Retired FBI agent John Pfeifer says he always suspected Concordia Parish deputy Frank DeLaughter was involved in the 1964 murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris, a murder Pfeifer felt was not a typical Klan hit.
Now retired and living in Ohio, Pfeifer said he has little doubt, however, that had DeLaughter been one of the two men Morris saw outside his shop the night of the arson that Morris would have easily recognized the deputy, who stood 6 foot, 4 inches tall and weighed in excess of 250 pounds. Morris told the FBI before his death that he didn't know who the two men were.
Many friends and well wishers who visited Morris at the hospital before his death felt he knew his attackers although he never identified them. They said he called them "two white friends." Yet Morris told the FBI on at least 12 occasins during interviews that he didn't know the identities of the men.
"I don't think he (Morris) knew for certain who it was," said Pfeifer, "If he'd left his sleeping quarters in the back and come up and physically saw these guys he'd know right away if one of them was Frank (DeLaughter). DeLaughter was very easy to distinguish."
The Sentinel has previously reported that two Klansmen who were informants told the bureau in 1967 that the arson was triggered by an argument between DeLaughter and Morris over a pair of cowboy boots. The informants said Morris had refused to continue providing DeLaughter free shoe repair, a stance the deputy felt "uppity" by a black man during the heightened racial tensions of the civil rights era.
Morris died on Dec. 14, 1964, from the burns he received in the arson four days earlier. He told the FBI before his death that he confronted two men -- one holding a shotgun, the other a gasoline can -- standing outside his shop during the early morning hours. He said the man with the shotgun blocked his exit out the front door after the other man ignited a section of the gasoline-soaked building with what appeared to be a match.
The FBI's New Orleans' division sent Pfeifer to Concordia in January 1966 along with another agent to help put a plug in Klan violence. He became resident agent and would go on to lead investigations resulting in the arrest and conviction in the early 1970s of Sheriff Noah Cross in connection with the operation of a gambling/prostitution den known as the Morville Lounge. DeLaughter was convicted in that case, too, as well as for police brutality in the beating of a prisoner.
"This thing with Frank Morris really got under my skin because even though it happened two years before I got there, this was a real blot to everybody's record, including everybody decent in town," Pfeifer said.
"For a long time I was convinced this was not your regular Klan-type situation, that it probably involved somebody in law enforcement and of course Frank (DeLaughter) was at the head of that list.""
According to FBI documents, Morris had also been investigated around the time of the murder by leaders of the Ferriday-Clayton unit of the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan on complaints that he flirted with white women, allowed black men and white women to have sex in the back room of his shop and that he was a member of the NAACP. There is no evidence that any of the allegations lodged by Klansmen were true, but E.L. McDaniel of Natchez, who died two weeks ago, told the bureau in 1967 that he was asked by a Ferriday Klan leader to authorize a Mississippi wrecking crew (hit squad) to whip Morris for flirting with white women. The Mississippi Grand Dragon of the United Klans of America at the time, McDaniel said he never authorized the project, documents say.
The fact that Morris had an integrated clientele in a day when the Klan vowed to protect segregation at all costs also put Morris in jeopardy even though he had served both a white and black clientele for 30 years.
Earlier this month, a parish Grand Jury began a probe into the 46-year-old murder. The case was re-opened by the FBI in 2007 and the U.S. Department of Justice along with the Concordia Parish District Attorney are jointly overseeing the Grand Jury probe.
A 71-year-old Rayville man, Arthur Leonard Spencer, has been implicated in the arson by his son, ex-wife and ex-brother-in-law. The three independently told The Sentinel in an article published in January that Spencer was part of a four-man Klan wrecking crew commissioned to burn down Morris' shop and that Morris was not expected to be there.
A second Klansman identified by the ex-wife and ex-brother-in-law was the late O.C. "Coonie" Poissot, who was one of the two FBI informants who implicated DeLaughter in the arson. Poissot, who died in 1992, told the bureau he was with DeLaughter the night before the arson and said DeLaughter was furious with Morris over the confrontation concerning the cowboy boots.
