'There were higher hopes': Did the FBI fail in trying to resolve civil rights cold cases?
Editors note: Fourth in a four-part series
A retired FBI agent was at a Christian retreat in the late 1990s when a churchgoer confided that he had witnessed a shooting of five Black men in 1960 that he believed had been racially motivated.
And when Congress started to pressure the FBI in 2007 to investigate dozens of cases involving violence by the Ku Klux Klan and other whites during the civil rights era, the retired agent told an active agent what he had heard, FBI documents say.
The case involved Robert Fuller, who ran a sanitation business near Monroe, and his claim to have shot five Black employees in self-defense, allegedly as they attacked him over back pay outside his home.
A grand jury in Ouachita Parish chose not to indict Fuller, and Fuller died in the late 1980s. But the witness told the FBI that Fuller was “an extremely violent” man who had “snapped” in anger when the workers drove up, and he provided the FBI with a fresh allegation — that he had also seen one of Fuller’s sons shoot some of the wounded men to finish them off.
Based on that information, the bureau added the allegation to a list that eventually grew to 132 cases involving the deaths of 151 people, including 15 in Louisiana, that seemed worth new looks.
Under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, approved by Congress in 2008, the FBI’s main goal was to see if any suspects were still alive and could be prosecuted.
But as soon as the bureau learned that the Fuller son named by the witness also had died, its interest waned, just as it eventually did in nearly all of the other cases.
And the FBI missed questions, recently uncovered by the LSU Cold Case Project, about whether a different Fuller son, who was still alive when the FBI did its work, could have been involved in what happened at Fuller’s house that day.
Asked about this, an FBI spokesperson, Tina Jagerson, responded: “We appreciate your interest in this topic; however, we do not have a comment for you.”
But Paula Johnson, co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University College of Law, said that “in terms of criminal actions, we haven’t seen very much” resulting from the FBI’s work under the Till Act.
“There were higher hopes,” she said.
The Till Act
The Emmett Till Act bears the name of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old victim of a racial hate crime in Mississippi in 1955. The Till Act was designed to open FBI investigations into unsolved Civil Rights-era murders to try to bring more prosecutions and provide more information to the victims’ families. Besides turning to its field offices, the FBI asked civil rights organizations, community groups, local law enforcement officials and academic researchers to recommend cases to review.
The law also authorized $10 million in funding, but Congress never followed up and appropriated the money.
That placed the FBI in a difficult spot: It had to take agents and resources from other types of cases in 19 states to pursue the civil rights ones. It also has no jurisdiction in most murder cases, and the statute of limitations for federal violations of an individual’s civil rights — a law that the FBI can use to address killings — usually expires five years after an incident occurs.
“There was this chunk of cases where there was nothing we could do,” Cynthia Deitle, who headed the FBI investigations from late 2008 through early 2011, said in an interview with the LSU Cold Case team last year. “Either they shouldn't have been on the list to begin with, or there was nothing we could do because our bad guy was dead.”
Even in cases where Deitle’s team found a living suspect who had never seen a courtroom, she said the suspect could not be prosecuted by the FBI because he or she did not violate one of four federal laws — that the murder occurred on federal land, involved a kidnapping across state lines, relied on a bomb or represented an obstruction of voting rights.
“If it was simply a situation where the suspect shot and killed the victim, there’s no federal crime,” said Deitle.
In those cases, the FBI sometimes assisted the local district attorney’s office because there is no time limit for bringing state murder charges, and that likely would have been the avenue if the FBI had gone further with the Fuller case.
What the FBI missed in the Fuller case
According to bureau documents, the witness who had surfaced at the church retreat described seeing Robert Fuller, who later became a Ku Klux Klan leader, standing with a shotgun and some of the five Black workers down on the ground. The witness, who was not named in the files that the FBI has released, then saw one of Fuller’s sons, 15-year-old William Herbert Fuller, shoot at least three of the men in the head with a pistol to “finish them off,” the documents say.
Robert Fuller died in 1987, and that son, nicknamed "Puggy," died in 2005. Given their deaths, an FBI agent noted in a memo in 2010 that there was no one left to prosecute.
But another possibility exists that suggests that the FBI might have closed prematurely. Records show that Robert Fuller had two sons named William, each from a different wife. His eldest son, William Archie Fuller, was 19 at the time of the shootings and worked in the sanitation business with the Black men.
Patricia Sherman, Fuller’s next-door neighbor, told the LSU Cold Case team recently that she saw the 19-year-old standing beside his father when she ran into the yard right after the shooting, and she suspected he was involved. She said that at least one of the men was shot in the back.
LSU researchers also found a public document at the Ouachita Parish Courthouse that listed the eldest son, William A. Fuller, as a potential witness to the shootings. The document, which listed Sherman and 15 other names, did not mention his younger brother Puggy.
