The night of the arson of Frank Morris' shoe shop in 1964 was a busy one for 17-year-old Delbert Matthews, who recalls working alone at the Coast Service Station near the outskirts of town. The station was just two blocks south of the shoe shop along U.S. Hwy. 84.
Matthews remembers several specific things about the night -- a young black man hiding under the desk at the service station, and a white stranger in a green car with Franklin County, Miss., tags, talking to deputy Frank DeLaughter as the red lights of the fire truck and police vehicles flickered up the street beside the orange glow of the fire consuming the shoe shop.
"I remember that night so well because of the fire," said Matthews, 63, of Vidalia. "Every time I pass the area today I think about it. I remember thinking back then about there being a fire at the shoe shop and wondering why Frank DeLaughter wasn't down there."
On that night, Frank Morris suffered third degree burns yet survived four days at the Concordia Parish Hospital before dying in Room 101 on Dec. 14, 1964. According to redacted FBI documents compiled in 1965 and Sentinel interviews conducted over the past three years, a few of his friends who visited him during his hospitalization say he told them that his attackers were "two white friends," but that's all he would say. In recorded interviews with the FBI and local officials, Morris indicated on 12 occasions in direct response to questions that he could not identify the men by name.
Several men were suspects and several scenarios considered, but the FBI could never pin down what went down that night four and a half decades ago. Since 2007, the FBI has been probing the case again and according to a front page Washington Post story on February 28, the Morris case "has drawn the agency's focused attention because it might be connected to other interstate Ku Klux Klan attacks." These attacks are linked, The Sentinel has learned, through a violent, militant Klan cell known as the Silver Dollar Group.
Matthews said the night of December 9-10, 1964, began in a strange way when around 8 p.m. -- two hours into his all night, 12-hour shift -- a stranger pulled in and parked his green car in the wash bay. "He came over and told me 'I'm going to leave my car out here for a while if it's alright with you,'" Matthews recalled. "I told him sure because the rack was closed. I didn't do work out there at night because I couldn't do that and watch the station at the same time. I said it's alright. He said, 'I'll give you $10 if you watch it.' I said, "Ain't no problem, buddy.' So I watched it for him. Ain't nobody ever paid me $10 to watch a car."
Matthews described the stranger as "short, stubby with black hair." He said he can't remember what the man was wearing but recalls that he was about 5 ft.-7 in. tall and wasn't wearing a hat. "I had never seen him before."
The man handed Matthews a $10 bill and then began walking down the sidewalk in the direction of the shoe shop as Matthews walked over and looked at the car. "I didn't bother it," said Matthews. "I just went out there and looked at it. Back in them days everybody was fascinated with cars. I had a '55 Chevrolet. I noticed the tags was Franklin County tags. Back then you could tell the difference between Louisiana tags and Mississippi tags right off the bat. There was also quilts all jumbled up in the back seat. It kind of looked like the man may have been sleeping in the car, but I don't know that."
Matthews says because the fire was such a memorable event, he recalls detailed events of what was a busy night, including several people who stopped by the station. Among the visitors were on duty Ferriday policemen George Sewell and Timmy Lofton. "I don't remember quite what time," said Matthews, "but they usually stopped by and got a Coke or some coffee."
He also recalled another strange thing -- a heavy-set white man driving a white car with "a woman drunk and passed out on the passenger side. He parked on the side of the wash rack and walked up the sidewalk" toward the shoe shop. "He was gone three or four hours. He came back and I swear that woman never woke up, man. If she did I didn't hear her." The man returned sometime after midnight, Matthews recalls, and left the station in the white car, the woman still passed out.
At some point after midnight, he said he made a prank phone call to an acquaintance named John "Bubba" Beckwith, a 22-year-old employee of Richardson & Sims Funeral Home located across the street from the Coast Service Station. Matthews said he often joked around with Beckwith, who lived at the funeral home and who on occasion would visit Matthews at the station during the night.
"I was just picking on him," said Matthews of the phone call. "I think about John Beckwith every now and then. He was a cool dude. Me and him always got along and he kept me company a lot of nights at the station."
Yet the two men have different memories on when the calls were made. Beckwith told the FBI in 1965 that the calls were made a day or two after Frank Morris died. Matthews told The Sentinel he made his calls on the night of the fire.
Beckwith, a black man, (who was profiled in a Sentinel article last week), said he clearly remembers phone calls by an anonymous male who said, "You're next," and assumed the caller was a Klansman who thought Beckwith knew who killed Frank Morris. Matthews said he made calls to Beckwith on the night of the fire as a joke.
Beckwith described the calls to the FBI when interviewed in 1965 as terrifying, and said he hid out in the tire room of the station, while an unidentified man in a red and white Buick or Ford snooped around the black neighborhood. Matthews said he clearly remembers Beckwith coming over after he made the "prank calls," but said he recalls Beckwith hiding "under the desk with a suit on" inside the station.
