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FBI Agents Honored for Helping Solve 1963 Church Bomb Case

The pair's work on a case with an 'incredibly cold trail' is lauded. Two Klansmen were found guilty in the blast that killed four black girls.

November 14, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Bill Fleming and Ben Herren spent six years reviewing dusty evidence volumes and barely audible tapes to secure the convictions of two men who bombed an Alabama church almost 40 years ago, killing four black girls.

On Wednesday, the FBI agents were recognized as Federal Employees of the Year and the parents of one of the victims were on hand to present the awards.

"Any time an investigator works a case, the only hope he has is to be able to get it to a judge and jury," said Herren, who was a Birmingham, Ala., police sergeant when the case was assigned to him in 1996. He then transferred to the FBI a year later.

"They don't look down the road to something like this," he said.

The investigation immediately following the 1963 blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church produced no charges, although four white supremacists were long suspected. Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Baxley helped lead a 1977 conviction of one of them, Robert Chambliss, who died in prison in 1985. A second suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994.

Fleming and Herren helped prove the guilt of Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Ku Klux Klan members now serving life terms in prison for murder.

"I was very negative about it, because there was a lack of evidence," said Fleming, who will retire from the FBI on Jan. 3. "It was an incredibly cold trail. We had nothing going for us, just nothing. As the investigation progressed, people started coming out of the woodwork."

Herren said that was particularly the case with Cherry, who held a news conference to proclaim his innocence after the FBI stopped by for a surprise interview. Several witnesses Herren did not know existed began calling, telling about Cherry's involvement.

Blanton's conviction was sealed after investigators carefully reviewed a conversation between him and his wife, picked up on a microphone that had been planted under his kitchen sink. FBI labs in the 1960s could not make out the words, but modern technology revealed he was talking about going to the river to plot the bombing.

Although he was skeptical at first, Herren now realizes it was necessary to reopen the investigation. People who had information were reticent because they thought authorities had given up, he said.

"At that time, there was no active investigation they knew of, and they were scared," Herren said. "One thing that hurt the investigation early on was that people were just afraid to talk. Even though the Klan was a paper tiger with no teeth, the fear that once was with the Klan still took over."

That changed when the unsolved murders were exposed again to the public.

The father of 11-year-old victim Denise McNair called the awards long overdue.

"It's a very deserved honor," said Chris McNair, in Washington for the ceremony Wednesday with his wife, Maxine. "These two people are wonderful people anyway. If you just knew them on the street, you'd never know they were FBI agents."

Herren said having the McNairs in the courtroom helped get him through two often tumultuous trials.

"I could look back at them, and it gave me some strength," he said.

Fleming and Herren will receive $5,000 each.

Others recognized at the Service to America ceremony include a Coast Guard official who directed the seaborne evacuation of Lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks and an Army Corps of Engineers worker credited with refusing orders to falsify data.

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