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Remembering Mama

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2000


JACKSONVILLE -- In an overgrown cemetery for black Jacksonville residents, Johnnie Mae Chappell's sons, daughters, and grandchildren gathered on the 36th anniversary of her slaying.

They prayed, wept, and hugged in the merciful shade of oaks. Shelton Chappell, 4 months old when his mother was killed during 1964 race riots, led the service. He played a plaintive hymn on his saxophone, wiped his eyes, and struggled to speak.

He spoke of a woman who spent her days cleaning the homes of whites, but whose life passion was rearing her 10 children. Her final thoughts lying on the side of New King's Road 36 years ago, he said, surely were of her children.

"All I can say is, Mama, we're all right. And we're going to find justice for you. This is for you, Mama. This is for you," Chappell said.

A few feet behind him, a burly white man with bright white hair stood somberly. C. Lee Cody, 70, was uncomfortable in his formal dark leather shoes, but the former detective for the Sheriff's Office could no more stay away from this service than Chappell could.

The two men met only four years ago, but for decades they have been inextricably linked by the same torturing fixation: the killing of Johnnie Mae Chappell.

This is a story of obsession. And justice.

* * *

Four young men were indicted in the slaying of Mrs. Chappell; one spent 3 years in prison, the others had all charges dropped. But having long ago relegated Mrs. Chappell to a barely noticed footnote to its turbulent civil rights history, Jacksonville could soon be forced to reconsider the worth of the slain black woman.

On March 23, the 36th anniversary of her slaying, her nine surviving children filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the four men implicated in her death and against the Sheriff's Office that they say tried to bury the case.

Prosecutors across the South in recent years have begun resurrecting unresolved racial killings, from the assassination of Medgar Evers to the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four young black girls. Most of these reopened cases are well known.

Often lost amid the imagery of water hoses and "Bull" Connor are people like Johnnie Mae Chappell. Her killing shattered lives, but few people noticed.

Authorities have shown no interest in pursuing a new criminal case in the little-known Chappell killing. The Chappell family is looking for justice in civil court.

They have to overcome the statute of limitations to get anywhere in court. Still, family members say their quest in this civil action is mostly for something intangible -- recognition; and, perhaps, a cleansing of wounds that have remained gaping for decades.

"That was my mother, a wonderful lady, they killed," said Ruth Monteiro, who was 15 at the time of the slaying. Half her siblings grew up in foster homes after the killing.

"It ripped our family apart. But back then, a murdered black female just didn't matter to the people in power here. She was nothing to them, something to be swept under a rug and forgotten. Shelton never knew his mother, and, especially for him, this has been eating at him all his life.

"We can't just let this stay swept under a rug," she said.

* * *

Mrs. Chappell was a strong woman, but she must have been worn out as she walked along New King's Road on that muggy Monday evening. She had spent all day in south Jacksonville, working in the home of a white family, and returned by bus late that afternoon to her black neighborhood in the city's northwest quadrant.

She had fed her kids and husband, Willie, who was taking a break between his day job as a cement finisher and night job as a gas station attendant. Then she walked about a third of a mile to Banner Food Market, where she picked up some extra supplies, including vanilla ice cream for her family's dessert.

Her walk back home at dusk would have been difficult. Her grocery bag had ripped open and she was trying to keep her purchases together while trudging along the grassy roadside. What's more, she was aware of the anger bubbling over a few miles away in downtown Jacksonville.

At the same time Southerners in the U.S. Senate were threatening a filibuster to prevent a vote on the the landmark civil rights bill, the "Gateway to Florida" was starting to come apart at the seams.

Jacksonville mayor and soon-to-be governor Haydon Burns, a staunch segregationist, two days earlier had vowed to halt the increasingly frequent anti-segregation protests downtown. He deputized 496 firefighters for that purpose.

