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Vernon Dahmer Firebombing in Hattiesburg

(1966—2006)

Articles and information from The Clarion-Ledger investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell and Beverly Pettigrew Kraft regarding the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer's home.

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Bowers suspected in illegal gaming operation

Renewed probe of 1966 firebombing leads to scrutiny of ex-Klansman’s activities

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

Sam Bowers, the Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard tried three times on charges of masterminding the killing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, is now under state investigation on allegations he participated in an illegal gambling operation, The Clarion-Ledger has learned.

Scrutiny of the dealings of Bowers, who owns an amusement company in Laurel known as Sambo Amusement, arose as a result of a renewed probe into the Klan’s 1966 fatal firebombing of Dahmer.

Bowers’ longtime attorney, Travis Buckley of Laurel, said Thursday that an investigator for the attorney general’s office had told him that Bowers was under investigation for ‘‘gambling activities.’’

Asked about the ongoing probe, Buckley said, ‘‘I don’t talk about my client’s business in public. I can truthfully tell you I don’t know anything.’’

On Sept. 17, District Attorney Lindsay Carter and his investigator, Raymond Howell, along with Bill East, an investigator for the attorney general’s office, met with Dahmer’s sons, Vernon Jr. and Dennis, and updated them on progress in the murder case.

At the meeting, East told the family how one informant had a number of taped conversations with Laurel businessman Roy Wilson, who implicated both himself and Bowers in an illegal gambling operation. East also told the family that Wilson had apparently failed to pay income taxes on those profits.

Although authorities are investigating gambling allegations against Wilson and Bowers, Wilson has not been named as belonging to the Klan nor is he a suspect in the Dahmer case.

Vernon Dahmer Jr. praised authorities progress in their ongoing investigation. ‘‘Giant steps have been made toward collecting new evidence, and our goal is to see that Sam Bowers and his Klansmen have their day in court, and justice finally prevails,’’ he said.

Although significant, the gambling allegations are in marked contrast to charges Bowers has been tried on in the past.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 10, 1966, Klansmen firebombed the Dahmer house, the night after the elder Vernon Dahmer had announced that voters could pay their poll taxes at his grocery story next to his home.

Molotov cocktails crashed inside the store and house.

The family was awakened by a blaring horn that stuck when their car caught on fire.

While his wife helped their children escape out a back window, Vernon Dahmer rushed to the front door and shot back at firing Klansmen.

Flames seared his lungs, and he died later that day.

Bowers was tried three times in the elder Dahmer’s death but was not convicted. Each of the state trials ended in a mistrial when jurors could not unanimously agree on a verdict.

Juries, however, did convict three Klansmen, and another pleaded guilty.

Although the FBI blamed the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for the killings of Dahmer and nine others in Mississippi in the 1960s, the only conviction Bowers received came on a federal conspiracy charge, received in connection with three of the White Knights’ killings, the Mississippi Burning case. Bowers served six years in prison but was never tried for murder.

He returned in 1976 to run Sambo Amusement Co., his coin-machine business, from his home near the Masonite Mill in Laurel. He also teaches Sunday school at Hillcrest Baptist Church.

The story behind the ongoing Dahmer investigation started on April 12 when two men met with the Dahmer family.

Soon after that, they began cooperating with officials from the district attorney’s office and attorney general’s office, becoming confidential informants.

What the informants found along the way caused the investigation to broaden into allegations of illegal gambling.

Mississippi law prohibits gambling operations unless they are licensed by the state. Punishment carries up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Under both state and federal law, taxpayers must report all income even from illegal sources. Filing a false federal tax return can bring up to three years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Under state and federal law, willful tax evasion can bring up to five years and a $100,000 fine.

As to where the case might proceed next, authorities have discussed with the Dahmer family the possibility of a combined state-federal prosecution as the next step.

Any federal tax charges would have to be prosecuted by federal officials.

Any murder charges would have to be prosecuted by the state. Exactly where any gambling charges would be prosecuted has yet to be determined since a charge of gambling can be pursued by state or federal prosecutors.

Written notes taken by one informant during a July meeting with Wilson and given to the investigators detail what Wilson described as a close relationship with Bowers.

The notes quote Wilson as saying the pinball machines in his truck stop were owned by ‘‘an old friend of mine, Sam Bowers.’’

When an informant and state investigator East won enough credits on video poker and pinball machines at Wilson’s truck stop, they were each paid for winning.

When initially confronted, Wilson allegedly agreed to cooperate with authorities. But on the same day that authorities planned to seize the machines, Nov. 25, Wilson told them that Bowers had picked up the machines.

Contacted for comment on allegations he and Bowers were involved in an illegal gambling business, Wilson replied, ‘‘I don’t know why you’d call.’’

He would not comment further, citing his wife’s illness.

Asked if he had cooperated initially with authorities against Bowers, Wilson ended the conversation, saying, ‘‘I don’t need to talk right now.’’

Bowers could not be reached for comment, but Buckley said he knows nothing about the probe other than the fact a state investigator had called him.

In 1991, then-District Attorney Glenn White reopened the investigation of the Dahmer killing at the family’s request. The Mississippi Legislature funded a new investigator to aid in that probe.

Despite those efforts, a grand jury never heard the case.

Five years later, White left office, replaced by Carter, who was newly elected.

The case remained mostly dormant until last spring.

Neither Carter nor Attorney General Mike Moore would comment on the ongoing investigation.

New evidence may turn Dahmer case around

Authorities closer to indictment than ever, slain leader’s son says

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

Authorities investigating the 1966 killing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer have possible new evidence and are moving toward bringing charges, the family said Thursday.

‘‘Thirty-two years have passed since my father was murdered by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, led by Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers,’’ Dahmer’s son, Vernon Jr. said. ‘‘Aggressive investigation by the district attorney’s office and chief investigator Bill East of the state attorney general’s office has brought us closer to an indictment than at any time since the original mistrials of the late 1960s.’’

Members of the Ku Klux Klan killed Vernon Dahmer on Jan. 10, 1966, when they firebombed his home near Hattiesburg.

Juries convicted three Klansmen, sentencing them to life. A fourth, Billy Roy Pitts, pleaded guilty and testified Bowers masterminded the firebombing, but Bowers walked free when juries deadlocked without a verdict.

On Thursday, Dahmer’s son, Vernon Jr., met with officials from the district attorney’s office and East.

After the meeting, East said, ‘‘We’ve had some informants come forward, some new witnesses, and things are looking up.’’

Vernon Dahmer Jr. said authorities have uncovered ‘‘possible new evidence that Bowers gave the order to firebomb the family home and kill my father.’’

That new evidence includes statements from new witnesses as well as informants’ taped conversations with Klansmen.

One new witness told investigators that he was present in 1966 when Bowers said that something needed to be done about ‘‘the Dahmer n-----.’’

That witness’ statement mirrors a confession given to the FBI March 2, 1966, by Klansman Cecil Sessum, convicted of murder in the case: ‘‘Bowers opened the meeting by saying that something had to be done about that Dahmer n----- in Forrest County . . . Bowers said that Dahmer was getting too many n----- s to register to vote . . . Bowers said he was going to take the Dahmer matter into his own hands and that Dahmer had to be stopped.’’

Similar testimony was given by Pitts, who dropped his gun during the raid on the Dahmer house.

In a transcript of a July conversation, one Klansman referred to John’s Cafe in Laurel in the 1960s as ‘‘Klan headquarters back there in them two booths.’’

Deavours Nix, identified by the FBI as Bowers’ right-hand man in the Klan, owned John’s Cafe.

Asked Thursday about the claim regarding his cafe, Nix laughed, saying the same accusation was made more than 20 years ago.

If there were any Klansmen in the cafe, he said, ‘‘I certainly didn’t know about it.’’

In 1966, Nix was charged with murder in the Dahmer case but was never tried. He and others accused in the Dahmer case went on trial on federal conspiracy charges, but jurors deadlocked in considering the charge against him.

‘‘Lacked one person having an acquittal. There was a woman on the jury from Hattiesburg who couldn’t bring herself to vote ‘not guilty,’ ’’ Nix said Thursday. ‘‘Most of the people were acquitted. It was kind of a laugh.’’

Nix attended each Dahmer trial. ‘‘They (state officials) have nothing except Billy Roy Pitts, and he lied, lied, lied, and, in a sense, that’s what he was paid to do,’’ he said.

As for authorities’ ongoing investigation, Nix said, ‘‘It ain’t going nowhere. They got nothing. I just don’t see it going any further.

‘‘You know, all they’re going to do is cost people lawyers’ fees. Otherwise, I don’t think there’s anything they got to worry about.’’

Authorities are also pursuing allegations that Bowers, who runs a coin- machine business, participated in an illegal gambling operation.

East told the Dahmer family in a Sept. 17 meeting that one informant had a number of taped conversations with Laurel businessman Roy Wilson, who implicated both himself and Bowers in an illegal gambling operation in Laurel.

East also told the family that Wilson had apparently failed to pay income taxes on those profits. Authorities have since been cooperating with the Internal Revenue Service.

Although authorities are investigating gambling allegations against Wilson and Bowers, Wilson has not been named as belonging to the Klan, nor is he a suspect in the Dahmer case.

Contacted for comment, Wilson would not discuss the matter.

Claims of new evidence surprised Bowers’ longtime lawyer, Travis Buckley of Laurel, ‘‘That’s the first I’ve heard of it,’’ he said.

He said he couldn’t discuss new evidence without knowing more about what that evidence was.

Dahmer’s son, Vernon Jr., noted that Saturday is the anniversary of his father’s killing.

‘‘Through the years, our family has quietly endured this agonizing tragedy, but each Jan. 10 brings back the pain as if the murder happened only yesterday. It is our hope and prayer that the 33rd anniversary of his death will see a successful conclusion to this horrible chapter in our lives.’’

Family quietly marks death of activist Vernon Dahmer

But Hattiesburg remains forever moved by slaying 32 years ago

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG -- The anniversary of Vernon Dahmer’s death will pass today with no parade, no marches, no fanfare.

Yet the day he died here 32 years ago forever changed this community.

‘‘I think what happened woke up Hattiesburg to the real benefits of good race relations,’’ said Ralph Nooncaster, former president of the Chamber of Commerce. ‘‘I think it has made a community that respects people more so than if it hadn’t happened.’’

How this small Mississippi town reacted to the Ku Klux Klan’s firebombing of Dahmer’s house on Jan. 10, 1966, has been cited as a model for other cities.

In the wake of that tragedy, Nooncaster quickly raised $10,000 in this small town, with some donations for rebuilding coming from segregationists.

Eddie A. Holloway, president of the Hattiesburg City Council and acting dean of students at the University of Southern Mississippi, said local leaders ‘‘recognized that Mr. Dahmer and those who worked with him represented a significant people, a mission shared by people of character.’’

He explained that Dahmer fit none of the categories that critics had for those who pushed for the right to vote:

‘‘Outside agitator.’’ Dahmer was born and reared in the Hattiesburg community, serving on the board for the local all-black school.

‘‘Atheist.’’ He regularly worked with the Shady Grove Baptist Church and served as superintendent of Sunday school there.

‘‘America-hating communist.’’ Six of his seven sons served in the armed forces, combining for a total of 78 years in the military.

Newspapers published a photograph of four of Dahmer’s sons in military uniform, staring at the ashes of what was once their home.

That picture moved many Americans and Mississippians, said Neil McMillen, author of Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow. ‘‘It was a haunting picture of young patriots coming home.’’

Family faced threats

Before Dahmer died, the community had been far from peaceful.

He knew well what happened to those who challenged the system. One friend, Clyde Kennard, had sought to enroll at what is now the University of Southern Mississippi, only to be framed by authorities on a liquor possession charge, state Sovereignty Commission records show.

Another friend, Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers, was shot on June 12, 1963, in Jackson just after midnight.

Before night fell again that day, Dahmer brought ‘‘his guns to the front of the house,’’ recalled his widow, Ellie.

The early 1960s, she said, were filled with threats to the family.

Dahmer’s son, Dennis, was only 9 when he answered the telephone one day and told the caller his father wasn’t home.

‘‘You tell that n----- that we’re going to kill him,’’ the caller said.

Nightriders shot out the plate- glass window of the family’s grocery store so many times Dahmer put in several glass panes to minimize future repair costs.

Dahmer waited many nights with loaded shotguns, peering out his window for nightriders. He and his wife, Ellie, slept in shifts.

‘‘I slept the first part of the night,’’ she recalled. ‘‘I went to bed early and got up at 1 (a.m.).’’

With the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the bleary-eyed shifts ended.

‘‘The threatening calls had stopped, the acts of violence,’’ recalled Dahmer’s son, Dennis. ‘‘We pretty much figured it was all over with. Blacks had accomplished the right to vote.’’

In fact, racial cooperation here had improved so much that Dahmer volunteered to let local black Mississippians in the community pay their poll taxes at his grocery store.

The same night the radio announced the plans, two carloads of members of the Ku Klux Klan sped into his gravel driveway about 2 a.m. Jan. 10.

Molotov cocktails crashed into the family store and house. A blaring horn, stuck when a car caught on fire, awakened Vernon Dahmer.

While his wife helped their children escape out a back window, he rushed to the front door and shot back at firing Klansmen. Flames seared his lungs, and he died later that day.

‘‘There was no way my dad stood a chance against two carloads of armed individuals,’’ said Dahmer’s son, Dennis. ‘‘If he hadn’t done what he had done, they probably would have killed us all.’’

Hours before he breathed his last breath, Dahmer said, ‘‘What happened to us last night can happen to anybody, white or black. At one time, I didn’t think so, but I have changed my mind.’’

