Two people say a Richland Parish truck driver who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan told them he participated in the arson that killed Frank Morris, a black Ferriday businessman, in 1964. A third person, the truck driver's former wife, says she, too, heard what she believes was a credible eyewitness report that placed the truck driver at the scene of the arson when the fire was ignited more than 46 years ago.
The three people, all of them now or previously related to the truck driver, identified him as Arthur Leonard Spencer, 71, of Rayville. They say Spencer was part of a Klan hit squad assigned to ride into Ferriday to torch Morris' shoe shop during the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1964.
Spencer's son, William "Boo" Spencer, said in several interviews with the Concordia Sentinel that whenever his father recounted the story of the night Morris' shop was set ablaze, he said the Klansmen were shocked that Morris was inside the shop and that he came to the door as the Klansmen were carrying out their crime.
"My dad said they could hear a stirring in the place, then a man came out," said Boo Spencer, 41. Boo Spencer said his father told him the man in the shoe shop -- Morris -- "was doused with gasoline and started to run." Then one of the Klansmen shouted, "Run, nigger, run."
Leonard Spencer's former brother-in-law, Bill Frasier of Minden, told The Sentinel that Spencer told him about the arson four decades ago. Frasier said Spencer admitted he participated in torching Morris' shop. Frasier said Spencer claimed Morris' death was unintentional.
Spencer's former wife, Brenda Rhodes of Minden, told The Sentinel she heard the same account from another Klansman, O.C. "Coonie" Poissot, who said he and Spencer worked together to set Morris' shop on fire.
Rhodes said Poissot, who is no longer alive, informed her that he and Spencer were told Morris would not be in the shop the night of Dec. 10, 1964. When Poissot and Spencer realized Morris was in his shop, Poissot, according to Rhodes, said he "lit that son-of-a-bitch up."
During an interview with The Sentinel at his home in the Bee Bayou community near Rayville in the summer of last year -– and then again on Wednesday morning -- Leonard Spencer said he did not know anything about the Morris arson and denied he participated in it.
“Absolutely not,” he said when reached Wednesday morning at work in Rayville and asked if he helped commit the Morris arson. Spencer said he was interviewed by two FBI agents about 30 or 40 days ago and that he denied his involvement to them as well.
Asked why his son and former wife and brother-in-law would all say they heard essentially the same story over the years, Spencer said he didn't know.
Last June, and again on Wednesday, he said he had never heard of anyone named Coonie Poissot, a claim that Spencer's son, former wife and former brother-in-law vigorously disputed. Spencer acknowledged he was a member of the Klan at one time; he said his uncle was head of the Richland Parish Original Knights' wrecking crew, a Klan hit squad that carried out Klan violence.
Frasier said he told the FBI what he knew about the Morris arson in early summer 2009, while Rhodes said she did the same in early 2010. Once Frasier and Rhodes told the FBI what they knew about the Morris matter, they did not hear from the FBI again until The Sentinel asked the FBI in November 2010 for a comment for this news article. Boo Spencer said he was interviewed by FBI agents for the first time last month, December 2010.
FBI spokesman Chris Allen said the FBI could not comment on its response to the information Frasier and Rhodes gave them, or on any of its investigative work.
For 30 years, Frank Morris operated a thriving business, which included shoe repair, the sale of second hand shoes, dry goods, clothing and inexpensive jewelry. He was the only black businessman in Ferriday who catered to a black and white clientele. In a day when many families could afford only one pair of shoes per child, Morris was a blessing because he could make those shoes last a long time. He also catered to farmers and ranchers by refurbishing bridles or saddles and was well respected by that clientele for his leather work. At a time when many men wore western attire, he could make a pair of roughed up cowboy boots look like new.
Several black men told The Sentinel that Morris gave them their first jobs when they were boys, while a white woman, Pat Davis Smith, recalled that as a little girl she often visited Morris' shop to watch him work, played on the shoe shine stand and enjoyed an occasional gift of cookies.
