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Monday, 7 February 2011

Editor links ex-Klansman to ‘64 murder (USA)

Arthur Leonard Spencer says sure, he made some mistakes back when he was a “snot-nose kid,” like joining the Ku Klux Klan. But murder?

 No, the 71-year-old Spencer says, a small-town weekly paper got it wrong when it reported recently that he may have been involved in burning down a black man's shoe repair shop in 1964 with the owner inside.

Arthur Leonard Spencer.
  No law enforcement agency has named Spencer as a suspect. But for the dead man's family, still praying for justice 46 years later, it's a welcome if not entirely solid lead.

The allegations were reported by the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, whose editor, Stanley Nelson, has dedicated the past four years of his life to an all-consuming investigation of the blaze that killed 51-year-old Frank Morris. (Morris is pictured above, fourth from right wearing a visor, in front of his shoe repair shop in the 1950s.)

Nelson has written more than 100 stories about the case, culminating in an article that quoted Spencer's estranged son, his ex-wife and her brother as saying the former Klansman confessed to taking part in the crime.

Morris' slaying is one of more than 100 unsolved cases from the civil rights era that the FBI reopened in recent years. But for Nelson, the Morris case was unique, because it happened in his town. He has pledged to solve the crime once and for all.

The motive for the attack is not clear.

By most accounts Morris was well liked around town by both his black and white customers. He was separated or divorced and lived alone in a back room at his shop.

He was not known to be actively involved in the civil rights movement, which made black men targets in those days. And FBI documents indicate at least one witness debunked rumors that Morris had courted white women — a virtual death sentence in that era. Still, just being a successful black businessman with a white clientele and having contact with white women was enough to enrage many people back then.

Others have speculated that Morris may have been targeted for refusing to do shoe repairs for a corrupt sheriff's deputy, who wanted the services for free.

Whatever the case, heavily censored FBI files from the time paint a chilling picture of Morris' death.
Read the rest of the story by Associated Press writer Holbrook Mohr by clicking the link below.

Morris was asleep inside the wooden store in Ferriday on Dec. 10, 1964. He woke up about 2 a.m. to the sound of breaking glass and crept to the front of the shop. Two men were standing just outside, one of them holding a shotgun.

“Get back in there, nigger,” one of the men said. The other tossed a match onto the gasoline they had poured inside.

The gas exploded and Morris ran out the back door, his body in flames. Two police officers who arrived within minutes took him to a hospital. He died four days later — but not before describing his attackers.

They were “kind of small,” maybe 30 to 35 years old, Morris told FBI investigators in one of several interviews. They had been in the store before. He later described the attackers as men he thought were his friends, but he never told investigators their names.

It's not clear whether he didn't know their names or was scared of further attacks. It is also likely that his severe injuries and heavy doses of medication impaired his ability to help investigators.

There may have been at least one other man waiting in a getaway car, Morris said, but he didn't get a good look at that person.

Nelson believes one of the men may have been Spencer, and said so on the front page of his newspaper. Nelson received reporting help from an organization he helped found, the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, a team of investigative reporters, academics, documentary filmmakers and others who want to tell the stories of unsolved cases from the civil rights era.

Among those Nelson quotes is Spencer's former brother-in-law, Bill Frasier, who was a sheriff's deputy at one time.

Frasier told The Associated Press that he and Spencer were chatting decades ago about Spencer's days in the KKK when the subject came up unexpectedly.

“I asked him, 'Did y'all ever kill anybody?'” Frasier said in an interview. “He said, 'We did one time by accident.'”

Frasier alleges that Spencer went on to explain that the group burned a store when nobody was supposed to be inside, though Spencer didn't name Morris as the victim and insisted that he stayed in the car.

Spencer's ex-wife, Brenda Rhodes, didn't return calls from the AP. Efforts to find Spencer's son were unsuccessful.

Rhodes was quoted by the Concordia Sentinel as saying a friend of hers, a man now dead, once claimed that he and Spencer participated in the crime. The son, an ex-convict named Boo Spencer, told the paper that his father admitted taking part in the crime, adding that the Klan didn't like that Morris owned a business.

Boo Spencer has served time in prison for theft and other crimes, and authorities said the father helped them on at least one occasion when they were investigating the son.

