Search for KKK leader Sam Bowers led to discovery of Morville Lounge
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, August 20th, 2009 @ 8:13 am
A search for notorious Klan leader Sam Bowers inadvertently led the FBI in the fall of 1966 to the Mafia-operated prostitution and gambling den known as the Morville Lounge, well hidden behind the Mississippi River levee at Deer Park in Concordia Parish.
The bureau learned in the days to follow that during an 18-month period the lounge generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from prostitution alone. Checks written for call girl services during that time totaled a quarter of a million dollars, one FBI agent said.
Retired agents John Pfeifer, 77, of Cleveland, Ohio, and Theodore M. Gardner, 71, of Fairfax, Va., discussed the federal probe into the lounge for the first time ever in interviews during the past week with the Concordia Sentinel. Gardner worked in Concordia for only a six-month period while Pfeifer served as resident agent here for 12 years.
Pfeifer and Gardner were assigned to Concordia during the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1966 when FBI intelligence and informants indicated that 24 black men were missing from the parish and had possibly been killed, a figure that proved inaccurate, the agents said. Pfeifer said when he left the parish in 1978 that he knew of only two unsolved murders in Concordia involving black men, both occurring in 1964 -- that of 51-year-old Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris and 25-year-old Joseph "JoeEd" Edwards, an employee of the Shamrock Motel in Vidalia whose abandoned Buick was found on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy.
Edwards, who, like Morris, has been the subject of many stories in The Sentinel in the past two years, "was positively done away with," said Pfeifer, who said he didn't know who killed him.
The agents were told by superiors in 1966 to "clean up" Concordia Parish, which Gardner said was considered "lawless territory. The bureau wanted us to live in Concordia, specifically Ferriday, and let everybody know who we were and what we were doing there."
He said, "John and I were both former Marines and John was one of the best FBI agents ever. I was enlisted and he was an officer. We got along great."
The two men lived at the Patricia Motel in Ferriday where they soon learned that their rooms had been bugged by a South Central Bell linesman who was a Klansman. Because of that the agents initially had to discuss bureau business on a nearby pay phone.
A short time after arriving, the assistant agent-in-charge from the New Orleans bureau informed the agents that a raid in Mississippi had resulted in the arrests of 14 White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, considered at the time to be the most militant and violent Klan in Mississippi.
But one of the suspects they really wanted -- Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers of Laurel, Miss. -- "had escaped and was rumored to be in the Deer Park area of Concordia Parish," said Gardner. "We were told to go find him right away."
"In Concordia Parish," said Pfeifer, "the best friend of the White Knights were guys who were members of the old Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan." He some of these Klansmen eventually formed an offshoot known as the Silver Dollar Group.
"John and I got in the bureau car and drove down to Deer Park," said Gardner, "It was about midnight, just pitch black, and we went down the road (Hwy. 15) pretty far but didn't see anything. Coming back along the road I looked down toward the river and I saw what looked like a house on the bottom of the levee on the river side. I said to John, 'Let's go check that out.'"
Gardner said they realized the closer "we got that the place was jammed packed with cars. We thought we were at a Klan meeting. We decided that, well, we're down here now. We're not going to drive away. We went in."
As they entered the lounge, the two men expected to find Klansmen. Instead, they were shocked to find, said Pfeifer, that the lounge was filled to capacity "with men in business suits, and girls running around in bathing suits. It was early fall, so we knew these people weren't swimming."
Gardner likened the scene to a Playboy club.
"There were girls running around in bathing suits and negligees, all good-looking and some quite young," said Gardner. "We saw a roulette wheel, a dice table, all types of gambling going on."
The two agents sidled up to the bar where they talked to a man they later identified as Curt Hewitt, who they learned was the manager of the lounge and who later was convicted and served time in federal prison for racketeering charges as a result of the Morville Lounge probe.
"We showed Curt Hewitt our badges and photos of Bowers," said Pfeifer. While Hewitt said he hadn't seen Bowers, Pfeifer scanned the operation and looked down on top of the counter.
