Sue Harris sat in the living room of her Athens home Friday accepting visitors’ condolences over the death of her son, the second of her children to die too young.

The body of James Bernard Sanders, 41, was discovered seated in a chair in an upstairs room of his Huntsville home Thursday as his mother stood outside with police and family members.

Harris went to the home after receiving a call Wednesday from her grandson, who said he was worried because he had not seen his father for several days.

Harris sensed something amiss as soon as she arrived at her son’s home.

“I went on up the steps and rang and rang,” she said. “Nobody came. I said, ‘Lord something’s wrong.’”

Sanders owned Sanders Cabinet Shop and was associate minister at New Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church near Tanner. He was a 1983 graduate of Athens High School.

Carolyn Williams, a church member, said Sanders worked with youth at the church and everyone loved him.

“Everybody’s still reeling from the shock,” she said Friday.

Friends described Sanders as being a tall man — about 6 feet, 2 inches — who stuttered and had a big heart.

Melanie Moore attended high school with Sanders. “He was fabulous,” she said. “He was always smiling and friendly. He would do anything for anybody.”

Athens Board of Education member Ernest Campbell, who visited Harris Friday, said he remembered Sanders as a good person. Sanders built bookcases for the Campbells’ home that they continue to use, he said.

Sanders’ death remains a mystery, said Huntsville Police Sgt. Ed Cain, who is supervisor of the Major Crimes Unit.

Cain said Huntsville firefighters, police and forensic investigators continue to gather evidence, trying to determine what caused Sanders’ death. An autopsy will likely be done in Montgomery.

“We don’t expect anything until Monday,” he said. Although investigators went to Sanders’ cabinet shop in northwest Huntsville, they took no evidence from it.

Cain said authorities have categorized this a “death investigation” until they know more and can label the incident as murder, accident or suicide.

“We don’t know how he was killed and we won’t know until forensics is completed,” he said.

Harris said a funeral service would be held at Royal Funeral Home in Huntsville after the autopsy is complete.

Sanders had four children — a boy, 20, and three girls, 18, 15, and 7. Harris said he had three children by his first marriage and one with wife, Nancy Sanders.

Sanders’ wife moved from their home at 3709 Pecan Grove Road in northwest Huntsville on Sunday.

Harris said her son had told his wife he wanted a divorce.

Investigators spoke with Nancy Sanders Thursday night, Cain said, but did not confirm the status of the couple’s marriage.

“That’s still under investigation,” he said. “I can’t comment on that.”

Harris said, “there’s something very suspicious” about her son’s death.

“He was a fun, all-around guy,” she said. “He was a big cut up — everybody loved him.”

A growing concern

Harris said she knew something had happened to her son when her 20-year-old grandson called Wednesday to say he had not seen his father for days.

“He said ‘Where’s my daddy?’ He said, ‘I haven’t heard from my daddy since Sunday,” Harris said. She tried calling also and thought it was odd that she could not reach Sanders because he had a phone he kept with him and could always be reached.

On Thursday, Harris went to Sanders Cabinet Shop to see if her son was working. It was locked.

“I thought, Lord, I know something has happened because James was a workaholic,” she said. “He loved his business. He loved making cabinets.” Sanders could create most anything from wood, she said, including a waterbed frame he built for his former wife.

Harris left the cabinet shop to go to her son’s home. She said the family’s cars were parked and looked as if they had not been moved for days.

She went to the home of her son’s neighbor, who was relieved to see her.

“The neighbor said they wished they knew how to get in touch with James’ family,” Harris said. “They’d been worried because they hadn’t seen James since Sunday.”

Harris called police from the neighbor’s phone.

What happened inside?

When officers arrived, they tried to enter the home by raising the garage door, Harris said.

“They raised the garage door up a little,” she said. “Water flowed out of that garage just like it was the Tennessee River.” Harris said water was running somewhere in the home but she was not sure what the source of it was.

Police then tried to break the front door.

“They had a time trying to knock that door down,” she said. “James built that front door. When James put some wood together, couldn’t nobody tear it down but God.”

Harris waited outside as police entered the home.

“I begged police to let me go in,” she said. Officers did not allow anyone in other than investigators.

“They got some crime tape and started taping it up and I said, ‘Lord, I know my child is in there.’” Harris said. “I was just hollering and crying.”

An investigator soon came to tell her that her son was discovered dead inside.

“He was sitting in a chair, kind of leaning over,” she said police told her.

Cain said the home and Sanders’ body were partially burned.

Harris said she wanted to see her son’s body, but family members held her.

“I was wanting to look at him when they brought him out in a black bag,” she said. “I was going to get him. I’ve been there for him for 41 years, and I thought if he had called me…I know he couldn’t call me.”

Harris had another son who died 19 years ago today, she said. Kelvin Harris was 19 when he was killed in a car wreck.

Thursday, the emotion of a second child’s death led to her fainting.

“I didn’t eat or drink anything Thursday,” she said. “My body was like I had worked a whole week with no rest and doing nothing but just crying.”

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