Posts tagged with ‘cold case’

a deep south cold case goes frigid

August 30, 2014

Since Catherine Walker Jones received word last November that the Department of Justice had given up on solving the 1964 racial murder of her father, Clifton Walker, I’ve been raising questions about the FBI’s present-day investigation and its treatment of the Walker family.

Now, on Narratively, I take a deep look at the anatomy of the FBI’s failure to properly investigate the Clifton Walker murder case.

The last person to investigate the Walker case was special agent Bradley Hentschel, at least the third agent on the case since it was reopened. Hentschel was assigned to the case in the spring of 2011, when he was twenty-five years old and had been employed as a special agent for less than a year.

For its part, the FBI contends that decades-old cold cases are among the most difficult an agent can be assigned. As the Department of Justice has noted to Congress: “Subjects die; witnesses die or can no longer be located; memories become clouded; evidence is destroyed or cannot be located; and original investigations lacked the technical and scientific advances relied upon today.”

All true, surely — but it was hard for Hentschel to even get the authorization and resources needed in order to conduct the most basic investigative activities in the field.

“I do not want to close this case,” Hentschel said during a telephone interview in 2011, “but if I can’t develop any further leads…it’s going to be a hard sell to the DOJ, to even my supervisor, that I need to be running around two, two and a half hours away from the office with the gas budget the way that it is and everything else, beating down leads on this case or on any other case where we don’t have any active information coming in.”

Get the full story on Narratively.

The video introducing this post and featured with the Narratively article was edited by Clarence Smith, Jr., aka, BOLD Edition.

Before 'Freedom Summer,' A Wave Of Violence Largely Forgotten →

My latest from the NPR CodeSwitch blog—about the little-known 1964 racial shooting of Richard Joe Butler, who survived to tell the tale.

Butler is 75 today, and the shooting left him with injuries that have dogged him for a half-century. “I never will forget that morning,” Butler told me in a telephone interview from his Riverside, Calif., home. “I was shot four times with shotguns. … I’ve got one piece of lung and one lung. I can only stand up for a little while. I have to go sit down. If I don’t, I fall.”

But there are psychic scars from the attack, too. He said he still looks over his shoulder in fear of random violence 50 years later, and says he doesn’t go anywhere, including the bathroom, without a gun. “If I sit out on the stoop, this is right where I can reach and get it. It’s been that way for … years,” Butler said. “I’m gonna protect me.”

"I hadn’t even voted then," Butler told me. "At that time, you wasn’t allowed to vote. You didn’t do nothing but work."

remembering james chaney

June 24, 2014

Everyone knows James Chaney, the civil rights martyr. Fewer remember James Chaney, the civil rights activist.

James Chaney

James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered by a mob of Klansmen in Neshoba County, Miss. on June 21, 1964. For 44 days, hundreds of FBI agents and Navy sailors searched for the missing civil rights workers, until their bodies were found on August 4, buried in an earthen damn. During the massive hunt for the slain young men, Rita Schwerner, Michael’s young widow, said, “We all know that this search with hundreds of sailors is because Andrew Goodman and my husband are white. If only Chaney was involved, nothing would’ve been done.”

After reading and writing about these murders for 10 years, one thing that strikes me this year is that the whiteness of two of the victims continues to play a role in our perceptions.

Without white people among the victims, James Chaney’s death would not have been important to authorities or the country at large. But with the white victims present there is a tendency in our memorializations to overlook Chaney’s humanity—to remember him only as the black victim rather than as a person who contributed tirelessly to the civil rights movement.

The roles that the three civil rights workers were playing in the freedom struggle are generally not heavily emphasized today, but it seems usual for recollections to include that Andrew Goodman was arriving in Mississippi as a Freedom Summer volunteer and that Michael and Rita Schwerner were running a CORE community center in Meridian, Miss. But when is the civil rights work of James Chaney ever recalled?

