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|Morville Lounge owner caught in Klan, Mafia crossfire|
J.D. Richardson found himself in the crossfire of Klansmen and the Mafia over the operation of the Morville Lounge in 1965 and 1966. By late 1966 he felt he had lost control of his own property, was being pressured by the FBI for information on lounge operations, complained that his life had been threatened on several occasions and reported that arsonists may have been responsible for the destruction of his home.
At the outset, one Klan group based in Monterey threatened to burn down his lounge, which was home to both gambling and prostitution. Another Klan group in Concordia burned a cross on the grounds. One night a Klansman in the company of a former Ferriday police officer fired six rounds from a high-powered rifle at the bar.
Desperate in his inability to persuade lounge management to leave, Richardson told federal officials he asked Sheriff Noah Cross to close the facility. A day later, he said the manager of the lounge threatened him.
This information is found in federal Grand Jury and trial proceedings obtained by The Sentinel as well as in the FBI's case file on Wharlest Jackson, who in February 1967 was murdered by Klansmen in a carbombing in Natchez. The file -- known as WHARBOM -- was obtained by The Sentinel and the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative through the Freedom of Information Act. Jackson's murder, and a number of other racial murders and crimes in this region during the Civil Rights era, remain unsolved.
The FBI, records show, used scores of agents in 1967 not only to probe the Jackson murder, but also to neutralize violent Klansmen who found a safe haven for their criminal activities in Concordia Parish. Some members of law enforcement were Klansmen who assisted other Klansmen in violence, records show. While some Klansmen fought prostitution with arson and violence, others were part of the operation, including Concordia Parish Sheriff's Deputy Frank DeLaughter, and Ed Fuller, a White Knight from Adams County who was called before a Congressional committee investigating the Klan in 1966.
Concordia was a lawless land in the 1960s, said retired FBI agent Billy Bob Williams of Portland, Oregon, who worked in Natchez in the mid-1960s. He said the bureau considered the parish a "maggot-infested mess."
In December 1964, Frank Morris, a Ferriday shoe shop owner, died as the result of the arson of his shoe shop. FBI documents and a Sentinel investigation reveal that Morris was likely warned that his shop would be set on fire. A month later in January 1965, a nightclub known as Jack's Place on the Black River Cut-Off in Concordia was razed by fire while in early February 1965, Reef Freeman's lounge on Horseshoe Lake was burned to the ground.
In the days before the Morris arson, records show a Klan circular was dropped in Ferriday spreading allegations of interracial relationships between white women and black men, and some Klan members alleged that Morris was involved in setting up such liaisons or may have been involved in one himself. Both Jack Aswell and Reef Freeman were attacked in Klan circulators put out around the same time. Accused by Klansmen of operating prostitution and selling alcohol to minors, the clubs owned by Aswell and Freeman were both reduced to ashes within two months of the Morris arson.
Those fires during the winter of 1964-65 had lounge owners worried, including J.D. Richardson of the Morville Lounge, which had been established in an old grocery store in late 1964 on the Morville Plantation about 13 miles south of Vidalia across the Mississippi River levee. In February 1965, a short time before Freeman's club on Horseshoe Lake was burned, federal court documents reveal that Curt Hewitt, the manager of the Peppermint Lounge in Basile, La., visited the Morville Lounge, which was operated by Reef Freeman and J.B. Saucier. Hewitt formed a partnership with the two men and Richardson, documents show, on the property they leased from Richardson.
Richardson, along with Hewitt and others, including Sheriff Noah Cross and deputy Frank DeLaughter, were convicted of racketeering in the early 1970s in a series of trials involving the lounge. Court documents show that the sheriff's office was paid about $200 in cash weekly in protection money by Hewitt which was picked up at the lounge by DeLaughter.
In transcripts of court proceedings obtained by The Sentinel, Richardson told the court in 1971 that the lounge was doing well from the beginning and attracting "a pretty good bunch of people" in February 1965, a short time after the Klan pamphlets were distributed. He said the Klan "left us a note that they were going to burn the place down if Mr. Freeman didn't leave there." Curt Hewitt told the FBI, according to court documents, that Freeman "dropped out" of the Morville operation after Freeman's lounge at Horseshoe Lake was burned to the ground.
Soon afterward, Hewitt brought in mob-managed prostitutes while Judsen Lee "Blackie" Drane of Concordia Parish, a local bar owner, supervised the gambling operations. Federal court documents show that both Hewitt and Drane were connected to the New Orleans-based Carlos Marcello mob. Drane, a gambler himself, operated two lounges that featured casino gambling and controlled most of the slot machine locations in the parish. Hewitt, who had managed prostitution in the past, oversaw day-to-day operations of the Morville Lounge, records show.
Following a July 1966 raid by the Louisiana State Police in which slot machines were destroyed, the lounge reopened a short time later with a bigger operation. According to FBI documents, more than 20 prostitutes were available seven days a week, 24 hours a day, attracting customers from Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Arkansas and throughout the South, many businessmen with deep pockets who had hunting camps near the lounge.
Retired FBI agent John Pfeifer, 77, of Cleveland, Ohio, spearheaded the FBI probe into the Morville Lounge. Pfeifer told The Sentinel last year that during an 18-month period the lounge deposited $250,000 in checks alone for prostitution and gambling. "We don't know how much cash the place took in," he said.
