JACKSON, Miss. — Seven months of searching for her lost son brought Bettersten Wade to a dirt road leading into the woods, past an empty horse stable and a scrapyard.
The last time she’d seen her middle child, Dexter Wade, 37, was on the night of March 5, as he left home with a friend. She reported him missing, and Jackson police told her they’d been unable to find him, she said.
It wasn’t until 172 excruciating days after his disappearance that Bettersten learned the truth: Dexter had been killed less than an hour after he’d left home, struck by a Jackson police car as he crossed a nearby interstate highway. Police had known Dexter’s name, and hers, but failed to contact her, instead letting his body go unclaimed for months in the county morgue.
Now it was early October, and Bettersten had finally been told where she could find her son.
She pulled up to the gates of the Hinds County penal farm, her sister in the passenger seat. A sheriff’s deputy and two jumpsuited inmates in a pickup told her to follow them.
They bounced down the road and curved into the woods, crawling past clearings where rows of small signs jutted from the earth, each marked with a number.
“Girl, look at this,” Bettersten, 65, said to her sister. “Would you believe they would bury someone out here?”
The caravan came to the end of the road, at another clearing with more markers. The deputy took one of Bettersten’s hands, her daughter the other, and they walked to the mounds of loosely packed dirt. They stopped at grave No. 672.
“Really?” Bettersten said.
She bent over, hands on her knees. She cried out, her voice echoing off the surrounding trees. “I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry.”
Growing up in Jackson, Dexter was a “sweet little boy,” sharp with computers, a leader among classmates, a lover of nice clothes, a dreamer who hoped one day to run his own business refurbishing old cars.
That went awry in his teens, when he “got lost” under the influence of older men who stole cars and did drugs, Bettersten said. A single mother of three who worked at night, Bettersten said she wasn’t always around for Dexter. But she always bailed him out of jail, and he always returned home, Bettersten said.
Although Dexter’s boyhood aspirations did not come true, he and a girlfriend, Candice Thomas, had two daughters who remained a bright spot for him, even after the couple’s romantic relationship dissolved, even after Dexter served two stints in prison, one for attempted auto theft and the other for armed robbery, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. He was released in 2017.
When he got out, Dexter remained friends with Thomas and was a committed father, she said. Although Thomas had full legal custody, Dexter talked to his daughters often and visited them in Gulfport three hours away. During the summers, they came to stay with him at Bettersten’s home in Jackson.
“He was sweet and loving, especially when it came to the kids,” Thomas said.
But prison had clearly damaged him. “You could look in his eyes and see he wasn’t the same person,” Thomas said. “I could tell he was struggling mentally.”
Dexter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, Bettersten said. After starting medication, he decreased his illegal drug intake and stayed at home most of the day, cleaning and taking care of the yard. He liked to give homemade ice pops to kids on their street, handed food to people who didn’t have homes and occasionally sold sodas and chips in the neighborhood. He rarely left the house for more than a day or two without calling, Bettersten said. He never showed signs of wanting to hurt himself.
“He didn’t seem like he was in a bad place,” Bettersten said. “But I don’t know what happened that particular day.”
On March 5, Bettersten, a retired Nissan line technician who worked part-time as a home health aide, returned home and found one of her windows broken. She and Dexter argued about it, and around 7:30 p.m. he left with a friend, she said.
Days passed without a word. On March 14, Bettersten called the Jackson Police Department to report him missing.
The decision to call the police was difficult for Bettersten. She did not trust them. In 2019, her 62-year-old brother died after a Jackson officer slammed him to the ground. The officer was convicted of manslaughter but is appealing.
Her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit accusing Jackson officers of excessive force and attempting to cover up their actions, and accusing the city of failing to properly train and supervise the officers. The city has denied the claims and said it isn’t liable for what happened. The officers’ lawyer said they acted responsibly and lawfully. A federal judge dismissed some of Bettersten’s claims; others remain pending in state court.
Bettersten said her mother advised her not to call the police about Dexter.
“My mama told me, ‘They’re not going to do anything,’” Bettersten recalled. “But I had to do something to find Dexter, and I thought that was the best way.”
An investigator came to Bettersten’s house and took a statement, she said. She emailed the investigator a picture of Dexter. He left a card with a case number on it. Two days later, she emailed a different investigator another photo of her son. The original investigator filed an incident report that misspelled Dexter’s name as "Dester."
Bettersten said she kept in regular touch with police, asking for updates and requesting that they put his picture on TV. She did her own search, checking out abandoned homes and driving around her neighborhood asking if anyone had seen him (she never found the friend who left home with him).
Dexter’s teen daughters and their mother grew frantic, calling Bettersten for news. “The girls would ask, ‘Did you hear from my daddy?’” Thomas said. “We just kept praying he was all right.”
Carey Banks, a close friend of Bettersten’s, accompanied her on searches of the neighborhood and watched as stress and desperation wore on her.
“She called someone every week and asked about her child,” Banks said. “She couldn’t get it off her mind. She was crazy about that boy.”
Each time she called, police told her they had no information, Bettersten said.
It turned out that the Jackson Police Department had the answers all along.
The department did not respond to detailed questions and has not commented on or explained how it handled Dexter’s death.
After this article was published, a spokesperson for Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba emailed a statement to NBC News offering “our sincerest prayers and condolences” to Dexter’s family.
The spokesperson, Melissa Faith Payne, added in an interview that police did not intentionally harm Dexter or his family.
“There was miscommunication but there was no malicious intent anywhere in this whole situation,” Payne said.
