Just weeks after Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris was murdered in 1964, two men later linked to his death were involved in the theft of commercial fishing seines, netting and webbing stored at a warehouse owned by the Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries Department.
These two crimes -- just weeks apart -- highlight the degree of criminal activity in Concordia Parish in 1964 and 1965, and point to the alleged complicity of the one governmental entity charged with protecting parish citizens -- the Concordia Parish Sheriff's Office.
For a few months in 1964 and 1965, Concordia Parish's Sheriff's Deputy Frank DeLaughter, and O.C. "Coonie" Poissot were spending a lot of time with one another. In 1967, Poissot pointed a finger at DeLaughter in the Morris arson and a few years after that, Poissot told a friend that he, too, had been involved in the crime.
A Concordia Parish Grand Jury initiated a probe on Feb. 8, 2011, into Morris' murder, a case reopened by the FBI in 2007.
Morris, 51, died four days after the fire and told law enforcement personnel that he didn't know the identities of two men he confronted at his shop the night of the arson.
According to Brenda Rhodes of Minden, Poissot told her in the early 1970s that he and Arthur Leonard Spencer of Rayville -- Rhodes' ex-husband -- were involved in the arson. Rhodes informed The Sentinel that Poissot told her that he and Spencer were part of a Ku Klux Klan hit squad sent to torch the shoe shop and that Morris was not expected to be there.
Spencer, 71, who acknowledged his Klan background in an interview with The Sentinel last June, denied any involvement in the arson and denied having known Poissot.
Frank DeLaughter, who was 37 in 1965, was a man greatly feared in Concordia Parish for his brutality, according to FBI records and several individuals interviewed by The Sentinel over the past four years. Poissot, at age 35 in 1965, was a drifter and truck driver with a criminal background who would soon become one of the FBI's top informants.
By his own account, Poissot arrived in the parish sometime in 1964 and apparently befriended DeLaughter.
A Sentinel investigation reveals that Poissot spent portions of his life as a law enforcement informant while simultaneously being involved in criminal activities. Poissot told the bureau in 1967 that he often rode with DeLaughter in the deputy's patrol car. He said that three weeks prior to the arson of Morris' shoe shop, DeLaughter complained that Morris, 51, wasn't "acting right."
Poissot said he was with the deputy again in the patrol car the night before the arson when DeLaughter expressed outrage that Morris had confronted the deputy over a pair of cowboy boots. According to Poissot and another informant, Ferriday-Clayton Klan leader E.D. Morace, DeLaughter refused to pay Morris for any of his shoe repair. Even though the shop was burned the next night, Poissot claimed DeLaughter never mentioned Morris again.
In addition to beatings and brutality, DeLaughter was also accused through the years of shaking down individuals for money and confiscating money and even cigarettes from men he detained in the Ferriday jail. The manager of a brothel and gambling house known as the Morville Lounge at Deer Park said DeLaughter constantly shook him down for money or favors, according to federal Grand Jury documents from the 1970s obtained by The Sentinel.
FBI records show that Morville Lounge manager Curt Hewitt told special agent John Pfeifer that DeLaughter "had obtained permission to tear down an old building near the Ferriday Police Station, and after he had taken all of the good material from the site, he pressured me into buying rights to remove the rest for him for about $300." Hewitt also fingered DeLaughter as the man who visited the lounge once a week to collect the $200 cash in protection money for the sheriff's office
So great was the parish's image as a den of corruption, thievery, prostitution and murder in 1965 that a retired FBI agent now living in Oregon said the bureau considered Concordia "a maggot-infested mess." Billy Bob Williams, a resident FBI agent in Natchez from July 1965 through part of 1966, told The Sentinel the criminal state of affairs helped the Concordia Klan thrive like few others during that period.
Another retired special agent, John Pfeifer, who arrived in Concordia in 1966 at the age of 32, said he soon surmised that the best way to stop the criminal activity was to go after the sheriff's office.
"In my own mind, I had decided this sheriff's office was so corrupt and notorious in allowing all of these gambling joints and this whorehouse (Morville Lounge) to operate with impunity" that it should be a federal target. "Everybody who was a decent citizen in the parish was very much against" the corruption.
