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|Cold case witnesses, retired agents ignored by FBI in Edwards' probe|
Joseph "Joe Ed" Edwards, a 25-year-old employee of the Shamrock Motel in Vidalia, vanished in Concordia Parish on a July night 46 years ago.
There were reports that Edwards, an African-American, had been murdered and that the Klan and law enforcement were responsible. Retired FBI agent Billy Bob Williams of Oregon -- who was working in Natchez at the time -- learned from the bureau's information pipeline that Edwards may have been "skinned alive."
Edwards' case was never solved, his body never found and his life forgotten by all but family and friends.
But in 2007, Edwards' name was resurrected in an article published by the Concordia Sentinel. Later, after the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative advocated a new look at the murder, the FBI added his case to a long list of other unsolved Civil Rights era murders that it promised the nation it would attempt to resolve.
Since 2007, the Sentinel has identified 10 individuals with information about this decades-old case. The group includes three retired FBI agents, two key witnesses, a forensic pathologist, a suspect and others who knew Edwards, saw Edwards and talked to Edwards around the time of his disappearance.
But the bureau never contacted any of them during its current probe.
Now five of these individuals are dead and Edwards' sister, optimistic three years ago that justice would be served, isn't so sure anymore. She and others say the FBI is showing little initiative in its own campaign to solve these decades old murders.
"How are we ever going to find out what happened if they (FBI) don't talk to people?" wonders Julia Dobbins. "I put a lot of hope into this new investigation but it doesn't look like they're (FBI) even trying to find out what happened to my brother."
FBI spokesman Chris Allen said he is prohibited from disclosing whether certain people have or have not been interviewed, but noted that many individuals were interviewed more than once and gave sworn statements in the 1960s. That information from earlier probes "may help guide decisions on whom to re-interview as part of the current investigation," he said.
Five years ago in February 2007, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced the bureau was launching an initiative to resolve 100-plus Civil Rights era cold cases.
"Justice has been delayed, but we are determined that justice will not be denied," Mueller said when making the announcement. He noted that many of the murders "were not fully investigated" at the time or "were covered up." Mueller promised that the bureau would "do everything we can to close those cases, and to close this dark chapter in our nation's history."
But has the bureau lived up to its promise?
All but 39 of 111 cases on the list have been closed during the past three years and more closures are expected this year. Two cold cases have been prosecuted by authorities -- one in federal court, the other in state court -- since the FBI released its cold case list five years ago. New investigations into those two cases had been launched earlier.
Few witnesses were more central to the Joseph Edwards case in 1964 than a Shamrock registration clerk, a Louisiana probation officer and a commercial fishermen. All were alive when the FBI announced its initiative five years ago. Now they are all dead and family members say the FBI never contacted them.
PERRY & GOSS
Iona Perry, a white woman who lived in Natchez, claimed in 1964 that Edwards kissed her against her will in the front office of the motel while both were working, according to FBI documents from that era. She confided this information to her close friend, James Goss, a 6 ft.-6 in., 265-pound white state probation officer.
Goss, who lived in Rayville, La., that summer, asked local law enforcement officers to bring charges against Edwards. At the time, the sheriff's office and Vidalia Police Department were so riddled with members of the Ku Klux Klan that anger over the rumored incident spread quickly to Klansmen.
A few days later, Edwards disappeared. His 1958 Buick was discovered abandoned on the Ferriday-Vidalia Highway at the bowling alley. A witness described seeing the Buick in route to Ferriday being pursued in the middle of the night by an unmarked white Oldsmobile with a red flashing light on the dash and two police antennae on the back.
When the FBI got involved in investigating Edwards' disappearance in 1967, Goss himself became a suspect. He later told the FBI that he initially planned to beat Edwards, but told local law enforcement instead.
Goss' daughter, Kay Goss, told the Sentinel that her father said two parish deputies -- Bill Ogden and Frank DeLaughter, both Klansmen -- tried to pin the murder on her father.
Ogden told a local preacher, Julian Massey, that he and DeLaughter while heading toward Vidalia had pulled Edwards over in front of the bowling alley to question him about a bar disturbance, but that Edwards had bolted from his Buick and escaped on foot over the levee. Massey reported this information to the bureau in 1967, FBI documents show.
