The Justice Department as well as the FBI said Wednesday they gathered no evidence that a former Klansman from Rayville, who died earlier this week, was involved in the 1964 arson murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris.
The FBI received information in 2009 that the former Klansmen, Arthur Leonard Spencer, had allegedly helped commit the arson. Spencer, 73, died in Minden on Tuesday following a lengthy illness.
Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) professors Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson say they are angered at what they call "the inexcusable delays in the FBI and DOJ investigation" and "a missed opportunity for justice for the Morris family and the Ferriday community." They also say they will ask for a congressional oversight hearing to determine whether DOJ and the bureau have lived up to the mandate from Congress to thoroughly investigate civil rights-era murders.
In a story reported by the Sentinel on January 11, 2011, Spencer's son, ex-wife and ex-brother-in-law implicated Spencer in the arson. Two of the three -- Spencer's son and ex-brother-in-law -- said Spencer told them he was involved. The ex-wife said another Klansman implicated himself and Spencer in Morris' murder.
The Morris case is one of 20 unsolved civil rights-era murders the FBI says it is investigating. When the FBI announced its Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative in 2007, its list had more than 100 names of victims whose deaths it vowed to investigate. The FBI has closed all the other cases and, since releasing the list, has brought no charges in connection with any of the killings.
Last November, the Syracuse CCJI turned over to DOJ information on an additional 196 killings it identified as suspicious.
Morris died on December 14, 1964, four days after his shoe shop was torched during the early morning hours of Dec. 10. Documents show that before his death, the cobbler, who suffered third degree burns from head to toe, told the FBI that he saw two men outside his shop the night of the arson -- one with a gas can spreading fuel and another with a shotgun. He said he didn't know who the men were.
On Wednesday, both the Justice Department and the FBI for the first time commented on Spencer in a joint statement:
"As with all criminal investigations we follow up on leads provided to us.When the Concordia Sentinel suggested Mr. Leonard Spencer as a possible subject the Department of Justice and the FBI diligently pursued the information. Our considerable efforts turned up no credible evidence to suggest Mr. Spencer was in any way involved in the death of Frank Morris."
The bureau, however, was aware of the allegation long before the Sentinel asked about Spencer in November 2010. Seventeen months earlier, in the summer of 2009, the bureau interviewed Spencer's ex-brother-in-law, Bill Frasier, who told the Sentinel in a 2010 interview that he walked into the FBI office in Monroe to report what Spencer had told him years earlier. The FBI has not explained why it did not pursue an investigation into Spencer in the year and one-half that preceded the Sentinel article, and did not explain on Wednesday why it waited until Spencer was dead to say it could not find evidence to prosecute him.
A former deputy from Concordia Parish, Frasier said in a Sentinel interview that in the late 1960s, while he and Spencer were working together on a job, they discussed the Klan. At that time, Frasier said Spencer said he had gone to Ferriday years earlier with another Klansman, O.C. "Coonie" Poissot, to burn down a shoe shop when a black man unexpectedly walked to the front of the building. He said Spencer said the arson was intentional but the murder was not because neither Spencer nor Poissot expected anyone to be in the shoe shop that night.
In an interview with the Sentinel at his home in June 2010, Spencer denied having been involved in the arson and denied knowing Poissot. He acknowledged that he had been in the Rayville Klan in the 1960s and had attended Klan meetings. He also said his uncle, Doug Spencer, was head of the Rayville Klan's wrecking crew, a hit squad that committed violence, arson and beatings against Klan targets.
In addition to Frasier's allegation, the Sentinel also reported in January 2011, four years after the newspaper began its own investigation into the Morris murder, that Spencer's son said he had heard his father discuss his involvement in the Morris arson. William "Boo" Spencer said his father said Morris' shop was targeted because he was a black man who owned his own business.
Spencer's ex-wife, Brenda Rhodes, said she heard about the arson from Poissot in the early 1970s, and that he told her he and Spencer had committed the arson.
Following interviews with Leonard Spencer, William "Boo" Spencer, Rhodes and Frasier, the Sentinel, in November 2010, contacted the FBI for comment about the allegations against Leonard Spencer. The then-Civil Rights Cold Case Unit Chief, Cynthia Deitle, asked the Sentinel to hold the story on Spencer indefinitely.
