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Cairo grieves after fatal armed robbery

CAIRO -- The small Ohio River community of Cairo remains shocked and saddened by Thursday's armed robbery that resulted in the deaths of two women and the injury of another.

Anita J. Grace, 52, of Olive Branch and Nita J. Smith, 52, of Wickliffe, Kentucky, died from stab wounds suffered in the attack that occurred about 5:15 p.m., after the First National Bank was closed.

Kaeley Shae Price was hospitalized with critical injuries in a Cape Girardeau hospital.

"The town needs to come together around this and pray ... It's a sad day," Cairo resident Joe Griggs said.  

James N. Wattts, 29, of Cairo, was taken into custody Thursday after a high-speed chase that ended near a railroad trestle spanning the Ohio River. He is being held in Williamson County Jail and has been charged with a federal count of a felon in possession of a firearm. Additional charges are expected.

Watts was released from prison a few weeks ago and has a long criminal history in Illinois and Missouri, including a 2006 aggravated sexual abuse of a child younger than 9 conviction.

"Everybody's in shock," Cairo resident Latisha Simelton said. "We just don't understand why the guy did what he did."

Lifelong Cairo resident Jay Holder said he knows Watts and his parents, noting nothing in his upbringing could have predicted Watts' criminal history.

"I did know him," Holder said. "I know his family and he comes from a good family. He has a good mom and a good dad, but they are not responsible for what he did. Crime happens everywhere, but you just don't expect it in a small town."

A prayer vigil for the victims was held Friday at First Missionary Baptist Church in Cairo.

The candlelight service, which was attended by about 100 people, brought the community together to grieve for and remember the victims.

"It was a solemn time because we honored those that were lost, but midway through the service it was very uplifting because we were reminded of the lives that these ladies lived and what they stood for," Rev. Jimmy Ellis, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church, said.

Ellis said the women made a difference in the community of 2,600, and the light of their lives will not be extinguished by their deaths.

"They were the type of people that gave this community that small-town feel," Ellis said. "The bright side is, for those that knew them, those things that made them special -- their caring, their willingness, their love for people they didn't know -- we're going to pick those attributes up and that's what's going to allow us to continue.

"They definitely won't be forgotten, and the best parts of them will live on with each one of us and that's what's going to make this community stronger."

Griggs did business at the bank and got to know Smith and Grace.

"I think if you wanted a better soul, you'd have to go a long way to find a better soul than those two people," Griggs said.

Olive Branch resident Crystal Day remembers Grace as an "energetic, full-of-life person who had no enemies," calling her a "sweetheart."

"My mother went to school with her," Day said. "My mother actually called me crying. It's just a very big loss, a very bad loss to the community. There's really no words for such a loss. It's horrible. It's just tragic."

Grace worked for First National Bank for 27 years and was the Cairo branch president. She also served on many community organizations, including the Olive Branch Area Community Development Corporation, Olive Branch Cemetery Association and Dodge Memorial Library.

She leaves behind her husband, two children and one grandchild. A graveside service will be held for Grace at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at Olive Branch Cemetery. Friends may call from 10 a.m. to noon at Crain Funeral Home in Tamms.

In the midst of its grief, Cairo was still able to come together to celebrate Saturday the graduation of its high school students.

Marland Brazier, who graduated from Cairo High School in 1991 and is youth minister at Du Page AME church in Lyle, addressed the graduates, reminding them that the community is about much more than Thursday's tragic incident.

"It was a tragedy indeed that happened here and very unfortunate," Brazier said. "My prayers and thoughts go out to the families that lost loved ones, and I know that one's still fighting for her life, but that incident is not at all indicative of this town."

Ellis also stressed the killings are an anomaly in an otherwise tight-knit community.

"That gentleman is not a representation of what our community is about," Ellis said. "There are those of us that are here because we want to be, not because we have nowhere else go, but we're here because it is a wonderful, beautiful and caring community."

West End Plaza in Metropolis has been set up as a drop-off location for non-perishable offerings of support for the victims' family members. Store hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

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