Dahmer died before he could exercise the right he had fought years to have: the right to vote.

Landmark conviction

Months after Dahmer was killed, a grand jury in Hattiesburg returned murder indictments against 15 men identified by the FBI as members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The first man prosecuted was Cecil Sessum, who confessed to authorities two months later, describing himself as an exalted cyclops for the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

But whether Sessum would be convicted was up to a jury made up entirely of white men.

One of those jurors was Charles Kroen, then a 47-year-old refinery worker.

Kroen figured there was no way he would serve on the jury. Defense lawyers learned he was Catholic, a religion the Klan despised, and, even worse, a Yankee who moved to Mississippi in 1957.

Somehow, he made the panel.

During deliberations, some jurors criticized the fact the state’s key witness -- Billy Roy Pitts, who testified he went on the raid to kill Dahmer -- was a convicted felon now that he had pleaded guilty to murder.

Kroen stood and spoke.

‘‘I’ll have my say and then I’ll sit down. This man was killed because he wanted people to be able to vote. They burned his house.

‘‘Just because I’m Catholic, someone could decide tomorrow to do the same thing and burn my house. Just because you’re Baptist, someone could decide tomorrow to do the same thing to you.’’

One juror scoffed, ‘‘Oh, they wouldn’t do that.’’

Another juror interjected: ‘‘Remember Hitler.’’

The room filled with veterans of World War II and the Korean War fell silent for moments.

Kroen said that quiet resolve led jurors to unanimously conclude Sessum had been involved in killing Dahmer.

The conviction also would mark what is believed to be Mississippi’s first conviction of a Klansman for killing a black man. Sessum was sentenced to life in prison.

‘‘I sat on a jury with 11 of the finest men I’ve ever met in my life,’’ Kroen recalled. ‘‘I was proud to have served on it.’’

Other trials resulted in juries convicting three other Klansmen, each sentenced to life in prison.

But Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard identified in testimony as ordering the raid, walked free when juries deadlocked, failing to convict him.

Race relations improved

For years, this sprawling city of more than 40,000 was little more than a stopover for tourists traveling somewhere else.

It still bears the nickname the ‘‘Hub City,’’ its only seeming glory its close proximity to New Orleans and other cities.

There’s still evidence of that. A billboard on one highway encourages tourists traveling to casinos to stop here and ‘‘sleep cheap.’’

The road to empowering black citizens, however, has been rocky.

After black residents challenged the city’s at-large system of selecting leaders in 1977, testimony detailed racial polarization in voting.

One city commissioner was asked on the witness stand what he believed black residents thought of the at-large form of government. He replied, ‘‘Don’t know and don’t care.’’

Relations have improved since but aren’t perfect, Holloway said. ‘‘There are some things that are still disproportionate . . . in terms of the character of jobs, underemployment, institutional needs. That should not overshadow the progresses that have been made.’’

For instance, the city has poured money into the all-black community of Palmer’s Crossing since annexing it seven years ago, he said. ‘‘I think tremendous improvements have been made.’’

At Hattiesburg High School, students read Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘‘Letter From the Birmingham Jail’’ in English classes and discuss the concept of diversity.

At the University of Southern Mississippi, which didn’t accept its first black student until the mid- 1960s, minorities now make up about a fifth of the student population.

Today, a key campus building bears the name of Dahmer’s friend, a black student denied entrance four decades ago: Clyde Kennard.

Town works on its image

In recent years, Hattiesburg has consistently been ranked as one of the nation’s top places to live.

In 1992, the U.S. Conference of Mayors named Hattiesburg the ‘‘Most Livable Small Community.’’

The New York Times recently featured Hattiesburg as an attractive place to retire.

Nooncaster said those rankings are no accident.

‘‘I’ve been here for 45 years, and I’ve watched what has happened since the incident,’’ he said. ‘‘The way this total community responded instead of dividing into two factions -- even the segregationists worked together to heal this issue to make this a community not known for its outbreak of violence between blacks and whites.’’

The work and sacrifices of Vernon Dahmer and his family on issues such as voter registration are a constant memory, Holloway said. ‘‘I think in a small way, the Dahmer family has been as paramount to Hattiesburg as Dr. (Martin Luther) King has been to the country.’’

Family reflects on legacy

On Friday, Vernon Dahmer’s widow, Ellie, and his son, Vernon Jr., stood next to his grave at Shady Grove Baptist Church.

‘‘We still miss him,’’ she said. ‘‘We would like for him to see the progress.’’

That progress includes better opportunities, she said. ‘‘Jobs have really opened up for blacks.’’

But, she said, ‘‘I think he’d be saddened by the turnout for the vote. He’d say, ‘What did I give my life for?’ ’’

The cemetery transports Vernon Dahmer Jr. to the times he spent with his father. ‘‘One day I’ll be here,’’ he said.

He held his hands over his face as tears flowed.

‘‘I feel very close to my father. He taught me all the tricks and trades of surviving in the world as a black person, how to be a decent, honest and caring citizen. All of that created a special bond.’’

Warrant issued 32 years after crime

Life sentence nets no state time

Billy Roy Pitts freed in 1971 after serving federal sentence in killing of Vernon Dahmer

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

One of the Ku Klux Klansmen sentenced to life for killing Vernon Dahmer in 1966 never served a day in state prison, research by The Clarion-Ledger has revealed.

Billy Roy Pitts -- who would be a likely witness in any reprosecution of the Dahmer case -- testified in trials that he and other Klansmen firebombed Dahmer’s house the night of Jan. 10, 1966, killing him.

Court records show that Pitts was sentenced to life in prison in Mississippi after pleading guilty to murder and first-degree arson.

The Clarion-Ledger began questioning Mississippi Department of Corrections officials Monday about Pitts. On Friday, they executed a warrant for his arrest.

Livingston Parish, La., Sheriff’s Department deputies confirmed Friday that they had received a warrant for Pitts’ arrest near Baton Rouge but had not picked him up as of 8:30 p.m. Friday.

On Friday, Forrest County District Attorney Lindsay Carter said, ‘‘We’re hoping that Pitts will cooperate with the present investigation.’’

Authorities have said the renewed probe of the Dahmer case was prompted by both new evidence and new witnesses.

In an interview Thursday, Pitts said he had yet to be interviewed by authorities but that he would be reluctant to testify.

He said he was released from prison in 1971 and that he thought his life sentence from Mississippi ran concurrently with a federal sentence he served.

Informed authorities considered them separate, he replied, ‘‘If that’s true, that means Mississippi still has a hold on me. That bothers me.’’

Pitts was 21 when the lantern- jawed Klansman went on the early morning Jan. 10, 1966, raid that killed NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, who had announced that black residents could pay their poll taxes at his grocery store.

Awakened by a blaring horn on a car the Klan blew up, Dahmer ran to the front door and fired back at the two carloads of Klansmen. His family escaped out a back window.

The firing led to confusion. One car had a tire shot out, forcing Klansmen to crowd into the remaining vehicle. Pitts dropped his gun, evidence that led the FBI to him.

Pitts and 15 other Klansmen were arrested, and he eventually cooperated with agents in the case.

He was the key witness in each of the state trials, identifying those who joined him in the raid.

His testimony helped lead to four convictions:

Cecil Sessum for murder, sentenced to life March 15, 1968.

William Thomas Smith for murder, sentenced to life July 19, 1968.

Lawrence Byrd for arson, sentenced to 10 years Nov. 9, 1968.

Charles Clifford Wilson for murder, sentenced to life Jan. 31, 1969.

But the man Pitts identified as masterminding the raid, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, was never convicted when juries deadlocked.

Federal authorities guarded Pitts, hiding him in various locations to protect him from the Klan.

On June 6, 1968, Pitts was sentenced to life, plus another 10-year sentence, which were to run concurrently.

A month later, Pitts was sentenced to five years after pleading guilty to two federal conspiracy charges in connection with the Dahmer case.

That federal sentence was to run concurrently with a five-year sentence Pitts received on an unrelated state conviction for kidnapping Jack Watkins, whom the Klan believed was involved in beating up Byrd.

Taken into federal custody in January 1968, Pitts served prison time in California before being transferred to a prison in New Mexico.

What happened next is detailed in FBI records obtained by The Clarion-Ledger.

In a July 8, 1970, letter, Pitts wrote Roy Moore, special agent in charge of the FBI in Mississippi, saying, ‘‘My treatment here is like hell. . . . Mr. Moore, my punishment is great and is not justified to myself in any way. . . . There was a deal. But this was not the deal.’’

Subsequent reports detail ongoing discussions between federal officials and prosecutors in Forrest County, District Attorney Jimmy Finch and County Attorney Jim Dukes Sr., regarding Pitts’ imminent release from federal prison.

‘‘Neither Dukes nor Finch wants Pitts to serve any state time at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman, Miss., since they feel this would mean certain death for Pitts at the hands of some inmates,’’ a July 14, 1970, report said.

Dukes and Finch ‘‘agree that they will be able to induce Gov. John Bell Williams to grant executive clemency to Pitts for some of the sentences he has received on state charges (of arson, kidnapping and murder),’’ the report said.

No pardon for Pitts happened, according to records from the secretary of state’s office. FBI reports on the issue stopped in September 1970.

In an interview this week, Dukes said, ‘‘The last I heard (about Pitts) was when he was in federal custody (for conspiracy).’’

Neither he nor Moore could recall details of those conversations. Williams and Finch have since died.

Pitts’ federal conspiracy sentence ended Sept. 3, 1971, said Anne Diestel, archivist for the federal Bureau of Prisons records.

Pitts confirmed that he has been out of prison since that time.

Exactly how Pitts managed to go free without serving his life sentence remains a mystery.

An FBI document from June 4, 1970, indicated Mississippi had a hold on Pitts, requiring him to go to state prison after his federal sentence.

But Forrest County Circuit Clerk Lou Ellen Adams said that Mississippi must not have had a hold on Pitts when he was released from federal prison in 1971 or he would have been transferred to state prison.

Asked earlier in the week how Pitts managed to avoid serving a life sentence, corrections spokesman Ken Jones replied, ‘‘I don’t know how that happens.’’

Jones said then that corrections records indicate that Pitts’ kidnapping sentence was to run concurrently with his federal sentence, but that officials could find nothing in the records about Pitts’ convictions for murder and arson.

On Friday, Jones said that ‘‘a search of MDOC (Mississippi Department of Corrections) records revealed that a retainer had been placed against Billy Roy Pitts in 1968 while in federal custody. Subsequently, a warrant for his arrest has been issued by the MDOC.’’

Of the four other Klansmen convicted in the Dahmer case, two had their sentences commuted.

In 1970, Gov. Williams commuted Byrd’s sentence after Byrd had served only two years of his 10- year sentence.

Before leaving office in 1976, Gov. Bill Waller commuted the life sentence of his former client, Charles Clifford Wilson, to time served after Wilson had served seven years of a life sentence. Waller represented Wilson in the federal conspiracy case in which a jury deadlocked on the question of whether Wilson was involved in conspiring to kill Dahmer.

Asked this week if he commuted Wilson’s sentence because he thought Wilson was innocent, Waller replied, ‘‘I can assure you it wasn’t because he was innocent. It may have been for another reason.’’

Waller said he didn’t recall what that reason was.

Pitts plans to surrender soon

In tape left at Clarion-Ledger, former Klansman apologizes for violence

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

 

Billy Roy Pitts, wanted by Mississippi authorities for his role in the Ku Klux Klan’s 1966 murder of Vernon Dahmer, said he plans to surrender soon and could testify against fellow conspirators.

‘‘If and when I testify again, it’ll be for the Dahmer family,’’ Pitts said in a 15-minute audiotape delivered Thursday to The Clarion-Ledger. ‘‘I owe the Dahmer family that much. I really do.’’

Pitts, who pleaded guilty to his involvement in the Jan. 10, 1966, raid, was the key witness against his co-defendants in the trials, resulting in the convictions of four Klansmen. But the man he identified as masterminding the murder of the Hattiesburg NAACP leader, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, walked away free when juries deadlocked.

Pitts apologized for his part in Klan violence and shared a story of what helped him change his heart:

‘‘I remember a project that I was on with the Klan where we went into this community and shot up this house and set it on fire, these women and children on their hands and knees, screaming and begging for mercy, crying out for help from God. That bothered me very bad.’’

On Jan. 17, The Clarion-Ledger reported that Pitts had not served his life sentence for Dahmer’s murder. Pitts, who had been living in Louisiana and is being sought, remained at large Thursday night.

Although Pitts said he plans to turn himself in, he didn’t specify when: ‘‘I’m not trying to escape justice. I’m trying to get my thoughts together on exactly what I should do.’’

Forrest County Assistant District Attorney Bob Helfrich urged Pitts to surrender quickly: ‘‘He needs to come in, and we need to interview him to see what help he can give us in the reopening of this case.

If he had a deal (then) and that deal was to testify previously, in our opinion he hasn’t completed it because there’s still some testifying to do.’’

Explanations for why Pitts never served his sentence are being sought by Mississippi officials, from Gov. Kirk Fordice to U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

Daniel Dunne, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said Pitts’ prison file is being reviewed to determine how Pitts avoided serving his Mississippi sentence. Officials said Pitts finished his federal conspiracy sentence in 1971 after serving nearly four years of his five-year sentence.

On his tape, Pitts said he served his entire sentence: ‘‘Now these other people done a few years, and they’re on the street now.’’

Of the four Klansmen convicted, two had their sentences commuted, one of them to two years. The other two were paroled from their life sentences as soon as they were eligible — 10 years.

Pitts said state and federal officials promised him then that he would never have to serve time in Mississippi if he cooperated. ‘‘Evidently, this was a breach of promise,’’ he said.