As a small corrective to this myopia, here are some passages from white southern journalist James Bradford Huie’s Three Lives for Mississippi, originally published in 1965 and still essential reading on Neshoba murders.

CORE workers Michael Schwerner, Rita Schwerner and Lenora Thurmond, wrote to the national office of CORE on April 23, 1964 to request that James Chaney be hired as staff at the Meridian community center where they all worked.

We’re writing to ask a favor. We know that CORE is short of funds, and therefore we debated a long time before bringing up this subject … but we feel that it is important. We would like to implore the National Office to place a young man on field staff.

James Chaney is 21 and a native of Meridian. Since the office was established here, long before any of the three of us arrived in town, he has been working full time, doing whatever work was necessary. When he started to get the community center in order, James worked with Mick building shelves, loading books, painting. He has canvassed, set up meetings, gone out into some of the rough rural counties to make contacts for us. Tonite he is running a mass meeting here in Meridian. In short, there is no distinction in our minds or his as to the amount of work he should do as a volunteer, and we as paid staff. We consider James part of the Meridian staff, and he is in on all major decisions which are made here.

In February, when there was so much work to be done in Canton, Matt Suarez asked for help and James went. He worked in Canton for almost a month, helping to organize for Freedom Day. He spent about a week in Greenwood, prior to the Freedom Day there. He was sent into Carthage, and would have continued to do voter registration work there, though only a volunteer, had it not been decided to temporarily abandon that spot.

James has never so much as asked us to buy him a cup of coffee, though he has no means of support. We believe that since he long ago accepted the responsibilities of a CORE staff person, he should be given now the rights and privileges which go along with the job.

Thank you for listening to our request…
For freedom,
(signed) Rita and Mike Schwerner
Lenora Thurmond

According to Marvin Rich, a CORE representative who traveled among and evaluated the work of the local community projects,

On this trip I made to Louisiana and to Jackson, Canton and Meridian, Mississippi, there were requests for additional staff from each community. Chaney was the only one hired.

Sue Brown was one of the first African Americans from Meridian to work for CORE. She introduced James Chaney to Matt Suarez in 1963, which led to Chaney’s ongoing presence at the Meridian community center. It was Brown who was making the initial phone calls on June 21, 1964 to inform the state COFO offices and the FBI that Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman had not returned from Neshoba County and had not been heard from.

I remember seeing him in high school before he dropped out. He was the typical young Mississippi Negro, from a broken home, who becomes a dropout. His father was gone; his mother had five children; and they all tried to do what they could to keep bread on the table. He didn’t have much to say, and he always walked with his head down. He did odd jobs, like a painter’s helper or a carpenter’s helper. He knew he wasn’t going anywhere. His speech was crude: he used words like ain’t. So he was the kind the Movement means everything to. He got so he could get up before a small crowd and urge them to join the Movement. He’d go hungry and do all the dirty work, just for the chance to stay around the Center where he felt like something was going on. I guess with the Movement he found his first sense of participation. Mickey knew how to put him at his ease, so Mickey could count on Jim Chaney to walk through hell with him.

And walk through hell James Chaney did. But he had already given his life to the Movement many months before he was murdered, and for this he should also be remembered.

further reading

clifton walker family marks bitter 50th anniversary

February 28, 2014

Catherine Walker Jones and Shirley Walker Wright hold a picture of their father, Clifton Walker, and stand on Poor House Road, where he was killed. (Photo by Ben Greenberg)Catherine Walker Jones and Shirley Walker Wright hold a picture of their father, Clifton Walker, and stand on Poor House Road, where he was killed. (Photo by Ben Greenberg)

On February 28, 1964, near midnight, Clifton Walker’s ride home from work was cut short. On the twisty unpaved road he took as a shortcut on the final leg of the drive from the International Paper plant in Natchez, Klansmen stopped his car and shot him multiple times in the face at point blank range.

