WASHINGTON – The FBI is winding down its fresh examination of civil rights-era murders in the South, closing almost all of the cases with just two prosecutions to show for the eight-year effort.
Among the three cases closed in the last year include the killing of Wharlest Jackson, a black Natchez man who died in what was a Ku Klux Klan-orchestrated explosion in 1967. Of the 113 cases, only eight remain open, a recent Department of Justice report shows.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the former civil rights leader from Georgia who sponsored the law mandating the FBI to look at the unsolved cases, said he is disappointed in the lackluster results. In an interview with the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication Unsolved Civil Rights Murders Project, Lewis said he is not pleased with how the investigations have been conducted and frustrated with the lack of prosecutions.
“If you want closure, you want prosecutions, to bring people to trial and bring these families closure,” Lewis said.
The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 officially reopened the cold cases into the deaths of 126 men and women, all but two of whom were African-American. Most of the deaths were in the South in the 1960s, with 46 in Mississippi and 13 in Louisiana.
Among the few remaining open cases is that of Oneal Moore, who was shot to death near Bogalusa in 1965.
Since the law’s passage, federal and state prosecutors have brought cases against two men: James Ford Seale, a Klansman who died in 2011 while serving a life prison sentence for the kidnapping and murder of two black teenagers in 1964, and James Bonard Fowler, a former Alabama state trooper who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor manslaughter in the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose death helped sparked the Selma voting rights marches.
In its fifth annual Till Act report, filed in January 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice cast doubt on the possibility of moving forward with more cases. “It has become apparent that due to the many impediments … it is unlikely that any of these remaining cases will be prosecuted,” the report noted.
FBI sources told the LSU cold case team in April that recent national events have kept the Justice Department busy, and the cold case investigations were assigned to agents in the FBI’s hate crimes division in addition to their other duties.
Stephen Kam, chief of the bureau’s Civil Rights Division, defended the agency’s efforts at reviving these old cases, saying the investigations involved hundreds of personnel hours. Agents took the job seriously, exhausting all logical leads, interviewing witnesses and combing through old FBI and police documents, he said.
But it is clear the project is near the end, two years away from the expiration of the Till Act. The official DOJ report for the calendar year 2014, which addresses progress and case closings, was sent to Congress in May — nearly eight months behind schedule.
Meanwhile, time is running out to interview aging suspects and witnesses.
‘Painted in my memory’
Oneal Moore and Creed Rogers in 1964 became the first black sheriff’s deputies in Washington Parish. About a year after they took the jobs, they sat in a sheriff’s squad car in Varnado, a small town near Bogalusa. A pickup truck with three white men inside drove by, and somebody fired shots at the deputies.
Moore, 34, was fatally hit. Rogers also was shot but survived, although he lost sight in one eye. The driver of the truck, Ernest McElveen, was arrested but eventually let go because he did not have a gun in his truck that matched the type of bullets that killed Moore. McElveen died in 2003, but one of the other two men in the truck is thought to still be alive.
Two years later in Natchez, Wharlest Jackson, who worked at the Armstrong Tire Company, was promoted to a supervisory position traditionally held by white people. He also was friends with George Metcalfe — a coworker at the tire plant, president of the local NAACP chapter and a Klan target.
The Klan had threatened Jackson not to accept the job. While driving home shortly after the promotion, Jackson’s truck exploded. Someone who knew his route home rigged the truck with a bomb that was triggered by Jackson’s left turn signal.
“I saw a lot of metal twisted and tangled and torn to pieces,” his son, Wharlest Jackson Jr., told the LSU team in a 2013 interview. He was 11 years old in 1967, and he rode his bicycle to the intersection after hearing the explosion. “I saw blood from the parts of him that were still in the truck. That is painted into my memory.”
At the time of the incident, FBI agents opened a year and a half-long investigation they referred to as “WHARBOM.” The prime suspect was Raleigh “Red” Glover, a Vidalia man who worked at the Armstrong Tire Company and was the ringleader of the Silver Dollar Group, a violent offshoot of the Klan in the Natchez-Ferriday area. He was reportedly obsessed with killing Metcalfe and had unsuccessfully tried to do so in 1965.
Despite the extensive investigation, the FBI did not find enough evidence to tie the explosion to Glover, and no charges were ever filed. Glover died in 1984. All known witnesses and other suspects are dead.
Kam, the FBI civil rights chief, told the LSU team the bureau will exhaust all logical leads in the cases that remain open.
When the FBI closes an investigation, the Department of Justice sends a letter to the victim’s next of kin, if they can be located, explaining their findings and, often, why there will not be an adjudication of the case.
The Till Act expires in 2017, but Kam said his unit would continue to take new information seriously and look into viable leads after the sunset date. The FBI can reactivate any closed case. In fact, several of the Till Act cases were opened and closed a few times as information surfaced.
Cold case investigations were assigned to agents in FBI field offices, who interview anyone who might know something about the case. Old local police reports, which investigators found to be surprisingly well-executed and detailed, also have been helpful, Kam said.
Cases have been closed because witnesses are no longer lucid or alive; the suspects are dead; there is insufficient evidence against a suspect; there is an issue of “double jeopardy”; or the investigation determined that no hate-type crime was committed.
Lewis, however, said FBI investigators have not been aggressive enough, and the DOJ has not kept members of Congress informed about their progress.
Congress may not have thought of key legal considerations when passing the Till Act.
One major difficulty has been cases already adjudicated before being reopened. While the FBI has still investigated such cases, not much can be done if juries acquitted the suspect. A new prosecution would require a viable suspect, a charge that was a crime at the time of the incident and evidence sufficient to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Ways to overcome the “double jeopardy” barrier include moving the case from state to federal courts or vice-versa and changes in interpretation of a law.
Agents have discovered that people in some communities still distrust law enforcement and fear backlash for talking.
However, Kam said passage of time has allowed many people to open up, and he is optimistic about the outcomes of the remaining cases. Even if no one is prosecuted, he said, being able to tell victims’ families what happened is important.
He said the FBI would continue to investigate cases if warranted past the 2017 deadline.
Last month in Natchez, where he was taping a documentary on the Wharlest Jackson murder, a less-than-optimistic Lewis told the LSU cold case team that “the money (for the investigations) has sort of run out,” and another appropriation may be needed to properly investigate the last few cases.
“I believe that with the necessary stand from the Department of Justice and more FBI agents appointed to work on these cases, there is a possibility” of getting a getting another conviction, Lewis said. “We cannot give up; we cannot give in.”