JACKSON, Miss. – A reputed Ku Klux Klansman and former sheriff's deputy pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges in the deaths of two black hitchhikers, four decades after their decomposed remains were found in the Mississippi River.
James Ford Seale, 71, was one of two white suspects initially arrested in 1964, but the FBI — consumed by the search for three civil rights workers — turned the case over to local authorities. A justice of the peace promptly threw out all charges.
Seale was arrested again Wednesday, seven years after the Justice Department reopened the case. He was charged with two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
Prosecutors did not say why Seale was not charged with murder.
• Click here to read the indictment (pdf)
Seale — previously believed to be dead — will spend the next several days in the Madison County jail outside Jackson. A bond hearing is set for Monday; his court-appointed public defenders say Seale is suffering from cancer.
The indictment alleges Klansmen took Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, both 19, to the Homochitto National Forest in southwest Mississippi and Seale held a sawed-off shotgun on the men while other Klan members beat them with switches and tree branches.
The teenagers were still alive when they were weighted down and dumped into the Mississippi River, the indictment said.
The second suspect, church deacon and reputed KKK member Charles Marcus Edwards, now 72, was not charged. Sources close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity said Edwards was cooperating with authorities.
The break in the 43-year-old case was largely the result of the dogged efforts of Moore's older brother.
"I've been crying. First time I've cried in about 50 years," Thomas Moore, 63, of Colorado Springs, Colo., said after the arrest. "It's not going to bring his life back. But some way or another, I think he would be satisfied."
Dee's sister, Thelma Collins, said through grateful sobs: "I never thought I would live to see it, no sir, I never did. I always prayed that justice would be done — somehow, some way."
The arrest marks the latest attempt by prosecutors in the South to close the books on crimes from the civil rights era that went unpunished. In recent years, authorities in Mississippi and Alabama won convictions in the 1963 assassination of NAACP activist Medgar Evers; the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four black girls; and the 1964 Philadelphia, Miss., slayings of the three civil rights workers — the case that led to the discovery of Moore's and Dee's bodies.
Seale and Edwards are suspected of kidnapping the pair on May 2, 1964, in a Klan crackdown prompted by rumors that black Muslims were planning an armed "insurrection" in rural Franklin County.
For years, Seale's family told reporters that he had died. But in 2005, Thomas Moore and a Canadian documentary filmmaker, David Ridgen, found Seale living a few miles from where the kidnapping took place.
According to FBI interrogators, Edwards admitted he and Seale took the two into the woods for a whipping. Edwards said both men were alive when he left them.
An informant told the FBI that Seale's brother and another Klansman took the unconscious men to the river, lashed their bodies to an engine block and some old railroad tracks, and dumped them from a boat. The other Klansmen and the informant have since died.
The remains of Dee and Moore were discovered two months later near Tallulah, La., during a search of the eastern Louisiana swamps for three civil rights workers who had disappeared from Philadelphia, Miss. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found in Mississippi a short time later.