By Ben Greenberg, (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger
Four and a half years after the FBI announced it would reopen more than 100 cases of unsolved civil rights-era killings in the South, the bureau has yet to initiate charges in any of the cases. It has instead closed all but 39 without recommending prosecution.
Despite its most vigorous efforts, the Justice Department has told Congress that the FBI has not been able to overcome "difficulties inherent in all cold cases: subjects die; witnesses die or can no longer be located; memories become clouded; evidence is destroyed or cannot be located; original investigations lacked the technical or scientific advances relied upon today."
But none of those reasons explains why the FBI has been able to gain little ground in a case that is still open: the slaying of Clifton Walker, 37, a black man who was ambushed by a white mob and gunned down in his car on an unpaved road outside the southwest Mississippi town of Woodville on Feb. 28, 1964.
Walker was married and the father of five children. For Walker's children, the FBI's management of the case raises questions.
The FBI's role
Since 2007, the FBI has rotated at least three different agents onto the case, and the Walker family says it has seen no indication any of the agents has made it a priority. When reached in July 2011, the latest agent, Bradley Hentschel, had been working the case for only a couple of months and had not yet visited Wilkinson County, where the shooting occurred. Key figures who were mentioned in 1964 federal and state investigative documents say the FBI, as of mid-July 2012, still has not contacted them as part of its present-day investigation.
Reached again this month, Hentschel would not comment on an open investigation but emphasized "the reliance that we have on the public to provide us information because we have resource and personnel limitations."
The bureau does not officially acknowledge Hentschel's constraints. "I don't think it's an issue of personnel or resource availability," FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said. In a written statement, Allen added, "Often, hoping to be helpful, individuals may profess to the media that they have direct knowledge of events that they later acknowledge to law enforcement was hearsay, rumor or opinion."
Walker's children are still wondering when they will have their meeting with the FBI.
"My hopeful feelings that the FBI might really make progress on my father's murder case are diminished to sadness, helplessness and anger," one of Walker's daughters, Catherine Walker Jones of New Orleans, said. "I pray we don't go through the motions of opening the wounds with no results."
It's possible the FBI hasn't spoken with the Walker family because of the bureau's concern, noted by Allen, that after 50 years people who might have had information about the incident might not clearly remember details today. The FBI may rely on "information and sworn statements from ... initial interviews" made during the original investigation to "help guide decisions on whom to re-interview as part of the current investigation," Allen explained.
"We have those meetings when we can provide answers to a family," Hentschel said, "namely when an investigation is closed or there is a substantive prosecution that can happen."
Jones, 62, her sister Shirley Walker Wright, 57, of Baton Rouge and her brother Clifton Walker Jr., 55, of Baker, La., want justice. Short of justice, they want the truth about their father's slaying publicly known.
"Anybody who commits such a heinous crime like that needs to be named," Wright said. "Just like my dad has a name and family, they also have families. They need to know the truth, what their dad did, what their grandpa did."
That fatal night
Clifton Walker worked the 3 p.m.-11 p.m. shift as a laborer in the wood yard at the International Paper plant in Natchez, Miss. He typically drove to and from work in a carpool that - defying common conceptions of the segregated South - was racially integrated. Most days, he would drive from his home to a meeting place, join the carpool and then return by carpool to his car at the end of the shift. On Feb. 28, 1964, Walker rode with one black and three white co-workers.
That afternoon, Walker drove from Woodville to the home of fellow carpooler Glenn Wesberry, who lived in Ford's Creek, 7 miles north of Woodville. From there, he, Wesberry and three other carpoolers drove to their shift together, Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol investigative records show. After work, they headed to Wesberry's to get their respective cars and go home.
On their way out of Natchez, the men stopped at an after-hours club, state investigators would later conclude, and picked up three-fifths of whiskey. They drank from separate cups rather than pass the bottles around.
From Ford's Creek, Walker had a choice of two routes home: highways that took a little longer or a shortcut on a lonely, dirt stretch known as Poor House Road. White carpooler Loyal Townley, who was faced with the same choice, later told Highway Patrol investigators that he preferred to drive 3½ miles out of his way on the highways to avoid the twisty, unpaved road.
Clifton Walker always took the shortcut. Close to midnight, he turned onto Poor House Road from U.S. 61. About 300 yards after making the turn, Walker's car was stopped. The ballistic evidence would later show that gunmen gathered around the 1961 Impala and fired inside at extremely close range, blowing Walker's face apart.
Walker was found in his car around 1 p.m. Feb. 29, Highway Patrol reports show.
Walker's white neighbor, Prentiss Mathis, was first to report the shot-up vehicle, flagging down Mississippi Highway Patrolman R.W. Palmertree.
Palmertree, who was involved in much of the initial evidence-gathering, was himself under internal investigation at the time. He and two other state troopers from southwest Mississippi were suspected of being active members of the Ku Klux Klan, Highway Patrol case reports filed in March 1964 show.