During his taped statement, Pitts said he was recruited into the Klan by a fellow employee who quoted the Bible, ‘‘telling me how it would be God’s will, we’ve got to use our bodies as a living sacrifice. And one thing led to another, a few cross burnings, harassing people. The next thing I know, they have us out burning houses and killing people.

‘‘I wanted out, but I also knew there was no way out other than the way I went,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m very sorry for what I’ve done.’’

On the tape, Pitts reiterated what he told The Clarion-Ledger two weeks ago — that he feared returning to Mississippi.

‘‘My life in the hands of the Mississippi authorities probably wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel,’’ he said. ‘‘I can remember a time if a man was put in jail, that a group of men would go in the woods and hold his court for him while the sheriff would turn his head, and they would get him out of jail and hang him off the Tallahoma Bridge.’’

As for where he is now, Pitts said, ‘‘Not even my family — no one — knows my whereabouts. I am preparing myself to turn myself over to the authorities. I have a couple of things I must do.’’

Pitts didn’t say what.

OUR VIEWS: Editorial - Mr. Pitts, for justice, turn yourself in

The slaying of Vernon Dahmer, killed in the Ku Klux Klan firebombing of his home in 1966, could very well be a viable case now, with the testimony of one man.

Billy Roy Pitts, wanted for his role in the slaying, could testify against his fellow conspirators.

Pitts pleaded guilty to his involvement in the Jan. 10, 1966, raid that killed the Hattiesburg NAACP leader. But, the man he identified as masterminding the slaying, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, walked away free when juries deadlocked. Now, Pitts is feeling remorse.

In a tape delivered to The Clarion-Ledger, Pitts said he wants to testify, to bring the cause to justice: ‘‘I owe the Dahmer family that much. I really do.’’

To this, we say: Billy Roy, turn yourself in.

In the tape, Pitts says: ‘‘I remember a project that I was on with the Klan where we went into this community and shot up this house and set it on fire, these women and children on their hands and knees, screaming and begging for mercy, crying out for help from God.

‘‘That bothered me very bad,’’ he said.

It should.

Those days of hate in Mississippi in the ’60s were written in blood and carved in the hearts of those who suffered and those who caused the suffering.

The evil that was done can never be erased. But, those who committed these acts can do what they can to make amends.

By coming forth and testifying against those who committed this horror, Pitts can help put the past behind him and work for the cause of justice.

There is no heavier heart than one that is carrying the burden of guilt, of complicity, of assassination.

Turn yourself in, Billy Roy.

Ex-Klansman Pitts surrenders

Convicted in killing of Vernon Dahmer, Pitts has not served state sentence

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

Billy Roy Pitts — who never served a life sentence for his involvement in the Ku Klux Klan’s 1966 murder of Vernon Dahmer — surrendered to Forrest County authorities at 11 a.m. Monday.

But they would not disclose Pitts’ location.

"Billy Roy Pitts has turned himself in and is presently in the Mississippi Department of Corrections custody,’’ said Assistant District Attorney Bob Helfrich.

He said prosecution of those responsible for Dahmer’s death will be handled by the district attorney’s and the attorney general’s offices.

Said Attorney General Mike Moore: ‘‘We were glad to arrange for Mr. Pitts to turn himself in. We look forward to using him as a witness in our case.’’

Pitts’ surrender came three weeks after The Clarion-Ledger reported he never had served his life sentence in the Jan. 10, 1966, murder.

Pitts, who pleaded guilty to his involvement in the raid, was the key witness against co-defendants in trials that resulted in the convictions of four Klansmen.

But the man he identified as masterminding the murder of Hattiesburg NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers of Laurel, walked away free when juries deadlocked.

In a tape delivered to The Clarion-Ledger last week, Pitts apologized for his part in Klan violence and said, ‘‘If and when I testify again, it’ll be for the Dahmer family. I owe the Dahmer family that much.’’

The former Klansman served nearly four years of a federal conspiracy conviction before being released in 1971. Federal officials are investigating how Pitts avoided serving his life sentence in Mississippi.

On the tape, Pitts said authorities pledged that if he served his federal sentence, he wouldn’t have to do state time: ‘‘Evidently, this was a breach of promise.’’

Mississippi reopened the case last spring when two men came forward with new evidence, resulting in investigations into the Dahmer murder and claims that Bowers and Laurel businessman Roy Wilson participated in an illegal gambling business.

Dahmer’s son, Vernon Dahmer Jr., said the family is ‘‘very pleased that he (Pitts) volunteered to turn himself in. We’re hoping that the information he provides will move our case forward.’’

Bowers admitted jury tampering, documents show

Intimidation, contact by Klan used to sway jurors, FBI notes say

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers told an FBI informant that he tampered with a jury to ensure he never went to state prison for ordering the 1966 fatal firebombing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, documents show.

In May 1968, Bowers walked free when a jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of guilt, unable to convict him of ordering the Ku Klux Klan’s Jan. 10, 1966, firebombing.

Notes taken from FBI files reveal that an FBI informant reported on June 17, 1968 -- about a month after Bowers’ arson trial -- that the imperial wizard told him Klansmen ‘‘had contacted three jurors.’’

‘‘One juror said ‘no,’ the other said . . . ‘doubtful,’ and the third said ‘yes’ to fixing the trial,’’ say the notes turned over to the Forrest County district attorney’s office.

In the end, the juror who said he was doubtful became the eventual holdout in the case, the notes say. ‘‘Bowers told source that the third juror chicken(ed) out.’’

In the 1960s, Bowers headed the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, which the FBI blamed for 10 killings in the state.

Dahmer’s son, Vernon Jr., said the Klan’s influence shows why his father’s murder should not go unpunished. ‘‘I feel that if there had not been efforts to tamper with the juries in trials, the outcome would have been much different,’’ he said.

The documents’ description of juror contact is just one example of possible improper influence uncovered by The Clarion-Ledger in connection with trials involving Dahmer’s killing.

Jurors from Bowers’ first trial said that a deception took place in the jury room, enabling Bowers to go free, even though jurors agreed out loud that he was guilty.

Jurors from Bowers’ second trial reported that the two holdout jurors refused to discuss the evidence in the case.

Prior to William Thomas Smith’s trial, a juror’s employer said he was contacted by Klans man Pat Massengale, who wanted the juror to vote ‘‘not guilty.’’

An attempt was made to intimidate a juror in Klansman Cecil Sessum’s trial, the juror said.

In 1994, The Clarion-Ledger reported Bowers would have gone to prison for killing Dahmer if oral votes had counted on that midnight in May 1968.

Instead, a deception took place in the jury room. Each juror said aloud Bowers was guilty. When jurors went through the official process of placing their votes on secret ballots, one ballot read ‘‘not guilty.’’

After several hours, jurors said that one juror broke down and admitted he was the holdout but refused to discuss evidence in the case.

‘‘This person finally admitted he was the holdout in front of us. He said, ‘It was me,’ ’’ recalled juror Wayne R. Walters.

The trial ended in a hung jury.

One of the jurors in Bowers’ trial, Douglas Herring, said the imperial wizard should be retried. ‘‘It’s obvious that justice was not done. I believe with all my heart and soul that the Klan had infiltrated the jury with one of their sympathizers, which ended in this mistrial.’’

Fellow jurors identified Donald Butler as the juror who eventually acknowledged being the holdout in the case.

Asked in 1994 if he were the holdout, Butler replied, ‘‘It’s not anybody’s business.’’ He complained that jurors had agreed not to discuss how they voted.

Asked recently about documents that claim he was approached prior to Bowers’ trial, Butler said that wasn’t true.

Asked if anyone ever approached him about his vote, Butler replied, ‘‘Did you hear me? Are your ears stopped up?’’

Bowers’ lawyer at the time, Lawrence Arrington, denied tampering took place in any of the trials connected to the Dahmer killing.

‘‘Boy, the FBI was watching,’’ he said. ‘‘They combed that thing right and left. There was never any proof of jury tampering.’’

Bowers avoided conviction not because of tampering but because the state had a weak case, Arrington said.

The Klan leader’s second trial, this one on a murder charge, unfolded similarly to the first. Bowers walked away with the jury deadlocked 10-2 after 17 hours of deliberations.

Jurors interviewed by The Clarion-Ledger said the two holdout jurors wouldn’t discuss any of the evidence in the case.

FBI documents confirm this story: ‘‘We have been advised that during deliberation by the jury, these two individuals refused to discuss any portion of this trial, refused to review any facts and stated from the outset that their minds were completely made up. This would give indication that the two jurors who voted for acquittal were possibly compromised or had sympathetic tendencies toward the Ku Klux Klan.’’

After hearing the claim, Arrington responded: ‘‘I was a DA at one time. I know there’s no way there could be tampering.’’

Former FBI agent Jim Ingram, who arrived at the Dahmer home while it was still smoldering, recalled Klan attempts at thwarting justice: ‘‘In the ’60s, it was not unusual that when a jury was selected, the Klan would begin their work also, making sure that certain contacts were made with relatives and other friends of those jurors.’’

Then-Jones County District Attorney Chet Dillard said the Klan always tried to have at least one member on the jury. ‘‘They have signals they could give to communicate.’’

For instance, Klansmen could identify themselves to fellow members by placing a thumb and index finger inside a belt, signifying ‘‘KKK.’’ Some wrote on paper, ‘‘AYAK,’’ shorthand for ‘‘Are you a Klansman?’’

The Klan sometimes sought to control jury selection through county supervisors, who selected potential jurors from their beats, Dillard said. ‘‘Their claim to clout was to have people on the inside in office or on juries that could swing it or make the difference.’’

Former Jones County prosecutor Charles Pickering confirmed in one instance that it was reliably reported that a Klansman contacted grand jurors to successfully block a reputed Klansman’s indictment.

‘‘It was difficult to get a conviction against a Klan member,’’ said Pickering, now a federal judge. ‘‘The Klan tried to use influence with jurors and frequently were successful.’’

Authorities tried to keep a watchful eye on Klansmen’s attempts to influence the jury but may have failed, said former Forrest County prosecutor Jimmy Dukes Sr., who oversaw the Dahmer prosecution. ‘‘If they do it in secrecy, you don’t know.’’

Shortly after Bowers’ arson trial, authorities caught an attempt at tampering with a jury in a different Dahmer trial, specifically that of of Klan member William Thomas Smith.

Klansman Pat Massengale, a stocky tavern owner, approached his friend, Harvel Smith.

‘‘There’s something I want you to do for me,’’ Harvel Smith quoted Massengale as saying. ‘‘We can’t stand a conviction in the Smith case. . . . If they break the grip of the Klan, they will break the back of Mississippi.’’

Massengale asked Smith to make sure his employee, Jerry Wayne Shirley, voted ‘‘not guilty’’ as a juror.

In a hearing, Harvel Smith testified he agreed with Massengale that the federal government was encroaching too much on the states but said, ‘‘We don’t need any rigging.’’

Asked about his friendship with Massengale, Harvel Smith responded, ‘‘It’s damn little of a friend who will put you in a position that you’re doing wrong.’’

Circuit Judge Stanton Hall ruled there was sufficient evidence of jury tampering and ordered the case presented to a grand jury. The trial of Massengale, who is now deceased, ended in a mistrial when jurors could not agree on a verdict.

In the end, Harvel Smith recalled, ‘‘It was my word against his word.’’

Because of his willingness to come forward, Klansmen ‘‘threatened my damn family, wife and children -- all that stuff,’’ he said.

In reaction, he changed his telephone number, he said. ‘‘That was like a waste of time. Some of my friends were harassed. It was a damn nightmare.’’

In a subsequent trial, William Smith was convicted of murder.

The first attempts to influence juries began in March 1968 when the trial began for Klansman Cecil Sessum, who had given the FBI a detailed confession of that night’s raid. Prospective jurors for the trial were mailed letters seeking to get them to vote ‘‘not guilty’’ if they were seated on the panel, according to FBI documents.

The 12 jurors eventually picked included Charles Kroen, whose wife was called and threatened.

‘‘If your husband votes guilty and if they convict him (Sessum), you know you’re in trouble,’’ Kroen quoted the caller as saying. ‘‘You’re going to be sorry your husband’s on that jury. We’re going to get you.’’

Disturbed by the threat, she left their home in Hattiesburg and stayed elsewhere.

Despite the threat, Sessum was convicted.

Harassment continued after the trial for juror Douglas Herring and his family.

He and his wife, Louise, said their telephone rang regularly while they tried to sleep. Roofing tacks were spread in the driveway, leading to flats on all four tires on their son’s car.

‘‘We figured we’d lose our car and house, but we didn’t,’’ she said. ‘‘When you’d call (District Attorney James) Finch, he’d say, ‘If you got stoppers in your guns, pull ’em out.’ They were nothing but gangsters we were dealing with.’’

Bowers could not be reached for comment, but Arrington said that the claim of jury tampering is the first he has ever heard.

Asked about Massengale’s obstruction of justice charge at the time, Arrington replied that he didn’t know anything about that.

Asked if tampering could have taken place without his knowledge, Arrington responded that authorities ‘‘haven’t got anything on that. Don’t you worry about that.’’

Dahmer’s widow reacts with tears

By Jerry Mitchell and Beverly Pettigrew Kraft Clarion-Ledger Staff Writers

Ellie J. Dahmer wept Thursday at the sight of three men being charged in her husband’s death in the firebombing of their home 32 years ago.

The arrests brought her family closer to a justice they felt was denied when the man accused of ordering Vernon Dahmer’s death walked free after four hung juries in 1968 and 1969.

‘‘You go back through it, you relive it, and you ask why. You hope and pray this day will come,’’ said Ellie Dahmer, 72, who helped her children scramble through a window as her husband shot back at Ku Klux Klansmen who set fire to their house on Jan. 10, 1966.

