A Concordia Parish sheriff's deputy believed to have engineered the arson that killed Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris in 1964, joined the Ku Klux Klan as a means to protect the criminal enterprises of the sheriff's office as well as his own, according to a federal investigator.
Retired FBI agent John Pfeifer, who from 1966 to the mid-1970s investigated corruption and crime in the parish, told the Concordia Sentinel before his death in April of this year that although deputy Frank DeLaughter supported and helped carry out the racist tenants and goals of the KKK, his membership primarily was a means of collecting intelligence on Klan projects, particularly those targeting prostitution or gambling.
In February 1965, Klansmen torched a nightclub -- Reef's Place -- owned by Reef Freeman on Horseshoe Lake, according to Pfeifer and FBI documents, which noted that Klansmen from the Monterey/Black River area were opposed to Reef's Place due to alleged prostitution and gambling. Because the sheriff's office was receiving kickbacks from gambling and prostitution interests, Pfeifer said it was crucial for Concordia Parish Sheriff Noah Cross to ensure those operations ran without interference.
"That's why Frank DeLaughter joined the Klan because when Reef Freeman's place got burned the sheriff's office didn't have an advanced warning that the Klan was going to swoop down and burn it," Pfeifer said.
Weeks earlier, Freeman had leased a building from local rancher J.D. Richardson to operate another bar/nightclub 13 miles south of Vidalia on the old Morville Plantation. Court records show that the 6,600-acre property along Hwy. 15 included a ranch, a farm and hunting property.
On the river side of the Mississippi levee was a vacant building that had housed a country store until it closed in 1960. In that building, Freeman opened what became known as the Morville Lounge, eventually one of the biggest casino/prostitution operations in the state outside New Orleans, according to court records.
Soon after a lease agreement was reached, Freeman's club on Horseshoe Lake was torched. After KKK pamphlets were dropped at the doorstep of the Morville Lounge threatening the operation over prostitution, Freeman pulled out and Richardson leased the building to Curt Hewitt, who Pfeifer said represented organized crime from southern Louisiana and specialized in managing brothels. Pfeifer said the decision to operate prostitution and gambling inside the lounge came after a mob representative visited the site, checked out the availability of housing prostitutes in Natchez, estimated the costs to operate and calculated potential profits.
"It was a business decision," Pfeifer said.
Richardson testified during Cross' federal perjury trial in May 1972 concerning the lounge operation that before the deal was consummated Hewitt told him to "fix it" with the sheriff. Richardson said he found Cross the next day at his home at Ferriday "welding on a pasture clipper (mower)," and asked if Hewitt could operate on the same basis as Freeman had been at $200 a week for protection money. Cross agreed, Richardson said, and in time deputy Frank DeLaughter arrived at the lounge every Monday to collect the payoff.
Hewitt testified the cash was placed in a white, unsealed envelope marked "The Man," meaning the sheriff. While DeLaughter was the collector and the enforcer for the sheriff's office protection at the Morville Lounge, FBI documents and witnesses interviewed by the Sentinel say he extorted goods, services or cash from others for his personal gain and that he often used accomplices to conduct his criminal acts.
Both DeLaughter and Cross were convicted in federal court in the 1970s for their roles in the Morville Lounge operation based on Pfeifer's investigation.
DeLaughter's list of criminal acts during the 1960s, however, were numerous and varied and Pfeifer believed it included involvement in the June 1964 disappearance of Vidalia motel porter Joseph Edwards and masterminding the December 1964 arson murder of Morris, the black shoe shop owner in Ferriday. A popular businessman in both the white and black communities for almost 30 years, Morris, 51, had been harassed by law enforcement and targeted by the Klan prior to his death, according to FBI records.
In FBI reports filed in 1966, Pfeifer reported that Hewitt, the Morville Lounge manager, informed the bureau that DeLaughter pressured him "into other business deals...that really were favors," including the purchase of a small camp lot at Deer Park and a lot on Doty Road at Ferriday, both owned by the deputy. Hewitt also said he was forced by DeLaughter to give a 1964 Chevrolet car to the deputy's son "as a favor...for his services in keeping my relationship with his department...smooth."
DeLaughter was charged in 1968 with theft on a complaint filed by Jerry Hendry of Monroe. According to records obtained by the Sentinel, Hendry said he paid DeLaughter $1,000 for "confiscated whiskey," but was ordered by the deputy to leave the parish when Hendry arrived to collect the merchandise. The case was never prosecuted.
In 1969, DeLaughter, who was 6-feet-4, weighed 265 pounds and known by the nickname of "Big Frank," was arrested by Ferriday police on charges of indecent exposure, drunkenness, disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace at the King Hotel. He was also charged with stealing eight pints of whiskey from the bar. Newspaper accounts indicate the deputy later paid for the liquor.
Pfeifer recalled a time during the 1960s when DeLaughter stole a piece of farm equipment from a Clayton farmer's field. He said the farmer watched from a distance as DeLaughter drove up in his Pontiac cruiser, hooked the equipment to his trailer hitch and "drove off with it."
USE OF OTHERS
DeLaughter was known to use others to carry out his criminal enterprises, including Klan-related activities.
In February 1965, two months after the fatal Morris arson, DeLaughter recruited two men the bureau identified as "hoodlums" to steal confiscated nets and seines valued at $3,000 from the Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries warehouse on Lake Concordia. One of his accomplices was Klansman O.C. "Coonie" Poissot, who, according to FBI records obtained by the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative, became a bureau informant.
Admitting his participation to the FBI, Poissot said DeLaughter was the ringleader and the loot was unloaded on deputy Bill Ogden's property in Ferriday. Poissot, who died in 1992, is remembered by some as a lifelong racist.
