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Feds turn up heat to solve cold cases of civil rights days

Changing attitudes in the South and old wiretaps are helping the FBI reexamine nearly 100 unsolved crimes.

By Staff writer / April 4, 2007


As he treks across the Dixie roads he traveled as a young FBI agent in the mid-1960s, Jim Ingram gets a similar question from many people about his quest to solve murder cases dating back to the civil rights era.

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"We say, 'Look, a law has been broken, and we're committed,'" says Mr. Ingram, who came out of retirement at the FBI's request. "Then they say, 'Why are you doing this now?' Ingram answers: "Because it was not carried to its final conclusion 40 years ago."

The US government recently announced that it is reexamining nearly 100 such cold cases – an effort that's being helped by changing attitudes of law enforcement and the public in the South, even among former supremacists

"These days, people see that it was wrong," says Ingram, "and that if it was their families, they'd want us to solve these cases."

But circumstances were different during the civil rights era. "In the 1960s ... there were Klan members in law enforcement, and it was a direct pipeline back to the very people they were investigating," says former US Attorney Doug Jones, who brought two Ku Klux Klan members to trial in 2002 for a 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham, Ala. "Today, people are coming forward to assist."

In one case, kidnapping and conspiracy charges were brought in January against reputed Klansman James Ford Seale because one of Mr. Seale's confidantes decided to talk to Ingram. Seale was allegedly involved in the killings of two black men in 1964.

Most of the cold cases the FBI will consider reopening hail from Mississippi. Several others include:

• the 1968 "Orangeburg Massacre" at South Carolina State University where state police shot and killed three student protesters;

• the 1967 shooting death of Carrie Brumfield, whose body was found on a rural Louisiana road;

• the 1957 murder of Willie Joe Sanford, whose body was fished out of a creek in Hawkinsville, Ga.;

• the 1946 killing of a black couple, including a pregnant woman, who were pulled out of a car in Monroe, Ga., and dragged down a wagon trail before being shot in front of 200 people.

"Many murders during the civil rights era were not fully investigated, were covered up or were misidentified as accidental death or disappearance. Many trails ran cold," FBI Director Robert Mueller said in a Feb. 26 news conference.

Investigations have made progress in part because of the recent cooperation between federal and local law enforcement officers on crimes involving drugs and weapons.

What's more, investigators digging into old FBI files have found a surprising degree of detail. They've uncovered wiretaps that had not been revealed earlier because of criticism of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's aggressive investigatory techniques at the time, including wiretapping people without warrants.

But it took recent successful prosecutions to jump-start the broader investigation, Mr. Jones says. Since 1989, federal and local authorities in seven states have arrested 28 people and convicted 22 of them for involvement in 29 civil rights era killings. Those prosecutions, mostly in Mississippi and Alabama, have "proved that you can take old evidence and repackage it in a way that strikes at the heart of juries today," he says.