Fifty years ago this summer, justice was delivered with lightning speed in one Concordia Parish case.
During the spring of 1962, a man was arrested by a Ferriday policeman and a Concordia Parish Sheriff's Office deputy and charged with simple burglary. Just 11 days after his arrest, 29-year-old Curtis Harris, an African-American, was processed into the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and began serving a seven-year sentence.
A short time later, Harris wrote a letter to the U.S. Attorney in Shreveport. He alleged that Ferriday police officer Frank DeLaughter, sheriff's deputy Bill Ogden and three other police officers tried to beat him into confessing to a crime he said he didn't commit -- the burglary of a general store in Wildsville. As a result, DeLaughter, then a policemen for the Town of Ferriday, and the other officers soon became targets of an FBI probe.
Three months after the bureau interviewed DeLaughter concerning the Harris beating, Ferriday Mayor Woodie Davis fired him, according to town minutes. But DeLaughter was soon employed as a deputy by Concordia Parish Sheriff Noah Cross. Eight years later, DeLaughter would be convicted in federal court for beating a white man in the Ferriday jail in 1965 as previously reported by the Sentinel.
During Harris' 11-day stay at the parish jail in Vidalia, records show he was never provided an attorney and never treated for the injuries he suffered when beaten.
The U.S. Attorney in Shreveport opted not to prosecute DeLaughter and others in the Curtis Harris beating. According to the Harris file, recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Unsolved Civil Rights-Era Student Project at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication, Harris and two other men were arrested in the burglary of John Davis' grocery store in Wildsville in late March 1962.
Harris had previously been convicted in federal court in 1960 for the burglary of the post office in Rhinehart, La. FBI records also show that Harris had been released from prison only a month prior to his arrest in the Wildsville store burglary.
Two months after his conviction in the Wildsville case, Harris told the bureau that after his arrest by DeLaughter and Ogden, he was placed in the cellblock on the top floor of the courthouse in Vidalia and that night taken downstairs to the first floor sheriff's office where he was accused of several burglaries, including the burglary of the Wildsville store. Harris reported that when he refused to confess he was forced to lay face down on a table and beaten with a strap about his arms, back, buttocks and legs by DeLaughter, 35; Ogden, 48; and deputy Ike Cowen, 35.
Another man arrested in the case said he confessed after also being beaten and after one officer, holding a pistol, threatened that "if I didn't tell the truth he was going to shoot me." A third prisoner said he confessed upon arrest and was not mistreated. FBI records indicate that the only item taken in the Wildsville break-in was a package of men's undershirts although the five officers interviewed by the FBI never indicated any merchandise was stolen.
When Harris was returned to his jail cell on the open cell block on the top floor of what is today known as the old courthouse in Vidalia, other prisoners reported that he were injured, according to FBI documents. One prisoner said Harris' clothes were torn and there was blood on his underwear. Harris' sister said she saw blood on his underwear, too, when she washed her brother's clothes.
All five police officers gave accounts of the interrogations that were similar to DeLaughter's. He claimed officers received a tip that Harris had bragged "he could show others how to get money without working..." and that DeLaughter and Ogden later arrested Harris and another suspect in Ferriday. The deputy said the two men possessed "burglary tools" believed used in the break-in.
DeLaughter said one of the prisoners confessed to the crime when "confronted with a cast of a shoe print made at the scene...that matched the shoe" of one of the men. He said that man then implicated Harris, who did not confess.
While all five officers denied that anyone was beaten, FBI records show, none of the defendants reported being shown a plaster cast.
Before his death in April 2012, retired FBI agent John Pfeifer of Ohio reviewed the Harris file at the request of the Sentinel. Pfeifer's investigations in the 1960s into organized crime and prostitution in Concordia Parish led to the federal conviction of DeLaughter and others in the operation of a brothel and casino known as the Morville Lounge, located 13 miles south of Vidalia.
Pfeifer questioned why a plaster cast would be made in the case of a simple burglary in which nothing was taken but a package of undershirts: "It doesn't fit that you'd have this scientific work in a rather mediocre case. And it's no doubt that the officers were trying to beat a confession out of those poor men."
Pfiefer, who assigned to work in Concordia in 1966, said deputies and other police officers had been accused in several cases of savagely beating prisoners in which some had reportedly died as a result. But he said a lack of evidence and the refusal of some witnesses to testify due to fear had hampered the investigations.
He said DeLaughter, Ogden and Cowen had been suspects in many of these cases, which he and fellow agent Ted Gardner reviewed when they came to the parish in 1966. He said officers under suspicion like DeLaughter often claimed the prisoners suffered injuries because they were intoxicated and fell.
"Those cases had gone nowhere because when we investigate a civil rights violation involving police brutality, we do a preliminary investigation which gives the core substance of the complaint showing the victim's status and what happened to him and the status of the so-called 'vicious' cop," he said. "It's up to the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, to give these different reports to different attorneys up there to review it and see if it's a prosecutable case. So, if a guy (prisoner) is drunk and disorderly and so forth and you can't disprove it, he does not have clean hands and if he goes into court that alone would prevent the case from being prosecuted in federal court. So, most of these cases all fell into that category."
On April 6, 1962, seven days after his arrest, Harris and the two other defendants in the Wildsville case pled guilty and waived their right to a delay in sentencing. Harris, due to his past criminal record, was given seven years by Judge Jesse McGee. Three days later -- 11 days following his arrest -- Harris was transported to Angola.
Fearing for his life, Harris said he never reported to the district attorney or judge that he had been beaten and threatened by the deputies. He said deputies told him if he ever returned to Ferriday he "would leave in a pine box..."
After a two-month investigation, the U.S. Attorney concluded that Harris' charges could not be substantiated.