St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Long thought dead, suspect turns up alive

The case against James Ford Seale in two civil rights era deaths disappeared. He did the same, after it was reopened.

By Associated Press
Published September 25, 2005

ROXIE, Miss. - Thomas Moore stopped at the gas station just outside of town for a country sausage and egg sandwich. He got much more than he had bargained for.

Moore was back in the southern Mississippi timberlands of his youth to make a documentary about the 1964 kidnapping, torture and slaying of his brother and another black man, crimes for which no one was ever tried.

Idling in the store that blistering July day, Moore lamented to a local about the fact that one of the prime suspects had died, and the listener asked which one.

"James Ford Seale," Moore replied. The newspapers had said so. Seale's own son had confirmed it years ago.

The man looked at Moore in surprise. He isn't dead, he said, offering to show Moore where Seale lives.

Moore and filmmaker David Ridgen drove a short distance to a spacious brick house with an immaculate lawn studded with pines and birdhouses. There, beneath a covered picnic area, was an old man with white, thinning hair and spectacles.

"James Ford Seale!" Moore shouted from the road. "Why don't you come out and talk to me? Don't be a coward like you were 41 years ago."

The white man grabbed his cane, scurried to a motor home parked beside the swimming pool and shut the door behind him - but not before Ridgen could zoom in on him with his camera.

This was no ghost of Mississippi. James Ford Seale was very much alive.

* * *

If not for a quirk of fate, the bodies might never have been found.

Searchers were combing the woods and swamps of Mississippi for three civil rights workers who disappeared in June 1964. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were helping register blacks to vote in Neshoba County, and the Ku Klux Klan had targeted them.

On July 12, a fisherman found the lower part of a black man's body in the Mississippi River near Tallulah, La. Federal officials converged on the area, and the partial remains of a second man were found the following day.

The bodies were identified as those of Charles Eddie Moore, a student at Alcorn A&M, and Henry Hezekiah Dee, who worked at a local lumberyard.

According to federal reports, the 19-year-olds were hitchhiking on May 2, 1964, outside nearby Meadville, Miss., when a Klan member picked them up. The Klan had heard rumors of black Muslim gunrunning in the area and figured they were involved.

Two men were arrested in the case - paper mill worker Charles Marcus Edwards, 31, and his cousin, a 29-year-old truck driver named James Ford Seale.

FBI documents say Edwards said he and Seale picked up the men, took them to "an undisclosed wooded area where they were "whipped."' But Edwards told investigators they were alive when he left them. (He later denied making the statement.)

An informant, however, told the FBI that the Klan members took the unconscious men to the river, lashed their bodies to a Jeep engine block and dumped them, still breathing, into the water.

In early August, the bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were discovered in an earthen dam. Consumed by that case, the FBI turned over Edwards' statement and other files to local authorities.

A justice of the peace promptly dismissed all charges without even presenting the case to a grand jury. It seemed the case would end there.

But it didn't.

* * *

In 2000, the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., uncovered documents indicating that the killings - or at least the beatings - might have occurred in the Homochitto National Forest. Claiming jurisdiction, the Justice Department reopened the case.

It wasn't long after that when James Ford Seale "died" the first time.

The Los Angeles Times published a story in June 2002 on the reopened case. The newspaper said Seale had passed away the previous year.

"He was a good man and a good father," the paper quoted James Seale Jr. as saying. "I was a small kid when all that went on. But I think they made a mistake, the law did, by arresting them.... Whatever happened in Mississippi, they ought to let laying dogs lie."

In 2003, the Clarion-Ledger ran a series on unsolved civil rights era cases. An item on the Dee-Moore case included comments Seale had made "before his death."

But Seale wasn't finished dying yet.

Thomas Moore, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran now living in Fort Collins, Colo., had been fighting a low-intensity battle for years to have his brother's case reopened. But it wasn't until the June manslaughter conviction of 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen in the Neshoba County killings that things began heating up.

The following month, officials announced a local-state-federal partnership to advance the Dee-Moore case.

The Associated Press attempted to contact Seale for comment. James Seale Jr. told the AP his father had died "six or seven months ago" - not in 2001, as he had previously suggested.

The younger Seale did not return subsequent calls. Edwards, who still lives outside Meadville, likewise failed to respond to telephone messages and a letter, and eventually had his telephone number changed.

When he announced the joint task force in July, U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton wasn't sure Seale was alive. He conceded that pretending someone is dead "may not be a bad strategy." But he added, "That's not going to work."

* * *

If you're trying to disappear, Roxie is about as good as place as any to do it.

The railroad pulled up its tracks about 15 years ago, and Georgia-Pacific shuttered its lumber mill a few years later. A tiny bank branch and a diner anchor a strip of bombed-out looking buildings on West Street, Roxie's main drag.

The town of 570 doesn't even have a stoplight.

People around Franklin County have no great desire to talk about Seale.

Deputy town clerk Betty Mann says she can understand why someone might pretend Seale was dead.

"Because they figured it was a dead case," she says. "Why bring it back up?"

Thomas Moore doesn't see it that way.

The property where he found Seale is on Route 33 just outside Roxie. The land belongs to Seale's wife's family.

On a recent scorching Mississippi day, a visitor knocks at the front and back doors of the brick home. An elderly man in a light checked shirt emerges from the RV parked beside the swimming pool.

"She's not home," he shouts in a friendly voice. But when the visitor identifies himself as a reporter, the man's red-blotched face turns sour.

He confirms that he is James Ford Seale. But the man who once challenged authorities to "have at me" is not in a talking mood.

Moore has been told that the 70-year-old is in poor health. He doesn't care.

Moore never got to talk to Seale, but he left him a message. On a garden stake on the road outside Seale's home, he posted a sign: "Charles Moore and Henry Dee, rest in peace and justice."

That same sentiment does not apply to Seale, Edwards or whoever was involved in his only brother's killing.

"I'm not going to let it rest," Moore says. "I will pursue it until I die."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.