HARRISON COUNTY —
HARRISON COUNTY -- Fear gripped relatives of Lynette Jarrett when they learned her killer had escaped from a state prison in Parchman on Saturday.
Michael "Mike" Dowda had eaten dinner with Jarrett's mother and stepfather after shooting the young mother Feb. 13, 2006, and pretended nothing was wrong. Jarrett, 25, had two children who were 3 and 10.
Dowda was later convicted of her murder in Harrison County, and was serving a term of life in prison when he disappeared from a maintenance detail at the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections believes Dowda broke into a state employee's home on prison grounds, cracked open a safe, stole two handguns and left in the worker's white 2005 Chevrolet Silverado.
While the manhunt continued Monday, Jarrett's relatives shared concerns for their safety.
"My entire family is at risk," said Tanya Ferrill. She is Jarrett's niece, and had lived with her for about a year before the killing.
Jarrett's mother, Jean Smith, said MDOC notified her of Dowda's escape and advised her to leave home. Local police are keeping an eye on her house.
It isn't Dowda's first time to escape. While he was held pending trial, he broke out of the county jail in September 2008 with three other inmates. Then-Sheriff Joe Price said they climbed through a roof vent and used tied sheets to shimmy down an outer wall. Authorities found Dowda, the last captured, hiding in a trash can behind a state Crime Lab office on Three Rivers Road in Gulfport.
Ferrill said the family feels like the justice system dropped the ball and the prison shouldn't have allowed him to work on its grounds.
"His background was like a red flag," she said. "He obviously was unattended while he was working outside."
Dowda was convicted of Jarrett's murder Oct. 19, 1998 and was sentenced Dec. 7, 1998. His escape charge was passed to court files. He's now 48 and would have been eligible for consideration for parole at 65.
New charges are pending once he's captured.
Most state inmates who are physically able to work are assigned some type of work after going through a classification process, MDOC spokeswoman Grace Fisher said. The process includes reviews of criminal history, psychological exams and behavior behind bars.
Fisher said MDOC has no record of any felony convictions for Dowda in Mississippi except for murder.
"His escape is dragging all our pain back up," Ferrill said.
'Like a mother to me'
Jarrett began working as a waitress when she was 15, and later became a manager of Shoney's on the Biloxi beach. She had left the state to get away from Dowda, said Ferrill, describing Jarrett as a loving mother and a hard worker.
"I was 16 and pregnant when I moved in with her, and we had moved to Gulf Shores so she could make a fresh start," Ferrill said. "She was a wonderful role model. She was like a mother to me. She taught me to not let anything stand in my way."
Jarrett later moved back in with Dowda. She was shot in the head at their Woolmarket home, and was missing for three months.
The break in the case came after Dowda was arrested in Los Angeles on a grand larceny warrant from Harrison County. While in Los Angeles, Dowda told authorities he had shot Jarrett and drew a map of where he had buried her, prosecutors said. Her remains were found behind a hotel on Canal Road near Gulfport on Feb. 13, 1997.
Dowda was not prosecuted for the grand larceny charge.
Court records in the murder case show Dowda had confronted Jarrett about their relationship and he threatened to kill himself, but shot her instead. Dowda claimed he had unloaded the gun, but a bullet was in the chamber when he pulled the trigger.