She paused. ‘‘It’s been a long time coming for us.’’

On Wednesday the attorney general’s office and the Forrest County district attorney’s office reactivated 1966 murder and arson indictments against Sam Bowers and Charles Noble and an arson indictment against Deavours Nix. The three were arrested Thursday and booked into the Forrest County Regional Jail.

Forrest County prosecutors in 1968 and 1969 tried Bowers once on an arson charge and twice on a murder charge, and federal prosecutors tried him on a conspiracy charge. Juries deadlocked.

Federal court juries deadlocked in Nix’s and Noble’s conspiracy trial. They were not tried in state court.

The Dahmer family met with authorities to urge reopening the case in 1991 after Byron De La Beckwith was reindicted in 1990 for murder in the 1963 slaying of Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers. A Hinds County jury convicted Beckwith in February 1994.

Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams of Bend, Ore., past chairwoman of the national NAACP, said, ‘‘My children and I know from experience all of the highs and devastating lows the Dahmer family has and will go through, but we also are very aware of the healing redemption that can come from the curative powers of justice.’’

Beckwith went free after two juries deadlocked in trials in 1964.

Byron De La Beckwith VII of Aberdeen said his father had been friends with the three arrested men.

‘‘I’m floored,’’ he said when told of the arrests.

The younger Beckwith said he thinks the Dahmer slaying prosecutions should be pursued.

‘‘I do. I think all the boxes need to be opened now,’’ he said.

Public Safety Commissioner Jim Ingram headed the civil rights desk for the FBI in Mississippi in the 1960s. The FBI led the investigation into Dahmer’s killing.

‘‘This proves you can run, but you can’t hide forever,’’ Ingram said. ‘‘Sam Bowers will have his day in court.’’

The Rev. Kenneth Dean, who was friends with Dahmer and in recent years has become friends with Bowers, said people wrongly assume Bowers is guilty. ‘‘I think the question should be asked, ‘What does this mean if he’s not guilty?’ ’’ Dean said.

Dean, 63, who lives in Rochester, N.Y., was executive director of the Mississippi Council on Human Relations from 1965-70.

Dean said Dahmer, a member of the Council on Human Relations, confided to him in December 1965 that he feared he was marked for murder. ‘‘He told me there were some people trying to kill him.’’

Dean said Dahmer didn’t name a specific person and may not have known the source of the danger.

But Dean questioned the evidence gathered by the FBI. Dean said the FBI, in its zeal to cure the breakdown of local law and order in the 1960s, resorted to ‘‘abductions and beatings and threats and purchased and perjured testimony.’’

Dean, who pastors a Church of Christ congregation, met Bowers a few years ago after he preached at the funeral of L.E. Matthews, who like Bowers, once served as Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Dean and Bowers became friends.

‘‘My feelings about hearing Sam Bowers has been arrested and charged are that I grieve more for the state than I do for Mr. Bowers,’’ Dean said. ‘‘I would call what’s going on wherein a group of people have come in and pointed a finger at a person, and then they have inflamed emotions around that and taken advantage of the tender feelings of families who have been victims of violence — I would call that a modern-day lynching.’’

Richard Barrett of Learned, a lawyer who heads the Nationalist Movement, said, ‘‘I condemn violence, but I also condemn unjust conditions which drive desperate men to desperate acts.’’

Jerry Himelstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks racial hate crimes, said he hopes the arrests ‘‘will help to finally bring closure to them for the loss of a great man and a great leader.’’

"The Dahmer family is a great American family that has demonstrated enormous dignity and perseverance,’’ said Himelstein, who grew up in Moorhead and lived in Hattiesburg before moving to New Orleans to head the ADL office.

Taylor Branch, author of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Parting the Waters, called the arrests historic. ‘‘By seeking a definitive verdict on Sam Bowers and his theology of hatred, the state of Mississippi can demonstrate that racial healing is possible where terror is not condoned or forgotten,’’ he said.

 

Dahmer’s son, Vernon Dahmer Jr., praised the work of investigators of the attorney general’s office led by Bill East and the work by Assistant District Attorney Bob Helfrich in reconstructing the case for prosecution.

‘‘These arrests bring our family one step closer to putting this painful tragedy behind us. Hopefully, the next step will put these men before a jury in the courtroom. My father is smiling today because the system he died for is finally working for us.’’

 

Klan leader Bowers to stand trial again

Imperial wizard, two others charged in 1966 slaying of Vernon Dahmer

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG — Sam Bowers, the Ku Klux Klan leader accused of masterminding the 1966 murder of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, returned Thursday to Forrest County Jail — three decades after his first arrest in the case.

Bowers, 73, who served as imperial wizard for the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was arrested at his home Thursday morning on charges of murder and arson.

‘‘We think this is a historic day for this city, this county and this state,’’ said Attorney General Mike Moore. ‘‘We just think that when somebody commits a murder, whether it’s this year or 32 years ago, they ought to not get away with murder.’’

The offices of Moore and Forrest County District Attorney Lindsay Carter have pursued the case since last spring when two men talked with the Dahmer family, saying they had information that might bring the case back to court.

Bowers appeared Thursday before Circuit Judge Richard McKenzie in a faded red jumpsuit that read, ‘‘Forrest County Inmate.’’

McKenzie set bond at $200,000 on the charges related to the Jan. 10, 1966, killing of Dahmer, a Hattiesburg businessman and farmer, and set Bowers’ trial for Aug. 17.

If convicted of murder, Bowers faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. Arson carries a maximum penalty of 20 years.

Klansmen killed Dahmer the day after news spread that residents could pay their poll taxes at his store outside Hattiesburg. They torched his store and home.

Dahmer fired back at Klansmen while his family escaped out a back window. Flames from the blaze seared his lungs and took his life.

Billy Roy Pitts testified he and seven other Klansmen firebombed Dahmer’s home and that Bowers had ordered the attack.

Juries convicted four Klansmen in the case, but not Bowers. Each of his four trials ended with jurors unable to agree unanimously on verdicts. Bowers has professed his innocence.

Bowers’ lawyer, Travis Buckley of Laurel, would not comment on the charges or the new evidence that authorities said they have. ‘‘I haven’t seen or heard it,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s no way I can comment on it.’’

Also arrested Thursday on murder and arson charges was Charles Noble, a 55-year-old plant manager for a Sanderson Farms poultry processing plant in Laurel, where he has worked for 26 years. Deavours Nix, a 72-year-old retiree, was arrested on an arson charge.

Both were tried in 1969 on federal conspiracy charges, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict in the case.

In a hearing Thursday, Nix appeared in a wheelchair, holding a green bottle of oxygen for what he said is failing health caused by lung cancer. He said radiation from treatments had burned his lungs.

McKenzie set no trial date, and Nix was released on a personal recognizance bond. Nix would not comment.

With regard to Noble, McKenzie set bond at $200,000 and his trial for Sept. 8. Noble and Bowers remained in jail Thursday night.

Sanderson Farms CEO and President Joe Sanderson Jr. praised Noble’s 26 years of service.

Noble’s lawyer, Joe Sam Owen of Gulfport, said his client is innocent. He did not go on the raid or even belong to the Klan, Owen said.

Moore described Noble and Nix as ‘‘henchmen’’ in the plot. Pitts testified Noble went on the raid.

‘‘About 32 years ago on a January night, eight cowards — and that’s exactly what they were, eight cowards — came to this jurisdiction in the middle of the night and committed what we think is one of the most horrible and heinous crimes that’s ever been committed in America,’’ Moore said. ‘‘Eight people armed with big gallons of gasoline and guns and meanness in their hearts showed up in this jurisdiction for one thing — to stop people from voting. . . . They were not only going to stop people’s right to vote, but they were going to stop the man who was trying to help them.’’

Moore said authorities will push to hold the trials when scheduled.

Assistant District Attorney Bob Helfrich said, ‘‘It’s time for justice to be done here in Forrest County. The murder has gone unpunished. They need to be punished for this terrible act.’’

In 1968, Bowers was nearly convicted when a jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of guilt. In March, The Clarion-Ledger reported that notes of FBI documents show Bowers told an informant then that he tampered with that jury to ensure he never went to prison.

Bowers’ longtime lawyer, Lawrence Arrington of Hattiesburg, predicted the outcome in a new trial will be no different than last time — a hung jury.

Dahmer’s widow, Ellie, said she will be satisfied with whatever a jury decides. ‘‘I have a lot of faith the jury system will work. It would have worked. Later on, we found out that tampering was done, or it would have worked the first time.’’

Ex-Klansman says he’s too sick for jail . . . but apparently not golf

Ailing Dahmer suspect hits the links

Deavours Nix avoided jail stay by telling judge he was in poor health

By Jerry Mitchell Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

A dozen days after Deavours Nix told a judge he was too sick to be jailed in the 1966 fatal firebombing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, the one-time Klansman endured 92-degree heat Tuesday to play golf.

Nix, who swore to a judge that he was wheelchair-bound, said he “played one hole and rode 17 more. I just didn’t have the strength to do it. I’m going to play again. I’m going to try. I’m not going to be a quitter.”

Nix, 72, Charles Noble, 55, and Sam Bowers, 73, are charged in connection with the Ku Klux Klan’s Jan. 10, 1966, killing of Dahmer near Hattiesburg. All three are charged with arson; Noble and Bowers face murder charges.

Citing Nix’s health, Circuit Judge Richard McKenzie freed Nix on his own recognizance.

Noble and Bowers each had his bond set at $200,000. Noble is free on bond, and Bowers remained Tuesday in Simpson County Jail.

On May 28, authorities arrested Bowers, Nix and Noble after completing a yearlong reinvestigation of the killing.

In a bond hearing that day, Nix sat in a wheelchair, pushed into the courtroom by family members. He held a green oxygen tank in his lap and wore plastic tubing known as a nasal cannula under his nose.

Under oath, Nix told McKenzie that he had “lung cancer in my right lung and two cancers in the center of my chest in those lymph nodes. They gave me so much radiation it burned up my right lung.”

Nix said he was in such poor health that he could “barely walk five or six steps — and I’m completely out of breath.”

McKenzie noted that Nix had been wheeled in by family members. “Are you pretty much confined to a wheelchair?”

“Yes, sir,” Nix replied, “when I’m moving around, I am.”

The judge asked Nix whether he required oxygen constantly.

“Pretty near all the time,” Nix responded.

After hearing Nix’s testimony, McKenzie required no property or money for bond, nor did the judge set a trial date for Nix.

Bowers’ trial is set for Aug. 18; Noble’s date is Sept. 8.

On Tuesday, Nix — minus his nasal cannula — played at Bear Creek Golf Club in Laurel, a 6,832-yard course. He kept his oxygen tank in his golf cart near his clubs.

Nix said it was the first time he had played golf in a year and a half.

Asked if the temperature bothered him, Nix replied no. “I’ve always been able to take the heat pretty good.”

Asked about his health, Nix replied, “I got lung damage from the cancer and all the chemotherapy and radiation they had to do. (The cancer) has gone too far, but I feel good.”

Dahmer’s son, Dennis, suggested that authorities “may want to follow up with Mr. Nix about his miraculous recovery.”

Asked about Nix playing golf, Attorney General Mike Moore responded, “He better enjoy it while he can. The 19th hole may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Anybody who will commit an act like that will certainly lie to a court.”

McKenzie would not comment Tuesday.

Two carloads of Klansmen firebombed the home of Dahmer after it was announced that residents could pay their poll taxes at his grocery store. Dahmer returned fire while his wife and children escaped out a back window. Flames from the blaze seared his lungs and took his life.

Juries convicted four Klansmen in the case, but Bowers — identified by former Klansman Billy Roy Pitts as masterminding the firebombing — walked free when juries could not agree on verdicts.

Bowers was nearly convicted in 1968 when a jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of guilt. In March, The Clarion-Ledger reported that notes of FBI records showed that Bowers told an informant that he tampered with that jury to ensure he never went to prison.

The FBI blamed Bowers’ group, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, for 10 slayings in Mississippi.

Nix said recently he belonged to the White Knights “for a very short period” — the first time he had admitted belonging to the Klan.

In its 1966 report, the House Un-American Activities Committee identified Nix as director of the White Knights’ Klan Bureau of Investigation, which gathered intelligence for the Klan.

Nix insists he and Bowers had nothing to do with killing Dahmer and claims the case is being pursued for political reasons.

“I just wonder about this case against Sam,” he said. “Why jerk that case up after 30 years? It’s just about unbelievable.”

After the arrests of Nix and others on May 28, Moore told reporters that he thought it was ironic that Nix had told the judge that his lung had been burned up.

“That’s the same way that Vernon Dahmer died.”

Dahmer suspect arrested, again; judge sets his trial date for Oct. 5

Devours Nix had been released due to health; golf changed judge’s mind

By Jerry Mitchell/Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG — A judge on Wednesday ordered the arrest of one-time Klansman Deavours Nix — caught playing golf Tuesday, a dozen days after telling the judge he was too sick for jail.

Circuit Judge Richard McKenzie ordered Nix to stand trial Oct. 5 in connection with the Ku Klux Klan’s Jan. 10, 1966, fatal firebombing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer. McKenzie had previously freed Nix on his own recognizance and not set a date, citing Nix’s poor health.

Both Nix and the man accused of masterminding the Dahmer killing — Sam Bowers — were released Wednesday on bonds of $50,000 and $200,000, respectively.

Jones County Sheriff Maurice Hooks wrote letters of support for both men, saying that if their bonds were in Jones County, they would be valid. Hooks also wrote a letter of support for bond for Klansman Byron De La Beckwith, convicted in 1994 of the 1963 murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

Hooks could not be reached Wednesday for comment. “He’s out at a black church,” his wife said.

