Re-opened civil rights cases tough to solve

The U.S. Department of Justice quietly closed new FBI investigations into two Civil Rights-era slayings in Louisiana, showing just how tough such cases are to solve.

The investigation of the death of Frank Morris, a black Ferriday resident who succumbed to burns after two men firebombed his shoe repair shop nearly 50 years ago, was closed in January after the Justice Department concluded the men likely responsible are dead. This was the FBI’s second investigation of the incident.

The Justice Department in October closed the FBI investigation of the reported slaying of 25-year-old Joseph Edwards, a black porter at a Vidalia motel, in 1964. It was long suspected Edwards, whose body was never found, was killed by local law enforcement officers after a white coworker claimed he grabbed and kissed her.

The closing of the investigations came to light after relatives of Morris and Edwards shared communications they received from the department about the status of the cases.

The investigations were part of federal legislation authorizing the FBI to take another look into more than a hundred unsolved homicides from 1950 to 1969 believed to have been racially motivated.

The FBI is quick to acknowledge that, despite the renewed efforts, results are difficult to come by as suspects have died or the memories of those alive are often murky, at best.

The Morris and Edwards investigations, along with 112 other cases nationwide involving more than 120 unsolved slayings, were reopened as a part of the Emmett Till Act of 2007.

But nearly seven years after Congress authorized the FBI to re-examine these cases, only two federal and three state convictions have resulted. These include convictions in the:

  • Sept. 17, 1963, murders of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, four young girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
  • June 21, 1964, murders of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.
  • Feb. 18, 1965, murder of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson near Marion, Ala., a slaying that inspired the Selma to Montgomery marches.

Some 16 cases remain open, including two in Louisiana, according to the Justice Department’s 2013 report to Congress. Those two cases involve O’Neal Moore, who died June 2, 1965, in Varnado; and William Piercefield, who died on July 24, 1965, in Concordia Parish. Another Louisiana case — this one involving Carrie Brumfield, who died Sept. 12, 1967, in Franklinton — was closed Sept. 24, 2013.

And in January of this year, in spite of three Concordia Parish grand jury sessions over the years, the Morris case once again went cold.

A death in Ferriday

On Dec. 10, 1964, Morris awoke in the middle of the night to the sounds of glass breaking. As he sometimes did, Morris was sleeping in his store that night. He walked to the front of the building, opened the door and was greeted by two men, one holding a shotgun, the other a can of flammable liquid.

The men forced Morris back inside and set the place ablaze in a fiery explosion that quickly enveloped Morris. Whether the original intent was to kill Morris, whose presence in the store late at night may have been unknown to the assailants, or simply an act to intimidate him remains uncertain.

Morris was able to escape from the back of the shop but not before he was severely injured, with third-degree burns covering his body.

He headed to a nearby gas station for help. In shock, he was taken to a hospital, where he died four days later. FBI agents interviewed Morris before he died, but he told them he didn’t know the identity of his two assailants.

A hospital maid, who was a friend of Morris, told FBI agents later that he had told her that Concordia Parish Deputy Sheriff Frank DeLaughter was behind the assault. DeLaughter, who later went to prison on an unrelated civil rights matter, died nearly 20 years ago.

In early 2011, Cynthia Deitle, then supervising agent for the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative, in an interview with The Concordia Sentinel editor Stanley Nelson, called the Morris murder “one of the most horrific and troubling of all the FBI’s Civil Rights era cold cases. … We will solve this crime. The FBI will not rest until we uncover the truth.”

Three years later, the news was far less optimistic. Paige Fitzgerald, deputy chief in charge of the Justice Department’s Cold Case Initiative, wrote to Morris’ granddaughter, Rosa Morris-Williams, of Las Vegas:

“In the course of its current investigation, the FBI received allegations from three witnesses identifying two new suspects — Arthur Leonard Spencer, of Rayville, and O.C. ‘Cooney’ Poissot — as being responsible for the murder of your grandfather. Cold Case prosecutors and FBI agents thoroughly investigated these allegations, which were extensively reported in the Concordia Sentinel, a local newspaper. However, there was insufficient evidence to support these allegations.”

In 2011, three people came forward to the FBI after having been interviewed by Nelson, the Sentinel editor, to offer the name of Arthur Leonard Spencer as a suspect. Spencer was believed to have been one of the two at Morris’ shop on the night of the blaze.

