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|Witness saw Joe-Ed Edwards' Buick pulled over by police car|
Before he vanished in the muggy heat of a summer night on July 12, 1964 -- 45 years ago this month -- Joseph "JoeEd" Edwards saw the flashing red light of a police car in the rearview mirror of his white-over-green 1958 Buick.
Few sights were more terrifying to a black man on a roadway in the South in 1964. As Edwards, 25, pulled the Buick to the side of the highway, most of Concordia slept as midnight approached.
Over the July 11-12, 1964, weekend, "Viva Las Vegas," starring Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret, played at the Arcade Theatre in Ferriday, Lewis' Super Market in Vidalia had smoked picnic hams on sale for 29 cents a pound and in his Concordia Sentinel ad, Frank Morris in Ferriday offered customer specials at his shoe shop with "fast while-you-wait-or-shop service."
During the previous days, several people had seen Edwards, including his sister, Julia Dobbins, then 20. Now 65 and living in Bridge City, La., Dobbins told The Sentinel this week that "the last time I saw my brother was on the Fourth of July."
Edwards had driven his Buick to Natchez, picked up his mother, sister Julia, another sister, and a brother for a July 4th barbecue at his grandparents' home on Red Gum Road outside Clayton, where Edwards was living at the time.
Good food and family had made for "a happy day," recalled Dobbins.
On the way home, Dobbins said their mother, Bernice Conner -- her children called her "Bean" -- fussed at Joe-Ed for driving too fast and joked that she would never ride with him again.
Dobbins, who says Joe-Ed was her favorite brother, told her mama, "Don't say that, Bean. You don't ever know!"
But Joe-Ed laughed and said, "Bean, I'll slow down for you."
Edwards dropped off his passengers, then headed off.
As it turned out, that was Bean's last ride with her son.
"I never saw my brother again," said Dobbins.
Edwards ate dinner with the James "Jim" Lee family on the Ferriday-Clayton Hwy. not long before he vanished. Edwards was in a hurry, Lee told the FBI, because he "had to go to work at the Shamrock Motel."
Edwards didn't appear worried during the visit, said Lee, and gave "no indication that he was in any kind of trouble."
BLOOD SPOT ON FLOOR OF JOE-ED'S BUICK
Robert Taylor, who operated a cafe at 520 South 4th in Ferriday, saw Edwards just hours before he disappeared. He knew Edwards well because he was the father of Augaree Taylor, Edwards' fiancee.
Taylor told the FBI that Edwards came to the cafe alone, drank two beers and when leaving said he "was going to the Shamrock Motel to pick up a white girl" apparently on a date. Edwards had previously told friends that he had been dating white girls at the Shamrock, and all had warned him about the dangers that involved in 1964 Concordia. Taylor said he warned him, too.
A day or two later, Taylor spotted Edwards' Buick on the Ferriday-Vidalia Highway (Hwy. 84) opposite the bowling alley. When it was still parked there the next day, Taylor told FBI agents that he pulled over and examined the vehicle. Inside, he noticed "a spot on the floor near the driver's seat that appeared to be blood."
Having worked in Natchez at the height of the civil unrest in the mid-1960s, retired FBI agent Billy Bob Williams told The Sentinel those were the days "when the Klan ruled the night."
On July 2, ten days before Edwards disappeared, President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act. A period of lawlessness had erupted, the result of resurging Klan organizations who defended their actions with scripture as they torched crosses, homes and businesses in a fight against government-imposed integration of public facilities, including schools, and against civil rights for blacks.
In this region, a hard-core group of Klansmen jelled into a violent unit known as the Silver Dollar Group, headquartered in Vidalia, and encompassing membership in Adams County and from as far west as Franklin County, Miss., and from as far north as Jackson, Miss.
The days surrounding that July 12, 1964, night when Edwards was pulled over on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. emerge in some clarity in documents amassed by the FBI four decades ago and recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and provided The Sentinel by the Syracuse University College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative.
This information contained within these documents was compiled as a part of the investigation of the Feb. 27, 1967, car bomb murder of Wharlest Jackson, a black employee of Armstrong Tire in Natchez who had just been promoted to a job at the plant previously held by white men only. The FBI named the probe -- WHARBOM -- and this investigation led agents to Concordia where in the fall of 1967 information on the murder of Edwards three years earlier began to surface.
On the day Edwards went missing in July 1964, the corpse of Charles Moore was found in an offshoot of the Mississippi River near Davis Island south of Tallulah. The body of Henry Hezekiah Dee was found the next day. During the daylight hours in Meadville, Miss., in May 1964, Moore and Dee had been forced into a vehicle by a number of Klansmen, including James Ford Seale, who was convicted in 2007 in the murders of the two teenagers.
Just three weeks before Edwards was pulled over, a Neshoba County, Miss., deputy stopped three civil rights workers who had just been released from the city jail in Philadelphia in the middle of the night. These three young men -- Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney -- were, like Edwards, compelled to stop in obedience to the law, signaled by the flashing light of a police car. They were quickly murdered by the deputy and a number of Klansmen, some of whom were later convicted on various charges, including murder.
But to date, not a single soul has ever been arrested in the kidnapping and apparent murder of Edwards, who like the other five victims, may have been killed as the result of a Klan action involving law enforcement.
WHITE CAR WITH FLASHING RED LIGHT STOPS EDWARDS
A Jena banker, Kenneth R. Stephenson, who died just a few years ago, was part owner and manager in 1964 of the Dixie Lanes bowling alley located on the south side of the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. (Hwy. 84). He told the FBI in 1967 that after he closed for the night three years earlier, he drove east toward Vidalia where he made a brief stop before turning around and heading home.
