By all accounts, it was a typically sultry afternoon in tiny Meadville, Miss., on May 2, 1964, the day that two 19-year-olds, Henry Dee and Charles Moore, vanished while walking along a highway on the edge of town.
As far as anyone knew, Dee and Moore had no enemies, nor had they any connection with the burgeoning civil rights movement. They'd never done anything to pique the ire of the notoriously racist and violent White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, many of whom lived in the rural settlements across Franklin County.
Around Meadville, Dee and Moore were just known as average, law-abiding young black men.
But these were not average times in Mississippi. The civil rights struggle had become a virtual war, defined by the white supremacist KKK taking on anyone who would seek to end racial discrimination.
Ratcheting up the tension, civil rights organizations had recently announced "Freedom Summer" for 1964, a bold initiative to bring activists into the Deep South and register black voters for the coming presidential and congressional elections. Mississippi was, in fact, bracing for the worst summer in a most painful chapter of American History.
In 1964, young men like Henry Dee and Charles Moore knew that to stay safe, they needed to avoid doing anything that might be viewed by the KKK as activism. They also knew to avoid any contact with Klansmen. And so, on that early May afternoon, when a Volkswagen Beetle pulled to a stop beside them, Dee and Moore knew enough to respectfully decline the white driver's offer of a ride.
More than two months later, investigators got their first clue about what happened to the two young men when the partial remains of a black man surfaced in a remote section of the Mississippi River some 90 miles from Meadville. A college identification card found in a pants pocket helped identify the remains as those of Charles Moore.
An Anonymous Informant
For another two months, FBI investigators conducted a fruitless investigation of the case until they received a call from an anonymous informant who said he had information about Dee and Moore's disappearance.
The informant was so terrified of the KKK that he insisted on anonymity. The FBI gave him a code name: JN-30R.
Over the ensuing weeks, JN-30R provided the FBI all the information they would need to identify five Klansmen as prime suspects in a horrifying tale of how Henry Dee and Charles Moore were murdered for little reason beyond the color of their skin.
In dozens of pages of reports to the FBI, JN-30R described in gut-wrenching detail how Dee and Moore were kidnapped and taken deep into the Homochitto National Forest and beaten with bean-poles until their bodies were broken and bleeding profusely.
They were then stuffed into the trunk of a car and driven 90 miles to a Mississippi River bank where they were bound and tied to a Jeep engine block and dumped into the river alive.
JN-30R led FBI investigators to the exact place on the Mississippi River where they would find the engine block with human remains still attached to it.
There was no doubt that JN-30R's information was accurate. But so intense was the fear of the KKK across Mississippi in the mid-1960s that the FBI was unable to find even one witness willing to testify in support of JN-30Rs statements and the informant himself remained unwilling to testify.
The local district attorney in Meadville -- perhaps also cowed by the Klan -- refused to prosecute without more evidence. The investigation stalled -- and by 1977 the FBI in Jackson, Miss., had inexplicably destroyed the investigation file. For 36 years after the murders it appeared that nothing further could be done to bring justice for Henry Dee and Charles Moore -- until an ABC News "20/20" investigation in 2000.
The FBI File
In 2000, Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, was the first to discover that while the FBI's Jackson office may have destroyed the original investigation file back in 1977, copies of it may have survived. A source provided Mitchell with a heavily-redacted copy with most names and identifying information blacked out.
But, a painstaking review revealed some of the key statements of Informant JN-30R. We began to wonder about the identity of JN-30R. Former FBI special agent Jim Ingram told us, "JN-30's information was so crucial and his identity was so secret that even inside the FBI only two people knew his identity -- and they were his two FBI handlers."
Our "20/20" investigation found that one of the handlers was deceased, but we found the other, Special Agent Clarence Prospere, alive, well and living in retirement with his wife only a few miles from the secret places where he gathered intelligence in confidential meetings with JN-30R. Prospere's wife served lemonade on the veranda of their stately home as I asked the octogenarian investigator to reach back across the years and see if he could remember JN-30R and the Dee/Moore murder case.
"I remember it, alright," he said as this reporter moved to the edge of my seat, rapt in anticipation of hearing the whole story including the identity of JN-30R. "But I'm not going to talk about it."
It didn't matter that the investigation had been stalled for decades and the files burned long ago. Special Agent Clarence Prospere was not about share details of an unsolved case with some television reporter from New York City. Once an FBI agent, always an FBI agent. No one will ever accuse this man of compromising the security of his work product -- not in 1964 and not now. He politely told me there was no point in any further discussion and I left empty-handed.
Our investigation made hundreds of contacts with retired FBI agents, former-Klansmen, defense attorneys, civil rights activists, archivists, ex-politicians, former civil rights activists, retired police chiefs, historians, old reporters, legal scholars, former sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, convicted murderers, jurors, eyewitnesses people from virtually all walks of life in Mississippi and beyond. We even found a mistress or two.
