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Southern Mystery: A Pool of Blood, a Missing Heiress : Probe: After nearly two weeks, fate of furniture millionaire Jacqueline Levitz still baffles police.

December 02, 1995|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VICKSBURG, Miss. — Tooling around in her Jaguar convertible, dishing the inside story on Burt and Loni and wearing fur stoles and diamonds, Jacqueline Levitz cut quite a figure in this unpretentious Mississippi River town of antebellum mansions and shotgun shacks.

Even so, friends say, not many people here knew her. The wealthy heiress to the Levitz furniture empire only moved to Vicksburg from Palm Beach in October, and--except for weekend forays with her sisters to the casinos for dinner and gambling--she hardly left the house she was renovating on a bluff overlooking the river.

"She would say, 'This is a hands-on operation. I put my hard hat on and I never leave the construction,' " recalled Betty Moody, one of her closest friends locally.

If Levitz's presence in town had not yet become common knowledge, her sudden and mysterious absence surely has. Her disappearance two weeks ago sparked extensive searches throughout the area and now has brought the FBI to town to hunt for clues. A neighbor was the last known to have seen the 62-year-old socialite as she entered her house shortly after 4 p.m. on Nov. 18. Two days later, when her brother-in-law came to look for her, he found the house empty and bloodstains on the carpet.

The police later turned over the mattress on her king-size, sheetless bed and found a pool of blood so large that they could only speculate that she had been murdered.

But who would do such a thing? And why? Although the local sheriff says two purses and a tote bag were taken from the house, the perpetrators left behind two fur coats valued at about $200,000 and a $3,000 pair of earrings.

Levitz recently had fired "a couple" of workmen, but she had no known local enemies, say authorities. They are investigating the possibility that acquaintances in Florida or elsewhere might have wanted to harm her.

Meanwhile, local police, sheriff's deputies and the FBI have begun questioning each of the about 25 subcontractors who had been working on her house.

"We're turning over every stone that we can," said Paul Barrett, the Warren County sheriff.

Her new neighbors and friends speak of Levitz in glowing terms, describing her as an outgoing, compassionate and down-to-earth woman who instantly made friends. The former socialite told them she had moved to Mississippi because she was tired of the fast life.

"She seemed to be a person who cared for everybody--more than anybody I ever seen," said John Gradick, who lived next door. "She had a place in her heart for battered women and abused children. She said she'd supported institutions in Florida that provided help and she wanted to do the same thing here."

Moody sold her sprawling ranch home to Levitz, who promptly began converting it into a grand showplace with marble pillars, eight bathrooms, eight bedrooms and two kitchens. For the nine years that Moody and her husband lived in the house they often left their doors unlocked, but when she visited after the sale Moody noticed that the new owner always cautiously locked the doors.

Now many in this county of 55,000 people, afraid that a murderer is loose, are doing the same thing. The household across the street from Levitz's home had a security system installed this week. Another family has talked with a real estate agent about moving.

Barrett said his department has solved every homicide it has handled, and he is obsessed with solving this case. "I don't like to see people running loose in our community--if they are in our community--that are capable of committing a crime like this," he said.

Still, he admits that, so far, he is baffled.

*

Levitz moved to Vicksburg to be near members of her family who live across the river in Louisiana. She told friends here that after her husband, who owned the Levitz furniture chain, died in March, she wanted to escape the fast life she had been involved in and get back to her roots.

Born Mary Jacqueline Broadway, Levitz grew up in Oak Grove, La., about 50 miles northwest of Vicksburg, in a large family. Her father was a farmer. After high school, she moved to Beaumont, Tex., where she lived with an older sister while working as a secretary.

The former beauty queen relocated to Washington, D.C., with her first husband and began a career buying, refurbishing and reselling houses. She moved to Florida after her divorce and, in 1987, married Ralph Levitz, the furniture mogul, whom she always called "Mr. L." They met when he hired her to decorate his home in Palm Beach.

Despite her wealth, estimated at $15 million, she appeared to be nicely blending into her new neighborhood. Gradick and his wife took her a bouquet of flowers to welcome her. "You just liked her at first sight," he said. She told them she was enlarging the house, which she bought because of it's spectacular view of the river and its bridges, so that she would have room to house family members whom she hoped would live with her.

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