Until Goss' death at age 89, Kay Goss said that her father used two words to describe the deputies: "Those bastards."
The Sentinel reported this background on the Edwards episode, and the names of Iona Perry and James Goss, in 2010.
Goss died in June 2009, Perry in December 2011.
Retired FBI agent John Pfeifer, who died two months ago, told the Sentinel before his death that Goss was a perfect scapegoat for deputies Ogden and DeLaughter, both now dead, because Goss was the only person who had expressed "a tangible motive" to kill Edwards. He said the involvement of the two deputies in Edwards' murder was suspected by agents in the 1960s.
The 6-ft.-4-in., 250-pound DeLaughter was so notorious and feared in the black community that he was known as "Big Frank De Law," according to FBI records.
Pfeifer spent hours during the last two years sharing with the Sentinel his knowledge of the Concordia Parish Klan, law enforcement and the unsolved homicides. For more than a decade, longer than any other federal agent, Pfeifer investigated the Klan, corruption and vice in Concordia Parish.
Although his investigations led to the convictions in the early 1970s of the parish sheriff and DeLaughter for their roles in the operation of a house of prostitution and gambling, Pfeifer was never asked by the agency he once served for assistance in its new probes today.
He was 79 when he died two months ago.
MILTON 'OUDDIE' BOOTHE
Months after Edwards disappeared in 1964, Milton "Ouddie" Boothe of Harrisonburg, a commercial fisherman, caught what he thought was human flesh in a seine and brought a sample to law enforcement in neighboring Catahoula Parish where he lived. Thinking the remains may have been Edwards', the FBI in 1967 brought in divers to search the lake, but the dive proved fruitless due to murky water and heavy debris on the bottom.
In 2009, the Sentinel found Boothe more than willing to talk although he was seriously ill. While the flesh Boothe delivered to law enforcement was apparently destroyed not long afterward, today's technology might have enabled the bureau to better search the location again.
That technology was mentioned by the FBI's Mueller when he announced the bureau's initiative in 2007: "Today, we have forensic analysis and technology that were nonexistent 40 years ago."
But Boothe, the man who could have pinpointed where his seine had snagged what he described as human flesh in 1964, died in November 2011 at the age of 84.
Family members say the bureau hadn't questioned Boothe about the matter since the 1960s.
A witness who saw Boothe's find is former deputy Shelby Beasley, who recalled talking to the bureau in the 1960s, but has not been interviewed during the new probe. He had only recently been hired by the Catahoula Parish Sheriff's Office in 1964 when Boothe, who lived along the Ouachita River just a few steps from the courthouse in Harrisonburg, delivered the flesh.
"I remember him bringing it in," Beasley said. "It was in bad shape. I told him I didn't think there was much chance of it being identified. There were no DNA tests back then. I put it in the jail refrigerator."
Beasley said that some at the sheriff's office thought the flesh may have been animal remains but no one knew for sure. He doesn't know what happened to the sample.
A key to solving the Edwards murder is finding out where his body was disposed and a new lead was developed in 2008. Six years earlier, a skull found in Clayton, where Edwards was living prior to his disappearance, was examined by Mary Manheim, director of the LSU FACES (Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services) Laboratory. It was believed that the skull was that of a male African-American or Native American and that it was decades old.
In 2008, the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative contacted Manheim about determining if the skull belonged to Edwards. Manheim extracted DNA from Edwards' sister, Julia Dobbins, and in 2010 DNA was successfully extracted from the skull. There was no match.
But despite the possibilities, and extensive coverage in the Sentinel and a piece on ABC's Nightline, Manhein said the FBI never inquired.
Neither was the bureau interested when Earcel "Sonny" Boyd Jr. called the FBI office in Monroe, La. Boyd had grown up in a Klan household and said that as a teenager he was at the Vidalia Shamrock Motel cafe in 1964 when his father, Earcel Boyd Sr., and other Klansmen gathered to form the notorious Klan offshoot known as the Silver Dollar Group. He said he talked with Edwards in the motel cafe that spring while his father and other Klansmen met in an adjoining room.
Boyd said he has information he thinks would help in pursuing that case and in the murder of Frank Morris, a 51-year-old African-American Ferriday businessman who died as a result of the arson of his shoe shop in December 1964.
