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Fearing The Reaper: The Mob, The KKK & The Civil Rights Movement In Mississippi

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Fearing The Reaper: The Mob, The KKK & The Civil Rights Movement In Mississippi

April 6, 2021

A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

Dateline: Mississippi, January 1966

The mysterious stranger walked into an appliance store in Laurel, Mississippi, just outside of Hattiesburg, the deepest of the South, not far the Alabama border, looking for trouble. Well, he was the trouble, but he was hoping to stir up a whole lot more. It was in his nature. He walked with a swagger, jutting his broad shoulders out as he stepped to the store’s front counter to speak to the owner, Lawrence Byrd, about purchasing a new television set. It was clear by his deep voice and thick Yankee accent that he was from out of town. He told Byrd that he was visiting from New York, selling bibles to the local churches and needed a television for his hotel room.

Unbeknownst to Byrd, the street outside his store was crawling with plain-clothed FBI agents, some perched on telephone poles dressed as repairmen, others pretending to attend to personal business in the drag of shops and restaurants dotting the surrounding city square. Byrd knew the feds had landed in town and were snooping around in hopes of finding clues to who murdered local civil-rights leader Vernon Dahmer. Just days earlier, Dahmer’s house and grocery store had been firebombed by the Klu Klux Klan. His wife and children survived the attack, but Dahmer, the president of the Hattiesburg NAACP and a confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King, died in the hospital from his injuries.

Still, despite the heat the area was feeling from law enforcement, Byrd didn’t believe he had anything to worry about. He felt his cover was secure. The community he lived in was tight-knit, not friendly nor loose-lipped to outsiders, and he believed his status as a high-ranking member of the Klu Klux Klan would remain a secret to the nosey feds.

He severely miscalculated his circumstances. The posse was closing in and he was the target. The stranger from New York was their ace in the hole.

After paying for his television set in cash, the stranger asked Byrd if he could hold the set for him at the store until closing at which time he’d return. Byrd didn’t have an issue with the request and the stranger pushed another few bucks across the counter to show his appreciation. As the stranger left, Byrd told him he’d be closing up for the night at 9:00 p.m. and that he’d be happy to help him load the new television set into his car when he returned. The stranger gave Byrd a wink and nod of appreciation and left.

Six hours later, as Byrd attended to his final customer of the night, the stranger came sauntering back into the store. Once the other customer left, the stranger told Byrd how much he was enjoying the city and how great of a meal he had ate for dinner at a local restaurant. Byrd grabbed his dolly and the two of them continued to make small talk as they rolled the television set out to a van in the parking lot.

Back in New York, the stranger went by the nickname the “Grim Reaper” and a reputation for ferocity. Byrd soon found out why. As the stranger opened the back door to the van, he grabbed Byrd. Suddenly, two FBI agents sprang from out behind some bushes and another from inside the vehicle to subdue him. Harshly pushed into the van, the agents throw a blanket over his head, tie him up and gag him.

There was a long, painful night ahead for Lawrence Bryd. He had the answers the stranger and the feds were looking for and they were going to get them from him by any means necessary.

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Knights In White Satin

The Grim Reaper was Greg Scarpa, then a fast-rising member of the Profaci crime family, quickly making a reputation for himself in the Big Apple as a blood-thirsty hit man and formidable earner for a syndicate being torn apart by internal warfare. His nickname came from how quick of a body count he was racking up in the feud that had begun in the early 1960s when the upstart Gallo brothers declared war against legendary don, Joe (The Olive Oil King) Profaci – the inspiration for author Mario Puzo’s Don Corleone character in The Godfather – and showed no signs of slowing down when a 35-year old Scarpa made his way to Mississippi in the first part of 1966.

“When you look up the word gangster in the dictionary, Greg Scarpa’s picture would be the first thing you saw,” says Larry Mazza, Scarpa’s mob protégé, and driver during the latter half of the mythic mob figure’s tenure roaming the Brooklyn underworld. “He could look right through you with his eyes if he wanted you dead.  Forget about it, you didn’t know what ruthless was until you met this guy. He knew all the angles, all the tricks. He could make money on the streets every way you could imagine and then he could lull you to sleep, making you think everything is fine before he strikes out like a cobra for your jugular. That’s rare. You’re usually one or the other, an earner or a killer, he was both. This man could talk to anyone, he’d have dinner with you, butter you all up and then slice your throat for desert. Old man Profaci took notice.” 

Profaci himself was floored by the swarthy Scarpa’s ferocity and dedication to his craft. He was a mobster’s mobster, enamored and in love with living a life of crime. He reveled in it and that endeared him to the old-school don in the years before Profaci died of gull-bladder cancer in 1962, the mafia empire he had built back in the 1930s under siege from within.

That same year, Scarpa was arrested by the FBI for robbing banks and decided to become a confidential informant in return for a get-out-of-jail free card for the banks jobs. FBI agent Tony “Nino” Vilano opened Scarpa as a top-echelon “CI” in March 1962 and worked as his main contact in the Bureau for the next half-decade. Intelligence gleaned from Scarpa provided the feds a blow-by-blow inside account of the war tearing apart the Profaci clan.