William A. Fuller was still alive when the FBI looked into the case — he died in 2016 — but Sherman said the bureau never contacted her about the shootings.
Reached by phone on Monday, Robert Fuller's daughter, Robbie Arnold, 71, echoed her father's account that he was the only one involved in the shooting and that he was defending himself.
"Daddy wasn't a bad man," she said.
No direct evidence has surfaced linking the eldest son to the shootings, and local authorities never raised any questions publicly about whether either brother played a role in them.
The FBI files also indicate that it was unable to locate key court files, such as the grand jury witness list.
Four of the five men who were shot died, and the lone survivor, Charlie Willis, never talked publicly about what happened.
One problem was that the FBI used the wrong name for Willis in searching for records. The FBI called him Willie Charlie Gibson, a name that was used in initial accounts of the shootings but then corrected by news organizations.
Impact of Till in Louisiana and the South
Jerry Mitchell, whose reporting for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, helped lead to the prosecutions of four Klansmen, said the FBI and the Justice Department deserve a lot of credit for their work in convicting several suspects through the early 2000s for murders that occurred during the civil rights era. But since the FBI announced its cold case initiative in 2007 followed by passage of the Till Act in 2008, “there hasn’t been much done,” he said.
Mitchell said he is aware of only three cases going to court. They include the conviction of James Ford Seale in 2007 for the 1964 murders of two Mississippi teens. Seale had been indicted by a federal grand jury a month before the FBI’s initiative was announced.
Now heading up the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Mitchell said that former Alabama State Trooper James Bernard Fowler was convicted in 2009 for the 1965 shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Black voting rights activist. An Alabama district attorney prosecuted Fowler with assistance from the Justice Department.
Mitchell also said the Concordia Sentinel’s reporting on the 1964 murder of shoe repair shop owner Frank Morris led to a grand jury investigation in Concordia Parish beginning in 2011.
The grand jury investigated that killing and another murder after the Sentinel in Ferriday discovered a living suspect whose family members said he confessed to the arson of Morris’ shoe shop.
At the request of the Justice Department, the local district attorney, Brad Burget, appointed a federal prosecutor in 2011 as an assistant district attorney so she could work with the grand jury in investigating the two murders. In fact, three grand juries considered the cases over 18 months but took no action.
Burget said the Justice Department never offered to reimburse the parish for a few thousand dollars of expenses or informed him about a grant program through the Till Act to recoup them.
“But we were glad to do what we were asked to do,” said Burget.
Nothing much came of the FBI’s efforts to take new looks at the other Louisiana cases either — in most instances, because the suspects were dead.
The oldest case dated to a 1954 attack on Isaiah Henry, who was severely beaten on the side of a road in St. Helena Parish. Two police officers were implicated but never arrested.
Two cases in Washington Parish were investigated, including the 1965 drive-by shooting murder of sheriff’s deputy Oneal Moore. The other case was that of Carrie Brumfield in Franklinton in 1967. The Justice Department determined that there was a lack of evidence that the Brumfield case was racially motivated.
Two other cases involved the shooting of Robert Wilder in Ruston by a police officer and Marshall Scott Jr., who died in solitary confinement in a New Orleans prison. Both deaths occurred in 1965.
'I feel like I failed the families'
Some victims’ families are grateful that the FBI learned more about some of the cold cases and presented them with letters revealing new details about what happened. But other families see it differently.
In 2013, The New York Times reported that the children of Wharlest Jackson, murdered by a Klan bomber in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1967, "do not expect the cold-case initiative to change the cold absence of resolution, and have come to see the government's initiative as worse than nothing."
“Overall, I have to say I'm not impressed that the FBI has been as conscientious and rigorous in their pursuit of these cases as I had hoped they would be,” said Hank Klibanoff, an Emory University professor who investigates civil rights cold cases with his students and tells some of the stories in his NPR podcast series “Buried Truths.”
“And yet you hear me saying that I understand that there were extenuating circumstances — that this thing sort of came out of nowhere, got put on their plate, and it was a pretty full plate,” Klibanoff said.
“I just think realistically they hadn't really gotten a whole lot of buy-in from the rank-and- file agents, who may themselves already be fairly beleaguered by all things they had to do,” he added.
Deitle, the former head of the cold case unit at the FBI, said that given the absence of congressional funding, she had to take money from other FBI civil rights programs to fund the investigations.
“I paid for agents to do a whole bunch of things in furtherance of the cold case initiative,” Deitle said in the interview last year. “I never denied a request for money ever because the FBI director was the one pushing the initiative forward.”
But Deitle also acknowledges that the bureau could have done better.
In an announcement that Frontline, the PBS documentary show, and Retro Report released last month about an upcoming film called American Reckoning on the Wharlest Jackson case, Deitle was quoted as saying, “I feel like I failed the families; I feel like I failed communities.”
Additional reporting by Rachel Mipro.