The U.S. Department of Justice has closed its investigation into the 1964 murder of 25-year-old Vidalia Shamrock Motel porter Joseph “Joe-Ed” Edwards, who vanished on a July night in Concordia Parish 49 years ago.
Edwards’ 1958 white over green Buick — purchased a few days before his disappearance — was seen being pulled over by an unmarked police car at the Dixie Lane Bowling Alley on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. at some point after midnight on July 12.
In a “closure” letter to Edwards’ sister, Julia Dobbins of Bridge City, La., the Justice Department said a new investigation by the FBI determined there were seven “most likely suspects,” each originally investigated by the FBI during its 1967-68 probe.
“Ultimately,” wrote Paige Fitzgerald, a Justice Department attorney who serves as Deputy Chief in Charge of the Cold Case Initiative, “the exhaustive investigation and review did not definitely determine what happened to your brother.”
She acknowledged, however, that Edwards “is presumed dead, likely murdered.” No explanation as to where Edwards’ body was disposed is offered.
Identified as the suspects were three Klansmen — each a member of an offshoot Klan group known as the Silver Dollar Group — and four law enforcement officers, two of whom were known Klan members. The Klansmen named were Raleigh Jackson “Red” Glover, Kenneth Norman Head and Homer James “Buck” Horton, all Vidalia residents in 1964.
Law enforcement officers identified as suspects were Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies Frank DeLaughter and Bill Ogden, Vidalia Police Chief J.L. “Bud” Spinks and Louisiana probation officer James Buford Goss. All seven suspects are dead.
Dobbins, Edwards’ sister, provided the Sentinel a copy of the Justice Department’s letter delivered to her home by two FBI agents earlier this year.
Fitzgerald reported several possible motives for Edwards’ murder. They included allegations that Edwards was pimping white prostitutes to white male motel guests, that he was dating white women and may have been caught with a white female guest in a Shamrock room, and that he was involved in a relationship with a white female guest whose child drowned in the motel swimming pool days before his disappearance.
These incidents have been reported in the Sentinel over the past years, as was an incident involving a white female registration clerk and phone operator who claimed Edwards kissed her, or attempted to kiss her, just three days before he went missing. The “overwhelming weight of the evidence strongly points” to this incident, Fitzgerald writes, “as the precipitating event, and the seven suspects “as perpetrators, particularly members of the SDG (Silver Dollar Group).” She identified DeLaughter and Ogden as SDG members.
Iona Perry, the motel clerk, who died in 2011, told the FBI in 1967 that Edwards had attempted to force a kiss on her as she walked to the restroom. A 23-year-old Wilkinson County, Miss., native, Perry walked with crutches due to polio. She told her boyfriend, 44-year-old Louisiana probation officer James Buford Goss, about the incident. Perry was not aware at the time that Goss, a frequent motel guest, was married, FBI records show.
Goss admitted to the bureau in 1967 that he was furious over the alleged incident. He acknowledged to the FBI he intended to beat Edwards with his hands. Unable to find him the night of the incident, he reported the allegation the next day to Spinks, the Vidalia police chief. Goss wanted Edwards to be charged with assault.
FBI records show that Spinks, 45 at the time, accompanied by Natchez Police Department Captain J.G. Wisner, visited Perry at her boarding house in Natchez, but she refused to press charges and indicated she wanted the matter to quietly die. Perry claimed that when Spinks departed he stated Edwards “would be taken care of.”
Edwards was reared by his grandparents, who moved from Sibley, Miss., to Clayton when Edwards was in his teens. In the spring of 1964, Edwards was employed by the Shamrock as a porter who also cleaned rooms and did odd jobs. Friends and relatives interviewed by the Sentinel said Edwards had told them he was having a relationship with at least one or more white women at the Shamrock. Many said they warned Edwards he should end the interracial affairs, especially in lieu of the heightened racial tensions of the day.
In fact, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, just 10 days before Edwards went missing. The act provided for the integration of schools and public facilities and outlawed employment discrimination. Edwards’ first cousin, Carl Ray Thompson, told the Sentinel Edwards appeared unconcerned and unafraid that these relationships might make him a target of the Klan.
Fitzgerald reported in her letter to his sister that Edwards was seen “leaving work at the end of his shift” at the Shamrock. FBI files also indicate that one witness reported Edwards was planning to meet a white woman at the motel the night he went missing. At some point around midnight, Edwards left the motel.
FBI files on the original investigation were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and provided the Sentinel by the LSU Manship School Student Civil Rights Cold Case Team and the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative.
A witness, 34-year-old Kenneth Stephenson, who managed the bowling alley in the summer of 1964, told the bureau in 1967 that he saw a Buick matching Edwards’ car being stopped by a 1964 white Oldsmobile police car. The Buick, heading west, was pulled over in the vicinity of the bowling alley on the north, opposite side of the 10-mile stretch of highway that connected Ferriday to the west with Vidalia to the east.