Later, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin asked the Sentinel to hold off on publishing the Spencer story until January 2011. He said publishing the story before then would jeopardize the FBI's investigation. Austin said if the article implicating Spencer was published before January that "justice will not be served." He indicated that the Morris case was the only civil rights-era cold case in which the Justice Department "could deliver justice."
Until informed by the Sentinel, Concordia Parish District Attorney Brad Burget said he was unaware that Spencer had died nor did he know about the Justice Department's finding on Spencer.
Burget said that at the Justice Department's request in 2011 he appointed federal prosecutor Patty Sumner as an assistant district attorney for Concordia Parish and allowed the department to present witnesses to three separate grand juries. He said his staff also prepared subpoenas for the grand jury as requested by the Justice Department.
Burget said he has offered his full cooperation and assistance to Justice Department in the Morris investigation but has not been informed on the particulars of the federal investigation or on the status of the case.
"This is their investigation," he said, "and we have not been asked to assist."
He said he has not taken part in the grand jury proceedings on the cold cases.
Three separate grand juries -- one following the other for six to eight-month terms -- heard testimony about the Morris case and at least one other cold case for more than a year and a half, but none of the grand juries had issued a report or had taken any action by the time of Spencer's death.
Burget said a grand jury can take one of three actions: return a true bill, no true bill or pretermit the matter. Any of these actions would have been done in open court, he said.
Concerning the Morris case and Spencer, Syracuse CCJI's full statement is as follows:
"There is no excuse for the delay by the Justice Department in bringing Spencer before a jury of his peers. They have known for four years about evidence brought forward of his admissions to family members that he participated in the arson and cruel death of Mr. Morris. A jury should be the ones to decide on the credibility of the evidence. Now he is dead. This sluggish type of investigation by federal law enforcement is emblematic of their approach to many of the cases of unsolved civil rights killings.
"We are calling on Congress to immediately begin oversight hearings into the failure of the Justice Department and FBI to fully implement the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act. It is a mandate to thoroughly investigate and bring to justice those who have eluded the law all this time. So far it has been a failed promise to the families and to society at large."
James E. Shelledy, head of the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication's Unsolved Civil Rights-Era Murders project, said the Spencer connection raises legitimate concerns and questions about the Justice Department's action in this matter.
He said whether former Klan member Spencer would have been convicted in
a court of law where the reasonable doubt standard is especially challenging after so many years is, on one level, irrelevant.
"There is the matter of bringing closure to a heinous crime in the court of public opinion," he said.
The man also implicated by Spencer's relatives, Coonie Poissot, who died in 1992, was a Klan informant for the FBI in 1967. He and others linked Concordia Parish Sheriff's Office deputy Frank DeLaughter to Morris' death, according to FBI records. Poissot was also, documents reviewed by the Sentinel indicate, one of the last people to account for DeLaughter's whereabouts hours before the arson -- in his patrol car driving past Morris' shop.
FBI documents show that Poissot told agents that three weeks before and on the night before the arson, while he was with DeLaughter in the patrol car, that the deputy claimed Morris was not "acting right" and indicated action would be taken against him. Both Poissot and another Klan informant said DeLaughter and Morris had argued over a pair of cowboy boots after DeLaughter failed to pay the debt he owed Morris.
DeLaughter, who died in 1996, was convicted in federal court in the early 1970s for racketeering in the operation of the Morville Lounge, a mob-based prostitution and gambling operation in Concordia, and for police brutality in the beating of a prisoner in the Ferriday jail in 1965.
Those two cases became peripheral probes of the investigation into the 1967 carbombing murder of Natchez NAACP treasurer Wharlest Jackson of Natchez and were the only cases which resulted in arrests and prosecutions. The man whose investigations led to convictions in those crimes, the late John Pfeifer, a retired FBI agent who died in 2011, told the Sentinel over several interviews beginning in 2009 that the bureau believed the trail to Morris' killers would lead to DeLaughter, whether or not he was physically involved in the commission of the arson. Pfeifer also said it was believed that the intent was to destroy Morris' business, not to kill him.
Despite his 13 years of work in Concordia Parish, Pfeifer said today's FBI never contacted him about the new Morris probe. Other retired FBI agents who investigated the Klan in Concordia and Natchez during the 1960s say they have not been contacted either.