"I saw a stack of counter checks, blank and ready to be filled out," said Pfeifer. His mind began to click as he realized that if checks were being used to pay for prostitution and gambling that "we might have a case here."
When they left the lounge, Gardner said, "This guy who realized we were with the FBI came up to us and said 'I don't come up here often.'" Gardner said the man was on Gov. John McKeithen's staff.
They never found Bowers, who was later convicted for ordering the murders of three Civil Rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, and of Vernon Dahmer near Hattiesburg in 1966.
But Pfeifer said he soon realized that most of the crime in Concordia was due to "the sheriff's office" where the sheriff and a number of "corrupt line deputies" had allied with three violent Klan groups, and allowed gambling, prostitution and thievery to flourish.
"I thought to myself," Pfeifer said, chuckling, "how much nicer society would be without them in office." The Morville Lounge, he said, became his primary target, and he began what is considered within the bureau today as a textbook investigation.
In a short time, Pfeifer obtained subpoenas and "went through about a year and a half worth of deposits in Concordia Bank in Vidalia. The total amount spent at the Morville Lounge in that time in just checks for prostitution totaled $250,000. We don't know how much cash the place took in."
He said gambling revenues were also hard to pin down.
Those counter checks Pfeifer had observed on the bar counter at the lounge were used by clients to pay for prostitute services and gambling losses, he said. The lounge manager had an agreement with the management of two grocery stores in Vidalia, records show, in which the stores deposited the checks written at the lounge along with their business deposits into their bank accounts.
A substantial amount of the checks were written from Natchez and other parts of Mississippi and some from Arkansas, said Pfeifer. As Pfeifer followed the money and talked to lounge customers who had written checks for prostitution, he developed testimony and evidence that resulted in an ITAR (Interstate Transportation In Aid Of Racketeering)-prostitution conspiracy case against Hewitt, Sheriff Noah Cross, Deputy Frank DeLaughter, lounge owner J.D. Richardson and others, all of whom were convicted.
After Richardson pled guilty to conspiracy charges, he continued to refuse to implicate Cross in the case, said Pfeifer, and attempted to have his plea thrown out to delay testifying against the sheriff. Cross and DeLaughter were the two men the FBI most wanted to convict in connection with the lounge operation, records show, and Richardson's testimony on the sheriff's involvement in the lounge operation was crucial.
"Because this was considered an organized crime case, Richardson was sent to federal prison in Atlanta," said Pfeifer. "He ended up on kitchen duty next to a psychopathic murderer. Eventually, this situation along with common sense and self-preservation made him contact his new lawyer and he testified secretly before a federal Grand Jury in Alexandria."
Before that Grand Jury, said Pfeifer, Richardson directly linked Cross to the Morville operation.
"Richardson was having a problem finding the sheriff to pay him his protection money," said Pfeifer, while the sheriff was complaining that he wasn't being paid on time. This situation eventually came to a head.
Richardson and his cousin, Truman "Buddy" Sanford, testified before the Grand Jury about the day when Richardson, accompanied by Sanford, visited the sheriff's farm at Ferriday.
According to Grand Jury records, Sanford watched Richardson hand Cross an envelope with cash that Sanford said "was protection money" for the lounge. Pfeifer said Sanford heard Richardson and Cross agree that from that day forward deputy Frank DeLaughter would pick up the protection money at the lounge on Mondays -- about $200 to $250 a week in cash stuffed in a white envelope.
Pfeifer said the U.S. Attorney and other agents worked aggressively to make the case against those involved in the Morville Lounge operation. Cross and DeLaughter each were removed from the sheriff's office, he said, each served time in federal prision and neither served as law officers again.
DeLaughter worked briefly in the 1970s as a dispatcher for the Ferriday Police Department but due to his felony conviction was not allowed to carry a gun.
(Stanley Nelson can be reached at email@example.com)