The U.S. Department of Justice has closed its second probe into the December 10, 1964, arson murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris after what it says was an “exhaustive investigation conducted in the 1960’s and over the last few years (that) did not definitely determine who was responsible for the murder.”
In a letter to Morris’ granddaughter, Rosa Williams, the Justice Department also noted it and the FBI have run out of leads and would have been unable to prosecute the case anyway because “the men likely responsible for the death of your grandfather are deceased.”
Paige M. Fitzgerald, deputy chief in charge of department’s Cold Case Initiative, reports in the undated four-page letter that six Klansmen (all now deceased) were identified as suspects. Conspicuously absent from the list is Frank DeLaughter, a Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy in 1964. One of the FBI’s agents from the Civil Rights-era, whose work helped send DeLaughter to federal prison in two other cases decades ago, told The Sentinel in 2011 he believed the deputy engineered the arson
Williams, who was 12-years-old and living in Ferriday when her grandfather was murdered, said two FBI agents delivered the closure letter to her home in Las Vegas on Jan. 9.
“I cried a little bit,” she said, “but I wasn’t really surprised.”
Fitzgerald said several “hypotheses” were developed during the FBI’s initial probe into the Morris murder, “the strongest of which centered” on four suspects identified by three confidential informants as Klansmen E.D. Morace and James Scarborough, both of Ferriday, and Tommie Lee Jones and Thor Torgersen, both of Natchez.
“The FBI was unable to uncover any independent basis to corroborate the informants’ allegations,” Fitzgerald wrote. “Without independent evidence supporting the allegations, the FBI was unable to pursue the subjects further.”
Jones was the last of the four to die. He passed away in August 2007, just weeks after the FBI launched its second probe into the Morris murder.
Fitzgerald also reported that during the current probe witnesses identified two additional Klan suspects: O.C. “Coonie” Poissot, who died in 1992, and Arthur Leonard Spencer of Rayville, who died last year. She said, however, there “was insufficient evidence to support these allegations.”
In response to the case closure, the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI), which seeks justice for families of Civil Rights-era victims and has been involved in investigating the Morris murder since 2007, expressed dissatisfaction with the Justice Department’s decision.
“We are extremely frustrated by the lack of due diligence displayed by the Department of Justice, still dishonoring Frank Morris' memory 50 years later,” said Janis L. McDonald, co-director of CCJI. “Through the course of this incomplete investigation, witnesses were disrespected, family members ignored and serious questions surrounding this case remain unasked.
“We believe that some of the leaders in the Klan groups who planned this and many other murders are still alive. We believe that former members of local law enforcement responsible for assisting the Klan groups in planning this murder are still alive. Congress must step in, conduct hearings, look into the failures of federal and local law enforcement related to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act and examine the false promises made to the families like the Frank Morris family.”
Morris’ murder came during a time of great civil strife in the South in 1964 as Civil Rights activists from northern states joined those in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer campaign in an effort to register blacks to vote. At the same time Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, sweeping legislation that outlawed racial segregation of schools, the workplace and public places. But it was the murder in June 1964 of three Civil Rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- in Neshoba County, Miss., that galvanized the nation’s attention on the Klan’s violent resistance to civil rights and resulted in the FBI’s aggressive battle against the KKK.
Almost lost to history is the fact that Natchez, southwest Mississippi and Concordia Parish on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River represented the epicenter of Klan violence in 1964. On Jan. 31, Louis Allen was gunned down in Liberty, Miss., while in February the White Knights in Mississippi emerged after 200 Klansmen broke ties with the Original Knights, based in Louisiana. Klan wrecking crews, also known as hit squads, committed more than a dozen beatings on both sides of the Mississippi. A black employee of International Paper Company, Clifton Walker, was shot multiple times in a deadly late night ambush in Wilkinson County, Miss., in late February, while two teens from Franklin County, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Moore, were murdered by Klansmen in early May.
On July 12, 10 days after the Civil Rights bill was passed, Joseph Edwards, a porter at the Vidalia Shamrock, disappeared. When closing that case last year, the Justice Department reported the 6-foot-4, 265 pound DeLaughter, the notorious parish deputy known in the black community as “Big Frank DeLaw,” was among the seven suspects, all now dead, believed responsible for the apparent murder. Edwards' body has yet to be found.
In Ferriday, Morris had operated a shoe shop for 25 years. As the Sentinel has reported in dozens of stories since 2007, Morris was a popular businessman who hosted a weekly gospel music radio show on KFNV, served as an usher in his church and was known as an outgoing man who gave many African American boys their first jobs. FBI records show that Morris -- despite having served a black and white clientele throughout his life and possibly because he served a racially mixed customer base – came under the scrutiny of Klansmen, who spread rumors that he allowed interracial sexual liaisons between black men and white women in the back room of his shop and that he made passes at white women. None of the accusations had merit, a Sentinel investigation of seven years revealed.