As reported in the past by the Sentinel, Stephenson told the FBI the driver of the Olds was a “large white male.” Fitzgerald reported the man was “overweight.” Three of the four law enforcement officers named as suspects by the FBI were big men. DeLaughter was 6-feet-4 and weighed 265 pounds, Goss was 6-feet-6 and also weighed 265 pounds. Spinks was 5-feet-11, 240 pounds, while Ogden was 5-feet-8, 152 pounds.
Passing by the scene in his own car while in route to Ferriday, Stephenson said he also saw two white men standing by the Buick’s open driver door. Apparently all three were dressed in civilian clothes.
However, Fitzgerald provided information in her letter to Dobbins not previously publicized — that Stephenson told the bureau in 1967 that the lone occupant of Edwards’ Buick, the driver, was wearing “a green, possibly plaid, sport shirt.” Yet the witness could not tell whether the man in the Buick “was African-American.”
Shortly after passing the Buick and the Olds, Stephenson said the Olds passed him with several men inside, all unknown to him. However, Fitzgerald reports that Stephensen told the FBI in 1967 that DeLaughter, whom he knew, was not among the white men he saw that night.
FBI records indicate Edwards was reported missing in mid-July to the Vidalia and Natchez police departments by his mother, Bernice Conner. As the Sentinel has previously reported, retired FBI agent Billy Bob Williams of Portland, OR, who was a resident agent in Natchez during that period, said he recalled the day Conner walked into the FBI office in Natchez to report her son missing, stating, “The Klan got my boy.”
According to Fitzgerald’s letter, the FBI launched a preliminary investigation on July 23 after Conner indicated she had heard Edwards was being held in the Ferriday jail. But the FBI learned Edwards was not in any jail in the parish and that no law enforcement agency was investigating, because, Fitzgerald notes, Edwards “was considered ‘merely’ a missing person.”
Meanwhile, several persons reported to the FBI in 1967 that they had inspected the Buick. As previously reported by the Sentinel, there were reports that a necktie arranged in the form of a noose was found on the steering wheel while one man said there was a spot of blood the size of a silver dollar on the floor. Edwards’ sister told the Sentinel she saw a necktie hanging over the rearview mirror and a belt on the seat.
“My brother never wore a necktie that I knew of,” she said. Dobbins said she and her mother looked inside the car at the Gulf Station in Ferriday after it had been towed from the highway.
Fitzgerald also reported additional information in her letter — that Edwards’ brother, Clabe Edwards, who is now dead, and another witness — “saw mud in the car.” Dobbins said she did not observe mud in vehicle.
There have also have been conflicting reports about the location of the car. Stephenson said the vehicle was on the north side of highway when stopped by the Olds. Others saw it there too. But at some point, the car was reportedly moved to the street (Green Acres Road) on the west side of the bowling alley where an employee recalled seeing the car there, FBI records show.
While the FBI launched a brief, preliminary investigation into Edwards’ murder in 1964, it was not until August 1967 that a full probe was launched following an interview with a confidential informant. FBI records show the informant, identified previously by the Sentinel to be Ferriday Klansman E.D. Morace, said Vidalia Klansman Kenneth Norman Head had previously admitted involvement in the murder.
At the time of Edwards’ disappearance, Head, 35, was a mechanic operating the DX Service Station on Carter Street in Vidalia. The 6-feet-tall, 170-pound ex-Marine had once held the top position of Exalted Cyclops in the Vidalia Klan. Informants told the FBI that Head lived “for violence” and “for the Klan.”
Morace said Head implicated two other Klansmen — Homer Thomas “Buck” Horton and Raleigh Jackson “Red” Glover. According to FBI informants, Head, Horton and Glover had worked together on wrecking crews, hit squads that committed violence against Klan targets.
FBI records show that Horton, 28, was a Brookhaven, Miss., native who served as Night Hawk of the Vidalia Klan in 1963. Also a former Marine, Horton, who was 5-feet-10 and weighed 190 pounds, had faced disciplinary problems in the military where a psychiatrist found he had suffered an “emotionally unstable” childhood. Marine records indicate Horton was often “nervous,” had difficulty controlling his temper and rebelled against authority. Klan informants said he was a follower, not a leader.
Horton considered Head his “best friend” and Glover a “very close friend.” Horton and Glover worked at the Armstrong Tire Plant in Natchez. A native of Texas, Glover, 5-feet-8, 175 pounds, was described as a “cocky braggart” by FBI informants and by neighbors on Lee Street in Vidalia. The 42-year-old Navy veteran had served in the Seabees in World War II and in Korea, where one police officer told the FBI Glover “had cracked up.”