The FBI won't discuss Spencer in detail.

“We are aware of these allegations, but allegations alone are not proof,” the agency said in a statement. “As with any case, the FBI is committed to a thorough investigation of all information we receive.”

Spencer, a stocky man with dyed black hair and a salt-and-pepper beard who spent his life working as a trucker and mechanic, denied any involvement in the crime during a recent interview with the AP at his home, a small white house at the end of a long gravel road outside Rayville, La., billed as the “White Gold Capital of the South” because of its vast cotton fields.

Spencer said he was questioned by the FBI last year. He said he cooperated and has nothing to hide.

So why would people say these things about him? The $10,000 reward? Vengeance?

(Morris is pictured above, fourth from right)
Spencer said his son, his ex-wife and her brother are all mad at him because he left the family. “It's like a fatal attraction — you know, like that movie. They won't leave me alone. And now they're tying to put a murder on me that I don't know nothing about,” he said.

No one has ever been charged in the case. And it's not clear how much evidence the FBI has to go on after so many years.

The FBI obtained a portion of a finger that had been found two days after the fire in a parking lot or alley near Morris' burned store, according to FBI documents from the 1960s. There have been conflicting reports about whether Morris was missing a finger, but some hospital officials told investigators he was not. Spencer isn't either.

There was little other evidence — soil and clothing samples and a five-gallon container that provided no fingerprints.

Rosa Williams, Morris' granddaughter, said she has ached for answers for most of her life. Now, she said, she has hope because she knows the FBI has been working the case. And she believes Nelson will see it through to the end. She has learned more about the case from him than from anyone else, she said.

“It's been a long battle. It's hard. It still is. We are hoping there will be justice,” Williams said.

Jake Davis was 13 in 1964 and worked at Morris' shop. In a recent interview with the AP, Davis said he saw Morris arguing with three white men on the day of the fire but doesn't know whether one of them was Spencer. As a young black boy, Davis didn't even mention the three men when the FBI questioned him at the time.

“If I had talked then, I probably wouldn't be around now,” he said.


Neo-Nazis dominate German village, underscoring far-right struggle in former communist east

Wooden signposts by the main road point to Vienna, Paris, and Braunau am Inn — the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. A far-right leader runs his demolition company from home, its logo featuring a man smashing a Star of David with a sledgehammer.

Every few months, townsfolk host outdoor parties where guests sing "Hitler is my Fuehrer" to chants of "Heil" around a massive bonfire.

Jamel is the most extreme manifestation of a chilling phenomenon in the former communist East Germany: a creeping encroachment of neo-Nazism that makes Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania one of only two states where Germany's biggest far-right party, the National Democratic Party, or NPD, sits in parliament.

The extreme-right is believed to be behind some 40 attacks in the state over the past year, including stones thrown through windows of political parties and fireworks blown up in a prosecutor's mailbox. Last year in Jamel, witnesses say, a neo-Nazi punched a visitor and shouted his allegiance to Hitler.

The state has Germany's highest unemployment rate outside Berlin, at 12.7 percent in December, and few industries — fueling xenophobia the neo-Nazis have capitalized on. Only 2 percent of the population is foreign born, but officials say that lack of immigrant contact itself has reinforced suspicions.

"Federally the Islamic extremists are the biggest problem; for us the extreme right is the biggest problem," said Reinhard Mueller, who heads the state branch of Germany's domestic intelligence agency.

In Jamel, six of the 10 houses are in the hands of the far right, and authorities consider 10 of the village's 28 adults right-wing extremists. Town life is dominated by one man: Sven Krueger, a 36-year-old leading NPD official, who grew up here.

Officials say Krueger has been known to authorities for small-time criminal activity, but had stayed off the radar in recent years after turning to politics. That changed this a week ago, however, when Krueger was arrested on charges of receiving stolen property and weapons violations after a five-month investigation.

In a search of his home, authorities confiscated power tools they believe stolen and a submachine gun with 200 rounds of ammunition.

A few days before the arrest, a pit bull and a German Shepherd roamed the fenced yard of Krueger's home in the middle of town, and an NPD poster with the pledge "we keep our word" hung from a blue industrial trash bin out front, filled with waste from his demolition work. A woman smoking a cigarette in the yard said she didn't know where Krueger could be found.