Nix, 72, Bowers, 73, and Charles Noble, 55, are each charged with arson; Noble and Bowers face murder charges. Bowers’ trial is set for Aug. 17; Noble, free on a $200,000 bond, goes on trial Sept. 8.

When Nix was arrested May 28, he sat in a wheelchair, pushed into the courtroom by family members. He held a green oxygen tank in his lap and wore plastic tubing known as a nasal cannula under his nose.

Nix swore to McKenzie that because of his lung cancer, he was wheelchair-bound, needed oxygen “pretty near all the time” and that he could “barely walk five or six steps — and I’m completely out of breath.”

In Wednesday’s hearing, Special Assistant Attorney General Lee Martin introduced pictures taken by The Clarion-Ledger as evidence that Nix had misled the court. Those pictures showed Nix teeing off on the first hole of Bear Creek Golf Club in Laurel — without a wheelchair or a nasal cannula.

In the article, Nix said that he “played one hole and rode 17 more” and that he planned to play again.

On Wednesday morning, investigators from the attorney general’s office arrested Nix and escorted him in handcuffs from the Forrest County jail to the courthouse. On the way, Nix sat on a wooden bench, saying he was out of breath.

Inside the courthouse, Nix complained of an irregular heartbeat.

An emergency medical technician from the sheriff’s office came and took his blood pressure. McKenzie also dispatched ambulance workers, who administered oxygen to Nix, monitored his heartbeat and pushed him in a wheelchair into the courtroom.

“I haven’t seen anything like this in all my life, and I’m 82 years old,” said Nix’s lawyer, Lawrence Arrington of Hattiesburg.

Holding the same cap he wore golfing Tuesday, Nix told the judge that he had “felt good enough” to play golf Tuesday.

Unable to strike the ball well on the first hole, he said he quit and rode in a cart the rest of the way.

Asked by McKenzie how he reconciled his previous testimony with playing golf, Nix replied, “I’d have to say I made a misrepresentation to the court.”

McKenzie replied, “If you’re well enough to play golf, you’re well enough to post bond.”

After the hearing, Nix was taken briefly to a hospital for tests after complaining of shortness of breath.

“I’ve never seen such a shenanigan,” Arrington said. “It’s obvious this man is suffering (from) all kinds of things. He’s even got a pacemaker.”

After the hearing, Dahmer’s son, Vernon Jr., said the family supports “the decision made by the judge concerning Mr. Nix’s arrest.”

Two carloads of Klansmen firebombed the home of Dahmer after it was announced that residents could pay their poll taxes at his grocery store. Dahmer returned fire while his wife and children escaped out a back window. Flames from the blaze seared his lungs and took his life.

Juries convicted four Klansmen in the case, but Bowers — identified by former Klansman Billy Roy Pitts as masterminding the firebombing — walked free when juries could not agree on verdicts.

Nix, who has admitted belonging to the Klan, insists he and Bowers had nothing to do with the killing.

Martin questioned how Nix’s word can be trusted. “The misrepresentations he made to the court two weeks ago says a lot about his inability to tell the truth, even when he’s under oath in a court of law.”

‘Free Bowers’ fliers turn up in driveways

Officials say publication may be attempt to sway potential jurors’ votes

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

A white supremacist newspaper urging authorities to “Free Sam Bowers” has been tossed onto some Mississippians’ driveways, reviving memories of attempts six years ago to influence potential jurors in another trial.

“There is no doubt that Sam Bowers is the greatest and most heroic defender of White people’s rights of this era,” declared the latest issue of The Truth at Last, published in Marietta, Ga.

Bowers, who once served as imperial wizard for the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, faces an Aug. 17 murder trial in connection with the Klan’s Jan. 10, 1966, killing of Vernon Dahmer.

The FBI blamed the White Knights for 10 killings in Mississippi in the 1960s, including Dahmer’s. Bowers was never convicted.

Monday morning, some residents in the Swan Lake subdivision of south Jackson found copies of The Truth at Last in their driveways.

Moses Joiner said the publication both concerns and offends him. “I didn’t know this stuff was going on out there,” he said.

As for those accused of killing Dahmer, “if they did it, they need to be brought to justice.”

Distribution of the publication reminded Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters of his most publicized case.

“Shades of Byron De La Beckwith,” he said.

Peters and his office prosecuted Beckwith, a white supremacist. In 1994, a jury convicted Beckwith of the 1963 murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Between 1992 and 1994, Beckwith supporters tossed thousands of fliers on driveways in Hinds, Madison, Panola and DeSoto counties. The jury for Beckwith’s trial was eventually selected from Panola County.

A 1993 letter written by Beckwith and obtained by The Clarion-Ledger showed that Beckwith had paid up to $1,000 to distribute the fliers, which called for potential jurors to vote “not guilty.”

In March, The Clarion-Ledger reported on a pattern of attempts to influence juries during the trials for Dahmer’s killing in the 1960s. Prospective jurors in one trial were mailed letters asking them to vote “not guilty.”

Notes of FBI documents showed Bowers in 1968 told an FBI informant he tampered with a jury to ensure he didn’t go to state prison for ordering Dahmer’s killing.

“The interesting part to me is that they’re throwing it in south Jackson where there are no potential jurors, no potential witnesses,” Peters said. “I don’t see how this sympathy could help him in Hattiesburg.”

Forrest County Assistant District Attorney Bob Helfrich said he wasn’t worried about the distribution since potential jurors will come from the Hattiesburg area.

“Best I understand, this jury ain’t coming from a south Jackson neighborhood,” he said.

Guilty conscience led to new Dahmer case

Witness helping build case came forward while coming to terms with addiction

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG — Renewed efforts to reprosecute the Ku Klux Klan’s killing of Vernon Dahmer never would have begun if not for a bet.

And another.

And another.

Before long, Bob Stringer found himself addicted to gambling and more than $30,000 in debt.

Yet it was that addiction that played an unlikely role in pushing authorities toward reprosecuting the Jan. 10, 1966, killing of Dahmer, leading to the May 28 arrests of Sam Bowers and two other men. Bowers’ trial is set here for Aug. 17.

Stringer had long bet money on football games, but it was the presence of Mississippi casinos that proved too tempting.

To fight his addiction, he twice completed 12-step treatment programs, but said he left dissatisfied each time because he hadn’t shared everything — especially what he knew about Dahmer’s killing.

Step five demanded that he confess his wrongs to someone he trusted, and step nine required him to make amends for what he’d done in the past. They were two steps that Stringer said he felt he had never completed.

Two carloads of Klansmen firebombed the house of Dahmer at about 2 a.m. after it was announced residents could pay their poll taxes at Dahmer’s store, which also was torched. He returned fire, but flames seared his lungs and took his life.

The testimony of Billy Roy Pitts, who went on the fatal raid, resulted in the convictions of four Klansman, but the man he identified as ordering the raid, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, walked free when juries could not agree on verdicts.

Stringer’s name never arose during those trials. The only questioning that he said took place occurred shortly after the firebombing when authorities asked him where he had been the night of the fatal raid. He said he told them he had been working that night at the Masonite plant in Laurel.

Stringer said he never belonged to the Klan but did work for Bowers as a teenager, typing the publication known as The Klan-Ledger, a White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan publication.

One such White Knights publication said: “Any personal attacks on the enemy should be carefully planned to include only the leaders and prime white collaborators of the enemy forces. These attacks against these selected individual targets should, of course, be as severe as circumstances and conditions will permit.”

In 1994, Stringer reviewed the 12 steps to overcome addiction, believing he had licked his gambling habit. Then he reassessed his progress. He had confessed his wrongs and made amends.

Taking a final step toward recovery, he said he phoned the office of then-District Attorney Glenn White, leaving his name and number. No one called back.

White recalled no such messages and said authorities certainly would have been interested in the information Stringer had. “I never spoke with the man,” White said. “We did speak with others in Jones County.”

Later in 1994, Stringer happened to stop in Hattiesburg. He glanced through a telephone directory until spotting the name: “Vernon Dahmer Jr.”

The voice didn’t surprise the younger Dahmer, who had received many telephone calls before, each claiming to have new information about his father's killing. “After he talked to me a couple of times, I realized he was for real,” Dahmer recalled.

During those calls, Stringer never revealed his name. To Dahmer, Stringer was a “mystery man.”

Dahmer said he was reluctant to let this mystery man tell all he knew over the telephone out of fear the man would salve his conscience and never call back. “Our conversation dealt with safety and security,” he said. “We were building a relationship of trust.”

The Dahmer family had been waiting for such a call since 1991, when the family first approached White about reopening the case. They were encouraged by the 1990 indictment of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, convicted in 1994 of the 1963 murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

White agreed to look into the case. He got some support from the Mississippi Legislature, which approved funding for a second investigator to assist in the case. But the reinvestigation stalled. “When I announced I wasn’t running for D.A. again, it kind of faltered at that point,” White said.

In 1996, District Attorney Lindsay Carter took over the office and inherited the Dahmer case — a case he refused to bury.

“I gave my word to the Dahmer family that if we could, we would,” he recalled. “I feel like now we can. I just think we have to give it our best shot.” The investigation had slowed until Stringer came on the scene, Carter said. “Bob really got us rolling. We really thought we were at a dead-end until Bob came along.”

On April 12, 1997, Stringer met with Vernon Dahmer Jr. for the first time at a resort motel in Diamondhead. Others present included Dennis Dahmer, who was 12 years old when he awoke to the smell of smoke from firebombs that killed his father; Jerry Himelstein of New Orleans, the 50-year-old regional director for the Anti-Defamation League; and an intermediary for Stringer named “Frank.”

“We had had an interest in reopening the Dahmer investigation,” Himelstein explained. “I was there to offer the ADL’s help should it become necessary in helping Bob to relocate if he needed to do that for security reasons.”

There was plenty of tension in the air that day, recalled Dennis Dahmer. “There was some uneasiness among all parties involved. As the meeting progressed, I think all of the individuals involved realized what we were all about was to find the means to bring about justice in the matter. If you want to find out what’s going on inside the Klan, then you need to talk with individuals who are one step away.”

Stringer told of his days as an “errand boy” for the Klan, throwing copies of The Klan-Ledger in driveways.

“I asked Sam why he never gave me a more important role for me to play,” Stringer recalled. “He told me, ‘I protected you because of your age. What you were doing was very important. You putting out propaganda caused more revolution for me to fight and the revolution created more propaganda.’ ”

In 1966, a few days before Vernon Dahmer Sr. was killed, several Klansmen gathered at John’s Cafe in Laurel. Stringer recalled Bowers said, “something needed to be done about the Dahmer n----- down South. He’s causing problems.”

Stringer said that another Klansman then spoke up, saying the Klan needed a “Number Four,” the group’s term for killing.

That meeting led to a second one in May 1997, which included the same people, plus Raymond Howell, an investigator for Carter’s office.

It was at that meeting that Stringer shared his real name and the gambling addiction that had caused him to reexamine his past.

By the summer of 1997, Stringer was working undercover for authorities, taping conversations with Bowers and his business partner, Roy Wilson of Laurel, who was not named as belonging to the Klan. In those conversations, Wilson purportedly implicated himself and Bowers in an illegal gambling operation.

Stringer, who now operates a landscaping business in south Mississippi, said that in one of those conversations with Bowers, “He told me I was a good disciple and a great patriot.”

Bowers, who maintains his innocence, would not return calls. He recently said authorities seeking to prosecute him have apparently “come up with some new perjurers.”

Vernon Dahmer Jr. said he believes Stringer played a key role. “Bob’s coming forward was the catalyst that put the investigation on the fast track,” he said.

His brother, Dennis, agreed: “Bob came along at a very critical time. He basically breathed new life into the thing, invigorating the investigation. I'm not sure we'd be where we are today if he had not come forward.”

More than anything, the Dahmer family is looking forward to a resolution promised by the upcoming trials, he said. “We’re glad to see this day finally get here. All we're asking the jury to do is to seriously consider the facts.”

Stringer, who has been subpoenaed to testify in Bowers’ trial, doesn't consider himself a hero. “You can go from hero to zero right quick. If you do the right thing, it lasts a long time.”

Prosecutors want justice served

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

The same year Dennis Dahmer saw his father die in 1966, another son stood beside his father’s hospital bed.

Bob Helfrich watched his dad die from lung cancer. He was 12 years old, the same age as Dennis Dahmer.

“That’s why I feel close to the Dahmer family. I was there when my dad died, there ’til his last breath,” said Helfrich, now a 44-year-old assistant district attorney in Forrest County.

“I cannot imagine the thoughts that go through their minds,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion.

Prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan’s killing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer is no longer a professional calling for Helfrich. It’s a personal one.

He’s spent much of this year preparing for the trial that begins today for the man accused of masterminding the killing of Dahmer, one-time Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers.

He and two other prosecutors, as well as defense attorney Travis Buckley, will begin their questioning today of potential jurors.

In addition to the loss of a father, Helfrich said he was moved by the Dahmer family’s service in the military.

Helfrich’s father served in the Royal Dutch Air Force in World War II and met his future wife while training at Hawkins Field in Jackson.

“I think it’s incredible that of the six Dahmer sons, they’ve got 78 years combined military service,” Helfrich said. “They were protecting their country.”

Helfrich said he’s especially angry that the racial violence of a few in the 1960s has tarred a whole state.

“Mississippi is viewed as being the Klan, which simply is not true,” he said. “It was a very small minority of people that felt that way. They are the ones that have given Mississippi a bad reputation nationwide.’’

