Frank Morris told authorities a few hours after the arson of his shoe shop on Dec. 10, 1964, that he saw three men and a white car outside his business shortly before the fire was set.
He also said one of the men was "real white."
Morris died four days later after suffering third degree burns from the arson, but in the hours following the fire, the FBI and local authorities interviewed him twice at the Concordia Parish Hospital in Ferriday. Recently-obtained transcripts of those two interviews shed new light on the deadly fire.
The FBI has launched a reinvestigation of Morris' murder and other unsolved civil rights-era cold cases during the past 18 months.
Forty-four years ago, the attendant working the night shift at the Billups gas station, located half a block north on Hwy. 84/65, told the FBI that he saw an old model black sedan race from the scene of the fire about the time he witnessed Morris emerge from the back of the building in flames.
But when Morris was asked if he saw a car, he answered: "Uh huh, white car..."
Because Morris was fatally injured, likely in shock and highly-sedated, the FBI said "a great deal of the victim's answers are very difficult to understand..." One interview with Morris was conducted at 6:35 a.m., less than five hours after the fire. Present were Ferriday Police Chief Bob Warren, an FBI agent and an unidentified employee of the Ferriday Fire Department.
The transcripts obtained through the Freedom of Information Act are redacted, meaning that many persons are unidentified in the documents.
In another interview with Morris, which began at 9:55 a.m. on December 10, those present included an unidentified friend of Morris', the FBI agent, Ferriday Fire Chief Noland Mouelle and a physician, believed to be Dr. Charles Colvin.
Transcripts indicate that on several occasions Morris moaned from the pain. In agony, he said once, "Yeah it hurts, it hurts so..."
He asked what remained of his shoe shop, and was told from his friend that "everything burnt up." Morris inquired about the grandson he was rearing, Nathaniel, whose nickname was "Poncho." The night of the fire, Morris' employee and Poncho stayed in the small house located behind the shoe shop while Morris stayed in a bedroom in the back of the store.
When told that Poncho was safe, Morris said, "Just take care of yourself and the boy. I don't know whether I will get well or not....bad shape I'm in."
Of the three white men involved in the arson of the shoe shop that night, Morris said one "must have been the man that drove the car," which he said was in the alley beside the shop "pointed out toward the street." The car was gone, he said, when he ran out of the back of the burning building but he did not know what direction the car headed.
He gave no physical description of the driver, but did provide some physical clues involving the other two men.
Morris, who was 51, said the other two men were "young," from 30 to 35 years of age, and "kinda small." At another time he said they were "about my size," but also noted that one man was bigger than he was. Yet another time he called one of the men an "old fellow."
Morris said that he was asleep the night of the fire, awakened by the sound of glass breaking and went to the front of the store to investigate. One of the men beat on a window with an "ax handle," Morris said, but it's unclear which of the two men did this.
He said the shorter of the two men, whom he described at one point as an "old fellow" with gray hair, was wearing khaki pants and pouring gas from a can "along the side" of the building. Yet another time he said the younger man had gray hair and wore khaki pants.
Morris said the man pouring the gasoline was the one who struck a match and threw it inside the building, unleashing an inferno. Morris reasoned that gas "must have been poured...inside before I got there to (the) front."
The gasoline was not poured directly on him but Morris said so fast did the flames spread that he "had a chance to do nothing," and barely got out of the building alive.
The other man, the taller of the two, held a single-barrel shotgun, pointing it directly at Morris.
"Every time I got to the front door this fellow he had shotgun in my face and told me to get back in," said Morris. This man told Morris not to come outside the shop, saying once, "get back in there, nigger."
The three men, Morris said, "most likely have been in the shop" before, but he never once identified one by name. Although it appears he did recognize two of the men, he repeatedly told investigators and his friend that he couldn't say "exactly" who they were. However, Morris told a handful of visitors to his hospital room that his attackers were "two white friends."
Did they live in Ferriday, he was asked?
"I imagine they do," he answered, but was more confident later when he said the man "pouring the gasoline" definitely lived in Ferriday.
Fire Chief Mouelle asked, "You saw him put it (gas) around the building?'
"Yes," Morris answered.
Investigators asked if the men worked at International Paper Company, "Young's over in Natchez," National Food or Armstrong Tire? Morris' answers ranged from "I think so, but I don't know," to "I don't know, sir."
Among the suspects interviewed by the FBI days later were two Ferriday men -- one who lived in Lancaster Subdivision and worked for International Paper Company and another who was employed by Southern Bell Telephone Company.
Fire Chief Mouelle told the FBI that when he arrived on the scene of the fire he had to "run off" a man who was in the way. The man was an employee of International Paper Company in Natchez, who had stopped at the scene "and attempted to direct traffic."
"He was drunk," said Mouelle, and "nearly fell into the fire..."
(See transcripts of Morris interviews at www.concordiasentinel.com)