Escaped convict Lester Sproles (Will Bledsoe) and his girlfriend, Audine (Mariska Hargitay), travel through Mississippi, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake, and eventually take Althea (Anne-Marie Johnson) and Scooter (Z Wright), the grandson of one of their victims, as hostages in a desperate bid for freedom. Althea offers to look after young Scooter, whose grandmother was murdered for a few dollars. While the Chief (Carroll O'Connor) and Virgil hunt fo the couple. Althea takes the young boy fishing, unaware of the terror that awaits them.
The Sparta jail is filled with women when the six wives of bigamist James Jeffson visit bearing gifts of food only to become suspects when the man dies of poisoning. As if that were not enough, Gillespie is caught in the middle of a fight between a cellmate's domineering sister and his fiancee.
Virgil narrowly escapes death at the hands of Richie Epson's henchmen, but Gillespie still does not have enough evidence to prove the former hometown boy is a major drug supplier.
Emotions run high when Ty Hayes (Randy Brooks), a black businessman, comes to Sparta to buy the town's newspaper, and it is suspected that he is romancing the paper's married white owner, Evie Summers (Nana Visitor). Bubba's (Alan Autry) redneck cousin, Mace Trapnell (Brad Leland), is incensed at the situation and vows to kill Hayes if he sees him with Evie again.
Police Chief Bill Gillespie and Chief of Detectives Virgil Tibbs are at odds when Tibbs suspects that Gillespie's friend, Sonny Mims, killed his wife because of his involvement with Pauline, the dead woman's cousin. Gillespie believes that the killing was the result of a drunken random shooter while Bubba Skinner has a more personal interest in the case since he has been dating Pauline.
Chief of Police Bill Gillespie (Carol O'Connor) has long directed the forces of law enforcement of the small cotton town when Virgil Tibbs (Harold Rollins) returns to Sparta, MI for his mother's funeral. Mayor Findley (Dennis Lipscomb), sensing the opportunity to influence black voters in this quest for higher elective office, asks Tibbs to remain in Sparta as Chief of Detectives under Gillespie. When a local co-ed is brutally murdered, Gillespie, who resents Tibbs being thrust upon him by the Mayor, must work with the Tibbs to solve the crime. Tibbs, suspecting the truth of the murder, is soon the victim of an attempt on his life. Gillespie and Tibbs now join forces in earnest and ultimately discover a tangled web of guilt and deception.
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