Of the 32-year-old case, Helfrich said, “It’s a sore in Mississippi's past, and it needs to be cleansed.”

Special Assistant Attorney General Lee Martin wasn’t even born until a year after Dahmer was killed.

“I never saw those signs about colored drinking fountains,” said the 30-year-old lawyer, who will help prosecute Bowers. “I read about it in the history books. That’s all.”

That, however, could prove an advantage since he’ll relate to younger jurors and be conscious of what they don’t know, he said.

While they will certainly get some sense of the civil rights era, they won’t be looking for a history lesson, he said. “They’re going to want to know, ‘Did he (Bowers) kill Vernon Dahmer? What evidence do you have that he’s responsible for that murder?’ ”

Martin grew up in Pascagoula, admiring a young, crusading prosecutor named Mike Moore, who once attended the same school he did. Moore is now his boss.

To Martin, the murder of Vernon Dahmer is one that shouldn’t go unpunished. “Vernon had a store. He was productive. He never did a bit of harm to anybody out there, just minding his business, making a living. In the middle of the night, for no good reason, they burned down his store and his house and killed him.”

Martin said the Dahmer family has inspired him.

“They are an inspiration to all of us. All they want is justice. They’re not filled with any bitterness or any revenge. … You can’t ask for anything more than that.”

District Attorney Lindsay Carter frequently returns to his native Perry County and visits a graveyard, where an ancestor is buried. It is a direct descendant of his who fought in the Revolutionary War.

The ancestor’s grave is a reminder of who he is, where he has come from, a place he may one day go.

The 44-year-old prosecutor may appear to some an unlikely candidate to lead the charge in a 32-year-old civil rights case.

He’s a Republican with deep Mississippi roots. His great-great-uncle served as lieutenant governor under one of the state’s most notorious racists, Gov. James K. Vardaman. It was Vardaman who publicly objected to teaching black Americans: “Why squander money on his education when the only effect is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook?”

But the racism of the state’s past doesn’t mean there’s not hope for the future, Carter said, even in the party that in recent decades has most often been identified with white conservatives. “I think the Republican Party is really becoming a different party, more diverse,” he said.

Like District Attorney Ed Peters, who successfully prosecuted white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, Carter was initially reluctant.

During the 1995 campaign, Democratic candidate Cliff Gaddis promised to reopen the Dahmer case, drawing public support from the Dahmer family.

Carter, asked if he would make the same pledge, took a low-key approach. “I gave my word that if we could, we would,” he recalled.

Shortly after he was elected, Carter met with the Dahmer family. He recognized Dahmer’s daughter, Bettie, from his high school days. The two had faced each other as seniors in an academic bowl.

Carter served on the Forrest County Agricultural Team. She was on the North Forrest High School Team. “When we first met again, we both remembered that we had been against each other at one time,” Carter recalled.

North Forrest won.

During the meeting, Carter repeated the same thing he had said in his campaign — that he would reprosecute the case if he could.

“I’m not going to lie to you and mislead you,” he recalled saying.

Carter credits several events as keys to reopening the case against Bowers: last year’s emergence of a new witness, Bob Stringer; the 1997 ruling of the Mississippi Supreme Court upholding Beckwith’s conviction despite a speedy trial challenge; and the emergence of former Klansman Billy Roy Pitts, whom Carter calls the key witness in the upcoming trial.

“When the Beckwith ruling came down, I thought, ‘Well, we can,’” Carter said. “I just think we have to give it our best shot.”

He compared his prosecutorial approach to that of Peters in the Beckwith case.

“Ed’s like me. If there’s the right thing to do and you can do it, you should do it. It’s just the right thing to do. Sam Bowers has gotten away with it for too long.”

Lawyers seek expert advice during jury-screening phase of Bowers trial

Deputy attorney general says jury consultants essential to prosecution

By Beverly Pettigrew Kraft/Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

As lawyers begin selecting a jury today in Hattiesburg in the trial of white supremacist Sam Bowers, they’ll be searching harder for bias than for the perfect panel.

“What you do is you eliminate people you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell with,’’ said Hinds County Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter. “You feel lucky if you get 12 people that will be persuaded by the evidence.’’

Lawyers on both sides of the Bowers case will probably spend much of their time trying to elicit jurors’ attitudes about race and about the reopening of a 32-year-old case.

Bowers is accused of ordering the Jan. 10, 1966, firebombing that killed NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, a Hattiesburg businessman. Bowers maintains he is innocent.

Prosecutors will get some help in gauging jurors’ racial attitudes from a consultant who helped pick the jury that convicted Byron De La Beckwith of murder in 1994 for the 1963 sniper slaying of Medgar Evers. Psychologist Andrew Sheldon of Atlanta volunteered his services.

It’s rare to see prosecutors use jury consultants, said University of Mississippi law professor Amy Whitten, a former prosecutor. When they appear in a criminal trial, it’s usually behind the defense table. Prosecutors usually can’t afford them.

But Deputy Attorney General Trey Bobinger said the complexity of the Bowers case makes a jury consulting firm essential. “With all the elements in this case — the racial issue, the age of the case — the attitudes of the people serving on this jury are even more important,’’ Bobinger said.

The attorney general’s office and the Forrest County district attorney’s office are trying Bowers, former imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, on murder and arson charges.

Bobinger said DeLaughter, who prosecuted Beckwith, suggested Sheldon’s jury consultant group. The consultants agreed to work for free except for their expenses.

“We think it is a small price to pay for the expertise they can bring to the prosecution,” Bobinger said.

Sheldon would not comment, referring questions to prosecutors.

Whitten, who is not involved in the Bowers trial, said the consultants have probably benefitted from their experience in helping to pick the Beckwith jury. They will be able to use what they learned in the Bowers trial.

Race will probably be a central issue at the trial, said psychologist Joe Edward Morris, a Tupelo jury consultant who is not involved in the case.

“It’s a psychological issue. It’s an emotional issue. That’s the heart of the case as I understand it,’’ said Morris, who has published a book about using jury consultants.

University of Florida College of Law Professor Kenneth Nunn said racial questions are hard to put to a jury. Jury consultants would be helpful in structuring questions for jury selection and for a questionnaire sent in advance to potential jurors, he said.

“You can’t just ask a question, ‘Are you a racist?’ or ‘Do you have something against this person because they are black or because they are white?’ ” said Nunn, a former public defender in San Francisco and Washington who is not involved in the case. “You have to be very careful to ask the question that allows you to get helpful information and at the same time avoid offending the potential juror.’’

Said DeLaughter: “It’s politically incorrect to admit racial bias so you try to get that answered not by them admitting it, because they are not going to do that, but ... from other things. That’s where the consultants helped us out.’’

Nunn said prosecutors will probably try to pick as many black jurors as possible and defense lawyers will want a majority white jury. It’s the reverse of the racial makeup usually sought by the prosecution and the defense.

A 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision says jurors may not be excluded because of race. But Nunn said lawyers offer reasons that sidestep color to accomplish the same thing.

What kind of jurors will each side want?

“The defense would probably want people who had less education, people who are working class, people who would tend to not be in favor of issues of affirmative action, people who do not have a positive view of the NAACP or Jesse Jackson,” Nunn said. “They will probably be looking for older jurors.’’

Prosecutors will probably look for younger, more educated jurors with Democratic Party leanings and affiliations with organizations that have interracial memberships, Nunn said. Prosecutors might also look for people who didn’t grow up in Mississippi.

Lawyers for both sides have already studied responses to a 66-item questionnaire mailed to 400 potential jurors. Today, 98 potential jurors are expected to be questioned, and 94 are to report Tuesday.

While jury questionnaires usually ask general questions about jurors’ background, the one in the Bowers case makes direct inquiries about potential jurors’ knowledge and attitudes about this case.

The questionnaire asks if they know anyone who has been involved in an incident of racial violence or if they or an acquaintance have ever belonged to an organization that advocates racial supremacy. And it asks if they know someone who was badly burned.

No. 61 on the list says, “Please explain in your own words why you believe Sam Bowers is being tried for this murder after 30 years.”

TRIAL NOTES

TRIAL HIGHLIGHTS: Jury selection begins today in Hattiesburg in the murder trial of one-time Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers. Summonses were issued for nearly 400 potential jurors, and officials expect about a third of those to appear. Potential jurors will be questioned today and Tuesday at the Forrest County Courthouse.

HISTORY UNFOLDING: Bowers was tried in the same courthouse in 1968 and 1969; juries couldn’t agree on a verdict in three separate state trials. The courtroom is one of only a few in Mississippi with an elevated jury box in the center, facing the witness box. Jurors get a great view, but it’s hard on spectators.

SOME THINGS HAVE CHANGED: The courthouse looks mostly the same, said Jacq Jones, president of the Hattiesburg Area Historical Society. “There were some little balconies on the sides. At one time, the jail was connected to the courthouse. There was a room in the top where they hung people.”

Jury chosen after series of exclusions

Bowers: Prosecutor defends strikes, says they’re ‘race neutral’

By Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG — A jury of six whites, five blacks and one Asian will decide whether former Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers ordered the 1966 firebombing that killed NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer.

Opening arguments are set to begin at 9 a.m. today in Forrest County Circuit Court.

Some would-be jurors were excluded because they said they had already made up their minds Bowers is guilty. Others were excused after they questioned why prosecutors are retrying Bowers in a 32-year-old case.

Four of the jurors weren’t even born at the time Dahmer was killed. Two others were toddlers.

“I decided years ago that guilt was there and it was just an injustice. I feel like Mr. Bowers gave the order,” said a white female retired Social Security Administration worker who has lived in Hattiesburg since 1961.

Circuit Judge Richard McKenzie said he was concerned for the safety of the potential jurors given the emotional nature of the case and had asked reporters not to use the jurors’ names.

A 45-year-old white former Navy mechanic said, “If a man ... has been to trial more than two times and has not been convicted, I don’t see why he’s coming back. Is it going to happen again if he’s not convicted?”

A 50-year-old white female homemaker said,“I’m sympathetic with the Dahmers but I do not see the necessity of a trial after 30 years.“

A 30-year-old black female student said, “I feel like he’s got away this long. It should be dismissed. He’s lived his life.”

A 44-year-old white secretary said, “As far as political reasons, who is running for governor? Maybe that is why they are bringing it up.“

Democratic Attorney General Mike Moore, who has said he is considering a run for governor, has lent his office’s assistance in the prosecution.

At the defense table sat Shawn O’Hara, who recently lost his bid for the Republican nomination for 5th District congressman, says he is running for governor as a Republican. O’Hara works as a paralegal in between races for political office.

Staunch Republican views were enough to get two people kicked off the jury. Forrest County Assistant District Attorney Robert Helfrich cited political party identification twice.

Prosecutors used peremptory strikes to exclude 11 whites. Defense lawyers struck six black jurors and six white jurors.

Defense attorney Travis Buckley of Ellisville objected to prosecutors’ exclusion of white jurors. Buckley argued that a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said black jurors could not be excluded because of race should also prohibit exclusion of white jurors in Bowers’ case.

Helfrich in defending his jury strikes gave reasons ranging from political affiliation to one man who liked hunting dogs.

“That’s race neutral. I don’t want to put a lot of hunters on there,” Helfrich said.

Circuit Judge Richard McKenzie ruled that the prosecutor’s exclusions were not based on race.

The jury is made up of five white women, three black women, two black men, one white man and one Asian man.

Alternate jurors are a black woman and a white man.

The jurors include two teachers, a University of Southern Mississippi staff member, a bank teller, a bookkeeper, a furniture saleswoman, a manufacturing company administrator, a credit counselor, a mortgage loan processor, a machine operator, someone who was retired military, and an X-ray technologist. They ranged in age from 25 to 59.

Family’s wait for trial ends after 32 years

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG — Ellie Dahmer crossed her hands as she glimpsed the first news of the trial she has awaited for 32 years.

At the same time as President Clinton began testifying before a grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a television report was giving details of jury selection in the trial of the man accused of masterminding the Jan. 10, 1966, killing of Ellie Dahmer’s husband, NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer.

Juries convicted four Klansmen in Dahmer’s death, but then-Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, currently on trial in Forrest County Circuit Court, was never convicted. His three state trials ended in mistrials when each all-white jury failed to agree on a verdict.

Bowers and two others were arrested May 28 after authorities uncovered what they say is new evidence in the case.

A jury of six whites, five blacks and one Asian will begin to hear evidence in the case at 9 a.m. today in Forrest County Circuit Court.

The events going on in Washington could not overshadow the significance of the day for Ellie Dahmer and her children.

“This is what we have waited and prayed for,” the 74-year-old widow said of Bowers’ trial.

“I thank God for the young generation that he raised up that would listen.”

Her son, Dennis, also watched the telecast. He was 12 the night the Klan firebombed their home.

“This day has been a long time coming,” he said. “We’ll be glad when this process comes to a conclusion.”

Ellie Dahmer leaned back in her salmon-colored chair. “We’re willing to let a jury make a decision,” she said.

The family’s interest in seeking another trial was sparked by the 1990 re-indictment of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, who was convicted in 1994 of the 1963 killing of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

Dahmer’s son, Vernon, sat through jury selection Monday along with his son, Phillip. They each got their first glimpse of the man accused of orchestrating Dahmer’s killing by the Klan.

Vernon Dahmer Jr. reflected on the trial.

“To be here today represents a major step in our journey to justice,” said the retired Air Force master sergeant.

“A lot of hard work by the district attorney and his staff and the attorney general and his staff has gone into bringing us to this point. Our case is 32 years old. It has been difficult, and we’re proud to be where we are. We will now wait and let the system work.”

Phillip Dahmer was a 13-year-old student at an integrated school in Riverside, Calif., when he heard of the Klan attack that killed his grandfather.

