FBI looks at claims of other slayings by Killen

The Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi/October 18, 2009

The FBI is investigating statements Edgar Ray Killen allegedly made while in prison about killings beyond the Ku Klux Klan's 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers.

Agents have interviewed former inmate Larry Ellis, who collected handwritten and verbal answers to questions he posed to Killen from an adjacent cell. After analyzing Ellis' documents, Memphis handwriting expert Thomas Vastrick concluded the documents match Killen's handwriting. "The writers are one and the same," he said.

The revelation the man known as "Preacher" may have had a role in other crimes comes as Killen is appealing his 2005 conviction for orchestrating the Klan's June 21, 1964, killings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

Killen's attorney for the appeal, Rob Ratliff of Mobile, denied the admission attributed to Killen. "If that were true, you'd think a smart attorney would get him some consideration for cooperation and clearing old cases," he said.

Asked why somebody would admit something like this when an appeal is pending, Jack Levin, author of The Violence of Hate and Overkill: Mass Murder and Serial Killing Exposed, replied that "people who are convicted of racist crimes don't think of their crimes as hideous."

"In a sense, he's bragging," Levin said. "To him, his offenses are the greatest accomplishments of his life."

In recent years, the FBI has examined more than 100 unpunished killings from the civil rights era. In June, the FBI began investigating the civil rights workers' killings again. Four suspects are still alive in the case.

In his interview, Ellis told FBI agents that Killen talked of witnessing the killings of 11 black Mississippians, saying, "They'd disappear or get arrested and end up hanging themselves in their jail cells. Our boys was a hot group, protecting the home front."

Ellis told the FBI that Killen said those who joined the Klan "couldn't just watch - you were made to participate, well, not made to 'cause most of them wanted to do the punishments to the heathens."

The Klan was definitely powerful in the 1960s, recalled Jewel McDonald, an African American who lives in Philadelphia. "A lot of black people turned up missing."

The three civil rights workers - two white, one black - might have been among those never found if not for the national publicity accompanying their disappearance.

According to FBI documents, Killen headed a meeting of Klansmen in Neshoba County on June 16, 1964. When Klansmen heard civil rights workers might be at Mount Zion Methodist Church, they swarmed to the nearby black church, beating members and burning the building to the ground.

McDonald's mother and brother were among those attacked. "It's so painful to talk about," she said.

Five days later, some of the same Klansmen helped kill the trio and bury their bodies beneath an earthen dam.

Ellis told the FBI that Killen mentioned another Neshoba County killing - a black man whose body was dragged "all through n----- town" until there was nothing left but rope.

Alvin Sykes of Kansas City, architect of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, said authorities need to fully investigate this matter.

With more investigations expected into these unpunished killings, he said, "We're going to hear more stories like this. Can you imagine what the families hearing this now will be going through?"

Richard Cohen, president of the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, said the deaths of many black Americans were ignored in those days. "Their loved ones often didn't have their killings solved because of the complicity or perceived complicity of law enforcement," he said.

Law enforcement played a role in the three civil rights workers' killings.

Ellis told agents that Killen, who shared a cell next to him at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in 2007, remarked how the Klan worked closely with law enforcement officials, including then-Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, then-Deputy Cecil Price and then-Philadelphia Police Officer Richard Willis.

In 1967, all these men went on trial on federal conspiracy charges. The jury convicted Price, who helped chase down the trio, but acquitted Rainey and Willis. It deadlocked on Killen.

Rainey and Price since have died. Willis is one of the last living suspects.

"Gosh, was he gung-ho," Ellis said Killen remarked of Willis.

Contacted for comment, Willis replied, "I don't want to talk about that mess."

But Ellis said Killen told him the Klan was "much stronger than any sheriff. The sheriff was like the legal punishment part, the strong-arm security."

These alleged statements from Killen mirror his comments on a 1974 tape in which he threatened a woman and boasted of having law enforcement's support to carry out violence.

Stanley Dearman, a former reporter for The Meridian Star, said Killen's relationship with law enforcement was so close in 1964 that he rode in a patrol car and hung out at the Meridian Police Department, where many officers were in the Klan.

Ellis has collected the notes of what Killen told him verbally as well as Killen's handwritten answers into a yet-to-be-published book, Getting the Last Word In, which he shared with the FBI.

The book will paint Killen as filled with personal contradictions - saying he believes in the Golden Rule while praising the work of the Klan, insisting he doesn't hate Jews while saying he looks forward to killing them at Armageddon.

"I will lead a legion of Christ's soldiers against them," he is quoted as saying.

According to Ellis, Killen says he doesn't hate any race, but he disparages those of African descent as thieves, rapists and criminals, and notes the "framers of the Constitution counted the blacks only three-fifths of a person."

Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said these comments "show the incredible hypocrisy at the center of Killen's world view and the world view of others like him. You can't be murdering people of other skin colors, then say you believe in the Golden Rule."

McDonald said, "What kind of God is he serving? It's not the one I serve."

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