Fifty years later, Clifton Walker’s children still wait for justice and search for answers about who was responsible for what happened that night on Poor House Road. In 1964, state and federal authorities conducted an unsuccessful investigation. Numerous suspects were considered but the documented evidence was thin, motives unclear and the case was dropped after nine months.

In 2009, following passage by civil rights hero and US Representative John Lewis of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, the Department of Justice re-opened the Walker murder along with 109 other unsolved cases.

Today, at Colorlines, I report on how the initial hopes of the Walker family for belated government action were ultimately dashed.

“At last somebody was going to talk to surviving old folks that could be witnesses,” Catherine at first had hoped, “and they could find the name of people who actually pulled the trigger. If they’re dead or alive, maybe we’ll know who did this.”

Since then, however, there has been a series disappointments from the Justice Department, culminating this past November. One week before Thanksgiving and on the birthday of Catherine’s late mother, Ruby Walker, an FBI agent appeared unannounced at Catherine’s New Orleans home to hand deliver a letter from the Justice Department, informing her that the case was closed.

“[A]fter determining that many of the individuals mentioned in the 1964 reports, including all the individuals alleged to have had any motive to harm your father, are now deceased,” the Department of Justice wrote to Catherine, “it became apparent that continued investigation would not lead to a viable prosecution of a living suspect. Accordingly, we have no choice but to close this investigation.”

“They only repeated things already written, things that came from the files,” in the letter’s summary of investigative results, Catherine says. “They did no work themselves at all. They never met with any of the family members. Their interest was not there.”

Read the full report at

We’re also marking the 50th anniversary of the murder of Clifton Walker at Jerry Mitchell’s blog, Journey to Justice. There, I write about the family life that was shattered by the senseless and cowardly actions of a white mob in 1964, the family’s struggle to cope with the murder, and their determination to find the truth with or without the help of the government.

In the days following the funeral, Walker’s widow, Ruby, had a breakdown that frightened her children. “When Mama didn’t recognize her children, I knew we were in trouble,” said Catherine.

Ruby recovered from the breakdown, but she had to take medication to sleep each night until her death in 1992 at the age of 65.

Walker’s son, Cliff Jr., was 10 at the time of the slaying.

“He didn’t realize or know Daddy,” Catherine recalled. “He was the kind of man a son really should have known.”

Read the whole post at Journey to Justice.

Today’s reports are not the end of the story. I will be reporting on avenues of investigation unexplored by the FBI—so stay tuned.

we will never stop

December 19, 2013

Catherine and Shirley Walker interviewed by Al Jazeera English on Poor House Road, Wilkinson County, MS

Shirley Walker Wright and Catherine Walker Jones interviewed by Andy Gallacher of Al Jazeera English on Poor House Road, Wilkinson County, MS

A week before Thanksgiving, on November 21, I received a text from Catherine Walker Jones from New Orleans. “Strange thing happened a hour ago,” she said, “FBI agent delivered a letter informing me Daddy’s case will be closed!!! I am lost for words and angry.”

This February it will be 50 years since Catherine’s father, Clifton Earl Walker, Sr., was ambushed and shot to death by a gang of whites about 7 miles north of Woodville, MS. He was driving home from the late shift at the International Paper plant, about 30 miles north in Natchez. In 1964, the Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol and the FBI investigated the racial murder from February until December, when the case was closed without making any arrests.

The FBI agent’s arrival on Catherine Walker’s doorstep last month was a disappointing culmination to a new murder investigation begun in 2009. Pursuant to a recent, groundbreaking bill sponsored by civil rights hero, Rep. John Lewis (GA-5), the FBI was directed by Congress to conduct a “timely and thorough” investigation of this and 109 other unsolved civil rights cold cases.

For the Walkers, the sense of Congress was not fulfilled. Instead of finding justice or answers to long unanswered questions, the Walkers have been privy to false starts by a succession of agents on the case; retracted promises of meetings with officials; slow, incomplete follow-through on known investigative leads; and a murky, unsatisfying summation of the Bureau’s efforts when the DOJ threw in the towel last month.