Morris learned the shoe repair business from his father, Sullivan Morris of Natchez, Miss. Opening his own shoe shop in Ferriday in the 1930s, Frank Morris served white and black customers with a sensitivity to the racial climate of the day. Friends and acquaintances, both black and white, said Morris usually walked to the curb outside his shop to pick up or deliver orders to white women.
The mystery of who killed 51-year-old Frank Morris was the subject of two FBI investigations in the 1960s. The FBI launched a third investigation in 2007.
When Morris' shoe shop was set ablaze in December 1964 the fire engulfed the shop and consumed Morris as well. It burned the clothes off his body as he ran from the shop. People who knew Morris, including nurses at Concordia Parish Hospital where he was treated following the blaze, said Morris was unrecognizable.
"Only the bottom of his feet weren't burned," said the Rev. Robert Lee Jr. of Clayton, age 96, who visited Morris in the hospital. "He was horrible to look at."
Morris died Dec. 14, 1964. During the four days he was hospitalized, Morris was interviewed by the FBI, Ferriday police and fire department officials. A number of friends who visited Morris in the hospital prior to his death were convinced Morris knew his killers. They said he called them "two white friends."
Obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, transcripts of recorded FBI interviews with Morris when he was hospitalized following the arson, indicated Morris never told authorities he knew the men who set his shop on fire. On at least 12 occasions during those interviews, Morris denied knowing who the men were. Drifting in and out of consciousness and injected with morphine to ease the pain from his injuries, Morris struggled to answer questions. He explained he was asleep in a small room in the rear of his shoe shop. Then he gave his most concise statement of the encounter with his killers -- a description of events that closely tracks the account that Spencer's son, Boo, and brother-in-law, Frasier, say Spencer told them years later.
"I don't know what happened and here is what it...I was laying there asleep and I heard someone breaking glass out," Morris told the FBI.
"They broke the glass out," Morris continued. "They broke the glass out. I come into my shop...it look like one he beat on the window with an ax handle or something and then two and another man around there....pouring gasoline around the place...I said, What are you doing there...told me to get back in there nigger...better off...shotgun."
Morris said one man had a shotgun while another man held a gasoline can. Morris indicated that a third man was present; he guessed the third man was the driver of a dark sedan Morris saw parked in an alley beside his shoe shop. He said that due to the flames and smoke he had a difficult time finding his way from the front of the shop to the back door to escape the inferno.
An attendant at a Billups service station a half block north of Morris' shop said he heard what sounded like a pistol shot coming from the direction of the shoe shop. At that time, he said, he noticed a red glow coming from the building while simultaneously a late-model dark sedan "came out of the alley...and turned left heading toward Vidalia."
The Billups attendant said a minute or two later he heard an explosion -- possibly caused when the fire reached combustible cans of shoe polish, turpentine and other materials inside the shop -- and watched Morris emerge from the building. The attendant said he saw Ferriday police officers George Sewell and Timmy Lofton arrive at the scene in the town's lone patrol car. Kenneth Walsworth, a friend of both officers, was in the back seat. All were in their early 20s.
The Billups attendant told FBI agents he watched Sewell and Lofton assist Morris, who "walked directly to the police car and entered the car under his own power." He said Morris -- naked, his skin seared from head to toe by the fire -- left a trail of bloody footprints. Sewell told The Sentinel in 2008 that Morris did not identify his attackers as he was driven to the hospital, but he mentioned that he saw two white men.
Brenda Rhodes is Bill Frasier's sister. When Rhodes was married to Leonard Spencer, Frasier and Spencer were brothers-in-law. They spent time together. Frasier told The Sentinel that in the late 1960s, just four or five years after Morris' murder, he was working with Spencer on a pipeline job when Spencer's Klan affiliation was discussed between the two. Frasier said he asked Spencer, "Did you ever kill anybody?"
He said Spencer answered, "We did accidentally one time."
