Chronology of 1964 Morris arson; evidence points to 'Big Frank' as engineer
by Stanley Nelson - posted Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 @ 1:01 pm
All trails involving the arson murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris in 1964 lead to one man -- Frank DeLaughter -- a notorious deputy and Klansman in the 1960s who had both the motive and the means to engineer the crime.
In Concordia Parish in 1964, the Klan terrorized the black community, sometimes with the help of law enforcement. Black men, and occasionally white men, were beaten on flimsy rumors of sexual relationships with women of the opposite race, or simply for racial mixing. White women were identified by name as prostitutes and accused in Klan pamphlets of sexual involvement with black men, who were also identified. While accused white women were ostracized and ridiculed, accused black men were forced to leave the parish or faced grave danger, including death.
"There was a hysteria during that period," recalls John Pfeifer, a Marine veteran and retired FBI agent who arrived in Concordia in 1966. An English literature major from Princeton, the Ohio native became an FBI agent in 1964 and a short time later was working out of the bureau's New Orleans division, which covers Concordia.
There, Pfeifer and another agent were chosen to study cases of Klan violence, prostitution, gambling and police brutality: "Then the bureau decided it was time for Ferriday. There was a lot in the files about Concordia Parish. We didn't have enough time to read them all."
Pfeifer, now 79, assessed early on that the best way to stop the violence was to go after the sheriff's office, which appeared to be complicit in the lawlessness. He targeted Sheriff Noah Cross and DeLaughter, the deputy who stood 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed in excess of 265 pounds. He was known as "Big Frank" and was considered a terror in the black community.
Pfeifer's six-year investigation of the Morville Lounge, a mob-based prostitution and gambling operation 14 miles south of Vidalia, resulted in the federal convictions of pimps and prostitutes as well as the sheriff and DeLaughter, who was also separately convicted for police brutality in the beating of a prisoner. Pfeifer also came to consider DeLaughter the prime suspect in the murder of Morris.
The FBI's probe into the arson intensified in 1967. One informant, E.D. Morace, a Ferriday mechanic and Klansman, told the bureau several complaints had been lodged against Morris in 1964: That prostitutes were turning tricks in the back room of his shop and that he was flirting with white women. In four years, the Sentinel has not found a single witness to affirm these allegations.
There were other racially explosive issues, too: The shoe shop had an integrated clientele and Morris was a successful black businessman, factors which inflamed the Klan.
Morace also told the bureau about a rumor that Morris had insulted DeLaughter's wife, an allegation she denied to the FBI, bureau documents show. Morace also stated that "hard feelings" had developed between DeLaughter and Morris over a pair of cowboy boots Morris had refused to repair because the deputy had stiffed him for work in the past.
A similar story had surfaced in 1965, according to FBI documents, when the owner of KFNV Radio in Ferriday, where Morris hosted a Sunday morning gospel radio show, told the bureau that a "rumor heard in the white community" was "that on the night of the fire some unknown white man had taken his child's shoes to Morris shop to be repaired" but Morris "didn't want to take the shoes."
Based on FBI documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative and other files retrieved through the FOI by the LSU Journalism Civil Rights Cold Case Team -- coupled with a four-year Sentinel investigation and Pfeifer's criminal probes in Concordia during the 1960s -- a chronology of events before and after the arson point to DeLaughter as the man behind the crime.
THREE WEEKS BEFORE ARSON: LaSalle Parish native and Klansman O.C. "Coonie" Poissot was another major Klan informant in 1967. He said then that three weeks prior to the murder he was riding with DeLaughter in his patrol car when the deputy complained that Morris "had not been acting right" and claimed to have beaten Morris.
ONE WEEK BEFORE ARSON: A third crucial informant to come forward in 1967 was E.L. McDaniel of Natchez, who in 1964 was Grand Dragon of Mississippi's United Klans of America. McDaniel told the FBI that one week before the arson Morace asked him to send Mississippi Klansmen to Ferriday to whip "Old Frank" (Morris) for flirting with white women. McDaniel told the bureau Morace insisted the job be done on Thursday night -- Dec. 9-10 -- because the law "would be on the other side of the parish."