Morris told the FBI during interviews as he lay dying at the Concordia Parish Hospital in the hours after the arson that he was awakened in the middle of the night from his small bedroom in the back of the shop by the sound of breaking glass. When Morris confronted two men outside the front of the store, one of men “struck a match,” Fitzgerald wrote, “and set the shop on fire.” She said a flammable liquid had previously been spread outside and possibly inside the shop. Morris told investigators he could not identify his two assailants, one of whom pointed a shotgun at him, blocking his exit from the front of the shop, which exploded as a result of the fire.
Morris escaped from the back of the building, but not before suffering burns over his entire body. Two Ferriday police officers came upon the scene as Morris emerged from the rear of the store running toward the Billups Service Station nearby. They rushed him to the Concordia Parish Hospital where he died four days later.
Although Fitzgerald does not name the informants who a half century ago identified Morace, Scarborough, Jones and Torgensen as the arsonists, the Sentinel has previously identified two of the men, based on its review of FBI documents provided by the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative and the LSU Manship School of Communications Unsolved Civil Rights-Era Murders student project.
Fitzgerald wrote that the three informants in 1967, three years after the murder, reported “a Ku Klux Klan member named E.D. Morace made statements implicating himself in the murder.” She said one of the informants “implicated all four men.” The bureau was unable to interview this informant during the current probe, Fitzgerald reported, “due to severe health problems, and he died in 2011.”
The Sentinel investigation determined this informant to be Natchez Klan leader E.L. McDaniel, who told the bureau in 1967 that prior to the arson Morace informed him that Morris had been targeted for “a whipping” by the Ferriday Klan for allegedly flirting with and “smarting off” to white women at the shoe shop. As the Grand Dragon of the Mississippi Realm of the United Klans of America (UKA) in 1964, McDaniel said Morace sought his authorization to allow Jones and Torgersen, who lived in Mississippi, to take part in the Louisiana project.
The Justice Department said in its closure letter that the second informant from 1967 was dead, but the third informant was re-interviewed twice during the current probe. Based on FBI documents from the 1960s, these informants were Natchez Klansman Jack Seale, who is dead, and former Natchez resident and Klansman L.C. Murray.
In a 1967 FBI document, bureau agents previously reported that Seale, Murray and Morace met on November 19, 1967, at Cornett’s Restaurant in Ferriday. All three men, as well as Jones, Torgersen and Scarborough, were identified by the FBI as being members of the Silver Dollar Group (SDG), an underground Klan offshoot dedicated to the violent opposition of civil rights as fight-to-death proponents of white supremacy and segregation.
After this meeting, Seale, Murray and Morace, who was also an FBI confidential informant, reported to their FBI handlers what was discussed over coffee at Cornett’s, bureau records show.
According to separate interviews of each man, the FBI reported Morace never admitted involvement in the arson. Morace claimed Morris died as a result of an explosion caused by a gas leak.
Murray told agents he asked Morace why Morris had been burned. Morace never answered the question. Instead, Morace laughed and stated, “You should have seen him (Morris) run to that service station,” an indication, but not an admission, that Morace had witnessed the event.
Without identifying Murray in her letter on the closure of the Morris case, Fitzgerald said the former informant was interviewed twice by the bureau during its current probe. She said this informant did not recall the conversations with Morace that occurred a half century ago but said “he did not have any reason to doubt the veracity of his statements made in 1967.”
The FBI reported that a third informant, who the Sentinel through bureau documents had previously identified as Jack Seale, furnished “substantially the same information” as Murray, but that Seale was of the opinion “Morace knows all the details regarding the Morris murder though he may not have participated in the incident.”
At the time he and the others served as paid informants, Seale was a suspect in a double homicide: The 1964 murders of Franklin County, Miss., teens Dee and Moore. Seale’s brother, James Ford Seale, was convicted in the murders in 2007 and later died in federal prison.
FBI records also show Jack Seale advised the bureau that a few years prior to 1967, Morace and DeLaughter had been involved in an unspecified dispute and that Morace went to the courthouse in Vidalia to meet with Sheriff Noah Cross and DeLaughter to settle the matter. Seale said Morace accused DeLaughter of “committing some act,” and that DeLaughter denied it. “Morace pulled his gun on DeLaughter,” Seale reported, “and he (DeLaughter) admitted committing the particular act.”
Did this act involve the murder of Frank Morris?
What is unmentioned in the Justice Department closure letter is that McDaniel, Murray and Seale were friends and closely aligned in the Klan. In 1963, FBI documents show, the three along with another Klansman, Douglas Byrd, had a confrontation with Tommie Lee Jones, one of the men McDaniel accused in the arson. After Jones had reportedly led a wrecking crew attack in the beating of a black man from Natchez, McDaniel, Seale, Murray and Byrd admonished him for taking action without Klan leadership approval. Bureau records indicate McDaniel warned Jones that he would be beaten if he committed such an act again without authorization.