A deputy under former Sheriff Johnny Patrick in Concordia Parish in the early 1980s, Frasier, 61, said Spencer explained that he and Poissot, along with two other men, "burned a shoe store down in Ferriday." Frasier said Spencer did not identify the other men.
Frasier said Spencer told him the Klansmen were armed and had been told that no one would be in the shoe shop. The Klansmen were surprised when Morris walked to the front door of the shoe shop around the time the fire was ignited. Additionally, Spencer said he was carrying a shotgun that night and fired it, according to Frasier.
Initially thinking Spencer was "just blowing" when discussing the arson, Frasier said when he found out a couple of years ago the FBI was reinvestigating the Morris arson, he vividly recalled Spencer's confession.
During The Sentinel's interview with Leonard Spencer on the front porch of his home on June 30, 2010, Spencer said he was a Klan member in the 1960s. The Original Knights was the predominant Klan in Louisiana during those days, according to records compiled by the now-defunct House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Spencer said the Klan met in a barn at the end of McKnight Road in Richland Parish. He said he joined when he "was just a kid, thought it was cool, cause my uncle and a lot of people in Rayville that I knew" were in the Klan.
Spencer said he quit school in the mid-1950s when he was 15, left home and went to work, spending his adult life driving trucks and in recent years working part of the year at a Rayville farm store. In 1964 he was 25 years old and a member of the Richland Parish Klan at the time Morris' shoe shop was burned. He said his uncle, Doug Spencer, who died in the 1970s, was head of the Klan's wrecking crew in Rayville.
"If something was going on in Ferriday or Vidalia they would send our wrecking crew," said Spencer. "If something was going on up in Rayville, Holly Ridge, then maybe Ferriday or Vidalia" would send a wrecking crew to the Rayville area to handle Klan business.
Spencer said he attended 10 to 12 Klan meetings in a barn on McKnight Road, where arriving Klansmen gave armed guards a password to enter. Spencer said at one meeting the guards said, "River." The password was "bottom."
In addition to denying any knowledge about the Morris arson, Spencer also denied having known Coonie Poissot, who admitted to the FBI in 1967 that he had been a member of the Ferriday-Clayton unit of the Original Knights when he lived in Ferriday in the mid-1960s.
"Never heard that name in my life as a matter of fact," said Spencer, referring to Poissot. "That name, that person if I ever seen him I certainly didn’t know it...and I remember just about everybody I've been with and a name like 'Coonie'‚ I would've put a face to it," Spencer said.
Spencer's son, ex-wife and ex-brother-in-law say Spencer did not tell the truth when he denied knowing Poissot.
"I saw Coonie and my daddy together many times," said Boo Spencer. "Coonie was like a grandfather to me."
Boo Spencer said Poissot occasionally visited his father at Leonard Spencer's shop located at Bee Bayou in Richland Parish along La. Hwy. 583.
"They (Leonard Spencer and Poissot) had a working relationship" in the trucking business, Boo Spencer said.
POISSOT & DELAUGHTER
The night before the 1964 arson of Frank Morris' shoe shop, Poissot, a trucker and Klansman described by the FBI as a drifter, rode with Concordia Parish Sheriff's Deputy Frank DeLaughter in his patrol car. Poissot told the FBI in 1967 that DeLaughter was furious with Morris because Morris refused to continue providing free shoe repair for the deputy. The FBI was told the same story by Ferriday Klan leader E.D. Morace, who said DeLaughter and Morris had argued over repairs Morris made to a pair of DeLaughter's cowboy boots. "Hard feelings" had resulted.
When Morace and Poissot spoke with the FBI in 1967 about the Morris arson they were paid informants of the FBI.
Poissot told FBI agents that three weeks prior to the Morris arson DeLaughter said Morris "had not been acting right," and that DeLaughter said "he had had to give Morris a 'lacing,'" meaning "a good beating," FBI documents show. However, there is no evidence in documents or in The Sentinel's four-year probe that Morris had actually been beaten.