November 21, when the FBI agent showed up unannounced on Catherine’s doorstep to deliver the case closure letter, would have been her mother Ruby’s 87th birthday. Clifton Walker’s widow, Ruby Phipps Walker, died in 1992 at 65. “Mama went to her grave not knowing who killed her love,” Catherine told me when we first met in 2008. “She would have had a different life had he not been killed…. If the FBI had names, why didn’t they allow Mama to know who they were?”

Last week, I met up with Catherine and her sister Shirley Walker Wright in Woodville, MS. We returned to the terrible spot on Poor House Road where their father was ambushed and gunned down . We were brought there by Al Jazeera English to discuss the case closure and the approaching fifty year anniversary of the murder.

"We will never stop," Catherine Walker Jones told Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallacher. "Justice has not been served."

(This post is a teaser for a fuller article coming soon on the case closure.)

after 49 years, little justice

June 21, 2013

49 years ago today, civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were killed by a mob of klansmen. The trio’s bodies were not found for 44 days.




On August 4, 1964, the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were found buried in an earthen damn on the property of Olen Burrage, a wealthy, local businessman.

The civil rights workers were found dead in an earthen dam on land owned by Olen Burrage.

Most Suspects Dead

In 1964, the FBI accused 21 men, including Burrage, of taking part in the killings of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. State officials declined to prosecute any of the accused on murder charges. In 1967, a federal grand jury indicted 19 men on charges of conspiring to deprive the three civil rights workers of their civil rights. 1n 1967, 7 of those charged were found guilty of the lesser conspiracy charges.

On January 6, 2005, Klansman Edgar Ray Killen, was indicted on state murder charges and on June 21, 2005 was convicted on three counts of manslaughter. In 2005, besides Killen, 9 of the men who were charged in 1967 were still living.

Olen Burrage died this year at 84, never having been charged with murder. A few years earlier, Jerry Mitchell called Burrage on the phone.

When I called Burrage that day, it was in hopes of him answering that question: How could a bunch of Klansmen have slipped onto your property in the dead of night, run a bulldozer and buried three bodies 15 feet down without you hearing or knowing something?

I had hoped to ask Burrage that question, but what I heard instead was a click, followed by a dial tone.

A few days ago, Burrage died at age 84.

Now no one will ask him that question.

One living suspect remains, James Thomas “Pete” Harris, age 79. There is a strong case against him.

Coping and Remembering

Ben Chaney and his parents and sisters en route to his brother James Chaney's funeral, August 7, 1964. Photo by Bill Eppridge.

Hank Klibanoff tells the story of this photograph by Bill Eppridge.

On August 7, Eppridge watched as the Chaney family left to bury their eldest son. As they awaited a driver, Fannie Lee Chaney and her husband, Ben Sr., sat in the front seat of a sedan; their daughters, Barbara, Janice and Julia, sat in the back with Ben, who hunched forward so he’d fit.

Eppridge took three frames. As he did so, he could see Ben’s bewilderment harden into a cold stare directed right at the lens. “There were a dozen questions in that look,” Eppridge says. “As they left, he looked at me and said, three times, ‘I’m gonna kill ‘em, I’m gonna kill ‘em, I’m gonna kill ‘em.’ “

For victims’ families, coping with such anger and grief becomes a defining feature of their lives. In 2007, I spoke with Ben Chaney over the phone two days after his mother Fannie Lee Chaney was buried in Meridian, MS, next to her eldest son, James. I asked Ben how it felt knowing that she had died with most of the perpetrators never having been charged with murder.

I first met Ben Chaney in 2005 at the 41st annual memorial for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner on the family land of the late Cornelius and Mable Steele who were local blacks working with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner on voter registration in Neshoba County, Miss.

The 49th annual memorial is today and tomorrow.