Some were helpful in our search for new leads in the Dee/Moore investigation. Others were not. But the big break in our investigation did not come from a human contact.
A call from an anonymous source led this reporter to an abandoned desk in the empty foyer of a building somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I'd been told there would be a "package" waiting there for me. What I found was a rather heavy 8½" x 11" x 6" cardboard box which I quickly picked up before heading for the street.
Back at my hotel, I opened the box and found that it contained more than 900 pages of FBI reports bound by a single rubber band. It was an unredacted copy of the FBI file containing all of the names and other information blacked out on the first copy. It took several days to read the entire file, but it was quickly apparent that it contained virtually every bit of information gathered by the FBI in the Dee/Moore investigation, including many reports on statements provided by the informant JN-30R.
It was many days later -- long after that fruitless meeting with Special Agent Clarence Prospere -- on my second read through of the file that I noticed something strange. In a couple of Prospere's reports on statements by JN-30R, there is mention of an individual named "Ernest Gilbert" who "overheard" conversations between JN-30R and the Klansmen he named as the killers.
It seemed very odd that a twitchy FBI informant -- who demanded anonymity because he feared for his life -- would allow anyone to eavesdrop as he teased murder confessions out of the mouths of Klansmen.
Searching for 'Ernest Gilbert'
I had a hunch that perhaps this might have been Special Agent Prospere's clever method of recording the identity of his informant. The thinking was that perhaps this ramrod straight and honest man wanted to protect his investigation in the event that the investigation should outlive the investigators -- an eventuality that he knew, even in 1964, was a possibility. I knew better than to call Special Agent Prospere and expect anything more than a "no comment."
It seemed all that was left was to begin searching for "Ernest Gilbert."
Disappointingly, there were plenty of Ernest Gilberts listed as deceased in the Social Security death index. I began searching for phone listings in several southern states. With a Web-based search engine, I found two -- one in Mississippi and another in Louisiana.
Thinking Mississippi would be my best shot, I immediately called the Ernest Gilbert in Louisiana, wanting to save the best shot for last. An elderly man's voice answered on the first or second ring. I asked, "Is this Ernest Gilbert?" The voice replied gruffly, "Who wants to know?"
I introduced myself and politely, if vaguely, explained that I was looking for an Ernest Gilbert who might have lived in southern Mississippi in the mid-1960s around the time the FBI was "investigating civil rights cases."
There was silence on the other end of the phone, interrupted after a few seconds by the gruff voice telling me, "I am Ernest Gilbert, and if you come around here, I'll kill you. I have a shotgun and I promise you…I'll shoot you if I see you coming down my driveway."
The phone line went dead.
'I Want Justice for Those Two Boys'
I called back, and so began a series of phone conversations in which Ernest Gilbert's mood swung wildly from threatening to contrite.
Yes. He was JN-30R.
Yes. He had remained anonymous all these years.
"How the hell did you find me?" he asked. "I have never even told my family about that part of my life!"
"It was awful what happened to those two boys," he continued.
Seizing the opportunity, I asked him, "Would you like to see justice?"
"Yes. I want justice for those two boys," Ernest Gilbert said. "They never deserved what happened to them."
At first Ernest Gilbert refused to give "20/20" an interview. He said he was terrified to go public -- even now -- because if the killers found out that he was an FBI informant, they would surely want to kill him, too.
Eventually he agreed to meet me -- without cameras present. Then he again threatened to kill me. Then he changed his mind again, and two weeks later, in April of 2000, I found myself sitting across a kitchen table in a tiny house somewhere in rural Louisiana -- face to face with JN-30R -- according to the FBI reports, the one man whose testimony could solve a terrible civil rights murder case gone cold.
Ernest Gilbert was a tortured soul. With a turned-down mouth and deep-sunk, black-ringed eyes, he looked like a man bearing a massive burden of guilt…like a man who hadn't slept in months -- maybe decades. Over five hours, Gilbert chain-smoked at least three packs of cigarettes as we plumbed the darkest recesses of his memory.
At one point he began gagging, got up and vomited into a sink. This was a man in a state of catharsis. The result was his decision to go public for the first time -- to finally shed a cloak of anonymity that had protected him for 36 years.
The result of that interview was the "20/20" report "Justice At Last," which aired on ABC in June of 2000.
Six-and-a-half years later, a federal grand jury has indicted a reputed former Klansman for kidnapping with the aggravating circumstance of murder -- in the deaths of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore. James Ford Seale, 71, pleaded not guilty Thursday.
Ernest Gilbert did not live to see the justice he sought "for those two boys." He died in October of 2004.
Read the transcript of the original "20/20" report.
See the FBI files obtained by "20/20"