I had a hunch that perhaps this might have been 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 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 called back, and so began a series of phone conversations in which 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," Gilbert said. "They never deserved what happened to them."
At first, 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 2000, I found myself sitting across a kitchen table in a tiny house somewhere in rural Louisiana -- face to face with JN-30R -- the one man whose testimony could, according to the FBI reports, solve a terrible civil rights murder case gone cold.
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.