Gerald Powers, dressed in a yellow shirt, jeans, and a red ball cap, was leaning casually on the railing of the second floor of Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall in Tunica, Mississippi. Below, gamblers were meandering across the casino floor, deciding where to place their chips, and hoping luck would find them that night of April 18, 1996. There were blackjack tables full of players who eyed their cards and slid their chips across the cool green of the tables, hoping to score big. One of those players was a pretty, dark-haired woman named Shannon Sanderson. Gerald Powers was not interested in the strolling people or the hopefuls at the tables. He was watching Shannon because she was winning big. The petite lady knew her game. The chips kept sliding her way.
Shannon Sanderson was good at blackjack, but tonight she was perturbed. Her husband should have been at her side, celebrating his birthday with her. Shannon had even dressed carefully in a black dress, a jacket with silver buttons, high heels, and false pink nails.
But Robert Sanderson had opted out when his daughter from a previous marriage arrived at the large home with a surprise birthday cake. Shannon and Robert argued bitterly. Shannon was quite a bit younger than Robert. They had met when she worked for him at his lucrative alarm company. Lately, turmoil seemed to be tearing them apart. So Shannon left him that night with his daughter. She dropped off her children with their paternal grandparents, Ed and Caroline Holland, at about 6:30 p.m. and pointed her car towards Tunica, determined to trade her anger for cash in at blackjack. Not that they needed the money – Robert was a self-made millionaire.
It was a little after 3:00 a.m. when Shannon decided to cash in her chips and head home. She brought the chips to the cashier’s window, $5,000. The cashier suggested a check, but Shannon wanted cash in one hundred dollar bills. The money was carefully counted out and slid through, under the safety glass. Per policy, a casino security officer walked Shannon to her car. Unbeknownst to all parties, they had a follower.
Gerald Powers had walked down the stairs when he saw Shannon leave the table. His eyes followed her as she cashed in. He was trailing her when she exited. And now he paid careful attention as Shannon got into her car, and the security officer made sure she was locked in.
Shannon Sanderson was attacked and murdered on|
April 19, 1996, because she won big at Blackjack
Shannon had a fifty-six-mile drive back home and only a few hours to live.
Rebecca Coradini lived in the same neighborhood as Holland’s and was on her front porch a few minutes after 4:00 a.m. A van caught her eye because it drove down the street and then drove past again. Then she saw Shannon’s car drive past with a maroon vehicle following. The incident meant nothing until she watched the news the next day.
A man who also lived in the same neighborhood was just coming home from work. As he parked at his house and got out of his car, he saw Shannon drive by. It was approximately 4:30 a.m. A second car, dark and possibly a Chevrolet Beretta, followed her. This second car turned in a driveway to park at the Holland’s.
Gerald Powers followed Shannon into the neighborhood and pulled over as she drove up and parked at the curb in front of her former in-laws’ home. It was approximately 4:45 a.m. The predator he was, Powers knew it was time to strike.
Ed Holland, Shannon’s former father-in-law, awoke when neighborhood dogs began a crescendo of barking. He moved a curtain aside to see Shannon bending over next to her car. “Don’t! Don’t!” He heard her cry. Edward grabbed a shirt and ran outside.
The Dillons live beside the Hollands. Mr. Dillon heard dogs barking and looked out of his window to see someone crouching near Shannon’s car. That person had a red ball cap snuggled down over their head. His wife would later report she heard “a scream and a thud.” She looked out to see a car parked curbside with its dome light on. Whoever was driving was pushing something down into the backseat, and then they quickly drove off.
Shannon was gone. Her car sat in mute testimony to whatever had taken place.
The sky turned a dark purple, a dusky rose, and soon it was a full morning with the smell of coffee wafting through the neighborhood.
There was still no sign of Shannon. Shannon’s family notified law enforcement. Near Shannon’s car, a fake pink nail lay in the street; nearby, a silver button from her jacket.
Alonzo Jeans had pushed his school bus north down Highway 301 near Eudora, Mississippi every school day, and every day he drove it past an abandoned house. He never saw a car, never observed anyone at the house. Alonzo was an observant person; it came from years of trucking a busload of children from the safety of their homes to school. But today, April 19, Alonzo noticed a white male backing a maroon Beretta into the house’s driveway. It was about 6:40 a.m.
Sharon Powers was in the home she shared with her husband Gerald when he came busting in about 9:30 a.m. She knew he had spent the evening gambling at Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall in Tunica, Mississippi. Gerald was jovial but kept looking out the window, yanking on the blinds. He gave her a one hundred dollar bill, bragging he’d won big at the casino. Sharon looked out the window herself, wondering what her husband could be watching. Gerald had driven her maroon Beretta. Her car had been washed. Closer inspection would reveal it was vacuumed and detailed. Sharon could think of only one reason why Gerald would act this way.
