Hunting the Klan

Ex-agent helped FBI break Seale case

The Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi/January 28, 2007
By Jerry Mitchell

FBI agent Jim Ingram parked his gray Plymouth in the driveway of what had been the Hattiesburg home of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer hours after Klansmen torched it in the early morning hours of Jan. 10, 1966.

A single chimney jutted into the air, and "the fire was still smoldering," recalled the 75-year-old native of Henrietta, Oklahoma.

It was one of many violent acts Ingram investigated for the FBI in Mississippi in the 1960s.

In recent months, Ingram has been driving down some of the same back roads, interviewing some of the same Klansmen and, in some cases, getting the same responses. "We were asked to leave a few homes," he said. "Old grudges, some never die."

He was involved in piecing together the case against James Seale, arrested Wednesday on federal kidnapping and conspiracy charges in connection with the Klan killings of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore on May 2, 1964.

In October, the International Association of Chiefs of Police handed out its only individual award to Ingram for assisting Mississippi authorities, who successfully prosecuted Edgar Ray Killen in 2005 for the 1964 killings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

Attorney General Jim Hood, whose office helped oversee the investigation, said he was pleased to see the "legendary" officer honored.

In his more than 30 years with the FBI, Ingram headed the Chicago and New York FBI offices before serving as deputy assistant director in Washington, D.C.

During his time, he worked on some of the agency's best known cases, including the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1978 mass suicide in Guyana of more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones.

He has drawn criticism from some because of the FBI's controversial COINTELPRO, an operation FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover used to try and discredit political "radicals" in Mississippi and elsewhere before it was discontinued in 1971. "Mr. Hoover was interested in the radicals in the Klan, radicals in the black movement," Ingram said.

In 1982, he retired from the agency and settled in Mississippi, where his sons had remained during his FBI travels. "Mississippi had so many things that my wife and I wanted in raising a family," he said.

Ingram has hardly stayed retired. From 1992 to 2000, he worked as state public safety commissioner and still serves on the state Ethics Board.

He was a young FBI agent in New York when he was sent to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 with other agents to investigate the civil rights workers' killings and head the FBI's civil rights desk, overseeing all the investigations into racial violence.

Three years later, he oversaw the FBI's handling of the case of 18 reputed Klansmen, tried on federal conspiracy charges in the trio's killings.

On Oct. 21, 1967, he saw a U.S. District Court jury in Meridian convict Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers and six others on conspiracy charges, but Killen, who orchestrated the killings, managed to slip through his fingers.

Years later, Bowers told a state archivist "the main instigator of the entire affair" left the courtroom a free man, referring to Killen.

The Clarion-Ledger printed excerpts from that sealed interview in 1998, prompting the slain men's families to push for prosecution. The district attorney and attorney general agreed to reopen the case.

When Mississippi authorities sought FBI help in tracking down former FBI informants and possible witnesses, Bob Garrity, then the special agent in charge of the FBI in Mississippi, didn't hesitate.

He thought of Ingram, his mentor when he took over the FBI office in Jackson in 2004.

One of the problems in addressing these historical cases is "if you send out a 30-year-old agent to interview a 65-year-old ex-Klansman, the generational gap impedes the process," Garrity said.

Ingram came from the same generation as many of the former Klansmen, he said. "What I had in Jim Ingram was a man who was a consummate gentleman with a thorough knowledge of the case, so when he would go out and talk to potential suspects, they knew him. They'd say, 'You interviewed me in 1967.' "

He helped track down witnesses, including former FBI agents like Jay Cochran, who was present when agents dug up the trio's bodies from an earthen dam.

On the 41st anniversary of the trio's killings, Ingram was standing across from the Neshoba County Courthouse when word came that a jury had convicted Killen.

Ingram said he always had hoped the state would try Killen for murder and was glad to have the opportunity to work on the case a second time. "We knew Killen was the one all along. People in Neshoba County knew it. Justice was finally served."

Ingram was set to return to his regular life when he got the call to return to work on another of his former cases - the 1964 killings of Dee and Moore.

Once again, he traversed the Southeast, tracking down former Klansmen. "Anyone who had the title we talked to," Ingram said.

Ingram peered past their gray hair through time, and they would gradually recognize one another. "None of us really changed after 40 years," he said with a laugh.

On some visits, Klansmen would share memorabilia, he said. "I've seen more museums over the past two years. They've got Nazi flags, swastikas and guns they brought back from World World II."

A few expressed regret, saying their wives or fathers had warned them not to don the robes of hate.

Ingram said his visits resurrected memories of the days when Klansmen tried to intimidate FBI agents. "The Klan loved to play games, always talked about putting snakes in mailboxes of agents and hiding a bomb in a car," he said.

Agents returned the favor, visiting Klansmen's wives and asking them where their husbands were the night before.

In a recent visit to Natchez, Ingram bought breakfast for a former Klan leader. The restaurant patrons seemed surprised by the sight of a former Klansman and former FBI agent laughing over old times, Ingram said.

Despite such levity, agents took threats seriously, he said, and those involved in the civil rights movement lived with "the constant fear, not knowing when a firebomb was going to come through the window."

John Raucci, who headed the FBI in Mississippi from July 2005 until this month, said he is impressed by Ingram's willingness to continue to help. "He still loves the FBI and still bleeds bureau blue," he said. "Had it not been for his work and his ability to interact with these guys, who knows what might have happened?"

Jim Ingram

  • Age: 75
  • Hometown: Henrietta, Oklahoma
  • Education: Oklahoma City University, 1953.
  • Experience: Began with FBI in 1953. Headed New York and Chicago FBI offices and civil rights desk in Mississippi; deputy director of the FBI in Washington, D.C., 1975-79; retired from FBI in 1982; Mississippi public safety commissioner, 1992-2000.

Ingrams Cases

  • Nov. 22, 1963: Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
  • June 21, 1964: Slayings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Neshoba County.
  • May 2, 1964: Abduction, beating and drowning of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore that began in Franklin County.
  • Jan. 10,1966: Killing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer, whose Hattiesburg home and business were firebombed.
  • April 4, 1968: Assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.
  • Nov. 18, 1978: Mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, of more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones.

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