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

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.

The house, which she reportedly bought for $250,000, was among the largest in the area. Barrett said the renovations were costing $500,000. She told the Gradicks that when the work was completed she would invite the entire neighborhood to a party.

Moody remembers her first telephone conversation with Levitz, who spoke to her, Moody said, "as if she'd known me all of her life."

Despite her disdain for the limelight and media attention, Levitz loved reading tabloids such as the National Inquirer and the Star. She would pass the papers on to Moody and then give her the inside scoop on the stars she'd known, such as Loni Anderson, whom she admired, and Burt Reynolds. "She called him a first-class redneck," Moody said.

Gradick recalls Levitz as "just a good person inside and out. Vicksburg lost an asset when it lost her."

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Moody has two theories about the disappearance: One is that an enemy from Levitz's past life reached out to harm her from Florida or Southern California--she and her husband had lived in the La Costa resort near San Diego in the early 1990s. "But, personally, I just can't imagine her having an enemy," she said. "She was such a gentle, generous person."

Her other theory is that perhaps one of the workmen misread Levitz's warmth, came to the house that night and forced himself on her.

Levitz pampered the workmen, supplying them with doughnuts and drinks throughout the day, she said. Her attentiveness could easily be misunderstood, Moody said, "but she was not that way. She was a very dignified, very refined lady."

Some here say the coming of casino gambling a few years ago sparked a rise in crime and may be the cause of Levitz's disappearance. Authorities acknowledge that burglaries and robberies have increased but say there has been no significant increase in violent crime.

Barrett's theory is that whoever abducted Levitz was already in the house when she returned home from a building supply store that Saturday afternoon with wallpaper samples. Because work was being done on the attic, an intruder would not even need to break in.

The lights were off in the house, suggesting that she may have been attacked before darkness fell. A television was on in the bedroom and a chair was positioned in front of the set. Levitz's earrings and a drink were positioned on the windowsill near the chair.

Barrett thinks Levitz came into the house and got comfortable in front of the television set before she was attacked by someone who was perhaps hiding in the closet.

He speculates that her throat was cut, but because the crime lab has not yet finished analyzing blood samples he quickly adds that, for all he knows, the mattress is stained with chicken blood.

Earlier in the investigation, authorities picked up two drifters who had worked for a time at the Levitz's home. One of them had a burglary conviction. They were released after 24 hours because of lack of evidence, but Barrett indicated they would be re-questioned.

Newspaper photographs chronicling past cases bedeck Barrett's office. He interrupted a conversation to call a Louisiana sheriff also working on the case. Profanity studding his gravelly purr, Barrett talked of one suspect he wants to question again. "I'm gonna take him for a little ride," he said.

A psychic had called earlier to report a vision of Levitz's body in a barn filled with tireless tractors and near a Louisiana road sign. Barrett said authorities would check it out.

A citizen called to ask if he could help by further scouring the riverbanks. Barrett accepted the offer. At this point, he said, he's turning no offer down.

What confounded him from the start continues to confound him now: Why did the perpetrators remove her from the house? Kidnapers would have appealed for ransom. But why would murderers remove a body?

"I've worked a lot of cases," he said, "and in every one, if they murdered somebody or robbed, raped and killed them, you've got a body there."

The one exception he recalls from two or three years ago involved a preacher who killed his wife and buried her. Before too long, he confessed and led authorities to the grave.

He thinks the killer or killers were amateurs. Professionals would not have risked being seen carrying a body out of the house wrapped in a sheet, as he speculates happened here.

A neighbor's son, visiting from out of state, has reported that he was outside walking his dog and smoking a cigarette between 10 and 11 p.m. on the night Levitz disappeared. He heard a vehicle start behind the high wall of the Levitz home. He could not identify the vehicle, but Barrett believes it contained the perpetrator or perpetrators.

But, right now, beliefs and hunches are about all he has to go on.

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