"I don't know who killed Frank Morris or Joseph Edwards, but I have information that might help the bureau answer those questions, so I called," Boyd told the Sentinel.
Now living in Oregon, Boyd was not prepared for the male agent's terse response. "I was asked if I had proof who killed them. I said no." The agent, Boyd said, continued: "If you don't have any evidence or proof, then we are not interested. We only deal with facts."
Before he could reply the agent hung up, Boyd said.
BILLY BOB WILLIAMS
Retired FBI agent Billy Bob Williams says he, too, reached out to the bureau but was rejected.
"Frankly, I'm just disgusted with them," he said. "I want to know why they don't want to talk to us."
Williams, 77, worked in Natchez, across the Mississippi River from Vidalia, from mid-1964 to the spring of 1966, serving as liaison between local and state law enforcement agencies. While there, he developed one of the best Klan informants the bureau had during the era and was the first agent on the scene in Natchez following the car-bombing of NAACP President George Metcalfe, who survived the 1965 Klan attempt on his life.
Williams was in the FBI office in downtown Natchez in July 1964 when Edwards' mother, Bernice Conner, walked in to report her son missing.
"I remember she was crying, just very distraught and told me, 'The Klan got my boy,'" Williams recalled.
A couple of years ago, after stories in the Sentinel quoting their separate insights into the death of Frank Morris and the disappearance of Edwards, Williams met Sonny Boyd in Oregon, where both men now live. Boyd told Williams about his background in Concordia Parish and about his experiences with the Klan.
"I consider him a very credible witness," Williams said of Sonny Boyd. "I don't know why the bureau doesn't want to talk to him."
Allen, the FBI spokesman, while not addressing specific questions about Boyd and the others, said witnesses "may profess to the media that they have direct knowledge of events that they later acknowledge to law enforcement was hearsay, rumor, or opinion."
But Boyd wonders: "How do they judge my information until they hear what I have to say?"
Williams says agents "in the bureau today have no concept of what things were like down there at the time. The thing about interviewing people today is that they aren't intimidated and fearful for their lives as they were back then."
Retired agent Ted Garner of Virginia, 74, agrees: "Interviewing people is the basic business of the FBI. You have to get out on the street."'
A 24-year veteran with the bureau before his retirement in 1988, Gardner had served as Special Agent in Charge at Minneapolis and Portland and as a supervisor of investigations into "dirty tricks" during the Watergate investigation in the 1970s.
In the early 1990s, Gardner offered the bureau his help on a Civil Rights era cold case he had previously investigated in Washington Parish, La., where in 1965 Klansmen killed newly-hired African-American deputy Oneal Moore in an ambush in Varnado, near Bogulusa.
"The supervising agent of that new investigation wasn't interested in what I had to say," Gardner said, although Gardner had spent months on the case in the late 1960s developing suspects and informants.
Gardner also spent time with the late John Pfeifer in Concordia Parish in 1966: "One of the reasons we were sent from New Orleans to Concordia was because there were rumors, not all substantiated, that 25 black men were missing. One of those men missing was Joseph Edwards."
He said local residents believed that Edwards' body had been disposed in a body of water.
"Back then, the FBI was the enemy to a lot people," he said. "Now you can do reinterviews and people will talk more freely."
CARL RAY THOMPSON
Edwards' first cousin, Carl Ray Thompson, says he was threatened by deputy Frank DeLaughter after Edwards went missing. In fact, Thompson said he first saw Edwards' abandoned Buick beside the bowling alley on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. from the backseat of DeLaughter's patrol car.
Now 73, Thompson said he and three others were accused by DeLaughter and Ogden of breaking into a store in Clayton. Although never charged, Thompson said all four were held overnight and interrogated in the Ferriday city jail. While Thompson was not harmed, he said the other three young men were beaten by the two deputies. The next morning, DeLaughter loaded the four into the back seat of his police car for transport to the parish jail in Vidalia.
In route, they passed the bowling alley where Edwards' car had only recently been parked and abandoned. Thompson said Delaughter eyed him through the rear view mirror and warned that if anybody talked about what had transpired in the jail the night before that the deputy would "teach us all a lesson" and "we'd all end up missing like Joe."
All four understood what the deputy meant, Thompson said.
Although Thompson has been quoted often in Sentinel articles since 2007, he said no one from the bureau ever contacted him.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|