Whether Poissot, who was unknown outside Klan circles in the parish, organized the Klan wrecking crew and recruited Leonard Spencer may be one of the questions probed by the Grand Jury. In a June 2010 interview with The Sentinel, Spencer denied any involvement in the arson, of having heard of the Frank Morris and of having known Coonie Poissot.
Pfeifer said that when he and fellow agent Ted Gardner arrived in Concordia in January 1966 that he heard a rumor concerning Morris.
"We talked to a number people and there was this story going around that Frank Morris was a big dope runner, had a contact in Texas and would make mysterious trips to Texas and come back and sell drugs," said Pfeifer. "It seemed as if most of those rumors started with Frank DeLaughter. That's what really alerted me that he was probably involved."
DeLaughter's record as a law enforcement officer and as a Klansmen were well known within the FBI ranks, according to bureau documents. Several complaints of police brutality were filed against him through the years and The Sentinel has interviewed a number of black men who said they were beaten by DeLaughter in the Ferriday city jail.
DeLaughter was hired by the Ferriday Town Council in June 1956 to work with the fire department at a beginning salary of $209.90 per month. He later became a police officer and in the early 1960s was hired by Sheriff Noah Cross as a deputy for the parish.
But even after he became a deputy he continued to take prisoners to the Ferriday city jail where he interrogated, beat and held them, often without filing any charges against them.
Pfeifer said even DeLaughter's uniform contained hidden weapons and gadgets geared for violence.
DeLaughter wore baggy khaki pants high on his waist, said Pfeifer, "so it looked like his trousers came up to the belly button." He said DeLaughter kept "a blackjack in the back pocket.
"In the front pockets, he had this real tiny round badge (and) he had thumb cuffs. Basically these are metal cuffs and each side of it fits around a major joint in your thumb and you can put those on somebody and they've got both of their joints side by side. You can stick your finger in between them and make that guy do anything you want just by exerting pressure on those thumb joints. That was (a) torture device.
"Instead of having a sidearm like a big .357 in a big holster, he had a small derringer pistol he'd stick in one of these pockets and I think it was a single shot. But it was a .38 or .45 caliber. So he was all loaded for bear at all times and nobody could tell if he had anything on him or not."
In fact, said Pfeifer, "Everything about him was sly and nefarious...He didn't like anybody."
Pfeifer said DeLaughter, a Klansman, who died in 1996 at the age of 69, shared the views of Klansmen that blacks were inferior and that integration had to be stopped.
"All the Klansmen associated the blacks with being dupes of the commies (who were) going to take over the country," said Pfeifer. He said Klansmen felt the worst thing a black man could do was "jump in bed with some white woman and defile her."
He said DeLaughter was known for his intimidation of the black community, especially during elections. Pfeifer said word was spread that voting machines were rigged so that every person's vote was known and that if you "didn't vote the right way" DeLaughter would know.
"It was very believable," said Pfeifer. Law enforcement "played it to the hilt. Frank was one of those guys that would throw out a side comment that you could take four or five different ways, and you'd take the worse one because that was the one he wanted to convey."
Concerning the Morris arson, Pfeifer said DeLaughter would have established an alibi if he knew Morris' shop was to be torched.
In fact, The Sentinel reported in 2010 that 64-year-old Delbert Matthews of Vidalia, who was 17 in 1964, saw DeLaughter when the fire was raging at Morris' shop.
Matthews said he was 17-years-old and the lone attendant working at the Coast Service Station two blocks south of the shoe shop along U.S. Hwy. 65/84. He said DeLaughter stopped by for gas and was talking to another man as the red lights of the Ferriday fire truck and police vehicles flickered up the street while the fire consumed the shoe shop.
"I remember that night so well because of the fire," said Matthews. "Every time I pass the area today I think about it. I remember thinking back then about there being a fire at the shoe shop and wondering why Frank DeLaughter wasn't down there."