He recalled the advice that his father shared in the days after the death: “You’ve got to understand. There are bad people in each race, so don’t condemn an entire race for what some folks did.”

Dahmers recall deadly attack

Vernon Dahmer’s widow, two children testify on first day of Sam Bowers trial

By Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG — Ellie Jewel Dahmer awoke at 2 a.m. to the steady honk of a car horn and bullets pelting the house and saw fire licking at the eaves.

Vernon Dahmer screamed for her to get the children out of the house while he shot back at the two carloads of armed men in the yard.

On Tuesday, in the first day of testimony in the murder and arson trial of Sam Bowers, Vernon Dahmer’s widow and two of his children described the night-time terror of the firebombing that claimed the civil rights leader’s life.

Forrest County Assistant District Attorney Robert Helfrich told jurors Bowers wasn’t with the band of Jones County Ku Klux Klansmen who hurled jugs of gasoline and torches through windows of the Dahmer home on Monroe Road and raked the house with gunfire. But Bowers ordered the raid, Helfrich said.

“This cowardly event was ordered by this man, the imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,” Helfrich said, pointing to Bowers, 73.

It was Jan.10, 1966, hours after Vernon Dahmer, a leader of the Forrest County NAACP, had announced at church that black residents could pay their poll tax at his store rather than having to drive into Hattiesburg.

The family had lived with telephone threats for years. But the calls had ceased, and the family felt secure enough to stop sleeping in shifts. They had done that for years, with one adult always remaining awake to guard the house.

At that same time, Helfrich said, Ku Klux Klansmen fumed that the local Forrest County Klansmen weren’t strong enough to do something about Dahmer. The job was turned over to the Jones County klavern.

On a Sunday night, a band of armed Klansmen met at exalted cyclops Cecil Sessums’ store, pumped gasoline into 12 jugs and headed toward the Dahmer home in what was known as the Kelly Settlement. Helfrich said they drove past the Dahmer house to Shady Grove Baptist Church. Sessums urinated on a grave at the black cemetery and told his friends, “The only good nigger is a dead one.” The other klansmen followed his example.

Today jurors are expected to hear the first-hand account of one of those klansmen, Billy Roy Pitts.

Helfrich said Pitts’ job was to riddle the Dahmers’ car and truck with bullets so they couldn’t escape. The gunshots set off the car horn. Pitts dropped his .22-caliber pistol in the yard. Then when one of the drivers flicked on his car lights rather than drive away in the dark, the klansmen in the other car thought they were under fire and shot out the tires of their friends’ car. The car was left abandoned on the road.

Ellie Dahmer described waking her husband, then pulling her sleeping 10-year-old daughter Bettie from her bed and struggling with a window that fell and stuck.

“Bettie was screaming and crying that we were going to get burned up in the house. I hit the window with my shoulder and I hit it so hard that I knocked the sash out and the window and I fell out on the ground,” said Ellie Dahmer, now 72. Her husband handed their daughter out the window.

Son Dennis Dahmer, who was 12, awoke and opened a door into a wall of fire. He slammed it and climbed out another window wearing only his underwear. Vernon Dahmer tried to get back inside to awaken his older son Harold, 26, but was too badly injured to climb through the window. Dennis went through the window and pulled his brother out.

Dennis Dahmer choked back tears as he described looking next door, where the family store was also engulfed in flames. His great aunt, who was more than 80, lived in the store. But she had made it outside and was hiding at the edge of the wood, said Dennis Dahmer, 44, who owns a biomedical research equipment company in Baton Rouge.

The family took refuge in the barn, fearing that the attackers who drove away would come back and use the firelight from the flaming house to pick them off with gunshots.

Said Bettie Dahmer, “My father was sitting there on a bale of hay with his skin hanging off his arms, but he never complained the whole time he was there. The thing he was concerned about was us. He wanted to know we were all right.”

Twelve hours later, Vernon Dahmer died at Forrest General Hospital. His lungs were seared by the fire, smoke and gasoline fumes.

Defense attorney Travis Buckley in an apologetic cross-examination asked Bettie Dahmer, “You want to strike back?“

She replied, “No, Mr. Buckley, I just want my Daddy to have the same justice that everybody else in America can have.“

While some of the Klan raiders went to prison, four juries deadlocked in trials for Bowers in 1968 and 1969. He was tried twice on a murder charge, once on an arson charge and once on a federal charge of violating Dahmer’s civil rights.

Since 1991, Dahmer’s family has pushed to reopen the case. Prosecutors in May reactivated old indictments against Bowers, Charles Noble and Devours Nix, all of Laurel. Noble and Nix are awaiting trial.

Ex-Klansmen say killing ordered

Witnesses ID Bowers

“He wanted it done, and he wanted it done right,” witness says of Klan leader

By Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG — Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers ordered NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer killed and his home burned to snuff out his voter registration work among blacks and to send a message to government investigators in Washington, two former Klansmen testified Wednesday.

Billy Roy Pitts, who went on the Jan. 10, 1966, firebombing raid, and T. Webber Rogers, who went on an earlier “dry run” to spot the Dahmer home, said they heard Bowers tell meetings of Klansmen to do something about Dahmer.

And Bob Stringer, once a part-time helper in Bowers’ amusement machine business, testified that he overheard Bowers, Henry DeBoxtel and Devours Nix discussing Dahmer in a restaurant Nix owned three or four days before the firebombing.

Bowers, 73, of Laurel, former imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan, is being tried for murder. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Prosecutors, nearing the conclusion of their case, called only four witnesses Wednesday — three who linked Bowers to the Dahmer slaying and an FBI agent who testified about Pitts’ .22-caliber pistol that was dropped at the Dahmer house. The gun had not been fired. Bullets inside it exploded from the intense heat, Charles L. Killion said.

Rogers said he heard Klansmen plotting what they called the “the Dahmer project” in October 1965, three months before Dahmer was slain.

The former Laurel barber said he recalled the time of the Klan meeting at an abandoned tenant house on Lawrence Byrd’s farm off Mississippi 84 in Jones County because it happened days before he sliced his leg with a chainsaw — an injury that later forced the amputation of his leg.

Referring to Bowers, Rogers said, “He wanted to know why come the job down south hadn’t been took care of. He wanted it done, and he wanted it done right, so they began amongst themselves trying to come up with some numbers, threes and fours.”

In the secret language of the Klan, the number three meant a firebombing and four meant death, Rogers and Pitts explained.

Rogers and Pitts both testified they were at a Klan meeting at the same tenant house on the Byrd farm in late December 1965 when Bowers took the floor again.

Pounding his fist on the witness stand in imitation of Bowers, Rogers said, “He hit the table and says, ‘Something has got to be done about the damn nigger down south. It should have been done …’ ”

Rogers said he was threatened and shot at before and after he testified in the 1960s.

Pitts, who said he heard Bowers speak as he stood guard outside the house, gave an account similar to Rogers’. He said Bowers talked about Dahmer’s voter registration efforts. He said Bowers wanted to strike against Dahmer before Bowers was scheduled to testify before the House Un-American Affairs Committee in Washington. The congressional committee was investigating Klan violence in the South.

“(Bowers) wanted to show the people in Washington that the people down south meant business.”

Pitts, 54, a former furniture upholsterer, said he joined the Klan in 1964. At the ceremony in the woods, he was initiated before an altar with a sword and a pistol crossed on top of a Bible open to Romans 12.

Pitts said Bowers didn’t go with the Klansmen to Dahmer’s home.

Describing that night, he said Jones County Klan leader Cecil Sessum, the “exalted cyclops,” picked him up at his home without explaining where they were going. A group of men gathered at Sessum’ father’s store, where they checked shotguns and handguns to make sure they worked, and got 12 jugs of gasoline pump. They piled into two cars and drove to a graveyard, where Sessum urinated on a grave and said “the only good nigger is a dead one,” Pitts testified.

They split into two groups. Sessum told DeBoxtol, Frank Lyons, Charles Noble and Lester Thornton to target the store. Pitts said he, Sessum, Cliff Wilson and William Thomas Smith attacked the Dahmer home.

Wilson’s job was to shoot holes in the gas tanks of the Dahmers’ truck and car, douse them with gasoline and set them on fire. Pitts said Sessum told Smith to shoot out the picture window so Sessum could throw jugs of gasoline inside. Wilson and Smith were ordered to lay down a barrage of gunfire. Pitts’ job was to protect Sessum if anyone shot back from inside the house.

Sessum jabbed holes in the tops of the open jugs of gasoline, threw some through the window and some at the house and set them on fire with a torch on a stick, Pitts said.

As they fled, they heard a man’s voice, a voice in distress, Pitts said.

Vernon Dahmer, who shot back at the attackers and put his 10-year-old daughter out a back window, died 12 hours later, his body scorched and his lungs seared. His wife and three children escaped the burning house, and an elderly aunt fled the burning store.

Pitts said the details are etched in his mind. “My Lord, a man’s life was taken and I was a part of it. That’s something I could not get out of my mind. I’m sorry for being a part of this. I wish I had never been a part of it.“

On the afternoon after the 2 a.m. raid, Bowers summoned him. Bowers was angry about the botched raid in which Pitts lost his pistol that could be traced and that the men left behind a borrowed car after one of them shot out the tires by mistake.

“He turned around, and he put his finger in my face. He said, ‘I hand picked you myself for placement on this job, and you let me down,’” Pitts said.

Later, after word spread that the FBI had been to see Pitts, Bowers summoned him again and told him not to talk, Pitts said.

“He said it was all going to be all right. ’There ain’t no jury in the state of Mississippi going to convict a white man for killing a nigger.’ ”

Four juries later would deadlock in Bowers’ trials in 1968 and 1969.

Stringer, who said he overheard Bowers at John’s Cafe, quoted him saying, “… that the Forrest County boys weren’t doing their job and something needed to be done about the Dahmer nigger down south.”

Stringer came forward in May 1997 to clear his conscience and fulfill requirements in a 12-step program for recovering gamblers.

Why the wait?

“You have to understand 1966 in Jones County, which was the center of a lot of evil. You just didn’t stick your neck out. I was a 19-year-old kid in 1966,” he said.

Defense attorney Travis Buckley attempted to discredit Stringer, accusing him of trying to set up Bowers for arrest last year in an investigation of payoffs on video poker machines.

Buckley branded Pitts a paid witness who has testified nine times against defendants accused in the Dahmer slaying.

Pitts admitted he received more than $8,000 at a rate of $100 a week to help pay for relocating his family from Jones County to Louisiana because he feared for their safety.

Buckley showed jurors a stack of other payment receipts, including one for $1,500. Pitts said he didn’t sign “Billy R. Pitts” on the receipt and didn’t get the money.

Buckley, in an attempt to portray Pitts as pampered witness, also showed jurors pictures of Pitts, his wife and a girlfriend at a swimming pool at the Alamo Plaza hotel on U.S.80 in Jackson.

Pitts said U.S. Marshals shuffled him among different hotels because his life was threatened in federal prison.

Bowers case goes to jury today

By Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG— Witnesses said Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers bragged to close friends about what his boys did to NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, but Bowers on Thursday did not testify as his murder trial neared its end.

Jurors are expected to begin their deliberations today in Forrest County Circuit Court.

Bowers, 73, of Laurel, is accused of ordering the Jan. 10, 1966, firebombing that killed Dahmer. Dahmer’s wife, three of their children and an aunt survived the blaze at the Dahmer home and store on Monroe Road outside Hattiesburg.

Klansman-turned-informant Robert Earl Wilson and his ex-wife, Cathy Lucy, testified Thursday that Bowers waved a newspaper with headlines about the Dahmer slaying days after it happened and bragged about it.

Wilson quoted Dahmer as saying “Look what my boys did to that Dahmer nigger for me. Maybe that will take a little bit of the pressure off me in Washington.”

Bowers had been subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington. The committee was investigating Klan violence.

At the time of the Dahmer slaying, Lucy was married to Burris Dunn of Jackson, whom she identified as a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. She said Bowers, who visited weekly in their home, was smiling and jubilant when he showed a copy of the newspaper.

“He was talking to my husband and said, ‘Did you see what a good job my boys did?’ and he had a newspaper with him, the article about the firebombing,” Lucy testified.

Dunn died July 10.

The defense Thursday called admitted Klansman Deavours Nix, who was among a dozen defense witnesses.

Nix, 72, of Laurel, who is awaiting trial on an arson charge in the firebombing, denied ever hearing Bowers discuss plans to firebomb Dahmer’s home or use racial epithets.

Nix testified the first he heard of the Dahmer slaying came from television news reports and when he was on his way to Washington to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Forrest County Assistant District Attorney Robert Helfrich on cross-examination asked, “What un-American activities were you involved in that you were called to Washington to testify?”

Said Nix, “I wasn’t involved in any un-American activities. I call myself a patriot.”

Nix said Bowers “has always professed to be a patriot, somebody that loved Mississippi and this country.”

Prosecution witness Billy Roy Pitts on Wednesday said Nix met with Bowers at the Laurel cafe Nix operated hours before Klansmen firebombed Dahmer’s property. Pitts, who went on the raid to guard Klan exalted cyclops Cecil Sessum, described how Sessum doused the house with gasoline and lit it with a torch while others raked the house with gunfire and another group of Klansmen burned the store next door.

Nix and other defense witnesses on Thursday attacked the credibility of Pitts and two other prosecution witnesses, T. Webber Rogers and Bob Stringer. Rogers and Stringer also testified Wednesday they heard Bowers talk about wanting something done about Dahmer. Rogers went on a dry run to check out the Dahmer house. Stringer said he printed Klan literature for Bowers.