But Monday afternoon, hundreds of mostly young black people gathered downtown demanding an end to segregated stores and hotels and refusing orders to disperse. Even before Mrs. Chappell arrived home that day, the demonstrations had given way to street fighting and scattered fires.

Jacksonville was a deeply segregated town, and black residents were demanding change.

Pressure from the NAACP had desegregated a few lunch counters, but most restaurants and stores remained off limits to 44 percent of the city's population. The city also had opened some civil service careers to African-Americans, though black officers still could not exhibit guns in the presence of whites or arrest whites.

Mrs. Chappell quietly tolerated her position in this established order. Her children remember no complaints from her about being allowed to clean white people's homes, but not to shop in their stores. She was concerned mainly with eking out a life for her family.

That was what she was doing the night she died. She arrived home from the market shortly before 7 p.m., and quickly realized she had lost her wallet and set out to retrace her steps.

Her husband later found the wallet in front of their home, but she had apparently missed it and kept walking. She stopped at neighbor Albert Smith's house to borrow his flashlight, and he joined her as she searched. So did another neighbor, Tildia Sanders.

At New King's Road across from the Banner Market, the three friends shone their light and peered along the grassy shoulder of the road. They were startled by a loud pop, as a dark sedan sped by.

"I've been shot," Mrs. Chappell shouted, clutching her right side. She walked across the four-lane road and fell to the ground near the market. Smith ran to find a phone.

Johnnie Mae Chappell died en route to the hospital, in an ambulance reserved for black residents.

Her city, meanwhile, descended into chaos, which escalated as word of her killing spread. Cars and stores burned. Hundreds of African-Americans were arrested.

The next day, Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union newspaper briefly noted Mrs. Chappell's slaying deep down in an article headlined, "Large Area Is Terrorized By Negroes."

* * *

C. Lee Cody, a Jacksonville native with a thundering North Florida twang, had been a detective a few months when Wayne Chessman, 22, ambled up to him and his partner, Sgt. Donald Coleman, at the Freezette drive-in in July 1964.

Chessman acted oddly, rambling about how he was getting his life together and that he would be glad to help them when they needed it. About a week later when Chessman did the same thing, Cody noted to his partner that one of Chessman's buddies drove a dark blue Plymouth.

"I said, "Donald, I'll bet you anything this boy knows about the killing of that woman during the riots,' " Cody recalled.

It was not their case, but the two detectives decided to pursue it. They invited Chessman downtown.

Coleman chuckles at how his partner broke Chessman down:

"Lee had this Bible, and he highlighted, "Thou Shalt Not Kill.' As soon as (Chessman) sat down, Lee slid it across the table. That boy looked down at it and just broke down. Told us everything."

Chessman and three friends, J.W. Rich, Elmer Kato and James A. Davis, were angry about the black demonstrators gathered downtown that Monday afternoon.

"Let's get a n-----," one of them said, and they drove to northwest Jacksonville. Johnnie Mae Chappell happened to be in their path, Chessman said, when Rich squeezed the trigger. He said it was an accident.

Cody called a court reporter to come take down the official confession, but the two detectives quickly discovered a problem. They could not find a case file. They could not find a record that one existed.

They checked the chief of detective's office. Coleman recalled sitting down at the chief's desk and wondering aloud how they could proceed without even a case number to work with.

He happened to spot paper protruding from the floor mat under the desk. Coleman lifted it and found a few dozen random records -- including an officer's written report from the night Chappell died four months earlier.

The two detectives that night obtained three confessions from Chessman, Kato and Rich and charged each with murder. Davis was in the Army in North Carolina, but later was returned to Florida. They found the gun the next morning.

Coleman and Cody spoke to every detective in the Sheriff's Office and could find no one assigned to investigate the Chappell killing. It was clear, both said, that no real investigation had been opened.

They went to the sheriff, Dale G. Carson, and told him they thought that J.C. Patrick, chief of detectives, had buried the case to subvert any investigation. Carson, they said, promised to check it out.

