Suspect in Klan killings dies at 88

Time running out in probe of civil rights workers' slayings

Clarion-Ledger, Mississipi/July 18, 2011

Former Philadelphia police officer Richard Willis has died, leaving two living suspects in the Klan's killings of three civil rights workers in 1964.

Family members held a funeral service last week for Willis, 88, of Noxapater.

In 1967, 18 men were indicted on federal conspiracy charges in connection with the 1964 killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

FBI agents continue to investigate the case.

"The FBI and others need to move quickly, or they will die," Goodman's brother, David, said Monday. "They have the money. They have the authorization."

Willis was among law enforcement officers in Philadelphia who reportedly carried out violence. He took part in the beatings of at least seven black men in 1963 and 1964, according to FBI records.

Cleo McDonald, who ran from Willis and another officer after they threatened him with castration, said Monday of Willis, "He raised enough hell in his younger days. He was a pistol. He really was. And there's a few more still around here."

The two living suspects are Olen Burrage, who owned the property where the bodies of the three civil rights workers were buried, and Pete Harris, an investigator for the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Neither could be reached for comment.

Burrage told the FBI he knew nothing about the three men's bodies being buried by a bulldozer on his property after midnight.

David Goodman said he knows about small communities because he has lived in them.

"If you went out after hours, neighbors would ask where you went," he said. "Nothing happens of that nature without someone knowing about it."

An informant told the FBI that Burrage had bragged beforehand about having a dam that would hold civil rights workers.

One of those involved in the killing party, Horace Doyle Barnette, told the FBI that Burrage met Klansmen after their deed was done and gave them gasoline to burn the trio's station wagon.

As for Harris, he made calls on June 21, 1964, to gather Klansmen to abduct the three civil rights workers, FBI records show.

Under Mississippi law, a person who assists killers can be prosecuted. Known as accessories before the fact, they can be punished for the same crime as principals, legal experts say.

When FBI agents arrested Harris, a Meridian-area truck driver, on Dec. 4, 1964, they asked him if he approved of cold-blooded murder. "I don't know, as I have never tried it," documents show he replied.

Asked if he thought these killings were wrong, he responded, "I don't know."

That day, agents also found a list of dozens of Klansmen in his pocket, records show.

In the 1967 federal trial, Klansman James Jordan, who has since died, testified Harris was with him when they visited Sam Bowers, imperial wizard of the White Knights. Jordan said Bowers remarked that Schwerner was "a thorn in the side of everyone living, especially the white people, and that he should be taken care of."

The night of the killings, Harris made telephone calls, gathering more Klansmen for the job, Jordan testified. When the Klansmen gathered to leave, Jordan said Harris told them he had to stay behind because he was a leader in the Klan.

About a month after the killings, Jordan testified, he and Harris met with Bowers, who praised their work in eliminating the three civil rights workers.

Time is running out, too, on other cases being examined by the FBI.

Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La., said Monday that about a half dozen possible witnesses have died since agents reopened the Frank Morris murder case in 2007.

On Dec. 10, 1964, Klansmen attacked Morris, setting fire to his shoe shop. He died four days later.

Since February, a grand jury in Ferriday has been investigating Morris' murder. That panel continues to meet.

In 2005, a Neshoba County jury convicted Edgar Ray Killen of three counts of manslaughter for helping orchestrate the killings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. No one else has ever been tried for murder.

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