The first of at least eight Highway Patrol reports on the slaying, in seven pages, described the crime scene, the state of Walker's body and some of the events after the shooting.
The crime scene
All of the windows of Walker's 1961 cream-colored Impala were shot out, part of the steering wheel was shot off, and there were an unspecified number of gunshot holes in the car. Walker's feet were on the floorboard under the wheel, and his body was flung across the passenger seat. The car was still in high gear. Walker's keys were dangling from the glove-box door, which hung open, revealing his chrome-plated Smith & Wesson .38 with a 4-inch barrel. At some point during the ambush, with the car still moving, Walker appears to have ripped the keys from the ignition to unlock the glove box and get his gun. He never reached it.
Walker's family later discovered his gun had been tampered with and would not have fired even if he had reached it in time to use it, says Walker's nephew, Hayward Dixon, a 67-year-old retired truck driver in Baton Rouge, La. Dixon's mother Leola was one of Walker's sisters.
Walker's brother Elmo ended up with the gun, Dixon said in a 2009 interview. "He had to put it into the shop to get another hammer put on it, and that's when we found out the gun was tampered with. The hammer's pin, the point that hits the bullet, was filed down so it wouldn't make connection with the bullet."
Highway Patrol reports show the sheriff and the patrol did not secure the crime scene and did not process the car for fingerprints before a coroner's jury inspected it. The results of the inquest are not included in the available Highway Patrol documents.
Walker's body was handed over to Williams & Williams Funeral Home in Natchez, a black mortuary. State troopers who visited the funeral home that night stated in their report that a full load of buckshot appeared to have entered Walker from very close range just under the left ear. Another load appeared to have been fired from not more than 3 or 4 feet from the right, tearing away parts of the mouth, chin and neck.
"(They) showed us where Daddy's car was down there on Poor House Road," recalled Jones, who was 14 at the time. "They had it roped off. They had policemen there, patrolmen there, and they were saying you cannot go to the car.
"I can remember running under the tape, looking at the car. All the windows were shot out. The carpet was saturated with blood. They removed me from under there, and everything else was just a blur. But I remember the car.
"I didn't cry at the funeral," Jones said. "I didn't even see him. I didn't even go to the casket. It was like going through the motions but not feeling."
Walker Jr. was 10 years old. "The casket itself had a glass cover," he recalled. "I looked at his face, and it wasn't his face. It was like a mummy made up. They had to make it up because the shotguns had blown his bones away."
Wright was 12 in 1964 but remembers less of what happened.
"You just block it out. I don't know why I don't remember some things," she said. "It was such a void."
In the mid-1960s, the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee investigated the Klan in Mississippi. Documents obtained from the National Archives by reporters with the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, which operates with support from the Center for Investigative Reporting, say that more than 40 of Walker's co-workers were Klansmen. Yet the racial climate, and any tension, at the paper plant is hardly explored in the Mississippi Highway Patrol. Instead, the state reports primarily focus on allegations that Walker had extramarital liaisons with women, white and black.
The Highway Patrol documents mention eight possible suspects but do not explore their motives. The documents allege at least nine different liaisons between Walker and various women - but the investigators' reports do little to connect the suspects to the circumstances involving Walker's alleged infidelities.
The FBI opened the Walker case in March 1964, closed it a few months later, then briefly reopened it before moving on without resolution in December 1964, at which point the Highway Patrol investigation also came to a close.
In November 1964, Highway Patrol investigators recommended two suspects for arrest to District Attorney Lenox Forman in Natchez, FBI documents from the time show. The DA said he had "insufficient evidence" to charge the suspects, the records show.
Throughout 1964 and 1965, the Walker slaying was treated as a major civil rights case, drawing significant attention at various times from the Highway Patrol, FBI, HUAC and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Interest in the Walker case has continued into the present day. Even before the FBI cold case initiative, a retired and well-known Natchez police chief, J.T. Robinson, now deceased, told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. journalist David Ridgen in 2006 that he thought the Clifton Walker killing could be solved.
The names of the two suspects recommended for arrest in the Walker case were redacted from the documents released by the FBI in recent years. The documents nonetheless reveal one suspect was a Wilkinson County constable who was nicknamed "Bud." Woodville news reports reference a Wilkinson County constable named Gordon "Bud" Geter in the 1960s.
According to an FBI document discussing the leadership of White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan units in Adams and Wilkinson counties, the exalted cyclops of the Wilkinson County Unit of the White Knights of Mississippi was "an individual by the name of Jeter."
Bud Geter died in 1982. In a 2009 telephone interview, his widow, Phyllis, confirmed he was a Wilkinson County constable and a deputy sheriff in the mid-1960s.
Asked whether Geter had been a member of the Klan, his widow replied, "I couldn't swear on a Bible and say he was - or say he wasn't."
HUAC documents that appear to be based on the redacted FBI documents name Ed Fuller as another of the suspects. Fuller, a Klansman linked in numerous state and federal documents to Mafia-controlled prostitution and gambling and to many acts of violence in Mississippi and Louisiana, would become a police informant later in 1964, documents included in the Walker FBI file show. Fuller died in 1975.