This account has been pieced together with interviews with Dexter's family and a coroner’s investigator, along with court records and documents provided in response to public records requests: a crash report, incident reports and coroner’s office records. Bettersten also shared personal notes, emails, Dexter’s death certificate, a coroner’s report and case information cards provided to her by police.
Those materials show that just before 8 p.m. on March 5, Dexter was walking across Interstate 55, a six-lane highway, when a Jackson police SUV driven by an off-duty corporal struck him in the southbound lanes.
The corporal, who alerted police to the collision, was not injured. He was not suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and was not given field sobriety tests. Nor was he cited for any traffic violations. The death was ruled accidental.
Dexter suffered severe injuries, including to his head. A toxicology report later noted that Dexter had PCP and methamphetamine in his system.
An investigator from the Hinds County coroner’s office responded to the scene. He did not find identification on Dexter while examining him but found a bottle of prescription medication in his pocket with his name on it.
Three days later, on March 8, the investigator, LaGrand Elliott, contacted the medical facility that had provided the prescription and received Bettersten’s name as Dexter’s next of kin, according to Elliott’s case notes. Elliott said he called the number listed for Bettersten in the facility’s records and left a voicemail but got no response. Bettersten confirmed that the number Elliott said he called was correct, but she doesn’t remember receiving a call from him, and was not able to access her Boost Mobile phone records to check.
Elliott confirmed Dexter’s identification on March 9, when the state crime lab said his fingerprints matched those it had on file for him, according to his notes. Elliott said in an interview that he passed what he’d found — a phone number and an address — to the Jackson Police Department’s accident investigation squad so they could notify Bettersten of Dexter’s death.
“Once we get that information I turn it over to police because it is their jurisdiction so that they can do the proper death notification,” Elliott said.
Bettersten, meanwhile, turned to Facebook, where she posted pictures of Dexter with her phone number, pleading for him or anyone who saw him to call.
On March 15, the day after Bettersten reported Dexter missing, Elliott followed up with Jackson police for updates. “No kin has been located as of yet,” he wrote in his notes.
Elliott made another follow-up call on March 30, and was told there was nothing new.
The following day, the coroner’s office asked the Hinds County Board of Supervisors for approval to bury Dexter’s remains in a pauper’s field at the Hinds County penal farm.
As that request was being filed, Bettersten posted another photo of Dexter on Facebook.
“Have anyone saw my son please please call his mother.”
The Board of Supervisors approved the coroner’s burial request on April 3. Four days later, Elliott called Jackson police again. “No new updates,” he wrote in his notes.
On May 7, Bettersten posted on Facebook: “Dexter if you out there your kids miss you and your family miss you. We love you we always love you.”
Two days after that, Elliott called the police again for an update and was told there was none, according to his notes. He tried one last time in June and got the same response.
June 18 was Father’s Day. On Facebook, Bettersten pleaded to Dexter directly: “I am trying to find you but no one knows what happens to you. I wish someone would have saw you. I love you very much please come home.”
On July 14, with no one claiming Dexter’s body, the county buried him in a field at its penal farm among other unclaimed bodies. Bettersten was still searching. “Dexter your kids miss you I miss you and your Grandma sister auntie cuz friends miss you,” she wrote on Facebook on July 16. "You don’t have to come home just let us know you all right. We love you."
Through the rest of July, Bettersten said, she called missing persons investigators and got no news. The lead investigator told her he was retiring at the end of the month, and a new investigator called her Aug. 13 to say she was taking over the case, Bettersten said.
Less than two weeks later, on Aug. 24, the new investigator called to tell her she had found Dexter and that an officer would come see her in person.
“When she said that, I knew he was dead,” Bettersten recalled.
The officer, a member of the accident investigations unit, met Bettersten at her mother’s house. Bettersten said he told her that Dexter had been hit by a police cruiser while trying to cross the highway.
Bettersten, weeping, asked the investigator for more details. He told her to call the coroner’s office, Bettersten said.
Bettersten found Elliott. He told her that he’d known Dexter’s name since the day he died and had passed the information to police, Bettersten said. And he told her about the pauper’s burial, Bettersten said.
Bettersten couldn’t understand why police told her for months they didn’t have answers — when they had the truth from the start.
“They had me looking for him all that time, and they knew who he was,” Bettersten said.
She wondered if it had anything to do with her brother’s death and her allegations against the police in that case. “Maybe it was a vendetta. Maybe they buried my son to get back at me,” she said.
Thomas said she and her daughters were gutted. “The hardest thing I ever had to do is tell my girls that their dad is never coming back.”
She added: “I just want someone to answer for what happened. I want to know what really happened.”
Bettersten tried to get as close as she could to the spot where Dexter died. She hoped it would help her understand what he was doing on the highway, but walking the area, which is lined with concrete barriers, did not clear anything up.
Bettersten also began to doubt the official timeline: She didn’t see how Dexter could have made it from her house to the scene of the accident in less than a half hour on foot. She wondered if someone gave him a ride.
“I just feel like something else must have happened,” Bettersten said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Bettersten paid the coroner’s office a $250 fee to claim Dexter’s body. It took her several more weeks to figure out where he was buried — and how to find him.
She made the appointment to see his grave on a Tuesday afternoon in early October.
At plot No. 672, Bettersten asked her sister, daughter and Banks, her friend, to join her for a prayer. They clasped hands at the edge of the dirt.
“Dexter, I want to tell you I am so sorry,” she said, voice rising. “I’m so sorry this happened to you. But mama didn’t know. Mama didn’t know.”
She began to sob. “I always loved you and I miss you. Farewell, baby. Farewell.”
They got into their cars. Back on the dirt road, Bettersten began planning the next step in her ordeal: finding the money to get her son out of that hole and into a proper grave, a place where everybody could see his name.