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As she makes her way across the University of Mississippi campus with books in tow, Purity Knight looks like a typical college coed. Like everyone else, she's been caught unprepared for this winter's snow and freezing temperatures, and she hurries to and from classes in thin shoes and several layers of sweaters.
But unlike her classmates, Purity's connection to "Ole Miss" and the town of Oxford, Mississippi, is more than a matter of academics. It's also the scene of a personal tragedy.
Almost two years ago, Purity's sister, a 26-year-old graduate student, was found brutally murdered in her Oxford apartment. By all accounts, Valerie Vilson was a promising actress with the tenacity and vivaciousness to make her dreams come true. Authorities are still searching for the person who entered Valerie's bedroom in the early morning hours of April 2, 1995, and shot her in the back of the head with a .22 pistol before bathing and mutilating the body in what some have termed a ritualistic act of hatred.
Since then, Valerie's boyfriend Greg Giblini -- formerly considered the prime suspect in the killing -- and his brother Will Giblini have both been murdered. Investigations of the three deaths, which are thought to be linked, have spanned several states and involve the FBI as well as local law enforcement agencies.
For Purity, the murder of her sister was especially wrenching because she had only known Valerie a few scant months. Valerie was given up for adoption immediately after her birth in St. Louis in 1969; Purity, born in Arkansas in 1976, wasn't to meet Valerie until the elder sister decided to find her biological family in December of 1994.
Their relationship during those few months wasn't always comfortable. When pressed to recall their meeting in Mountain Home, Arkansas, Purity says the situation was difficult at best.
"I was in a living hell. Valerie showed up and showed me the way out, but at first I wasn't sure I could make it," she says.
Purity acknowledges that the "living hell" she refers to was her relationship with her parents. Baxter County Judge Frank Knight and his wife, Judith, are deeply religious, and raised their daughter in a household steeped with fundamentalist Christian values. Throughout her adolescence, Purity says, she had tested the boundaries and questioned her faith, making for a tense atmosphere at home and within her social circle, which she says was "severely limited" to those affiliated with the Church of Christ the Avenger, where Frank and Judith were prominent members of the congregation.
"My parents live in a simple world, a world of black and white, and in a way it's a very sheltered world," Purity says contemplatively, sipping from a mug of hot chocolate in the student union and gazing out the window. "Valerie opened my eyes to the grey areas in life."
But shortly after meeting Valerie, Purity found herself in a more acute crisis: she was pregnant. Purity alleges that her then-boyfriend, Jake Rohleen, forced her to have sex with him. (Rohleen, now a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, refused to be interviewed for this story.) According to Purity, she "knew immediately" that she wanted to have an abortion, but had no one other than Valerie to confide in.
"It was a pretty desperate situation," Purity acknowledges. "I really felt I couldn't speak with anyone in my home town, because everyone I knew there would disapprove and blame me."
When Purity's parents discovered what had happened, they immediately forbade Purity to communicate with her sister. However, the two women sent each other clandestine faxes and arranged phone calls, and kept in touch until Valerie's death.
"It was crazy how they blamed her," Purity recalls, looking back on the incident. "They blamed her for being a corrupting influence - not me, and not Jake."
Purity says her brief but intense friendship with Valerie inspired her to move across the country to attend Reed College in Oregon in the fall of 1995 - to the disapproval of her parents, who hoped Purity would stay closer to home. And when Purity announced that she would spend the summer of 1996 in a kibbutz in Israel, her parents were outraged. They all but severed contact over the summer, and Purity decided to drop out of college. Eventually, she returned to the United States, but refused to get in touch with her parents until recently.
"I was pretty much at loose ends," she says. "I was still living with a lot of pain over Val's death, trying to understand why. My parents were no help at all. To them, Val got what was coming to her, and that wasn't a satisfactory answer to me."
Although Frank and Judith contend that Valerie's influence was what drove Purity away from them, they deny that they wished the victim any harm.
"We're religious people, trying to live a righteous, humble life," Frank Knight said, in a telephone interview from his law offices. "We regret what happened to our Purity, but we certainly wouldn't wish that kind of brutality on anyone. We don't believe in killing."
Still, the Knights' affiliation with extreme pro-life fundamentalists, coupled with Valerie's role in helping Purity obtain an abortion, gave local authorities cause to conduct an extensive investigation of the family. After several weeks of inquiries, the Knights' alibi for the night of the murder was confirmed, and the matter was dropped.
For Purity, the insinuation that her parents were somehow involved with the murder is one that haunts her.
"It's sort of like Iago and Othello - once someone plants the seed of doubt, you can't help but wonder," she says, referring to Shakespeare's famous play. "I really don't think they were involved, but in my nightmares, they were."
Purity describes her current relationship with her parents as "a truce." While they have reestablished contact, Purity says she's made it clear that she doesn't want to be taken back into the family fold. She financed her tuition for Ole Miss herself, using money she earned "working odd jobs here and there."
"We have different ways of dealing with what's happened," she says. "To them, admitting the error of my ways will somehow make everything OK. For me, repression never solves anything. It's going to take more than that" to heal the pain, she says.
When asked why she decided to return to the scene of her sister's death, Purity says, "It's my way of dealing with it, I guess. I mean, I know that the pain is never going to disappear. I'm trying to make it a part of my daily environment, normalize it. It's a part of my psychic landscape - just like I'm used to walking past this building every day, I'm used to the feeling of the pain.
"I'm just trying to get on with my life," she adds, "but I guess I'm doing it my own way."
Purity, who is majoring in biology with a minor in philosophy, says that other students' curiosity is sometimes hard to take. "They'll say, `Oh, you're the dead girl's sister,' or they'll ask me if I did it. It's like, how insensitive can you be?" she says. "I know they don't mean harm, but sometimes it can get to me." Although she changed her name when she returned to America -- her school records and drivers' license now read "Ariadne P. Knight" -- she says many people still insist on calling her Purity.
Professor of Biology Alan Glover, Purity's advisor, says she seems to be doing fine, all things considered.
"She's been through a real trial by fire, and now she's all that much stronger for it. She obviously has a love of learning and intellectual freedom which is a real asset here," he says.
As for Frank and Judith Knight, they say they're ready to forgive Purity whenever she returns.
"We'd welcome her back into our household," Frank insists. "If she returned, she would be returning to God. Until then, we pray for her."