Judy Latiolais of Iberville Parish, who first met Poissot in the 1980s, told the Sentinel in 2010 the former Klansman had "tattoos on his ear lobes. One was a star and one was a half moon. I asked him what that it meant. He said it meant the Klan...He definitely didn't like blacks. He said the n-word all the time and he didn't care if they heard it. He'd say it right to their faces."
Poissot was also one of two informants who in 1967 implicated DeLaughter in the Morris arson. The Sentinel reported in 2011 that a Minden, La., woman said Poissot in the early 1970s told her that he and a Rayville man -- Arthur Leonard Spencer -- had torched the shoe shop. Poissot told the bureau he had been with DeLaughter just hours prior to the arson when the deputy indicated he was going to teach Morris a lesson for being uppity after the cobbler refused to provide continued free shoe repair.
Spencer, 72, told the Sentinel in 2010 that he had been in the Rayville Klan in 1964 but knew nothing about the Morris arson and never heard the name "Coonie Poissot."
The FBI reopened the Morris case in 2007. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has presented witnesses to three parish grand juries since 2011. Officials with DOJ would not comment on the Morris case because they said it was an open investigation.
In July 1965, two civil rights workers in Ferriday were assaulted by two black men dropped off at the scene by DeLaughter, who was in his patrol car. One of the men beaten was 21-year-old Michael Clurman, who told the Sentinel in 2007 that the two black men later apologized for the beatings and indicated that DeLaughter had ordered the attack, alleging the white activists were "in the black neighborhoods to pick up black women."
In November 1965, Robert "Buck" Lewis was arrested in Ferriday when he emerged from his house with a shotgun following a gasoline bomb explosion on his front porch around 9:30 p.m. The New York Times reported at the time that the bombing was the fifth targeted against blacks in Ferriday in six months.
Lewis, his wife, and five children were inside but were unharmed. Fire "damaged the front of the house and the explosion broke several windows," according to the newspaper. Arming himself with a shotgun to defend his family after the bomb exploded, Lewis was charged with aggravated assault even though he had not assaulted anyone.
Leader of the Ferriday Freedom Movement in the 1960s, Lewis told the Sentinel DeLaughter and another deputy were responsible for the bombing.
"Big Frank was behind it," he said.
Gene McLain of Vidalia, who died in 2011, told the Sentinel in 2008 that "DeLaughter had a gang going around stealing." McLain said he was driving along the Mississippi River levee near Lake Concordia in the 1960s when he observed two men loading loot from a farmer's property into the back of a pickup. McLain, who knew the farmer, said when the men noticed him they fled, but McLain followed the men to a bar on Lake St. John where their vehicle overheated. The two ran to the back of the property before halting at the lake bank.
"Neither of them could swim and I had a machete in my hand so they just stood there while someone called the sheriff's office," McLain said. "After a little while, here comes Frank DeLaughter and he says, 'I'll take care of them.' He put them in his car and drove off." McLain said he was told by deputy Pete Turner, the first African-American officer hired by the sheriff's office, that "the two men were actually stealing for Frank."
McLain said he also witnessed DeLaughter beating a prisoner in the Ferriday jail in 1964. Later that year, McLain said the deputy invited him to a Klan rally in Ferriday.
Pfeifer said the deputy often called agents reporting that federal investigations were needed for "frivolous matters that amounted to nothing" or he would identify certain individuals as criminals when, in actuality, DeLaughter feared those persons could implicate him in his criminal deeds.
Shortly before DeLaughter went on trial in federal court in 1970 for the 1965 beating of a prisoner in the Ferriday jail, he contacted Pfeifer about one of the witnesses against him, Charles Huffman, who operated an auto body shop in Ferriday. Pfeifer said the cab of an 18-wheeler, stolen in Texas, had been taken to Huffman's shop to be modified.
"It was Frank DeLaughter who clued us all in on where the truck was after we knew it had been stolen," Pfeifer said. "So we figured this was a way for DeLaughter to smear Huffman and make him a bad witness." He said DeLaughter's motive -- his "devious thinking" -- was not designed to solve the crime but to discredit Huffman, who ultimately testified in the trial.
As reported previously in the Sentinel, Pfeifer said DeLaughter had spread rumors that Frank Morris was a bootlegger and drug dealer in an attempt to discredit Morris' reputation and make it appear that the arson was the result of a narcotics "deal gone bad."
"He manipulated every chance he got," Pfeifer said. "I mean that guy was a crook from his toes to his head."
HATRED OF FBI
Through the years, DeLaughter's contempt for the FBI became evident when he attempted to intimidate agents or silence individuals he suspected were informants.
"He once posed over the telephone as a Louisiana State Trooper and called an FBI agent's wife and claimed that her husband had been taken to the emergency room," retired FBI agent Ted Gardner of Virginia told the Sentinel. Gardner worked with Pfeifer in 1966 in the investigations of the sheriff's office, prostitution and the Klan.
A man convicted in the operation of Morville Lounge -- Thomas Jordan, a bartender -- testified in federal court that DeLaughter, who died in 1997, was convinced Jordan was an FBI informant. In trial transcripts obtained by the Unsolved Civil Rights-Era Murders Student Project at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication, Jordan said DeLaughter pressured lounge manager Hewitt to fire him.
"Frank didn’t like me," Jordan said. "I mean he tried every way in the world to get rid of me because he thought I was a Federal man."
“You're lucky you didn’t end up in the river," the federal prosecutor said.
“I know it," Jordan replied. "I was lucky.”