

“As grandchildren, we had about 14 cousins and we spent about every weekend out my grandmother’s house near the Natchez State Park,” Charlie Robinette said.

The cousins ran and played in the pasture and old growth forest on the 62-acre property, where her grandmother still lives today.

Her grandmother loves art and always had projects going, like paintings or porcelain.

“She had a kiln and would glaze the porcelain and paint it and all that,” Robinette said. “There were more boys than girls there, so Lacey often would hang back with our grandmother.”

Madison Stampley went to pre-school at Jefferson Street United Methodist Church with Lacey. Later, they went to high school together, graduating from Trinity Episcopal Day School

“Lacey was the leader,” Stampley said. “She thought I was the leader, but I wasn’t. Lacey loved to control everything. She had definite leadership skills.”

She also loved animals and was introduced to horses while a child on her grandmother’s property. She would show western quarter horses at the Mississippi State Coliseum in Jackson.

Lacey graduated at the top of her class in nursing school. On Dec. 30, 2017, she married Russell Handjis.

“He was the love of her life,” Mrs. Robinette said. The two had two boys, Jack, 4, and Tyler, 3. Lacey also had a step-daughter, Hallee Handjis, whom she adored, the friends said.

“She was the best mama in the world,” Stampley said. “She was extra.”

All said Lacey made every day an occasion.

“She cooked for her boys every night, full meals,” Alexander said. “She liked for them to eat right.”

“She loved to cook,” Mrs. Robinette said.

Lacey also loved to do crafts and took care to make birthdays and other events special, like making friends and family t-shirts for her son’s first birthday.

“She dove right into things, and wanted her boys to, too. She didn’t care if they made a mess,” Alexander said. “She said let’s have fun!”

“She always encouraged them to be boys. They could be loud and rowdy. She would tell them, ‘Show me you muscles,’ ” Robinette said. “She encouraged them to not wear shoes when they were outside. She wanted them connected with the earth.”

“She always said she hoped her boys had a childhood as wonderful as hers was,” Stampley said.

Coats said as a nurse, Lacey was intense and passionate and had “such compassion for her patients. That was Lacey. She had a heart for geriatric patients. She treated her patients like they were her own grandmother,” Coats said.

Lacey also worked for a time as a nurse at the Core Civic Correctional facility, a job she enjoyed, her brother said. However, she had to leave the job at the prison because she was pregnant. And couldn’t take a chance on being caught in a lockdown, and she couldn’t have her cell phone with her in the prison.

“Mostly, I will remember Lacey for her strong faith in God,” Coats said. “She was very nurturing and would witness to everyone she could.”

Lacey attended Trinity Episcopal Church and had recently discussed beginning a program for youth at the church, her brother said.

“Lacey was bigger than life,” Alexander said.

“She had such a vibrant personality,” Bradford said.

“She had the biggest, most beautiful smile and cared so much about people,” Stampley said.

“Lacey loved harder than she got in return,” her brother said.

Visitation and a memorial service for Lacey Robinette Handjis will be Saturday at Trinity Episcopal Church, officiated by Father Ken Ritter. Visitation with family and friends begins at 10 a.m., which will be followed by a memorial service at 11 a.m.

A celebration of Lacey’s life will follow at Myrtle Terrace, 310 N. Pearl St., afterward.