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Seeking Justice and Seeing a Ghost

James Ford Seale, a suspect in 1964 Mississippi killings, is not dead after all.

September 25, 2005|Allen G. Breed | Associated Press Writer

ROXIE, Miss. — Thomas Moore stopped at the gas station just outside town for a country sausage and egg sandwich. He got much more than he'd bargained for.

Moore was back in the southern Mississippi timberlands of his youth to make a documentary about the 1964 kidnapping, torture and slaying of his brother and another black man, crimes for which no one had ever been tried.

Idling in the store that blistering July day, Moore lamented to a local about the fact that one of the prime suspects had died, and the listener asked which one.

"James Ford Seale," Moore replied. The newspapers had said so. Seale's own son had confirmed it years ago.

The man looked at Moore in surprise. "He ain't dead," he said. "I'll show you where he lives."

Moore and filmmaker David Ridgen drove a short distance to a spacious brick house with an immaculate lawn studded with pines and birdhouses. There, lounging beneath a covered picnic area, was an old man with white, thinning hair and spectacles.

"James Ford Seale!" Moore shouted from the road. "Why don't you come out and talk to me? Don't be a coward like you were 41 years ago."

The white man grabbed his cane, scurried to a motor home parked beside the swimming pool and shut the door behind him -- but not before Ridgen could zoom in on him with his camera.

This was no ghost of Mississippi. James Ford Seale was very much alive.

*

If not for a quirk of fate, the bodies might never have been found.

Searchers were combing the woods and swamps of Mississippi for three civil rights workers who went missing in June 1964. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were helping register black voters in Neshoba County, and the Ku Klux Klan had targeted them for elimination.

On July 12, a fisherman found the lower part of a black man's body in the Mississippi River near Tallulah, La. Federal officials converged on the area, and the partial remains of a second man were found the next day.

The bodies were identified as those of Charles Eddie Moore, who was home from Alcorn A&M after being suspended for taking part in a protest over cafeteria food, and Henry Hezekiah Dee, who worked at a local lumberyard.

According to federal reports, the two 19-year-olds were hitchhiking May 2 on U.S. 84 outside nearby Meadville when a klansman in a Volkswagen picked them up. The Klan had heard rumors of black Muslim gunrunning in the area and figured the two were involved.

Two men were arrested in the case -- paper mill worker Charles Marcus Edwards, 31, and his cousin, a 29-year-old truck driver named James Ford Seale.

FBI documents say Edwards admitted that he and Seale picked up the two men, took them to "an undisclosed wooded area where they were 'whipped' " -- allegedly with bean poles. But Edwards told investigators the two were alive when he left them. (He later denied making the statement.)

An informant, however, told the FBI that the klansmen took the unconscious blacks to the river, lashed their bodies to a Jeep engine block and dumped them, still breathing, into the muddy water.

When asked if he knew why he had been arrested, Seale reportedly replied: "Yes, but I'm not going to admit it. You are going to have to prove it."

In early August, the bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were discovered in an earthen dam. Consumed by that case, the FBI turned over Edwards' statement and other files to local authorities.

A justice of the peace promptly dismissed all charges without even presenting the case to a grand jury. It seemed the case would end there.

But it didn't.

*

In 2000, the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson uncovered documents indicating that the killings -- or at least the beatings -- might have occurred in the Homochitto National Forest. Claiming jurisdiction, the Justice Department reopened the case.

It wasn't long after that when James Ford Seale "died" the first time.

The Los Angeles Times published a story in June 2002 on the reopened case. The newspaper said Seale had passed away the previous year.

"He was a good man and a good father," the paper quoted James Seale Jr. as saying. "I was a small kid when all that went on. But I think they made a mistake, the law did, by arresting them. ... Whatever happened in Mississippi, they ought to let laying dogs lie."

In 2003, the Clarion-Ledger -- known for its dogged pursuit of graying segregationists -- ran a series on unsolved civil rights-era cases. An item on the Dee-Moore case included comments Seale had made "before his death."

But Seale wasn't finished dying just yet.

Thomas Moore, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran now living in Colorado Springs, Colo., had been fighting a low-intensity battle for years to have his brother's case reopened. But it wasn't until the recent manslaughter conviction of 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen in the Neshoba County killings that things began heating up.

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