If Fuller and Geter participated in killing Walker, the evidence suggests they could not have acted alone. The incomplete information in available state documents suggests gunshots from at least three different weapons, and documents and eyewitness accounts suggest gunmen fired into the car from at least three sides.
Jones believes there may have been many more attackers. She recalls being told by her mother, Ruby Walker, who died in 1992, that in 1964 an FBI agent reported shell casings were found all along the banks that rise up along the part of Poor House Road where Walker was ambushed - suggesting many men lined up along the road and fired on the car.
Documents and interviews indicate a number of people were involved in planning and orchestrating the ambush.
Around 1 a.m., about an hour after the slaying occurred, a white Woodville man, Carl Cavin, appeared at the home of his wife, Annie, from whom he was separated, according to a March 1964 Highway Patrol report. Annie Cavin told the patrol that her husband "appeared to be extremely nervous and drinking heavily."
The Highway Patrol also learned Carl Cavin and another white man, identified as Red Metcalf, were seen within a mile of Poor House Road at about 10:30 p.m. before the slaying. Unredacted FBI documents describe a meeting between Cavin and Metcalf on the night of the Walker ambush at Nettles Truck Stop on U.S. 61, near Wesberry's home and within a mile of Poor House Road.
Though the Highway Patrol recommended only Ed Fuller and Bud Geter for arrest in November 1964, the law enforcement agency in March 1964 named Cavin and Metcalf, along with Walker's neighbor Prentiss Mathis, as prime suspects.
Mathis and Cavin are confirmed dead by family members and Social Security records. Metcalf's death is unconfirmed.
"I think it's false," said Mathis' eldest son, John, 62, about the allegations of his father's involvement in the slaying.
"I've never seen him hostile, in my eyes, to black folk," added Mathis, a semi-retired Bechtel Corp. executive residing in Hermanville, Miss. "They came to our house, and we went to their house. It was very friendly."
Carl Cavin's eldest daughter, Bessie Scott, 72, of Woodville doesn't think her father could have been involved, either, though the scene on her late mother's door step rings partly true. "My dad did drink a whole lot, and it's entirely possible that he was out drinking that night," she said.
State and FBI documents mention a number of black people with information important to the case - some of them still alive today.
Milton Granger, Rita Lea Dover
In 1964, the FBI was interested in a black man from Louisiana named Milton Granger, who had been at the Nettles Truck Stop on Feb. 28, 1964, and fled Woodville soon after the slaying.
According to an unnamed informant in the unredacted FBI documents, Granger fled Woodville because he let a 17-year-old white woman named Rita Lea Dover kiss him at Nettles Truck Stop.
The same informant claimed Walker was targeted because he asked Dover for a date - but according to Highway Patrol investigators, interviews with Dover and her father showed no connection between her and Walker.
Dover is dead, according to her sister and references in Natchez Democrat obituaries. Dover's sister, Doris Longmire, 61, of Woodville said in a phone interview that she was unaware of her sister having romantic involvements with black men. "I don't know nothing about that," Longmire said.
"I knew her daddy well. He grew up with my oldest brother, but I don't know nothing about this thing here," Granger remarked in a 2010 interview about Dover and the possibility that he might have fled because he witnessed the planning of the ambush at the truck stop. "I wasn't there. I'd be lying if I was to say something."
Highway Patrol documents go into some detail about a black woman, Emma Beasley, who worked as a cook at Nettles Truck Stop in 1964. "It is believed that she has knowledge of certain facts that would aid greatly in breaking this case," stated an April 16, 1964, Highway Patrol report. Another Highway Patrol report from two weeks earlier, dated March 30, 1964, said: "It is ... known that she left Woodville immediately after Walker's body was discovered, returned to attend the funeral, and immediately after the funeral, left." The report stated she "left in such a hurry that she took no clothes except those she was wearing, and stated to her common law husband, 'I know too much about this mess and I ain't gonna get involved.' "
After living in Louisiana for a decade, Beasley returned to Mississippi in the mid-1970s, where she lives today at 83. "I didn't know nothing about his death," Beasley insisted in a 2009 interview. "It hurt me when he got killed, and they said that I was in on it. And all the Lord above know that I wasn't in on it."
In a telephone interview this month, Beasley said she has yet to be contacted by the FBI. She reported failing health, having recently lost her eyesight from diabetes. "I'm down in the bed sick," Beasley said.
Jones is sure there are people still living in southwest Mississippi who can tell the truth about what happened to her father.
"The people in that town knew exactly what happened to Daddy," Jones insists. "They wouldn't even look at us when we would walk down the streets because of the shame that they had knowing but not divulging the information."
Said Wright: "As long as I live that emptiness is there, that not knowing is there. We have no faces to the names. No one volunteers that kind of information. But we need to know. That was our father."
Said Walker Jr.: "We just want closure, that's all."