As he traveled west toward Ferriday he observed an unmarked white 1964 Oldsmobile sedan with "a flashing red light pull a predominately green Buick to the side of the road in the vicinity of the bowling alley." He also noticed that the Olds had "two short wave antennae on the trunk."
Stephenson saw "a large white male" in the driver's seat of the white Olds and "one or two men standing near the driver's door of the Buick." Stephenson continued westward toward Ferriday, he said, when the white Oldsmobile passed him "at a high rate of speed with a number of occupants" inside the car.
Curious about what was going on, Stephenson said he followed the Olds to Ferriday, drove to the police station in search of the vehicle but the car had vanished into the night.
For the next two-plus weeks, Edwards' Buick was spotted by a number of witnesses parked in the vicinity of the bowling alley. A school teacher, Edith Snyder, who lived north of the highway across the railroad tracks, told the FBI the car was parked on the north side of the highway for two weeks before being moved to the south side of the road on the street behind the bowling alley, where it remained for a few more days.
Others saw the car, too, including Concordia Parish Sheriff's deputy Raymond Keathley, 43, who had eight years on the force and primarily handled administrative duties in the office. He walked into the sheriff's office in Vidalia one day and told three deputies -- Frank DeLaughter, Bill Ogden and Ike Cowan -- that they should "make some inquiry" concerning the Buick. Keathley said he noticed the car for a number of days parked on the south side of the highway.
Keathley said DeLaughter quickly responded that the car belonged "to the nigger who smarted off to the girls at the Shamrock Motel. We won't be bothered with that black smart SOB any more!"
All four of the deputies are dead.
DeLaughter, who stood 6-4 and may have weighed about 300 pounds, would be convicted in the 1970s for racketeering, a federal crime, involving prostitution and gambling at the Morville Lounge at Deer Park and also on federal charges for beating a white prisoner in the Ferriday city jail. He and Ogden usually worked together and both, FBI records show, were associated with the Klan and each identified by informants as equally close with the Silver Dollar Group.
The WHARBOM files note that a Silver Dollar Group member from Natchez told the FBI in 1967 that DeLaughter "was more deeply involved" with the Klan and criminal acts "than most people realize."
Keathley told the FBI that the deputies said a white Oldsmobile seen pulling Edwards over was "involved in the incident." The FBI learned that the City of Vidalia's lone police car -- a 1964 Model 88, four-door, white town sedan -- was leased by the town from McPhail Oldsmobile in Natchez in October 1963, and returned for a newer model in October 1964.
Keathley told the FBI that Vidalia's police car was the only law enforcement vehicle he knew of with two antennas on the back -- like the one described by Kenneth Stephensen, the manager of the bowling alley.
That drew the FBI's attention, but what was more interesting was a list of auxiliary policemen in Vidalia provided by city patrolman John Henry. Among the names on the list were four men the FBI had identified as members of the Silver Dollar Group.
A DEPUTY'S CHILLING STORY
Yet deputy Ogden told one man that he and DeLaughter had given chase to Edwards around the time of his disappearance, FBI records reveal.
The source of this information was a Ferriday minister, the Rev. Julian Massey, who said Ogden often told him about the cases he worked and during a conversation in July 1964 described an incident involving Edwards that had occurred just three or four days earlier.
In a chilling story, Ogden told Massey that someone from a black nightclub -- Haney's Big House in Ferriday -- contacted him to report that Joseph Edwards was causing a disturbance. Before Ogden and DeLaughter arrived at the club, Edwards had left, said Ogden, but the two deputies in Ogden's patrol car overtook Edwards in his Buick as they headed east toward Vidalia on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy.
Ogden told Rev. Massey that Edwards jumped out of his car once it stopped and ran up the Old River levee. Ogden and DeLaughter gave chase on foot and Ogden said DeLaughter almost caught Edwards on the levee, but Edwards got away.
Ogden told Massey in that July 1964 conversation that Edwards' Buick was still parked on the highway. Massey said he drove the highway a week later and the car was gone.
Haney's Big House owner Will Haney told the FBI that he didn't know Edwards personally but had heard of his disappearance. He was emphatic, however, that neither he nor anyone who worked for him had called the police because Edwards had not even been in the bar and therefore could not have caused a disturbance.
Haney was clear: It "did not happen."
Among the many mysteries of Edwards' disappearance are why did the car remained parked for more than two weeks in the vicinity of the bowling alley? Why was the car moved? Did Edwards outrun the police earlier but return later for his car only to be caught this time? Did two different police units give chase to Edwards on two different occasions?
Edwards' sister, Julia Dobbins, says she expects whatever happened was a story of terror.
"I'm prepared for that," she said. "I expect it."
By October of 1967, eight months after the WHARBOM investigation began in the murder of Wharlest Jackson, documents revealed that the probe to that point had cost $258,720 with a peak of 180 agents working the case. These agents amassed 7,521 hours in unpaid overtime and drove bureau vehicles an estimated 185,596 miles.
Concordia became the heart of the WHARBOM probe with new information developed on Edwards' disappearance and the arson/murder of Frank Morris in December 1964.
But all along, one 1967 FBI document notes, the bureau faced a huge obstacle in resolving the Wharlest Jackson murder and others:
"Our difficulty basically stems from the immunity" the Silver Dollar Group "and all klan types have from police surveillance in Concordia Parish, Louisiana. Our major problem is the Concordia Parish operation...it is essential that the situation in Concordia be stabilized in order that our present problems may be dealt with with maximum effectiveness and that future bombings of the type we are investigating may be prevented."
(Stanley Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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