On the night prior to the arson, Poissot told the FBI, he was riding with DeLaughter again and the deputy said "he did not know what he was going to do about that 'nigger' at the shoe shop, but was going to have to do something."
Forty-one years old in 1964, Poissot drifted into Ferriday sometime in 1964 and left in December 1965. According to one of his daughters, Shawnee Miranda, who resides in Texas, Poissot lived much of the time in his automobile. She told The Sentinel that she and her mother, Poissot's girlfriend, lived with Poissot for the first four years of Miranda's life - from 1963 to 1966 -- before he abandoned them, something Poissot seemed to do often during those years, said one former wife and some of his children.
According to his own admissions to the FBI, Poissot, a truck driver most of his life, was involved in criminal activities throughout 1965 with DeLaughter and a handful of Concordia Klansmen. Poissot was particularly close to members of the Silver Dollar Group (SDG), a militant Klan cell devoted to the violent opposition of civil rights, and believed responsible, according to the FBI, for the murder of Morris and others. SDG members were hand-picked and given silver dollars minted in the year of their births by their leader, Red Glover of Vidalia.
The silver dollars were a symbol of unity, and, according to Poissot's daughter, Miranda, Poissot kept one in his pocket and constantly toyed with it. She said when she was an adult she asked him why he kept that one particular coin. He promised to tell her one day but never did.
Relatives of Poissot said he had a number of wives and girlfriends; no one knows how many. They also do not know how many children he fathered. They estimated as many as 13. Poissot also is remembered in two distinct ways -- good or evil. Another daughter of Poissot's, Jonenne Owens of New Mexico, said Poissot treated her with kindness and love during his final years.
Former wives and other relatives say Poissot was a troubled man beginning in his youth. They say he was placed in a home for boys, that he spent time in prison for passing bad checks, and that he had a cruel and violent side, often leaving without notice and returning weeks, if not months later, before total abandonment.
One ex-wife of Poissot's, Ethel Poissot, 72, of Baton Rouge, said she married Poissot in 1956; they had five children. She said Poissot was both charming and mean.
"You couldn't help but like him," said Ethel Poissot. She noted that "he did me more harm than good." One of the couple's children, John, said, "He was my father but I never met the man."
Although Poissot was deeply involved in the Klan in the 1960s, Ethel Poissot recalled that Poissot liked to associate with law enforcement officers when she knew him. She said he "was a snitch for a policeman in Baton Rouge." By 1966, after he left Ferriday, Poissot became an informant for the FBI in west Texas and remained an informant for various law enforcement agencies until his death in 1992. Hank Webb, a retired FBI agent, said Poissot worked as an informant for a six-county drug task force Webb supervised in west Texas in the late 1980s that resulted in the arrest of 27 individuals.
"I never knew about his Klan background," Webb said, but noted that as an informant he found Poissot "reliable."
In 1967, when the FBI reopened the Morris case the second time, Poissot was secretly brought back to Concordia Parish from Arizona. He identified Klan haunts for agents, identified key members of the Silver Dollar Group, talked about his participation in wrecking crew projects and said Red Glover confessed he planted the car bomb that seriously injured Natchez NAACP President George Metcalfe in 1965.
Poissot's daughter, Shawnee Miranda, said he bragged about "killing a black man for the Klan." Poissot told the FBI that a local Original Knights unit never conducted violence in its own community but reciprocated with another unit to do their "dirty work."
In talking with the FBI, Poissot apparently never implicated himself in the Morris arson or named Leonard Spencer as having been involved in it, according to FBI records obtained by The Sentinel and provided by the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative.
DeLaughter, who stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed 250 pounds, wore a badge for 15 years before serving time in federal prison in the 1970s for police brutality and racketeering. He had a reputation for viciously beating prisoners in the Ferriday jail and holding them indefinitely without charging them with a crime. He was exonerated by a parish coroner in the shooting death of a black man in 1959 and by a parish grand jury in 1968 in the shooting death of a white man in a bar owned by DeLaughter's sister.