At the time of the expansion in 1966, Richardson, according to court documents, said Pfeifer was questioning him about the lounge regularly. Richardson said in court that following those interviews he received harassing phone calls and threats from unknown persons. He said he feared for his life and feared he was losing control over his own property. He decided to close the lounge but said Hewitt refused to do.
When this happened, Richardson said he asked the sheriff to evict Hewitt from the Morville property. Richardson said his business associate Frank Junkin of Natchez was present at the time as was Truman "Buddy" Sanford, one of Richardson's employees who was also later convicted in the lounge case.
Richardson testified in federal court that the next day, "Curt Hewitt come to me and wanted to know why I was wanting to get him run out of the parish...I told him I didn't want him run out of the parish. I wanted him run off the place." He said Hewitt "just laughed about it," but threatened to get even. Soon, Richardson said, the telephone harassment began
"You don't know whether to go to bed at night or sit up," Richardson said under oath. "Every time (I) talked to the FBI in respect to anything, they knew about it. They knew it when I talked to the Sheriff." He said he believed his own home was burned to the ground as a result of his talking to the FBI.
A farmer and a rancher, Richardson said he once met Pfeifer at the City Bank building in Natchez. Richardson testified that the next day he got three anonymous calls quizzing him about that meeting. He said a short man, whose identity was unknown to him, threatened him at the Shamrock Motel in Vidalia.
"I told Mr. Pfeifer a dozen times why didn't he close it and he thought I was kidding but I wasn't," Richardson said in federal court. When asked why he didn't hire a lawyer and go to court to close it, Richardson said he figured if the State Police couldn't close it neither could a lawyer.
In response to a federal prosecutor's question on whether he took the phone threats seriously, Richardson answered: "I sure did. I think you would, too. Anybody would. People riding around with machine guns in their cars and shooting up and down the levee."
One Klansman who became an FBI informant -- Orvin Clarence "Coonie" Poissot -- told agents that he joined the Ferriday-Clayton Original Knights unit in 1965 and that he was on a wrecking crew that went to Tallulah to kill a black tire store owner Moses Williams Sr. on behalf of the Tallulah Klan. Williams, who was active in registering blacks to vote, was not harmed, but his tire shop was burned to the ground in October 1965. Williams told The Sentinel that an empty "brand new" five-gallon gasoline can was found behind the shop.
Poissot told the FBI he wasn't involved in the arson of Williams' shop, records show, but said the Tallulah Klan and Ferriday-Clayton Klan did each other's "dirty work" to avoid identification by locals. He said to reciprocate for the arson of Williams' shop that the Tallulah Klan was commissioned to burn down the Morville Lounge but the project never went down.
Instead, Poissot said that in November 1965 -- a month after the Tallulah fire -- he and Timmy Loftin decided to harass the operators of the Morville Lounge, who lived in mobile homes on the property. Loftin was a former Ferriday police officer and in December 1964, he was one of two officers on duty the night of the Frank Morris arson.
Poissot told agents he and Loftin went to the Morville Lounge around 11 p.m. and brought with them Loftin's 30.06 rifle. Poissot said he fired six rounds into the roof of the lounge. He said Loftin didn't shoot and the two men sped away in Loftin's 1964 light green Ford XL 500. According to Sentinel sources, Loftin had been severely beaten at Blackie Drane's lounge on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. a few weeks earlier, and had been transported by deputy Frank DeLaughter in his patrol car to Ferriday, where Loftin was taken by another man to a doctor for treatment.
Poissot said he "took this upon himself" to shoot up the lounge because the "Klan had put the idea into his head," and that he had been severely beaten there several weeks earlier. He told the FBI that Loftin expressed a hatred for Drane and called him "a common hoodlum."
Drane, who handled casino operations at the Morville Lounge, Ed Fuller, an employee of Drane's, and DeLaughter, a friend to both, were each tried and convicted in the early 1970s in federal court for the October 1965 beating of William Cliff Davis in the Ferriday jail. Drane had accused Davis of stealing a slot machine motor and reported it to DeLaughter. Records show Davis, an employee of Drane's, was brought to the jail where he was beaten with a board wrapped with a towel, tortured with a cattle prod and forced to remain a few days at a facility for alcoholics in Jackson, La., before being dropped off at one of Drane's clubs in a sheriff's office vehicle. Davis soon fled Concordia and wasn't seen again until the federal trial years later.
Fuller, records show, had a reputation as a fierce bouncer known to use brass knuckles and ax handles to beat customers who he considered unruly or who owed him or Blackie Drane gambling debts. In 1964, FBI records show, Fuller, then 37, who had an arrest record for violent crime, was for a period the leader of the Sligo Unit of the White Knights in Adams County and was questioned about Klan violence by the House un-American Activities Committee in 1966 during its probe of the KKK.
Known for his brutality to prisoners, many of whom were never charged with a crime while jailed, Frank DeLaughter, 37, was also implicated, documents show, in murders and extortion throughout the 1960s. After his conviction in the Morville and Davis cases, records show that DeLaughter boasted to employees of Roger Brothers Pallet Co. in Ferriday, where he worked after his brief prison term, that he thought no more "of killing a man than a rabbit."
While the Morville Lounge was closed by newly-elected Dist. Atty. W.C. Falkenheiner in early 1967, an FBI probe into the lounge continued -- lasting six years -- and resulted in the conviction of law officers, mobsters and madams.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|