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.