DeLaughter died in Ferriday in 1996 at the age of 69. DeLaughter's son, Glen, 60, told The Sentinel that he never heard his father talk about the Morris arson, but said, "I do know he was in the Klan."
Though Poissot placed himself with DeLaughter the night before the Morris arson, the FBI never considered Poissot a suspect in the arson, according to FBI records. Poissot admitted to agents in 1967 that weeks after the arson, he and DeLaughter stole netting and seines from the Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries Department (LWFD) shed on Lake Concordia. An LWFD official -- Willie J. Gillespie -- told the FBI in 1967 that DeLaughter was the suspected ringleader, but Gillespie said he doubted a parish grand jury would indict DeLaughter in the matter.
Brenda Rhodes, 62, was married to Leonard Spencer from 1967 to 1971. Before she met Spencer, Rhodes knew Poissot, who periodically stopped at her mother's truck stop restaurant on Hwy. 80 in Tallulah. Rhodes says her first memories of Poissot date to the early 1960s, around the time Poissot left his wife, Ethel, and began seeing Shawnee Miranda's mother.
"I knew Coonie a long time before I knew Leonard (Spencer)," Rhodes said. Rhodes said Poissot stopped at the restaurant in Tallulah every few months as he hauled cargo.
"Everybody knew Coonie," she said.
In 1967, the year the Morris case was reopened by the FBI for a second time, Rhodes said she married Spencer, a trucker from Rayville. Rhodes said she met Spencer at the Presley Truck Stop on Hwy. 65 south of Tallulah.
Once Rhodes and Spencer were married, the couple settled in the Bee Bayou community near Rayville. They traveled for a brief period when Spencer worked for a pipeline company. The marriage was tumultuous, Rhodes said. They had a son and a daughter.
Rhodes said she first learned of Spencer’s Klan affiliation not long after they were married.
"I found his (Klan) uniform in a panel truck," she said. "I told my mama and daddy, 'I’m fixing to burn it up,' and I did."
"He never told me he was in the Klan, but I knew he was," said Rhodes. "He's a very secretive man. He didn’t want me doing anything without him knowing it."
During that time, Rhodes said she never saw Poissot and did not know until the early 1970s that Poissot and Spencer knew each other.
By then she had divorced Spencer and had moved to Minden, where she lives today. There, while working in a truck stop in the early 1970s, Poissot came in and the two renewed their friendship. Rhodes said Poissot also became part of the lives of her children, William "Boo" Spencer and Renee Spencer Boyle. Boyle told The Sentinel Poissot always treated her "like a princess. He was always good to me."
Around 1972 or 1973, Rhodes said Poissot was visiting in her home when the subject of the Morris arson came up.
"I knew that he (Poissot) hated blacks and that he had been in the Klan and he told me about going to Ferriday," said Rhodes. "He said they went down there to burn up a shoe shop and they threw gasoline in there."
Rhodes said she was shocked when Poissot identified her ex-husband, Spencer, as one of the Klansmen. She said Poissot indicated a black shoe shop owner "was not supposed to be there" when the shop was burned.
Rhodes said Poissot told her Klansmen "threw a match," and Morris was soon on fire himself.
Rhodes said Poissot, in discussing what happened, showed no emotion or regret. She recalled Poissot used these words to describe his action: "He lit that son-of-a-bitch up."
PLANS FOR ARSON
In 1964, as racial violence exploded throughout the South, Morris' daily routine suddenly became suspicious to Klansmen, who did not approve of Morris serving a racially mixed clientele. Klansmen specifically did not appreciate it that white women visited Morris' shop.
Boo Spencer said his father told him that the Klan did not like the fact that Morris, a black man, owned a business.