Also unmentioned is the relationship between DeLaughter and McDaniel, who in 1964 swore the deputy into the UKA in a ceremony in Ferriday. FBI records also show that in 1965 Jones was arrested by Ferriday police on charges of assaulting a black man in Ferriday. While a number of Natchez and Concordia Parish Klansman came to town to get Jones out of jail, McDaniel was not among the number. Yet in 1966, McDaniel, with DeLaughter at his side, knocked on Mayor Woodie Davis’ home in the middle of the night asking that Seale, who had been booked for DWI, be freed without bond. The mayor refused.
Although the Justice Department does not name DeLaughter as a suspect in its closure letter, the Sentinel has reported in the past that FBI agents on the ground in Concordia Parish in the 1960s considered DeLaughter a prime suspect. In fact, FBI records show Morace told the bureau that DeLaughter and Morris had an argument shortly before the arson over DeLaughter’s refusal to pay for a pair of cowboy boots Morris had ordered for the deputy.
FBI agent John Pfeifer, who died in 2012, told the Sentinel in 2011 he believed DeLaughter engineered the arson primarily to punish Morris for “being uppity,” a term that racist whites used to label blacks they felt acted as if they were equal to or better than a white man. Pfeifer believed DeLaughter’s intention was to teach Morris a lesson by torching his shop and that the deputy didn’t intend for Morris to be killed.
From 1966 to the early 1970s, Pfeifer was in Concordia Parish every week investigating DeLaughter and the sheriff’s office for corruption. His work helped lead to two federal convictions of DeLaughter – one for racketeering and the other for police brutality -- in the early 1970s, which ended DeLaughter’s days in law enforcement. Yet despite Pfeifer’s years of experience investigating the Klan in Concordia and his knowledge of DeLaughter’s activities, Pfeifer said the bureau never sought his input during its second investigation into the Morris murder.
Fitzgerald notes that during the current investigation “the FBI received allegations from three witnesses identifying two new suspects – Arthur Leonard Spencer and O.C. ‘Cooney’ Poissot – as being responsible” for the murder. “Cold Case prosecutors and FBI agents thoroughly investigated these allegations, which were extensively reported in the Concordia Sentinel,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Spencer’s son, ex-wife and ex-brother-in-law all told the Sentinel, and the FBI, that the pair had boasted years earlier they committed the arson but no one was suppose to be in the shop that night. Poissot’s connection to DeLaughter has been well documented by the Sentinel over the years.
FBI records show McDaniel waited until he became a paid informant, three years after the arson, before telling the FBI in 1967 about his suspicions of Morace, Scarborough, Torgersen and Jones. Prior to this information, DeLaughter had been high on the bureau’s radar as a suspect. The LSU student team discovered that according to an FBI document filed in January 1965, a maid who worked at the Concordia Parish Hospital told the bureau a dying Morris told her from his bedside “the fire was set at the request of Frank Delaughter.”
In 1967, Poissot told the bureau that on two occasions prior to the arson, including the night before, DeLaughter complained about Morris “not acting right” and mentioned a dispute over shoes, which Morace had also disclosed to FBI agents. These conversations were held while Poissot rode with DeLaughter in the deputy’s patrol car, FBI records show.
FBI agent Pfeifer told the Sentinel in 2011 that he believed the trigger for the arson was the argument over the shoes and the motive boiled down to a "personal deal with Frank DeLaughter because DeLaughter was angry at Morris...He was going to teach him not to be uppity."
E.L. McDaniel told the bureau that a week after Morace asked McDaniel to authorize Jones and Torgersen’s participation in a beating of Morris, Morace called him at home one night and said, “The rabbit hunt is off,” meaning the beating project against Morris had been terminated. The next night Morris’ shop was burned to the ground, McDaniel told the bureau.
Spencer told the Sentinel in 2010 that he had been in the Klan in Rayville in 1964, that one of his uncles was a Klan leader and explained the workings of Klan wrecking crews. Spencer denied knowing Poissot and denied involvement in the Morris arson.
“The FBI interviewed three witnesses who made the allegations about Spencer and Poissot and interviewed Spencer as well as several current and former family members of Spencer and Poissot,” the closure letter stated. “The FBI also conducted polygraph examinations on two of the witnesses who reported the allegations about Spencer and Poissot. These two witnesses failed the polygraph examinations. In addition, many of the witness statements were inconsistent with the evidence and reported eyewitness accounts provided at the time of the incident. Spencer denied any involvement in the murder and denied ever knowing Poissot.”
Fitzgerald didn’t say in the letter if Spencer was given a polygraph and doesn’t allude to three grand juries convened in the parish over 18 months to look into the Morris arson. No reports or findings were issued. A federal prosecutor, after being named an assistant district attorney by District Attorney Brad Burget, led the Concordia Parish grand jury probes. Also unmentioned in FBI documents from the 1960s is whether McDaniel or any other informants or witnesses were given polygraphs.
“The investigation has produced no credible evidence implicating anyone who could currently be prosecuted,” Fitzgerald wrote in the closure letter.