The next morning, Patrick called both detectives into his office.

"I'll never forget his words," Cody said. " "Let me tell you two motherf-----s something. Don't try to rock this boat boys, because the anchor's too big.' "

The day after their encounter with Patrick, Cody and Coleman were split up as partners and the all-but-wrapped up Chappell case assigned to other detectives.

The four suspects were each indicted on first-degree murder charges, with Rich accused of pulling the trigger and the other three with aiding and encouraging him.

On Nov. 30, after a two-day trial, an all-white jury convicted Rich of the lesser change of manslaughter, rather than first-degree murder.

"I think it was just a bunch of boys horsing around at night," said James P. Loos, one of the few surviving jurors. "They were out there harassing blacks and accidentally killed a woman."

Rich served 3 years in prison, and prosecutors dropped charges against the other men. None of the prosecutors involved in the case are alive, but at the time they cited insufficient evidence .

These days, three of the men implicated in the killing live in Jacksonville and do their best to keep the case behind them.

"This is bulls---, bringing up this stuff from 36 years ago. I have nothing to say to you. Get off my property," said Wayne Chessman. Then he slammed his front door.

Elmer Kato, who drove the car that night, said he has often wondered about Mrs. Chappell's children. "It's got to be awful having your mother taken away for no reason," he said, insisting that he did not know Rich had a gun with him until after Rich fired. "Justice wasn't done. Even if it was an accident, 3 years in prison for killing a woman?"

Rich, riddled with cancer and living in a filthy, dilapidated bungalow, said that he was innocent and that his confession was coerced. His neighborhood, once solidly white, is racially mixed, and Rich said he worries the Chappell family lawsuit could prompt someone to come after him.

"They convicted me of killing a g-- d--- n-----, and I didn't even do it. Tell the family, I'm sorry. Give them my condolences, but I didn't do it," Rich slurred. "This was 36 years ago. Enough is enough."

* * *

The Chappell case proved to be the beginning of the end of Cody and Coleman's law enforcement careers. They tried repeatedly to get outside authorities to look at corruption in the sheriff's department, including the Chappell slaying. Nothing came of their allegations, and both were fired for insubordination in the fall of 1965.

After their run-in with Patrick, the chief of detectives, they said they heard warnings from other law enforcement officers and a few small-time criminals that sheriff's officials were trying to set them up.

In an unsuccessful lawsuit they filed against the department nearly 20 years later, one state law enforcement investigator and one former county inmate offered sworn statements to support the claim. The lawsuit was dismissed because the statute of limitations for filing had expired.

The former sheriff, now 78, said he did not recall questions arising over the Chappell investigation. "We got the guy who did it and put him in prison. Isn't that what you look for?" Carson asked.

Cody, he said, was "a good detective, but insubordinate" and along with a few others in the department spent spent too much time trying to "stir up trouble."

Patrick, described in the Chappell family's lawsuit as a well-known racist, is not around to defend himself. In 1969, Patrick's 12-year-old son killed him with a shotgun. He said he was protecting his mother from another beating.

Thirty-six years later, Cody cannot shake the Chappell case or his bitterness about a system that did not care about justice. He has drifted through a string of marriages and careers, fixating on his firing and how he tried to do what was right.

"The job I loved, the thing I did better than anything else was taken away, only because I tried to stand up for what was right," he said. "In a way, I guess I relate to Johnnie Mae Chappell, because we weren't important to anybody. All these governors, the FBI, grand juries could have stepped in and done something, but they wouldn't do it. We didn't matter," Cody said.

"The saddest part of this is that while 200 FBI agents were scouring Mississippi looking for three missing civil rights workers, the sheriff and chief of detectives in our department were obstructing civil rights in a capital murder investigation."

Four years ago, Cody sat on his houseboat scanning the morning paper. He started reading about a young Miami man named Shelton Chappell organizing a memorial service for his mother.