DAY BEFORE ARSON: Poissot said that the day before the arson -- Dec. 9 -- he was again riding with DeLaughter in his patrol car when DeLaughter said he didn't know "what he was going to do about that nigger at the shoe shop." According to Poissot, Morris and DeLaughter had argued over a pair of shoes. Poissot said that hours after DeLaughter's comments, the shop was burned. Poissot's account placed him with DeLaughter shortly before the arson.
That same day, Dec. 9, according to McDaniel, Morace called to say: "The rabbit hunt is off -- forget about it," meaning the proposed beating of Morris had been aborted.
Pfeifer believes the trigger for the arson was the argument over the shoes and the motive boiled down to a "personal deal with Frank DeLaughter because DeLaughter was angry at Morris...He was going to teach him not to be uppity."
HOURS BEFORE ARSON: Jake Davis, one of two teen brothers cleaning up in Morris' shop on the night of the arson, told the Sentinel in 2008 that three white men rushed into the store, cornered Morris and berated him. Davis said Morris appeared shaken, paid the brothers and sent them home.
Were they local Klansmen warning Morris not to be in his shop at night?
"Frank Morris probably figured 'those guys are really going to cause trouble,'" Pfeifer says, and decided he had to stay at the shop that night to protect his livelihood.
AFTER MIDNIGHT (December 10, 1964): Ferriday on-duty police officers George Sewell and Timmy Lofton told the FBI days after the arson that sometime after midnight they traveled almost to Vidalia before returning to Ferriday and observed Morris' shop ablaze. They watched Morris emerge from the back of the shop in flames and seconds later rushed him to the hospital. They told the FBI that Morris said he saw two men, but didn't identify them.
Morris told other law enforcement personnel, including the FBI, that he saw two men outside the front of his shop, one holding a gas can spreading fuel and the other holding a shotgun. He said the man holding the shotgun prevented him from an easy exit out the front door once the fire was ignited.
The fact that the man with the shotgun didn't shoot Morris is revealing, Pfeifer said. If the two men went there specifically to kill Morris, why didn't the man with the shotgun shoot him?
"That's the safe thing to do -- just shoot him and get the heck out of town," Pfeifer said.
THE SHOP ABLAZE: Delbert Matthews, then 17, told the Sentinel in 2010 that he was working the night of the arson as the lone attendant at the Coast Service Station two blocks down the street when DeLaughter, dressed in civilian clothes, filled his personal car with gas while watching the fire.
"It's quite in DeLaughter's character to be close enough to gloat and make sure that his plan was working," Pfeifer said. "Obviously, too, he was establishing an alibi."
TWO WHITE FRIENDS: Friends of Morris interviewed by the Sentinel during the past four years said that at the hospital Morris, heavily sedated with morphine, told them that "two white friends" were responsible for the fire. Some thought Morris knew his attackers but was afraid to identify them.
Yet although they asked, Morris never identified his killers to his attending physician, two Catholic priests, a Baptist minister whose wife had been Morris' schoolmate, his best friend, his longtime employee and even his father.
Were the "two white friends" simply Morris' generic description of his attackers? Did he know that DeLaughter was responsible for the arson although the deputy didn't physically commit the crime?
"Obviously, Frank Morris would have easily recognized Frank DeLaughter had he been one of the men at the store that night," Pfeifer said.
IN THE DEBRIS: One peculiar piece of evidence was found in the shop debris by Ferriday firemen -- a wooden suitcase filled with 14 half pints of bourbon each individually wrapped in newspaper. An FBI agent reported in 1965 that the suitcase was only "slightly scorched." Yet neither Morris' longtime employee nor his friends reported having seen the suitcase before.
Jailer, Ferriday fireman and parish deputy Junior Harp told the FBI that Morris had been suspected of bootlegging whiskey but police couldn't prove it. Pfeifer recalled "there were these rumors all over the place that Frank Morris had been like the kingpin of black crime for the parish, and was bootlegging whiskey and selling narcotics. It was all untrue."