Meanwhile down in Mississippi, a different kind of war was erupting; a cultural one steeped in race and being fought over basic human rights and liberties, pitting black vs. white with both sides feeling passionately that the very soul of our nation was at stake. Race relations in the region reached a boiling point in the summer of 1964.

Months earlier, Sam Bowers, had been voted Imperial Wizard of his own Mississippi branch of the KKK, known as the “White Knights,” and vowed to up the ante on violence against people he viewed as unruly agitators. Believing the Klan had gotten soft and relied too much on rhetoric instead of blunt-force action, Bowers founded his White Knights chapter at a February 1964 gathering in a Brookhaven lodge hall, just outside of his hometown of Jackson. The chapter started with 200 men and grew rapidly, flush with secret financing the fiery fast-talker Bowers had arranged through his contacts in the Mississippi business community.

The always finely-coiffed Bowers owned a vending machine business and had leadership in his blood – his grandfather was a four-term U.S. Congressman representing the state’s Gulf district. He recruited spindly, strong-minded Bryon De Le Beckwith, the man responsible for the assassination of Mississippi civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, the summer prior, to be one of his main lieutenants after his second of two trials for the Evers’ slaying ended in another hung jury, and penned a White Knights doctrine, rules sheet and mission statement.

That June, Bowers issued a call to arms.

“No more cross burnings, no more marches….. now we’re going to murder, let the blood run far and wide,” Bowers reportedly decreed in a now-famous June 7, 1964 battle-cry speech given at a meeting of his followers.

Bowers emphasized being stealth, doing their work in the shadows, avoiding congregating with each other in the daylight hours. FBI agents would later say that Bowers reminded them more of a mob boss in the way he operated and structured his organization than a white supremacist.

“The man was smart, he was deliberate and he was out to stack bodies, that made him a very high-priority for us,” said an 86-year old retired FBI agent familiar with the New York and Mississippi bureaus connection in the civil rights era. “Sam Bowers was the Lucky Luciano, the Meyer Lansky of the Peckerwoods. His vision set the Klan off in a different, much more subversive, much more violent and heinous direction. He provided infrastructure, financial resources and organization the Klan had never had before.”    

It didn’t take long for Bowers orders to be carried out.

The following week, local college students and civil rights activists, Charlie Moore and Henry Dee, were tortured and killed after being picked up trying to hitchhike home from school in Jackson to Franklin County for summer vacation. Then, on June 21, 1964, two weeks to the day of Bowers’ speech, New York college students Michael Schwermer, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, who were spending their summer vacation in Jackson as “freedom riders,” volunteering for the NAACP and helping black residents get registered to vote in the upcoming primary and Presidential election, were kidnapped and murdered after a traffic stop by Neshoba County Sheriff and Klansmen Cecil Price.

Bowers’ campaign of violence-fueled hate garnered national headlines and brought a battalion of FBI agents to the area to find the missing bodies. Weeks later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act. The FBI may have first enlisted the Grim Reaper, Greg Scarpa’s aid in government’s high-profile battle to combat the KKK to locate where Schwermer, Goodman and Chaney had been buried.

Some historians, court witnesses and former officials, like retired Neshoba County District Judge J.D. Dillard, say Scarpa was in Mississippi in August 1964 and with the help of the FBI, kidnaped a local mayor and tortured him until he took them to where the freedom riders were killed and left in a gravelly clay pit. Others, such as a number of prominent Jackson journalists, led by local investigative-reporting star Jerry Mitchell, claim to have debunked the theory of Scarpa’s involvement in the investigation and point to a tip from a police officer and possibly a Klansmen, in being the lynchpins in solving the case – though, most of the more than a dozen men implicated and found guilty of their roles in the slaying served relatively short prison terms. Bowers did nine years and was released in 1976.

He didn’t know it at that time, but the Vernon Dahmer murder would be his ultimate undoing. And it’s a verified fact that the FBI utilized its prized asset, a force of nature of a human being, referred to as the Grim Reaper in the mob, but simply as CI-NY-3461 inside the offices of the FBI headquarters back in Virginia, to crack the case wide open.

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The Grim Reaper Cometh

Vernon Dahmer was industrious, god-fearing and a fierce believer in equal rights for all. His eagerness to desegregate the south, standing in the black-business community and close ties to civil rights icons Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King, brought him to the forefront of the powder-keg political climate enveloping Mississippi in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He lived on 40 acres of a family estate at the far north edge of Franklin County, Mississippi which was home to his grocery store, a saw mill and cotton farm, and was the music director at his church. The land he lived on was sacred ground, being that it once belonged to his maternal grandparents, two of the original Franklin County settlers.