Glover was known widely as a violent man who despised African-Americans and admired the Nazis. FBI records also show he was considered a “thug” and thief who committed numerous home invasions and stole guns from the homes of black people.
In the spring of 1964, bureau documents show Glover, who was experienced with explosives, organized the Silver Dollar Group, a Klan offshoot which was dedicated to stopping the Civil Rights movement with violent resistance. Glover hand-picked members, presenting each with a silver dollar as a sign of unity.
The FBI and Natchez Police Department have long considered Glover as the lead suspect in the 1967 carbombing murder of Natchez NAACP Treasurer Wharlest Jackson.
Morace, the informant from Ferriday, told the bureau that Head said he, along with Glover and Horton, killed Edwards, but did not explain how. Head reportedly claimed that Edwards had insulted a “crippled” employee at the Shamrock, whose boyfriend asked Spinks to “do something to the Negro.”
Morace said Head reported that Spinks went to Glover and asked him to “take care of” Edwards. Head, Glover and Horton each served as members of the Vidalia auxiliary police force.
Morace also quoted Head as saying the “nigger wouldn’t be popping up” in the river, referring, the FBI surmised, to the case of two black teens from Meadville, Miss., whose torsos floated to the surface of an old river offshoot of the Mississippi near Tallulah around the very time Edwards went missing. Klansmen were responsible for the murders.
One other tidbit was provided by Morace during his August 1967 interview by the FBI. He said deputy Bill Ogden had reported that after Edwards went missing, a commercial fisherman had netted in the fall of 1964 what some believed to be human flesh at Deer Park Lake, once the main channel of the Mississippi River. The bureau later learned the flesh-like material had “popped” out of an ice box buried at the lake’s bottom.
Because of Morace’s 1967 information, the bureau launched a full investigation into Edwards’ disappearance. Diving operations at Deer Park Lake in 1967, however, came up empty.
In October 1964 at the same time the flesh-like material was discovered in Deer Park Lake, a female informant told a compelling story to Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol investigators.
While living in Ferriday, she said she had been told in the fall of 1963 — months before Edwards went missing — that the Klan had hung up a black man, “skinned him alive” and discarded his body in the river. The alleged incident has never been verified. However, the discovery of the flesh-like material in Deer Park Lake three months after Edwards’ disappearance may have resulted in speculation. As previously reported, FBI agent Williams told the Sentinel he recalled hearing in 1964 that an informant said a black man had been “skinned alive” and thrown in the river. He said that information was associated with Edwards’ disappearance.
THE WHITE OLDS
Identifying the driver of the white Olds and the two men standing besides Edwards’ Buick by Stephenson remains elusive yet today. It’s also unclear who the white car belonged to although the FBI suspected it belong the Vidalia Police Department.
Stephenson’s account provided three key pieces of information: That the Olds had no law enforcement emblems on the side, but did have two rear whip antennae and a flashing red dashboard light, not a light mounted on the top.
The Justice Department’s Fitzgerald reported that it was determined that the Vidalia Police Department (VPD) was the only law enforcement agency in the parish that had two rear antennae. Yet while the car was unmarked, Fitzgerald reported the VPD car had a red light mounted on the top, not on the dashboard as Stephenson described. She noted that when Stephenson was shown a photo of the VPD car he did not “believe it identical” to the car he had seen.
Raymond Keathley, who had been a civil deputy for the sheriff’s office in 1964, was employed elsewhere in 1967 when interviewed by the FBI. He said after observing the abandoned Buick near the bowling alley on several occasions in 1964, he told deputies DeLaughter, Ogden and Ike Cowan they should inquire into whom the car belonged.
When one of the deputies said the Buick had been seen being pulled over by a white Oldsmobile or white Dodge, Keathley became concerned. He told the FBI his sheriff’s vehicle was a white 1964 Dodge and that Ogden’s vehicle was “similar” in make and color. Because of the similarity, Keathley said he was frequently accused of things in which Ogden was involved.
Additionally, FBI records show Red Glover drove a white 1964 Olds, although a photo of the car reveals no police antennae on the rear. However, Vidalia auxiliary policemen had access to portable flashing red dashboard lights that were kept at the police station.
LAW ENFORCEMENT SUSPECTS
While only one person pointed to Glover, Head and Horton as the perpetrators of Edwards’ murder, several witnesses indicated the sheriff’s office was responsible.
The Rev. Robert Lee Jr., who will turn 100 in August, was a friend of Edwards and his family. He told the Sentinel he saw Keathley in the Clayton school yard not long after Edwards went missing.
He said Keathley told him, “The deputies got Joe-Ed.”