Pfeifer's efforts paid off by the early 1970s when both DeLaughter and Sheriff Noah Cross were convicted in federal court in connection with the operation of the Morville Lounge. DeLaughter was also convicted of police brutality in a separate trial in the beating of a prisoner at the Ferriday jail.
The Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries (LDWF) theft exemplifies both the lack of law and order in the parish and the degree of corruption in the sheriff's office, according to bureau records.
According to federal documents, Poissot admitted his role in the theft of commercial fishing material from the LDWF warehouse in late February 1965, just two months after the Morris arson. At that time, Poissot said he and Preston Cletis Conway were contacted by DeLaughter "to help him on a job." This information was later confirmed by the FBI, according to bureau files provided by the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative.
Conway was a machinist who worked on gambling and slot machines and operated gambling tables for Blackie Drane, a close associate of the sheriff and DeLaughter, according to FBI records. Drane supplied the gambling tables and slot machines used in the Morville Lounge and in other locations throughout the parish.
Poissot said he, DeLaughter and Conway stole "several thousand feet of nylon webbing used for commercial fishing" from the LDWF warehouse. Poissot said the door to the facility was not locked and that DeLaughter was in a hurry to load the truck and leave.
Once the material was loaded, Poissot said he and Conway rode on top of the webbing on the back of the truck "to help hold the webbing down," which was "piled high." However, he said after traveling a short distance, Conway fell off the truck while DeLaughter continued driving for another quarter mile before Poissot could stop him.
Poissot told agents that DeLaughter appeared agitated and said they had to quickly return for Conway because "this stuff is hot." Poissot said they turned around and picked up Conway who was okay but "skinned up."
Poissot said the webbing was dropped into the yard of deputy Bill Ogden, who lived on Doty Road in Ferriday. The FBI report notes that "Poissot recalled that DeLaughter did state this webbing was going to be used by him (DeLaughter) and the Sheriff of Concordia Parish...to do a little fishing."
In 1967, the FBI interviewed William J. Gillespie, Assistant Chief of the Enforcement Division of the LWFD. Gillespie worked out of the commission's Region IV office on Lake Concordia outside Ferriday, where the commercial fishing material -- valued at $3,000 retail -- had been stolen from the LWFD warehouse.
Gillespie said stolen goods included one drag seine, 600 to 700 yards of 4-inch nylon webbing, 600 to 700 yards of 3-inch nylon webbing, "two miles of two inch nylon webbing," and 60 to 70 hoop nets.
The material had been seized by wildlife agents because they were either being used illegally by fishermen or because the fishermen weren't licensed, Gillespie told the bureau.
Gillespie said he initially learned from Ferriday policeman George Sewell that DeLaughter was "primarily responsible" for the theft. Gillespie told agents he learned from Sewell that Conway was involved as well as an unidentified third man.
Although the FBI identified Poissot as the third man, Gillespie said he didn't know him. Sewell, a former Ferriday police officer who was on duty the night of the Morris arson, told The Sentinel in 2010 that he never knew Poissot, who died two decades ago.
FBI records indicate that in 1965 Poissot was known primarily by criminals and hardcore Klansmen in Concordia and that few others outside that circle knew him, other than some deputies with the sheriff's office.
The material was stored at deputy Bill Ogden's house, said Gillespie, whose details of the crime correspond with Poissot's. Gillespie said the webbing, seine and nets were later moved to a building owned by Drane located near the Cario Club on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy.
Gillespie said that following the theft he came upon a white man from Mississippi, whose last name was Calcote, who was said to be "a colonel" on the "State of Mississippi's Governor's Staff." In back of Calcote's truck, said Gillespie, were "some illegal fish" and the "illegal seine" stolen by DeLaughter, Conway and Poissot a short time earlier.
Later, said Gillespie, DeLaughter attempted to convince him to return the seine to Calcote, but Gillespie refused. Gillespie said the sheriff obtained the illegal nets and gave them to a relative who lived near Horseshoe Lake.
In yet another case, DeLaughter was charged in 1968 with theft in Concordia Parish after a warrant was issued by a Monroe judge on a complaint from Jerry Hendry of Monroe. According to FBI records, Hendry said he paid DeLaughter $1,000 for what he was told was "confiscated whiskey." But Hendry said DeLaughter never gave him the liquor and then ordered him to leave Concordia Parish.
Records show that DeLaughter was never convicted in the case.