Retired FBI agent John Pfeifer, who lives in Ohio, spent more than a decade in Concordia Parish as resident agent beginning in 1966. His investigation into the Morville Lounge, a prostitution and gambling den, resulted in the conviction of DeLaughter and Concordia Parish Sheriff Noah Cross.
"The atmosphere in Concordia Parish," said Pfeifer, "I would describe it this way - the whites didn't like the blacks having political power. There were two clues to the frame of mind of Klansmen in that area. One was that they thought the Commies were driving the blacks in front of them to take over the U.S. And the other was that they liked to pretend they were like Sir Galahad and protecting white maidenhood from black men, who [they believed] would come after them, against their will of course.
"I think the reason that Morris was targeted was for being uppity with white women. He had a lot of white women customers coming to the shoe shop. It was easy enough to bandy comments between people and someone didn’t see his chatting with women as banter. So word got out...I think it was about the close relative of someone in authority or law enforcement."
It was that issue -- Morris allegedly associating white women -- that resulted in the Klan in Louisiana reaching out to the Mississippi Klan.
Natchez Klansman E.L. McDaniel, a paid FBI informant in late 1966 after he left the Klan, told agents that he was asked in late November or early December 1964 by Ferriday Klan leader E.D. Morace, the Klan Investigator for the Ferriday-Clayton Original Knights unit, to authorize a Mississippi wrecking crew to ride into Concordia to whip Morris because Morris was flirting with white women. McDaniel told the FBI he never gave his authorization for the hit and was surprised when he learned the shop had burned.
McDaniel told the FBI he later came to believe that Morace, a mechanic and part-time bouncer, and three other Klansmen -- Tommy Lee Jones and Thore L. Torgersen, both of Natchez, and James Scarborough of Ferriday, all International Paper Co. employees at Natchez -- were responsible for the Morris arson. All four men were identified by the FBI as Silver Dollar Klansmen; all are dead. McDaniel told FBI agents that though Morace did not admit to the crime specifically, he always assumed they were responsible for it.
Contacted by The Sentinel in 2008, McDaniel said he had suffered a stroke and due to memory loss was unable to discuss the Morris murder or past events.
While there is no evidence Morris was beaten, there is evidence indicating that a plan to burn his shoe shop was put into place. According to one of the FBI's top informants -- Poissot -- the confrontation between DeLaughter and Morris over cowboy boots was the trigger for the arson.
FBI records show that a few days before the Morris arson, the owner of a used car lot, which was located between Morris' shop and the Billups station, moved his cars to another location. He returned the automobiles to his car lot after the fire. The owner, the late Charles Huffman, told the bureau it was a coincidence that plans to establish his business at another location did not work out.
Jake Davis of Ferriday told The Sentinel in 2008 that he and his brother were cleaning Morris' shop the night of the arson and that three white men barged in, cornered Morris and began shouting at him. Davis said Morris appeared frightened. According to Davis, Morris sent he and his brother home. Later that night, the shoe shop was burned.
Morris' grandson, Nathaniel Morris, said Frank Morris showed him the location of legal documents on the night of the fire, explaining, "My grandfather knew his life was in danger."
AN OLD STORY
Boo Spencer says he has heard talk about the Morris arson most of his life.
"My dad says he's the only one left" who was involved in the arson, Boo Spencer said. "I’ve heard him say that. He's worried about it. A lot's bothering him nowadays."
Boo Spencer said his father once told him, "Son, it was bad. I’ll never forget it."
Although he says he loves his father, Boo Spencer believes the Morris family deserves to see justice served.
Acknowledging that he has a criminal record and presently is on probation, Boo Spencer says he is doing his best to turn his life around.
"What happened to that man (Morris) ain't right," said Boo Spencer.
On Aug. 18, 2010, in a brief telephone follow-up interview with The Sentinel, Leonard Spencer refused to answer any additional questions about his past. When Spencer was told allegations had been made against him concerning the Morris arson that he might wish to address, Spencer refused to do so.
"I've told you all I know," he said. "If somebody is saying something about me they need to come see me."