At the end of the road, a man with closely cropped hair in a green tank top, arms covered with tattoos, ran out of another house and yelled "get out you dirty pest" at a photographer. Others did not answer their doors, and Krueger did not answer calls to his business or cell phone.

His demolition company's main building is about six miles (10 kilometers) away, and doubles as the regional NPD headquarters.

It is set behind a six-foot (two-meter) wooden fence topped with razor wire; a guard tower shines a floodlight at night, and dogs bark incessantly through the padlocked steel gate. The black-white-and-red German imperial flag used in the last years of the Kaiser flies overhead — a common neo-Nazi substitute for the outlawed swastika banner. Through the fence on an inside door the smashed Star of David logo can be seen.

Legally, very little can be done to expel the neo-Nazis — they carefully skirt German laws against displaying Nazi symbols, like the swastika or the SS runes, and the banned songs people hear in the night cannot be pinned on any one individual.

Still, residents say their sympathies are clear. Horst and Birgit Lohmeyer, who have lived in Jamel for the past seven years, say the local far-right scene attracts scores of neo-Nazis for parties a few times a year — including several hundred at Krueger's wedding last summer.

"They sit around the bonfire and sing these songs — 'Adolf Hitler is mein Fuehrer' they sing — they call out 'heil' — there are sometimes as many as 300 right extremists at these parties," Birgit Lohmeyer said.

In protest, the Lohmeyers organized a party of their own — an annual music festival on their nearly two-acre (0.8-hectare) property that started in 2007.

"We hold this festival for democracy and tolerance to show that this town is not entirely in right-hands — that there are others here who don't believe in their ideology," Birgit Lohmeyer said.

The regional mayor of the 2,700-person district said he hopes the attention will help expose the agenda of the NPD to people who may otherwise have voted for them again in September. The party won 7.3 percent of the vote when Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has her constituency, last held state elections in 2006, giving them 6 of 71 seats.

"The NPD is nothing less than the successor to the Nazi party and their goals are the same," said Mayor Uwe Wandel in an interview at the Mercedes dealership he runs about 200 yards (meters) from Krueger's demolition company.

"Maybe today they're not talking about Jews but about foreigners in general, but their ideals are exactly the same.

Krueger was the only known far-right extremist in the village when the Lohmeyers moved there in 2004 from Hamburg. But his presence started attracting more extremists; as they moved in, others moved out — and Krueger encouraged his friends to buy up the property.

Lohmeyer said she and her husband for the most part keep to themselves in their 150-year-old half-timbered restored farmhouse with their 13 cats. She said they haven't suffered any retaliation from the neo-Nazis for holding their music festival.

The NPD is marginalized at the national level in Germany, and wherever the party holds rallies, the hundreds who show up are dwarfed in numbers by thousands of counter-demonstrators. And even though its popularity has slipped slightly in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, it appears poised to remain over the 5 percent of the vote needed to keep its seats in the upcoming Sept. 4 state election.

Germany's domestic intelligence agency estimates that as of 2010 there were about 1,400 far-right extremists in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania — a small fraction of the state's 1.6 million population. Of them, 400 are NPD members. Still, officials acknowledge the far-right extremists in the state make up a disproportionate number of Germany's overall 26,000.

Mueller said the state government supports a ban of the NPD, which would cut it off from funding given to all parties that receive a certain proportion of the vote, based on a sliding scale. The NPD got some euro1.19 million in 2009, the last year for which a figure was available, while by contrast Merkel's conservative party got euro41.9 million.

There is little support federally for a ban, however, after a previous attempt was thwarted in 2003 by Germany's highest court as it emerged that the argument for the ban was partially based on statements by NPD members who were also paid informers for state authorities.

Still, Birgit Lohmeyer thinks it's worth putting pressure on politicians to try again — even though she acknowledged a ban might actually make her own situation worse, by further antagonizing her neighbors.

"People need to mobilize against the NPD or for the ban of the NPD," Lohmeyer said. "This is something that has to come from the grass roots. We will not be terrorized."

LA Times