In the mid-June 1966, long before he was elected as a Mississippi state senator, 31-year-old Bob Dearing was having coffee at the Ramada Inn on the bluff above the Mississippi River Bridge in Natchez.

He was looking for a ride to Jackson where he planned to pick up a company car for his new job with Science Research Associates, a subsidiary of IBM.

Sheriff Odell Anders was at the table with Dearing and others. The sheriff said he was heading in that direction the next day.

“I’m going to Hazlehurst,” Anders told Dearing. “I’ll be glad to take you that far and then you can hitchhike on the Jackson.”

But the next day, as they traveled up U.S. 61, Anders failed to turn onto Hwy. 28, which led to Hazlehurst, the county seat of Copiah.

“Odell,” Dearing said, “you missed your turn.”

Anders explained, “I got to go up to Port Gibson to pick up a prisoner. We’re moving him to Copiah.”

When they arrived at the Claiborne County jail in Port Gibson, Dearing waited as the sheriff went inside.

A few minutes later Anders emerged from the building with a man handcuffed in the back.

Anders said to Dearing: “This is Mr. Jones. He’s just turned state’s evidence in the Ben Chester White killing.”

Dearing was stunned.

The White murder had made national news. A 67-year-old farmhand for Adams County Supervisor James Carter, White had been lured into a car driven by the man sitting in the backseat of Anders’ sheriff’s office car — James Lloyd Jones, a 57-year-old ex-con who had been employed at International Paper Company in Natchez for 15 years.

A few days before Dearing’s car ride with Jones, Anders had charged Jones and two other men — also IP employees — Claude Fuller and Ernest Avants, with murder. Both Fuller and Avants were well known by local, state and federal authorities as Klansmen.

Avants had an arrest record. He had been booked along with other Klansmen for the 1963 beating of two civil rights workers. He also was implicated in the 1965 savage fatal beating of Earl Hodges, a former Klansmen in Franklin County who Klan leaders feared was going to inform on them to the authorities.

Avants and Fuller had each been subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee during hearings in January 1966. Neither would answer questions posed to them by committee investigators and congressmen. Back home, Avants bragged that at those hearings he had “outsmarted the FBI.”

According to FBI records, however, Klansmen shunned the two because of their heavy drinking and propensity to talk too much about Klan business. As a result, both were kicked out of the White Knights.

THE PRETTY CREEK BRIDGE

Within two days of the disappearance of White, Sheriff Anders knew who had committed the murder.

The FBI closely followed the sheriff’s investigation and offered the assistance of its agents and the use of its experts at the bureau’s lab in Washington. According to FBI documents, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Jackson division office, Roy K. Moore, advised FBI headquarters in Washington that on June 10, 1966, Jones’ car had been set afire and was blocking the driveway of Boyd Sojourner, a member of the Adams County Board of Supervisors.

Jones was initially charged with burning his own car. Soon, however, he confessed that he, Fuller and Avants had picked up White after requesting his help in locating a lost dog. Jones’ story of what had happened before and after White’s murder would change from time to time until mid-July when he finally told the full story.

Less than an hour after being picked up by the three Klansmen, White was dead, his lifeless body rested on the bank beneath the Pretty Creek Bridge until found by a woman and her children wading in the creek.

News of the horrific crime spread quickly throughout Adams County but details as to why White was murdered were initially unknown.

A HANDCUFFED JONES

A few days later as the handcuffed Jones was placed in Anders’ sheriff’s office car, Bob Dearing was shocked and uneasy to find himself in the same car with an accused murderer.

After introducing the two men, Anders asked Jones to tell Dearing what had happened.

“So Mr. Jones,” Dearing recalled, “proceeded to say that one night they went out to Ben Chester White’s home on Liberty Road and drug him out of the house. He said Mr. White was screaming, ‘What have I done? What have I done?’ ”

Dearing said Jones told him that he and two other men took White to Pretty Creek Bridge. “Mr. Jones said the other two guys got out of the car and one shot Mr. White with a shotgun. They drug Mr. White out of the car and dropped him over into Pretty Creek and then emptied their rifle.”

Anders said: “Well, Jones … tell Mr. Dearing why ya’ll were doing it.”

Jones answered, “We were trying to lure Martin Luther King down to Natchez so we could kill him.”

King never visited Natchez.

‘YOU’RE LYING’

Although the outcome was the same, the details of the killing were different than what Jones told Dearing. What is believed to be the truth was established in Jones’ confessions and in court.

Fuller was the ringleader and claimed to be the head of a Klan offshoot known as the Cottonmouth Moccasin Gang. The name referred to this Klan’s intention of being as lethal and venomous as the deadly snake. Fuller believed that King would come to Natchez to lead a march of protest if a black person was murdered. White was targeted.

Fuller intended to assassinate King. He indicated to Jones that he was acting on orders from his Klan superiors. However, an FBI teletype in April 1967, when Jones’ trial was underway, indicated that other than Fuller, Jones, Avants and two other local men — no one had ever heard of the Cottonmouth Mouth Moccasin Gang.

In fact, Fuller was acting on his own, seeking instead to become a hero in the Klan world by knocking off the one man who had given the Civil Rights Movement a righteous and inspirational voice for years.

To Fuller, White was simply the bait to lure King to Natchez.

It began shortly before dark on Friday, June 10. Fuller, Jones and Avants picked up White at his home after asking he assist them in locating a dog. After stopping a store, Jones, on Fuller’s orders, drove to the Pretty Creek Bridge and stopped.