Pfeifer said he believes DeLaughter started the rumors to "lead the trail away from himself" because he "was the engineer of the arson."
If the suitcase was planted at the scene, said Pfeifer, "it was very coldly thought out as a scheme. I don't think DeLaughter wanted Morris to burn up in the place. But he could have wanted to have evidence that Morris was doing crooked things" and make it appear "that the arson was retaliation by competitive bootleggers."
THE NATCHEZ CONNECTION: In 1967, McDaniel, the Natchez Klan leader, told the bureau that after the fire he asked Morace, the Ferriday Klansman, why "they had killed" Morris. McDaniel said Morace answered: "That smart son of a bitch made us kill him." He said Morace also told him that if he (Morace), James Scarborough of Ferriday, Tommie Lee Jones and Thore L. "Tog" Torgerson, both of Natchez, were arrested that McDaniel should immediately bond them out of the Concordia Parish jail. McDaniel indicated he assumed these four men committed the crime although none made an admission.
The four were identified by the bureau as members of the Silver Dollar Group, a militant Klan offshoot dedicated to fighting Civil Rights with violence. All four men had been linked to wrecking crews -- Klan hit squads that carried out attacks.
The FBI appeared close to turning Jones into an informant in 1967. He admitted involvement in several crimes, including Klan-sponsored beatings of black men and attempting to intimidate white employers into firing black workers. When Jones began to talk to the bureau, word got back to Silver Dollar Group members, who considered killing Jones. Before long, Jones hired a lawyer. He adamantly denied involvement in the Morris arson. Jones told agents that if they arrested him for the Morris murder they would also have to arrest DeLaughter, adding that the deputy was heavily involved in Klan activities.
In 1967, agents reinterviewed the two police officers who took Morris to the hospital. Lofton, who has since died, told the bureau DeLaughter was his "enemy" and "the worse kind of human...of low moral character...capable of any criminal act," including the Morris arson. Sewell agreed but said he couldn't prove it.
Pfeifer said that during the 1960s not a single source in Concordia Parish reported hearing anyone admit to the crime: "None of the perpetrators ever said, 'I did it.'"
NEW INFORMATION 2009: For more than four decades, the Morris case file seemed destined for dust. But in 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice reopened the case.
Two years later, Bill Frasier of Minden, heard about it. He told the Sentinel he immediately recalled a conversation he'd had with his brother-in-law in the late 1960s while the two were working for a pipeline company.
Frasier said the man -- Leonard Spencer of Rayville -- said he was involved in the arson of a black-owned business in Ferriday. Frasier said Spencer also indicated that a Klansman named Coonie Poissot, the man with DeLaughter the day before the arson, was also involved.
Frasier said that although he thought Spencer was "just blowing" in the 1960s, he visited the FBI's Monroe office in the summer of 2009 -- two and one-half years ago -- and told the bureau what he knew.
His sister, Brenda Rhodes, told the Sentinel last year that she was married to Leonard Spencer in the 1960s. She said that in the early 1970s, following her break-up with Spencer, she renewed a friendship with a man she had first met years earlier at her mother's truck stop in Tallulah, La. She identified that man as Coonie Poissot.
Rhodes said that one day in the kitchen of her home at Minden, Poissot began talking about his involvement in an arson in Ferriday. She said Poissot also identified her ex-husband, Spencer, as a participant in the arson. Rhodes recalled that Poissot said no one was suppose to be in the shop that night and the perpetrators were surprised when a black man came to the front of the building.
Spencer's son, William "Boo" Spencer, told the Sentinel in 2010 he has heard his father talk about the arson, too.
Interviewed by the Sentinel in the summer of 2010, Leonard Spencer admitted to having been a Klansman in the 1960s and discussed how Klan wrecking crews worked. But he adamantly denied knowing Coonie Poissot or anything about the Morris arson.