"Oh my Lord," Cody said, realizing he had to attend.

* * *

Shelton Chappell, an intense, earnest electrician from Miami, has no memory of his mother. The only picture of her he has seen is in a tattered 1964 copy of Jet magazine featuring an article on the Jacksonville riots. The photo shows Willie Chappell in the morgue, looking down at his wife.

Chappell spent his childhood bouncing among 10 foster homes and agonizing over unanswered questions:

"All my life, I wanted to know why am I in these foster homes? Why can't I be with my family? What happened to my mother. I never knew my mother, but the bond between a mother and her baby is like nothing else. There is not a day that I don't think about her, and I owe it to her to get to the bottom of this.

"If it takes for me to die in the process, I will find answers."

Mrs. Chappell's four daughters and six sons were scattered between relatives and foster homes after her death. The state decided their father, who died in 1995, could not care for the children by himself.

The siblings met up periodically, particularly after some of them ran away from abusive foster homes to make their their way back to their father. They talked about their mother on those occasions, and her slaying.

The accounts were inconsistent and vague, though. Most had heard the killer had been killed himself a few years later.

Shelton could not let it go. He became so consumed that it nearly destroyed his marriage. Five years ago, he separated from his wife and took a six-month leave from work to dig for answers in Jacksonville.

He pored through old newspaper clips and through the few records he could find at the courthouse, medical examiner's office and funeral home. He asked for all sheriff's records and received a copy of the only record left of the investigation: a 3- by-5 index card with his mother's name on it. "Confidential" is scribbled across the card.

Chappell sees his mother as no less a martyr to the civil rights struggle than the children killed in Birmingham church bombings. He wants her recognized, and has written governors, presidents, Oprah Winfrey and the mayor of Jacksonville, among others, seeking help. Those who respond say they are sympathetic but cannot do anything.

"As mayor, my duty is to the taxpayers of Jacksonville," Mayor John Delaney wrote Chappell in 1996, declining to rename the road for Johnnie Mae Chappell or fund any memorial.

His siblings think he is being led by the hand of God in this quest. Johnnie Mae Chappell's "arm baby," they say, was the only one of them who could take this on.

"I had so much animosity in me about this, I couldn't deal with it. But my brother Shelton is more humble, and able to do this. He just kept asking questions," said Alonzo Shelton, who was 7 when his mother died and spent the rest of his childhood in foster homes.

* * *

In 1996, Chappell persuaded the Times-Union to write about a family reunion and memorial service for his mother he had planned in Jacksonville. After the service, Lee Cody pulled Chappell aside.

It would be the first of countless, sometimes tearful, conversations the two have had during the last four years. They have talked weekly since then, turning over and over the details of the killing and drafting letters beseeching authorities to re-examine a coverup. Cody introduced him to a Jacksonville trial lawyer, who agreed to take on their long-shot case.

"It's God's hand and my mother's hand guiding our paths," Chappell said of his friendship with Cody. "I can't express what's driving me any better to say this was my mother. This woman paid the ultimate price for being black, and there is nothing to remember her. She meant nothing to these people back then, but she was everything to my family. I want America to remember my mother."

* * *

In Birmingham, Ala., water trickles down a black, granite monument inscribed with a biblical paraphrase from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Dedicated in 1988, the Civil Rights Memorial has 40 engraved names, people, famous and obscure, killed during the civil rights struggles between 1954 and 1968.

There is no mention of Johnnie Mae Chappell.

"Johnnie Mae Chappell? I can't say I've heard of her," Isaiah Rumlin, president of the Jacksonville NAACP, said apologetically last week.

In Jacksonville, the only memorial to her is a barely visible dinner plate-sized DRIVE SAFELY sign on the side of New King's Road where she was shot. "In Memory of Johnnie Mae Chappell" it says in 1-inch letters.

Every year, Shelton Chappell applies to the state Department of Transportation to keep the sign in place.

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