Fuller was riding shotgun, Avants positioned behind the driver in the rear seat and White behind Fuller on the passenger side. Both Fuller and Avants bolted out of the car. Fuller had a rifle, Avants a shotgun.

Fuller told White to exit the vehicle. Realizing what was going to happen, White slumped over onto the seat and responded, “Oh, Lord, what have I done to deserve this?”

In a flash, Fuller emptied his rifle into White — approximately 17 rounds — and then ordered Avants to shoot White. Avants pointed the shotgun at White’s head and pulled the trigger. The explosion that followed scattered White’s brain matter and flesh throughout the car and onto Jones, still sitting in the front seat.

A mile away, local farmer and public servant Haywood Drane of Kingston heard it all, telling authorities: “The burst of fire was rapid, taking only a few seconds, and I’d judge about a half a minute {elapsed} before the single shot was fired.” Jones, still sitting in the driver’s seat, was covered with blood, brains and flesh.

Jones said both weapons came from Fuller’s house, an M-2 carbine and a shotgun. Jones described the “little rifle” as being “about 2 feet long or maybe a little longer” with “a clip in it” that held 18 bullets and a “new leather strap on it, like an Army gun.” The shotgun “was a long, tall gun, about as long as I am, single barrel, single shot.”

A short time later, Avants and Jones lifted White’s body from the car and dropped it over the Pretty Creek Bridge. A few hours passed before Avants and Fuller transported Jones to work at IP and before torching Jones’ car, a 1966 Chevrolet Belair 4-door, turquoise color. During the ordeal, they left a trail of witnesses behind them and had turned Jones’ vehicle into a crime scene.

With the assistance of state police and the FBI, the sheriff’s office quickly put together a solid case against the three suspects.

‘I HAD BLOOD ON ME’

Although the scheme was Fuller’s, the Klan supported the defendants. In November 1966, FBI Agent John Pfeifer outlined in a report what he had learned from informants. Since Jones had confessed, Klansmen considered him scum and authorities knew an attempt might be made on Jones’ life. At the same time, Klansmen wanted to help Avants and Fuller.

Pfeifer reported that the White Knights believed the only way the two could be successful in trial would be to get “secret members of the Klan placed on the Jury.”

Secondly, they wanted the defense to call Sheriff Anders to the stand. Although by 1966 the Klan despised Anders, he had received their vote during the 1963 election. While some informants told the bureau that Anders had been a Klan member, others said he had attended a meeting or two early on to see what they were up to.

Thirdly, Pfeifer reported to his FBI superiors that Klansmen wanted to get “a white woman … who will testify that the victim {White} had raped her.”

In November 1966, all three men pled not guilty before Judge James A. Torrey. In early 1967, Jones, was freed after a hung jury. He had stopped talking to authorities by then.

In December 1967, the prosecution and defense picked through 211 prospective jurors before nine white men and three black men were chosen to hear Avants’ case.

Of the total questioned, many prospective jurors said they had already formed an opinion in the case. They were rejected. An equal number said they opposed capital punishment.

FBI agents Robert F. Boyle and Alan Kornblum told jurors that Fuller shot White with at least 15 rifle rounds before Avants pulled the trigger of his shotgun once. The sheriff and others laid out other facts of the case.

Avants was acquitted.

Fuller was never tried, but in the weeks after the murder was taken in as a member of the Silver Dollar Group, an underground Klan cell that believed violence was the only way to stop integration and civil rights.

Both District Attorney Lennox Forman of Meadville and County Prosecutor Ed Benoist of Natchez told the FBI that Avants and Jones refused to testify against Fuller for fear for their lives, specifically that Fuller’s brother would kill them.

One of Avants’ attorneys, Travis Buckley, who represented many Klansmen, would be sentenced to 10 years in prison for kidnapping a few months after the acquittal of his client.

At that point in time, the Klan intimidation of witnesses, jurors and the general public was powerful.

That wasn’t true 40 years later. When it was determined that the killing happened in a national forest, federal murder charges were filed against Avants, the only suspect still living. He was convicted in 2003 and died in prison the following year.

Jones often told authorities early on that his confessions were given because of his tortured soul. But in the end he quit cooperating with law enforcement. Prior to his silence, he had expressed his fear of hell: “I had blood on me and I knowed that I could never enter the Kingdom of Heaven, so I’m telling … and I’m praying to the Good Lord that I can get forgiveness of it …”

‘I THANKED ODELL’

After his long ride to Hazlehurst in 1966, Dearing in the years to come would be elected as a state senator. He’s now served more than 30 years and presently represents District 37 that includes the counties of Adams, Amite, Franklin and Pike.

But to this day he remembers how uncomfortable he was to be in the car with a man accused in the savage murder of Ben Chester White.

In 1966, after Jones told Dearing his story, Dearing looked at the sheriff.

“Odell, what in the world are you getting this guy to tell me this for?”

Anders answered: “I’m having to move him from jail to jail. I’m afraid somebody is going to get to him and kill him and I just wanted to have you as a witness to what he said.”

Wishing he were anywhere else in the world but in the car with a murder suspect, Dearing told Anders: “Well, Odell, I appreciate it very much.”

Dearing didn’t say another word until they got to Hazlehurst.

“I thanked Odell for the ride and got out on the highway and hitchhiked to Jackson.”

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