Nix described Bowers as a gentleman and “one of the best men I’ve ever known.”

Nix called the Klan a benevolent organization of Christian men who delivered fruit baskets and money to needy people at Christmas.

Jurors joined in the laughter that rippled through the courtroom at that reference.

Nix said he heard only by hearsay that Bowers was imperial wizard to the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Nix said when he was invited to join the Klan he was told someone would pick him up. He said he was told his escort “would be in a Highway Patrol car.’’

Nix denied ever having Klan paraphernalia or literature in his restaurant and home. Helfrich flipped through a thick stack of papers and produced search warrant returns that said Klan literature was found in the cafe and a photograph of Nix in a Klan robe was found in his home. Helfrich showed Nix a photocopy of the picture but didn’t show it to the jury.

Nix denied that it was he in the picture. Nix’s daughter, Judy Graham, testified the picture was of her brother in a Halloween costume. Nix appeared in court Thursday in a wheelchair wearing a nasal cannula and carrying an oxygen tank. He said he has lung cancer.

He described being arrested while out on bond recently after he appeared at a golf course with his friends.

Bowers Guilty

Klansman sentenced to life for Dahmer murder

Jury reaches verdict in less than 4 hours

By Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG — Former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers left the courtroom in custody Friday while the family of slain NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer was freed from the burden of a 32-year-old crime unpunished.

A Forrest County Circuit Court jury took 3  hours to convict Bowers of murder for ordering the Jan. 10, 1966, firebombing that killed Dahmer.

Dahmer’s son, Dennis Dahmer of Baton Rouge, thumped the balcony rail with a fist in a sign of silent jubilation when a court clerk read the guilty verdict Friday. Vernon Dahmer Jr. put his head in his hands. Widow Ellie Jewel Dahmer clasped her hands and closed her eyes.

“My dad would be proud because the system worked,” Vernon Dahmer Jr. of Hattiesburg, one of Dahmer’s eight children, said after the verdict.

The Ku Klux Klan targeted Vernon Dahmer Sr., a 58-year-old farmer and sawmill operator and former president of the Forrest County NAACP, for his voter registration efforts. Testimony during the five-day trial showed the Klan plotted to kill Dahmer for three months before dousing his home and store with gasoline and setting them on fire while the family slept.

Klansmen struck hours after Dahmer announced at a church service that black voters could pay their poll taxes at his store on Monroe Road near the Forrest County-Jones County line rather than having to drive to Hattiesburg.

The trial was Bowers’ fifth. Four other trials on charges in connection with the firebombing had ended in hung juries.

On Friday, Bowers, wearing a light blue seersucker suit without the Mickey Mouse pin he had worn during the trial, stood stoically with hands clasped behind his back to hear the verdict. He showed no emotion when a clerk read “guilty.”

When Circuit Judge Richard McKenzie asked if he had anything to say before sentencing, Bowers said, “No, sir.”

McKenzie sentenced Bowers to life in prison. “Take him away, Mr. Sheriff,” he said. Sheriff Billy McGee and a deputy escorted Bowers from the courtroom and to the Forrest County Regional Detention Center.

Bowers, who turned 74 this month, is eligible for parole consideration in 10 years. He is sentenced under the law in effect before the “truth in sentencing,” which now requires prisoners to serve 85 percent of the sentence.

Defense attorney Travis Buckley said he will not ask for Bowers to be released on bond pending appeal. “It would be futile. You are not entitled to bond” after a murder conviction, Buckley said.

While the jury deliberated, Bowers posed for pictures with Buckley, defense attorney Carl Ford, Republican gubernatorial candidate Shawn O’Hara and two other people in a room adjacent to the courtroom.

O’Hara, a perennial candidate for office who during his last gubernatorial campaign vowed to put Bowers in prison, assisted Bowers’ defense as a paralegal.

Buckley said Bowers “was as tense and nervous as I’ve ever seen him” Thursday night. Buckley said Bowers was near tears.

Buckley said he expected the guilty verdict. “I can’t say I was surprised.”

Buckley said he will appeal. Among issues he plans to raise are a constitutional due process argument that Bowers was denied a speedy trial and arguments that the prosecutors systematically struck white jurors from the panel.

The jury included six whites, five blacks and one Asian American.

Buckley said he also should have won a mistrial after prosecution witness Billy Roy Pitts testified Buckley himself was at a Ku Klux Klan meeting where Bowers talked about plans for the Dahmer firebombing.

Buckley, who denies any involvement in Klan activities, said the judge’s admonition to the jury to disregard the testimony was “kind of like throwing a skunk in the jury box and telling them to ignore the odor.”

Buckley in his closing argument Friday blamed the news media and politicians for Bowers’ prosecution. He said Bowers has remained a recluse the past 29 years to avoid public attention. Bowers leases amusement machines in Laurel.

“I say to you now this is a case where Mr. Bowers is being offered up on their altar to be sacrificed to the media for political expediency and to promote political ambition,” Buckley told jurors.

“This case has been tried four times in state and federal court. That’s not justice. It’s persecution,” Buckley said.

Buckley compared the prosecution of Bowers to Adolf Hitler’s propaganda campaign against Jews.

Seizing that analogy, Forrest County Assistant District Attorney Robert Helfrich told jurors Bowers caused Ku Klux Klan members to firebomb the Dahmer home and kill Dahmer like Hitler, through his propaganda, sent his henchmen to kill millions of Jews.

Referring to the mass killing, Helfrich said, “Did Hitler do it? No. Was Hitler responsible? Yes. And what do we have here? … Let’s talk about Hitler. Let’s talk about an evil genius sitting right there,” Helfrich said, pointing to Bowers.

Pitts, a Klansman who admitted he went on the Dahmer raid, testified he heard the voice of a man in distress before the Klansmen fled.

Helfrich told jurors, “His voice is still in distress because Sam Bowers is still walking the street.”

Outside the courthouse, Helfrich stood with his arm around Vernon Dahmer Jr. as he said, “This is the Dahmers’ day. They’ve waited too long for it. I’m glad it’s here.”

Gulf Coast resident Bob Stringer, who testified he overheard Bowers talking about plans for the firebombing, embraced Vernon Dahmer Jr. as he left the courthouse.

“I’m proud of the Dahmer family and I feel good about what I did,” said Stringer.

Anti-Defamation League regional director Jerry Himelstein of New Orleans said, “This trial represents progress toward the day when the quality of justice does not depend on the skin color of the victim or the perpetrator.”

Himelstein met with Stringer and the Dahmer family last year to persuade Stringer to come forward.

Hattiesburg minister Nathan Jordan, pastor of Bentley St. John United Methodist Church and former president of the Forrest County Chapter of the NAACP, said, “This day with the announcement of this verdict, we all can have a new beginning.”

Family sees justice after 32 years

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

HATTIESBURG — Ellie Dahmer had cried many times in the 32 years since her husband’s death.

But the tears she shed Friday were ones of joy and thanksgiving. They came moments after a jury pronounced one-time Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers guilty of killing her husband.

“These tears that I am shedding, I am shedding for Vernon because I know he is looking at us today,” said the 73-year-old widow.

Two carloads of Klansmen firebombed the Dahmer home Jan. 10, 1966. In 1968 and 1969, juries convicted four Klansmen, but the man identified as ordering the raid was never convicted, despite four trials. Each of Bowers’ previous trials ended in mistrials when jurors could not agree unanimously.

On Friday, the result was different. The Dahmer family waited and watched from the balcony as the clerk read the unanimous verdict: “We, the jury, find the defendant guilty of murder.”

Afterward, the family met with jurors, thanking them. Family members emerged from the jury room, tears streaming down their faces. A few minutes later, Ellie Dahmer gathered outside the courthouse to talk with reporters.

“Oh, this is a happy moment for us,” she said, surrounded by her children and her relatives. “It is a moment we have been waiting for about 30 years.”

For the Dahmer family, it’s been a long journey. In 1991, the family — inspired by the reindictment of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers — met with prosecutors. Seven years later, that perseverance ended in success.

“Thirty-two years ago, Mr. Bowers and his fellow Klansmen started something,” said Dahmer’s son, Dennis Dahmer. “Thirty-two years later, we hope to bring closure to this matter with the results of this jury today. Our father gave his life for a system that he believed in, even though that system wasn’t fair to him in his lifetime.

“We hope today’s verdict reflects the fact that we’re living a new South and, more particularly, a new Mississippi,” Dennis Dahmer said.

The family thanked the district attorney’s office, the attorney general’s office, local leaders, supporters and the media.

As for the upcoming trials of others accused in the Klan raid — Deavours Nix and Charles Noble — Dahmer’s son, Vernon Dahmer Jr., said, “We’re not going to talk about future trials. We let that happen as time passed.”

Leaving the courthouse, family members gathered on the front lawn of the Dahmer home, which Klansmen ran across in 1966, firing shotguns through windows and lobbing firebombs into the house. The family rested on wooden picnic tables under towering oaks and talked about the man they wished was there.

“Once this settles in and I get control of my emotions,” Vernon Dahmer Jr. said, “I am going to the cemetery and pray and tell my father that justice finally came and he can begin to rest in peace.”

Bowers dead at 82

Klansman serving life for civil rights killing dies of cardiac arrest in prison

By Jerry Mitchell

Former Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers died behind bars Sunday, but the legacy of hate he and his minions perpetuated will never be forgotten, victims' families say.

"He and his Klansmen destroyed some good people who were trying to do the right thing," said Dennis Dahmer, who watched his father, Vernon Dahmer Sr., die from burns inflicted by Klansmen in a 1966 attack of their home near Hattiesburg.

At 11:30 a.m., the 82-year-old Bowers - who headed the nation's most violent Klan organization and was portrayed in the 1988 fictional film, Mississippi Burning - died of a heart attack at the state Penitentiary at Parchman.

Despite the fact the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi were responsible for at least 10 killings, Bowers never had been convicted of murder until 1998, when a jury found him guilty of Dahmer's killing.

A judge sentenced Bowers to life, and the former Klan leader spent most of that sentence in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility before health problems caused officials to move him to Parchman, which has a hospital for inmates.

One of the former FBI agents who investigated Bowers, Jim Ingram, said what was surprising about the one-time imperial wizard was "what a mild-mannered person he was to be such a vicious killer."

Born into a prestigious political family - the grandson of U.S. Rep. Eaton J. Bowers, D-Miss. - Bowers moved to Laurel and evolved from a man who leased pinball machines to businesses to a self-described "criminal lunatic," whose organization was responsible for much of the violence that plagued the state during the civil rights movement, including dozens of church bombings, beatings, drive-by shootings and other violence.

"It was scary back then," said David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the University of Mississippi. "It was a period where (historian) Jim Silver said we had a 'closed society,' not so much because you couldn't speak out - it was what could happen to you if you did."

Vernon Dahmer found that out after he allowed African Africans to pay their poll taxes at the grocery store next to his house.

Dahmer's widow, Ellie, still remembers how cold it was when two carloads of Klansmen firebombed their family's home in the early morning hours of Jan. 10, 1966.

Her 58-year-old husband returned fire with his shotgun so she and other family members could escape out a back window.

Flames from the blaze seared his lungs, and he died later that day. Several weeks after his death, Dahmer's family received his voter registration card in the mail. Dahmer died before he was ever able to cast his first ballot.

Starting in 1968, Bowers went on trial four times for Dahmer's death, but was never convicted. A mistrial was declared each time because the juries could not reach a verdict. After a new witness came forward in 1997, authorities reopened the case, and Bowers was successfully prosecuted.

When Ellie Dahmer learned of the death of her husband's killer, she remarked, "He lived a lot longer than my husband, Vernon Dahmer, had a chance to live. He destroyed our family because he took a husband from me, a devoted father from our children, and a leader and Christian man from his community."

Dahmer's son, Vernon Jr., said, "Sam Bowers lived a life consumed with hate for African Americans. He caused a lot of pain, suffering and death for many individuals and families in my race. Now that he has passed from this life, God will be the judge."

During the 1960s, the ranks of the Klan in Mississippi swelled beyond 10,000, and its sympathizers numbered many more. Some politicians sought the support of the Klan, which felt emboldened to act violently.

Bowers' own words ironically led to the reopening of that case in 1998. The Clarion-Ledger obtained and published a secret interview that Bowers gave in the mid-1980s in which he said he was "quite delighted to be convicted (in 1967) and have the main instigator of the entire affair walk out of the courtroom a free man."

Bowers' reference to Edgar Ray Killen prompted families to successfully push for prosecution. On June 21, 2005 a jury convicted Killen of orchestrating the slayings.

In his secret interview, Bowers defended the use of racist violence, including the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and talked of his admiration for Adolf Hitler: "(Jesus) is going to be the ultimate fascist dictator with the perfect judgment, and I hope to be one of the soldiers in His ranks."

Bowers said citizens "not only have a right but a duty to preserve their culture."

"By taking someone's life, though?" the interviewer asked.

His reply, "If that person wants to put his life on the line in order to destroy that culture, yes."

Unfortunately, Mississippi carries the stigma from those days of hate, Dennis Dahmer said. "That was a burden Bowers put on the state that was unneeded -violence and viciousness toward someone who simply wanted to vote or wanted to go to a restaurant. I hope we never go back to those times."

Topic Details

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Key Events:
Bowers Dies in Prison: 05 Nov 2006 1
Bowers Found Guilty: 22 Aug 1998 1
Bowers, Nix and Noble Charged with Dahmer's Murder: 28 May 1998 1
Cecil Sessum Convicted: 15 Mar 1968 1
Sam Bowers Avoids Conviction with Split Jury: 17 May 1968 1
Vernon Dahmer Killed When Home is Firebombed: 10 Jan 1966 1

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