“You’re having an affair!” Sharon snarled at him.
“I’m not having an affair,” he told her. But she kept hammering him with questions, accusations, and so he told her the truth about his early morning activates.
He didn’t have an affair. He had watched a woman play blackjack, and she won big. So he followed her home, snuck up behind her, and jumped her. He dragged this woman into his car. Gerald said he had to drive her to an abandoned Mississippi house. He had to stop once to stuff her into the trunk. Gerald took the woman’s jewelry and cash, and then killed her. Tossing her purse and the gun into the river near the location of the old Splash Casino, he did wonder if the victim’s neighbor and a bus driver had seen him, but decided they couldn’t identify him.
Later that day, Gerald Powers visited a woman named Margaret York. He asked her to provide an alibi for him on the night of April 18. “Sure,” York laughed. “As long as you didn’t kill anybody.” Powers didn’t seem to think this was funny.
Gerald Powers felt law enforcement was closing in. He was already on parole. So Gerald hurriedly packed a bag and told Sharon he buried the stolen cash in their yard. “If anyone asks, I’m visiting my mother in Murfreesboro, Tennessee,” he instructed. Then he was gone, driving the maroon Beretta. As he sped off, Sharon was picking up the telephone to call authorities. “My husband might be involved in the murder of that woman,” she hedged. She did not tell of his confession. Not yet.
Gerald Powers was back in a week for more cash. He told his wife the stolen jewelry was also buried in the yard. He wrote a note about his unhappiness with his marriage and sped off again.
It was not until May 9, 1996, that some people who were clearing the land discovered Sharon’s body in the abandoned house near Eudora. She had a single gunshot wound to the head. Someone had struck her so hard an upper right front tooth was missing, and another tooth chipped. Some of her facial bones were fractured. She still wore her dress. Her jewelry was missing. It is chilling to think of the fear that Shannon must have felt, abducted only so many feet away from her children and loved ones. The tiny woman’s terror of being drug into a car, then tossed into the trunk, wondering where she was, is beyond comprehension.
Shannon was laid to rest on May 15. She was only twenty-five years old.
Gerald Powers was still driving the Beretta through Hebronville, Texas, when he observed an INS checkpoint. He made a quick turn to avoid the checkpoint when agents spotted him and made a traffic stop. Evidently, he never heard “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” because Powers pulled a knife on agents who had guns strapped to their belts. Powers was arrested with fourteen one hundred dollar bills stuffed in his pockets. A call confirmed he was on parole. Powers was soon sitting in jail.
Investigators discovered a fiber consistent with Shannon Sanderson’s clothing in the back seat of the Beretta. Sharon Powers would eventually confess the entire story. She would lead police to Shannon’s jewelry. Investigators could not locate the gun or purse. But every casino has security cameras recording every move, and the cameras in Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall recorded Gerald Powers’ each step, tracking Shannon as she moved through the casino with Powers following.
A jury convicted Gerald Powers of aggravated robbery and first-degree murder in the perpetration of a robbery. He received a death sentence for the murder of Shannon Sanderson.
Of course, the sentence never brought Shannon back, but it took a dangerous man off the street. Shannon was not the only woman Powers had ruthlessly attacked.
1979, Rutherford Country, TN.: Powers followed Emily Dodson home at night. Emily was exiting her vehicle when Powers attacked her, holding a knife to her throat. Emily fought, and Powers used a crescent wrench to smack her in the head. Emily still managed to escape and identify Powers, who pleaded guilty to aggravated assault.
1980, Murfreesboro, TN.: Karen Cannon was giving Powers a ride. He pulled a knife on her, breaking her nose. Karen drove to the county jail and hit the car horn. Again, Powers pleaded guilty to aggravated assault.
1984, Hinds County, Mississippi: Powers entered the home of Ms. Clyo Griffin. He beat her with an iron skillet and then stole her credit cards, jewelry, and a pistol. And again, Powers pleaded guilty to robbery and aggravated assault.
Gerald Powers resides in Nashville, Tennessee’s Riverbend Maximum Security Unit in on death row. He is 65 years old.
Beautiful Shannon is interred at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. Husband Robert, who died in 2007, is laid to rest beside her.
Judith A. Yates comments on Shannon’s story on the Oxygen Channel’s “Murdered By Morning” in episode#109, “Gambling With Death.”