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BOOKS & AUTHORS / ORANGE COUNTY : The Real Dirt Down South Dug Up in 'Mississippi Mud'

October 11, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were two of the most prominent citizens of Biloxi, Miss.: Vincent Sherry was a respected lawyer and circuit court judge. Margaret, his wife of nearly 40 years, was a mayoral candidate with a reputation for stirring things up at city hall.

But on a sultry September evening in 1987, someone entered the Sherrys' ranch-style home and, using a .22-caliber Ruger automatic, shot them both to death.

The double murder rocked Biloxi, the Gulf Coast resort city that Look magazine once compared to the French Riviera but which, as Seal Beach author Edward Humes shows in his new book on the Sherry murders, had a dual persona.

It was a bastion of Old South virtue where corrupt mayors and police chiefs for decades allowed the so-called Dixie Mafia to openly operate gambling, prostitution and other illegal enterprises along a seamy beachfront strip.

It's into this shadowy world that Lynne Sposito, the Sherrys' eldest daughter, steps after a two-year police investigation of her parents' murders leads nowhere. Fearing a cover-up, the middle-aged mother of three hires her own investigator and sets off on a perilous crusade to find out who killed her parents.

In "Mississippi Mud: A True Story From a Corner of the Deep South" (Simon & Schuster; $23), Humes chronicles how Sposito's investigation led her to the kingpin of Biloxi's decadent Strip, his protege--a convicted Dixie Mafia killer making hundreds of thousands of dollars targeting gay men in a mail and telephone scam run from inside a Louisiana prison--and their lawyer: Peter Halat, who was not only Vincent Sherry's law partner but his best friend.

The book, which is already in its third printing, is being developed by Hearst Entertainment as a miniseries that will air on NBC next year.

Humes, 37, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Orange County Register reporter, first read about the Sherry case two years after the murders. By then the most sensational murder case in the history of Mississippi was making national headlines after allegations were being made against Halat, who had become the new mayor of Biloxi.

For Humes, the Sherry murder story was irresistible.

"Here is an incredible set of characters, a fascinating setting, and a rather haunting mystery. Plus, there was the historical landscape I had to work with. Who wouldn't want to write this story?

"Here you have the most important couple in Biloxi assassinated in their homes by professional hit men, and their daughter--a nurse in Raleigh, N.C.--gets frustrated by the botched police investigation and goes out on her own and does something extraordinary at great personal risk, sacrificing her family and her life and going after these killers.

"And here you have the killers: The Dixie Mafia that everyone thought was extinct, and here's one of their ringleaders living like a lord in prison and authorities know about the scam he's been perpetrating for years and they don't stop it."

Humes paused, then chuckled: "I get revved up every time I talk about it. It's the kind of story you dream about as a journalist, and to spend the amount of time I spent putting it together was fascinating to me."

Humes, who quit his newspaper job in 1990 to write his first true-crime book--"Buried Secrets," about cult murders on the U.S.-Mexican border--says it took him 1 1/2 years to research and write "Mississippi Mud."

Although he did follow-up interviews by phone, "this was a face-to-face story. You have to meet people and persuade them it's a good idea to tell you things they didn't tell anyone else," says Humes, who made 10 trips to Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Lynne Sposito was the first person Humes contacted and talked to at any length.

"I really felt that for the kind of story I wanted to tell I needed her cooperation," he says. "But equally important was to gain the trust and cooperation of investigators who were privy to the real inside story."

Humes, who gained access to confidential jury transcripts, FBI reports and police files, says he documented Sposito's contention that the Biloxi police investigation had been less than laudatory.

"My conclusion is there was a leadership problem with the investigation: the classic headless chicken," he says. "It was the rank-and-file officers who brought this to my attention. They wanted that known. To their credit they wanted to do as good a job as they could."

In writing a true-crime book, Humes says he tries to give it "the feel of a novel, to use some of the conventions of fiction to tell a true story."

To do so, he has learned to dig deeper into a reporter's traditional bag of questions and ask things as: What were you doing before the event occurred? What were you thinking ? What were you wearing?

"You spend hours going over this kind of detail," he says. "What you do is try everybody's patience." But the reward, he says, "is you can write richly detailed scenes."

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