Redacted FBI documents obtained by The Sentinel report that in February 1965, six weeks after the fire, two Coast Service Station employees and the station owner were interviewed. Matthews said the FBI only asked him questions about Beckwith hiding out at the station. He identified the late Tom Glass as the owner of the station, which is now home to Graham's Jiffy Mart, and said the only other employee he knew around that time was the late David Ellard. "He was in his 50s then," Matthews said of Ellard, "but he had quit working there before the fire. I was working the night of the fire."
Matthews said that as Beckwith hid under the desk that a short time later he, Matthews, fell asleep and was awakened by Concordia Parish Sheriff's Office deputy Frank DeLaughter. "He said, "Wake up, Del, I gotta pay you for this gas.' He was laughing about me being asleep."
As he attempted to wake up, Matthews said he noticed DeLaughter standing by his burgundy car at the gas pump talking to the man who had parked his green car at the service station bay hours earlier. "The shop was on fire at that time," said Matthews. "Frank and the man with the green car were talking." Matthews said he assumed the two had arrived at the station together in DeLaughter's car although he was asleep and didn't see DeLaughter pull in.
"They talked for a few minutes and gobbled out there," said Matthews, describing the conversation as seemingly "light-hearted, nothing serious." Then the stranger got in his green car and left while to the north two blocks away "you could see a big orange (fire) down there at the shoe shop and the red lights off the fire truck."
A short time earlier, Frank Morris had been seen by the attendant of the Billups Station a block north of the shop emerging from the back of the building in flames. According to FBI documents, the Ferriday Fire Department received a call at 1:15 a.m. reporting the fire at Morris' shop.
Around the time Matthews says he was watching DeLaughter talking with the man who drove the green car, Morris was being examined by Dr. Charles Colvin in the emergency room of the hospital in the early morning hours of Friday, Dec. 10, 1964. FBI documents say a registered nurse, whose name was redacted, was the first to treat Morris and would be with him for the next two to three hours.
She told the FBI in early 1965 that she was paged from the hospital floor to the "emergency room area" and found Morris standing alone, naked and burned from head to toe. A customer of the shoe shop, she said she recognized him right away and later assumed that Ferriday policemen had brought him to the hospital.
She said Morris told her that somebody had blown up his shop. His only complaint, said the nurse, was that he was cold. She said she led him to a room for emergency treatment after calling Dr. Colvin and observed that the tip of one of Morris' fingers was missing "but the bone was still there." Two days later, records show, a finger tip was found in the rubble of the shop and later given to the FBI.
Yet the Washington Post two weeks ago quoted the FBI's Cynthia Deitle as asking "who's missing a finger in Ferriday?" The Post reported that an "undercover agent has been canvassing the town for a fingerless man, and the FBI lab is searching for fingerprint matches."
Back at the Coast Service Station in 1964, Matthews said he observed that DeLaughter, who became a suspect in the Morris murder, was out-of-uniform and wearing a checkered short-sleeve shirt and khaki pants on what was a mild night. The National Weather Bureau said the temps for Thursday and Friday, December 9 to 10, were expected to reach a high of 64 and that scattered showers on Thursday would end and the skies would turn partly cloudy on Friday.
Matthews, who says he's been arrested more than once and was well familiar with the bars and night life of Concordia during those days four decades ago, said the first time he was put in jail was after being picked up by DeLaughter for stealing watermelons. He spent the night in the Ferriday jail before being bonded out the next morning by his father. Like others interviewed by The Sentinel, Matthews said he was held in jail by DeLaughter without being charged. He said he feared DeLaughter -- "his word was the law" -- yet he "respected him."
"Even when he was off duty, Frank had his badge pinned on his shirt," said Matthews. "He always had a gun on him, even when off duty. He didn't go nowhere without a gun. He had a lot of enemies."
Matthews said that he rarely saw DeLaughter without deputy Bill Ogden. "They run together. You see one you see the other. But Bill wasn't with Frank that night."
Matthews also recalled that it was no secret that DeLaughter was a Klansman and didn't like African-Americans. In fact, he said both DeLaughter and his sister, Mildred DeLaughter Garner, asked him to join the Klan. In 1964, Mildred Garner operated Cario Drive-In on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. and Matthews said Klan applications "were kept in the bar. They would also give out Klan cards."
Once, said Matthews, he picked up a black woman named Linda and brought her to Cario's where she was employed. He said Garner "put a .38 right between my eyes. She told me, 'Don't ever do that again.' I said, 'Ain't no problem,' I told her the woman didn't have a way to work, her car was broke down. Mildred said, 'Let her walk.'"
In the June 5, 1964, issue of The Sentinel, just months before the Morris murder, Garner took out an ad soliciting Klan business: "A KKK cross was burned Sunday morning, May 31st. All KKK are welcome and invited to this establishment as our special guest. You are always welcome whether recognized or not. Thanks, Mildred Garner, Owner, Cario Drive-In."
Before daylight, Matthews said Beckwith left the station and had been there since some point after midnight.
A retired truck driver and Vietnam vet, Matthews said he doesn't know who set the fire at Morris' shop but does remember that DeLaughter "didn't smell like smoke when I saw him that night. His clothes weren't dirty."
Yet it sticks in his mind as odd that DeLaughter as a deputy was not down the street at the fire.
"I might've been right in the way but I would have been there to see if they needed any help," said Matthews.