The Sentinel reported that Spencer’s son William “Boo” Spencer and Leonard Spencer’s ex-brother-in-law, Bill Frasier, said Spencer had informed them of his participation in Morris’ death. Arthur Leonard Spencer died of cancer last May.

Additionally, the Sentinel in late 2010 interviewed a Minden woman, Brenda Rhodes, who claimed Poissot, an FBI informant, had told her in the 1970s of his involvement as the second arsonist.

FBI documents show that Poissot, who had a lengthy rap sheet of petty crimes in Louisiana and later became an FBI informant, implicated a third suspect, DeLaughter, with whom Poissot was well acquainted.

Multiple motives for the slaying have been suggested, but the most likely, says Nelson, is that DeLaughter, a 6-foot 4-inch reputed Ku Klux Klan member nicknamed “Big Frank,” targeted Morris after he refused to continue repairing Delaughter’s shoes for free, insisting the lawman pay like everyone else.

The day before the arson, according to an FBI document, Poissot told agents he heard DeLaughter say he didn’t know “what he was going to do about that nigger at the shoe shop.”

The Justice Department, in its January letter to Morris-Williams, Morris’ granddaughter, describes the suspects in the slaying, the details of its investigation and conclusions, and names four other suspects. The letter states that other than testimony from informants, evidence never arose to implicate these men — suspected Klan members James Scarborough, Thor Torgersen, Tommie Lee Jones and E.D. Morace — in the death of Morris. Additionally, three of the four men had died by the time the Justice Department opened its second investigation. Jones died in 2007.

The Justice Department letter also acknowledges the allegations against Spencer and Poissot, although it goes to great length discrediting the three accusers who came forward during the FBI’s second investigation, noting that two of them failed a lie detector test.

The Justice Department letter to Morris-Williams states: “Ultimately, the exhaustive investigations conducted in the 1960s and over the last few years did not definitively determine who was responsible for the murder of your grandfather. The investigation has produced no credible evidence implicating anyone who could currently be prosecuted. Accordingly, we have no choice but to close our investigation.”

The Edwards case

Julia Dobbins, the sister of Joseph Edwards, received a similar letter.

In July 1964, according to that letter, Edwards, a porter at the Shamrock Motel in Vidalia, was accused of grabbing a white woman and attempting to kiss her. The woman, a clerk at the Shamrock, told a Louisiana parole officer, with whom she had a relationship, about the incident. The parole officer relayed the matter to several local law enforcement officers.

Several days later, witnesses reported to the FBI seeing two cars with multiple men pursuing Edwards’ vehicle. Although a witness saw a man driving Edwards’ car, he could not confirm if the driver was Edwards.

Edwards’ car was discovered later at the Dixie Lane bowling alley on the Ferriday-Vidalia highway following his disappearance July 12. But his body was never found. LSU FACES Laboratory Director Mary Manheim has been involved for years in a futile attempt to establish if human remains found in the area were that of Edwards.

The Edwards letter from Fitzgerald, of the Justice Department’s Cold Case Initiative, states that a Klan offshoot group, the Silver Dollar Group, was involved in Edwards’ death. The letter lists seven suspects: the woman’s boyfriend, James Buford Goss; Vidalia police chief Bud Spinks; Silver Dollar Group members Raleigh “Red” Glover, Kenneth Norman Head, Homer Thomas “Buck” Horton; and Concordia Parish sheriff’s deputies William Howard “Bill” Ogden and Delaughter. All are deceased.

“We regret that we cannot be of further assistance to you. Again, please accept our sincere condolences on the loss of your brother,” Fitzgerald concluded.

Cases closed

Each year, the Justice Department is required by law to submit a report to Congress detailing the progress it has made in each of these Civil Rights cases. The task facing the FBI is daunting. Many of the suspects in the crimes have died, and those still alive often are evasive. New evidence in the cases has been hard to come by, and memories from people living at the time may have faded, with FBI agents acknowledging they are wary about reinterviewing a witness.

Whenever the Justice Department closes a case, an FBI agent hand-delivers a letter from the department, the same as those in the Morris and Edwards cases, to the victims’ next of kin, if they can be identified and located. Relatives have been found in about two-thirds of the closed cases.

Heath Janke, who followed Deitle as supervisor of the Justice Department’s Cold Case Initiative, could say little more than: “I hope that brings them some closure.”

This story was produced as part of the Unsolved Civil Rights-Era Murders project at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, which has assisted Concordia Sentinel editor Stanley Nelson in his investigations of the Frank Morris and Joseph Edwards cases.