Because FBI agent Paul Lancaster was certain Frank Morris was going to die, he tried to get the Ferriday shoe shop owner to identify his attackers with a "dying declaration."
Lancaster interviewed Morris just hours after the black businessman's shoe shop on 415 Fourth Street (Hwy. 84) was burned to the ground by at least two white men during the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1964. Trapped inside the shop when the fire was started, FBI reports indicate Morris emerged out the back door in flames before stumbling into the arms of two Ferriday city policeman -- George Sewell and the late Timmy Loftin -- who were driving by at the time in the town's only patrol car.
The two officers transported Morris -- naked, bleeding and suffering from third degree burns over 100 percent of his body -- to the Concordia Parish Hospital, where the emergency room nurse, according to FBI documents, said Morris "smelled like gasoline."
Fifty-one years of age, Morris had operated a successful business for 30 years and hosted an hour long gospel music show on KFNV Radio on Sundays. A lengthy investigation by the FBI indicated that Morris was likely killed by the Ku Klux Klan in a racially-motivated crime during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Four and one-half hours after the fire, Lancaster arrived at the Concordia Parish Hospital, where Morris was being treated in Room 101.
Lancaster said he routinely carried a portable recorder in his bureau car so that when he was traveling he could dictate notes "for the steno pool in New Orleans," division headquarters for the FBI in Louisiana. Then the resident FBI agent in Alexandria, La., Lancaster, 34 at the time, asked the late Dr. Charles Colvin at the Concordia Parish Hospital to explain to Morris that he had only hours to live.
Morris never identified his attackers during the 89 hours -- almost four days -- he lived following the attack, the last 48 hours in a coma.
"I have no idea who they were," Lancaster said of Morris' murderers, adding that his role in the investigation was limited to the hospital interview of the victim. "If I had known, I would have gone after them."
No arrests were ever made in Morris' murder. The FBI reopened the 45-year-old case in the spring of 2007. U.S. Attorney Donald Washington of Lafayette, who is spearheading the new probe, told The Sentinel last week that although 12 individuals linked directly or indirectly to the murder were dead that other suspects and persons of interest are alive.
Transcripts obtained by this newspaper of the interview Lancaster conducted 45 years ago indicate that Morris drifted in and out of consciousness, that he may have recognized his two white attackers but did not know their names and that while one man held a pump shotgun on him the other held a gasoline can and threw a match, igniting the shoe shop.
Yet friends and family who visited Morris before he died told The Sentinel that Morris said his attackers were "two white friends." Horrified at the extent of Morris' injuries, many of those visitors were astounded that Morris thought he would recover. Many said Morris feared the men who attacked him might harm his family and friends if he revealed their names.
"I remember going to the hospital by myself," said Lancaster, now 78 years of age and residing in Baton Rouge. "I wanted to get a 'dying declaration' from Mr. Morris because it was obvious he wasn't going to make it. I asked the doctor to explain to Frank his medical condition so that he would understand this would be his dying declaration."
If Morris would have fingered his killers on tape, the recording would have been invaluable to prosecutors"A dying declaration can be admitted in court," said Lancaster. "If Frank would have said this is who set me on fire, the recording of his voice could have been used after his death as evidence inside a courtroom.
Retired FBI agent Billy Bob Williams of Portland, Ore., who spent a year and half fighting the Klan in Natchez during the mid-1960s, said a "dying declaration is accepted by the courts as being a truthful statement, the theory being that a dying man would have no reason to lie. It is generally considered among religious men that one would not want to meet his maker with a lie on his lips."
Another retired FBI agent, Jim Ingram of Jackson, Miss., who investigated a number of murders involving the Klan, said the Morris case may be the only one during the Civil Rights-era in which an FBI agent was in a position to seek a dying declaration from a victim.
"Most cases the FBI investigated began after the fact, after the victim was dead," said Ingram. "I don't think there is one" other than the Morris case.
It "was apparent" from the outset that Morris "would not survive the injuries," Dr. Charles Colvin, Morris' attending physician, told Lancaster at the hospital on Dec. 10, 1964, according to FBI documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Colvin said Morris told him that he "was forced to stay" in the shoe shop "while it was set on fire..." The doctor urged Morris to tell Lancaster all he could about the fire "so that the individuals responsible could be arrested...Just tell at least one person.
Jeani Magee, who was married to Colvin until his tragic death in a plane crash near Vidalia in 1970, told The Sentinel this week that Morris' murder was disturbing to the doctor.
"He was very professional and never talked about his cases," Magee said, recalling that she and "most every family in Ferriday" did business with Morris. "But I remember him (Colvin) saying Frank Morris walked into the hospital on his own strength and left a trail of bloody footprints."
Other witnesses said that at both the crime scene and at the hospital Morris left bloody footprints wherever he walked.
Until the last 48 hours of Morris' life, Colvin told the FBI in 1965, that there "was no damage to Morris' mind or to his vision" and he felt that Morris "recognized and understood all the things that he saw and heard during the first two days in the hospital."
Lancaster said he remembers well the sight of Morris lying in the hospital bed. "His eyes were open and I think he was covered by a bed sheet. I just couldn't get a statement from him. If Frank would have talked it would have been excellent evidence having his voice on the machine identifying the men who killed him."
Lancaster recalled, too, that Concordia Parish was a difficult place for FBI agents to work.
"I didn't enjoy it, and I spent a good part of my life there" he said. "The sheriff's office and the police were uncooperative and they hated to see us there."