Reporter on Quest to Close 1964 Civil Rights Case

The New York Times/January 13, 2011

Atlanta - Stanley Nelson writes for a small weekly newspaper in the Louisiana delta. For the past four years, he has been obsessed with one story: who threw gasoline into a rural shoe repair and dry goods shop in 1964 and started a fire that killed Frank Morris?

No one disputes that the death of Mr. Morris, a well-liked businessman who served both black and white customers, was connected to the Ku Klux Klan. The case is on a list of unsolved civil rights murders the F.B.I. released in February 2007, the day Mr. Nelson first heard of the story.

But for a lengthy article that appeared Wednesday in The Concordia Sentinel, Mr. Nelson, 55, put together what he believes is a key piece of the puzzle. He names the last living person he says was there that night.

In the article, both a son and a former brother-in-law of Arthur Leonard Spencer, 71, a truck driver from rural Rayville, La., say Mr. Spencer admitted to being involved in the fire. Mr. Spencer's ex-wife, Mr. Nelson reported, said she had heard the same story from another man who was also there.

Mr. Spencer, by his own account, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But in interviews with Mr. Nelson, he denied knowing or having been one of two men suspected of burning the shop in Ferriday, La., near the Mississippi border, the hometown of the famous cousins Mickey Gilley, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rev. Jimmy Lee Swaggart.

Mr. Spencer has not been charged, and the F.B.I. has not said whether it is investigating him. However, he told journalists after the article appeared on Wednesday that the F.B.I. had interviewed him within the last two months.

Mr. Spencer could not be reached by The New York Times at his home or at Jimmy Sanders, a farm supply store where he works. His co-workers said he had gone to the hospital for blood tests.

Bettye Spencer, 67, who was married to Mr. Spencer at the time of the fire, said in an interview on Wednesday by phone from her home in Rayville that she had never heard anything about the case. The F.B.I. visited her a few months ago and she told them that she had been a young mother when Mr. Spencer left her for another woman. That woman and her son are both sources in the article linking Mr. Spencer to the fire.

Mrs. Spencer is still close to her former husband and said she talked to him early Wednesday. He was surprised that people were trying to connect him to the fire.

"I'm telling you he had nothing to do with this," she said. "We're just old country people and I don't understand where this is coming from. This is 46 years ago and now people are digging up bones?"

Unlike many of the 110 civil rights murders being investigated by both the F.B.I. and journalists who operate under the umbrella group called the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, the story of Mr. Morris's death stands out because it is one of a handful in which someone believed to be connected to the episode is still alive.

"The big concern about all of this is time," Mr. Nelson said. "The time to solve these cases is maybe another year, or another two years maybe. People are dying."

The F.B.I. investigated the killing of Mr. Morris, who was 51, twice in the 1960s, and took up the case again in 2007. Since the most recent investigation, The Sentinel and other organizations have criticized the speed with which the F.B.I. and the Justice Department have approached the old cases.

Cynthia Deitle, chief of the F.B.I.'s civil rights unit, told the newspaper that federal officials were actively working on the case and that she believed people were still alive who knew who killed Mr. Morris. She reiterated her agency's dedication to what she called "one of the most horrific and troubling of all the F.B.I.'s civil rights era cold cases."

The link to Mr. Spencer is based in part on the newspaper's interviews with his son, William Spencer, known as Boo. William Spencer told Mr. Nelson that he was trying to turn his life around after getting out of prison and finding religion.

He said he heard his father speak of the fire more than once. The elder Spencer was one of at least two white men who headed there in the early morning hours, intending to burn the shop as a message to the black owner, whom Klan members believed was too friendly with white female customers. The men did not expect the shop owner to be inside, the son told The Sentinel.

"My dad said they could hear a stirring in the place, then a man came out," William Spencer said. Mr. Morris apparently had come out of the store to find men splashing gasoline and was forced back inside. Burned so badly that nurses could not recognize him, Mr. Morris lived for four more days. He gave interviews to the F.B.I. but never identified his attackers.

"Son, it was bad," the younger Mr. Spencer recalled his father saying. "I'll never forget it."

Arthur Spencer's former brother-in-law, Bill Frasier, told the newspaper that he, too, had heard the story from Mr. Spencer.

The newspaper reported that both William Spencer and Mr. Frasier had told their stories to the F.B.I. The agency would not comment on the case, but a spokesman pointed out that prosecuting an arson case in federal court might pose challenges. The arson would have had to involve something that was a federal crime at the time, like interstate kidnapping or the use of a specific type of explosive, or it would have had to have happened on federal property.

It was Rosa Williams, Mr. Morris's granddaughter, who moved Mr. Nelson to dedicate himself to this and the other cold cases. After he wrote his first article on the subject in 2007, in which he revealed that the owner of the shoe shop was on the F.B.I.'s list of unsolved civil rights murders, Ms. Williams called.

She told him she had never known what had happened to her grandfather, and she thanked him. She also asked Mr. Nelson to help figure out who killed her grandfather. "I told her I'm going to try," he said.

From that moment on, Mr. Nelson has reported on little else. With the help of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at the Syracuse University College of Law, he went on to file more than 150 articles on the subject, culminating in this one, which he hopes will lead to an arrest.

But he is also motivated by the curiosity of a newsman.

"What kind of human being could set another man on fire?" he said. "I was just curious about something that happened in our community that I never knew about. I just wanted to find out who did it."

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