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THE NATION | CHASING JUSTICE IN THE NEW SOUTH

Answers Elusive in 1965 Slaying

Crime: FBI is again trying to find out who ambushed two black deputies in Louisiana.

June 26, 2002|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VARNADO, La.--The two deputies drove quietly down Main Street, crossed the railroad tracks and headed home for a late dinner. It was not yet midnight on June 2, 1965.

Alongside came a dark pickup with a Confederate flag decal on the front bumper, a driver, maybe one man with a firearm at the passenger window, maybe two men with firearms in the back of the truck.

Oneal Moore was killed instantly, the back of his head blown out by a bullet from a high-powered hunting rifle. Creed Rogers was wounded in the shoulder by shotgun pellets and blinded in his right eye.

They were the community's first black deputies, on duty for a year and a day, sworn in by a sheriff hoping to accommodate the rising impatience of local blacks for more jobs and more respect. But it angered much of the white power structure in Washington Parish, particularly the influential chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

No one stood trial in the ambush, no one went to prison, and today, nearly 40 years later, no one in this rural Louisiana community has come forward with any solid evidence that might bring the gunmen to justice.

Yet everyone seems to think they know at least one of them. Ernest Ray McElveen, then 41, of nearby Bogalusa, was charged with murder, briefly held and then released when friends put up $25,000 bail. For reasons that remain unclear, the case was never prosecuted and the charges were dropped.

Every 10 years or so, it seems, federal or local law enforcement authorities reopen the case.

People can recall at least two grand jury investigations. Once, authorities dug up a concrete patio after being tipped that the firearms used in the shootings were buried underneath. Another time a woman with cancer told authorities on her deathbed that her boyfriend had whispered in her ear that he was one of the killers.

When the name of yet another alleged accomplice surfaced, the man claimed amnesia because of a car wreck 12 years earlier.

Nothing came of any of this, as has been true in countless efforts over the years to reopen unsolved, race-driven murders from the 1960s.

More recently, there have been successes, raising hopes in other old civil rights cases. Just last month, Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted for his role in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four black girls nearly 40 years ago.

At least 11 other such cases, including the shootings of Varnado's two black deputies, are alive across the South. But there are countless other unsolved killings of blacks from that era that are doomed to remain forever below the radar of young prosecutors or others with an interest in justice. Indeed, the life span of prospective witnesses is fast expiring.

Moreover, the handful of old cases that are being revived appears to have slim prospects for successful prosecution, plagued by the damage time does to evidence. The reopening of these old cases might serve mainly to remind Americans of the fragility of justice.

Now the case of Oneal Moore and Creed Rogers has been reopened again, this time by the FBI field office in New Orleans. Though they will not say what sparked the new interest, agents felt optimistic enough to announce a $40,000 reward for information. Green-and-white reward posters are being hung in some of the shop windows and in government offices around Washington Parish, and a fresh crop of investigators is knocking on doors, hoping to pry loose a clue or two.

"We've got some leads and we're covering those leads," said FBI Agent Dave Picard, who handles civil rights cases in Louisiana. "We're hoping something will shake here. I'm hoping we'll get some kind of lead where somebody will come forward late in life."

But that seems unlikely, given how Washington Parish has managed to live with its secret for so long. Some shop owners won't even put up the reward posters.

Varnado sits in the northeast corner of Washington Parish, a lumber and paper mill town just off the Pearl River where Louisiana meets Mississippi, an hour north of New Orleans. The hamlet is still little more than a mix of gas stations, a beauty salon, a takeout pizza place and a smattering of churches. The old Gulf, Mobile & Ohio railroad tracks, now the Illinois Central Railroad, still cut through town.

It is not a community where new ideas readily take hold. As soon as the case was reopened, Moore's widow, Maevella, got another death threat. Even Rogers, now 80, who with a glass eye went on to complete a long career as a local deputy, said: "I've pretty well learned not to think about it too much anymore. I've made up my mind I'm never going to find out who did this to us."

Said Frank Sass, a retired FBI agent who worked the case at the time: "You're whistling in the dark about anything to do with that case now. I just don't think it will go anywhere. Once McElveen and everybody else stopped talking, this whole thing came to a screeching halt."

'Klan's Bloody Answer'

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