Keathley told the FBI that when he asked the deputies in 1964 to inquire about the Buick at the bowling alley that DeLaughter said the car belonged “to the nigger who smarted off to the girls at the Shamrock. We won’t be bothered with that black smart SOB any more.”
A female witness told the bureau she overhead deputies discussing Edwards’ disappearance at the courthouse when Ogden said, “That serves him right and they ought to bundle up all of the niggers and get rid of them.”
Goss, the Louisiana probation officer from Tallulah who complained to Vidalia Police Chief Bud Spinks about Edwards, told the bureau he found himself in a vulnerable position after Edwards went missing and the flesh-like remains were discovered in Deer Park Lake. When he asked Ogden about Edwards, Goss said Ogden advised him to sink his victims in a location away from the reach of fishermen. When Goss asked what he meant, he said Ogden replied, “You ought to know! You put him there!”
Goss’ daughter, Kay Goss-Knotts, told the Sentinel that before her father died in 2009, he often talked about Concordia Parish and discussed how Ogden and DeLaughter tried to frame him for a murder.
Retired FBI agent John Pfeifer, who died in 2011, spent years in the 1960s and early 1970s successfully investigating the sheriff’s office for corruption. He said Ogden was “sly” and DeLaughter was “nefarious.” Pfeifer said the sheriff’s office would have been well aware that Goss, since he had complained about Edwards to Vidalia police, was the lone person who had established a tangible motive to harm Edwards. Additionally, Pfeifer said the sheriff’s office, particularly DeLaughter, continuously put out rumors to mislead and place others in a bad light.
There is yet another story that links the sheriff’s office to the Edwards’ case. The Rev. Julian Massey told the FBI in 1967 that around the time Edwards went missing, Ogden told him that he and DeLaughter had received a complaint against Edwards. Ogden told Massey that while in his patrol car with DeLaughter riding shotgun they pulled Edwards over in his Buick at the bowling alley.
According to Massey’s account of Ogden’s story, the pursuit was from Ferriday eastward toward to Vidalia (unlike the white Olds which had pursued Edwards’ car westward from Vidalia to Ferriday). But in both cases, the chase for the Buick ended at the bowling alley.
Ogden told Massey that Edwards bolted from the Buick and ran over the Mississippi River levee, which borders the north side of the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. Massey told agents that Ogden indicated DeLaughter almost caught Edwards on foot, but that he got away.
Unclear is whether Ogden pursued Edwards on the levee in his patrol car. An entrance road to the top of the levee was located a short distance to the east of the bowling alley.
Another informant alludes to the levee. Klansman Jack Seale of Natchez told the bureau in 1967 that he had been told by a Louisiana Klansman that Edwards had been taken to the levee “possibly to whip him, and they over did it.”
Seale said he heard the perpetrators “rolled him (Edwards) down the levee, thinking he was dead or had buried him on the levee.”
The Department of Justice reported in the letter to Edwards’ sister that the FBI from 1967 to 1968 interviewed 250 witnesses, “many multiple times, and conducted several scuba searches and forensic tests.” Fitzgerald said the new probe into Edwards’ disappearance included a review of the old file as well as current public records searches and the collection of “numerous media articles.”
The letter also alluded to the Sentinel: “As you are aware, the recent FBI investigation has been the subject of scrutiny and criticism, particularly in the local media. But, as the lengthy and thorough review by Department attorneys clearly established, all of the ‘leads’ that the FBI allegedly failed to pursue had either been exhaustively pursued during the original investigation in the 1960s, lacked useful specificity, or implicated the very same suspects discussed in this letter. All but one of those suspects was dead by 2004, and the last, Goss, died in 2009. Accordingly, we have no choice but to close our investigation.”
For Julia Dobbins, Edwards’ sister, the news was disappointing: “I wish they had told me what had happened to my brother.”
She also yearns to know the location of his body, expressing a desire “to bury him before we leave” the world of the living.
Others, too, have for years wondered about the fate of Joseph Edwards.
Marge Baroni of Natchez, a white woman who grew up dirt poor on a Mississippi tenant farm, became a part of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Her life had been transformed by her faith that God’s love was not bound by color. For this stance she, her husband and children were ostracized.
Before her death in 1984, Baroni began working on her master’s thesis, which along with her papers are housed at the University of Mississippi Libraries Archives & Special Collections.
In that uncompleted thesis, she expressed her empathy for the many families, including the Joseph Edwards family, who lost loved ones to racial violence. She wondered, too, how many murdered bodies had been buried beneath the earth’s surface or thrown into the swift current and swallowed for eternity by the Mississippi River.
“There’s a refrain that goes through my mind from time to time,” she wrote. “I never really lose it ...It’s ‘Whatever happened to Joseph Edwards?’”