Upon being elected president of the county’s NAACP chapter in 1959, Dahmer’s farm had become the group’s home base, a frequent gathering spot for meetings and social events. It was also a hub for voting registration activity in the state, making it and Dahmer himself a clear target of Sam Bowers and his White Knights’ regime.

According to future court testimony, Bowers assigned his driver and bodyguard Billy Roy Pitts the job of coordinating the attack on the Dahmer property. In the late-night hours on January 10, 1966, Pitts and a dozen accomplices, one being Laurel, Mississippi appliance store owner, Lawrence Byrd, drove to Dahmer’s farm and set the Dahmer’s residence and grocery store ablaze. The 58-year old Dahmer died from first-degree burns and smoke inhalation. Before he succumbed to his injuries, he had ushered his wife and teenage daughter out of the burning house to safety.

On January 21, 1966, the FBI office in Hattiesburg sent a teletype message to the office in New York seeking CI 3461’s help in breaking open the Dahmer case. If the feds in Mississippi hadn’t used Scarpa as an asset in the past – like back in the summer of ’64 – it’s hard to believe they would even know his value, availability or mere existence, but nevertheless, CI-3461, flanked by his handler, Tony Vilano, young girlfriend, Linda, arrived in Mississippi on January 24 and reported for work at a designated hotel.

“We pretty much deputized him, let him loose to do his thing….it was just, ‘here’s some cash, here’s some weapons, here’s some rope, go hogtie those bastards and get what we need cowboy,’ that was our mentality,” the retired agent recalled. “This was cowboys and Indians, man. We didn’t care about breaking the rules. Sam Bowers was one bad hombre. He was declaring war on Mississippi and we declared a war on him. Scarpa was called the Grim Reaper. He had his White Knights. We had the Grim Reaper. I liked our chances. And it worked. The KKK was no match for Greg Scarpa. That’s how demonic that guy was. His evil was worse than theirs. In this case, he was doing bad for the sake of good. He was working for the good guys.”

Scarpa was provided the name, address and surveillance photos of Lawrence Byrd, one of the men the feds believed was Dahmer’s killers. A television-set ruse and 12 hours later, Byrd was tied to a chair in the middle of a Camp Shelby military barracks, begging for his life. Scarpa’s good old-fashioned gun-in-the-mouth, razor-blade to the testicles approach paid off and Byrd gave up Bowers, Billy Roy Pitts and everybody else in a signed, 22-page written statement. Per court records citing FBI pay slips, Scarpa left Mississippi with a $30,000 cash reward as he and his soon-to-be bride departed for a celebratory trip to Florida and a stay at the Fountainbleu Hotel.

“It was over after that, he had them (the FBI) on-the-line for the rest of his life, he just did the unholiest of the unholy, with a contract from Uncle Sam……a guy like Greg, was always looking for leverage, on the street, he’s a shark, he sees this coming a mile away, being part of something like that is the ultimate leverage and he rode that leverage for the next 30 fucking years, killing a lot more people along the way,”  said Mazza.

Bowers would be tried four separate times for the case over the subsequent 32 years until he was finally convicted in 1998 and sentenced to life in prison. He died behind bars at 82 on November 5, 2006. His longtime right-hand man Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted of Megdar Evers’ assassination in 1994. De La Beckwith died of heart failure in a Mississippi prison medical facility in 2001 at aged 80, having lived long enough to see actor James Woods grab an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of him in the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi.

Scarpa went on to further infamy in the New York mafia before being discovered as an FBI informant. He was at the center of the Colombo mob war of the 1990s, allegedly getting tip-offs from his new handler in the feds, Lin DeVecchio on where to find rivals in order to kill them, and was able to beat numerous cases and avoid indictment in others due to his controversial relationship with the federal government. When he died of AIDS (contracted by way of a dirty blood transfusion) in a prison hospital 1994, authorities speculated he was responsible for murdering more than 50 people.

DeVecchio was eventually charged with conspiring with Scarpa in mob murders, but had the case dismissed in 2007. Scarpa had broken off his relationship with the FBI for several years because of a falling out he had with Tony Vilano over money, but reconvened it by way of a union with DeVecchio in the 1970s after DeVecchio got Scarpa’s brother removed from a big drug case.

“We emboldened him and don’t think I don’t think about that,” the retired agent said. “He did what he did for us in Mississippi and it was like we created this monster. The horse was out of the barn at that point I guess and it ran wild and crazy for another three decades. That’s on us. At a certain point, you have to cut your losses. We didn’t do that and that was a disservice.”

Scarpa’s status as a rat hasn’t made much of a dent in his legacy in the New York mob.

“Even after it came out that he was ratting for all those years, I’ve heard guys talk about him with such reverence you’d think he was the pope,” Mazza said. “On the street, to a certain type of guy, being a coldblooded killer, a coldblooded gangster, living that life to the core, smoking it to the filer, that sticks with people in that world. He’s the fucking Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle of mob killers. He made a lot of money, he made the rackets, the connections, work for him. To this day, people are still in awe of what a powerhouse he was.” 

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