Aug. 24, 2007 -- James Ford Seale, a reputed member of the Ku Klux Klan, was sentenced today to three life terms in prison for his role in the abduction and murder of two black teenagers in Mississippi in 1964.
Seale was convicted in June of kidnapping and conspiracy in the deaths of Henry Dee and Charles Moore, both 19, in what may have been one of the last of the Klan cold cases to reach trial. Seale's alleged accomplice, Charles Edwards, was the state's star witness.
Since 1989, a number of civil rights era cases have been reopened. Seven states have re-examined 29 killings and 22 people have been convicted.
The last civil rights era conviction was the 2005 conviction of Edgar Ray Killen, accused of the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers, which was depicted in the movie "Mississippi Burning."
Ironically, it was during the search for those three civil rights workers that the bodies of Dee and Moore were found tied to a Jeep engine block at the bottom of the Mississippi River near Natchez.
According to FBI documents at the time, Edwards admitted in 1964 that he and Seale had kidnapped and beat the two teens, but he denied having anything to do with their deaths. Seale, who was arrested in 1964, was released after police said they did not have enough evidence to prosecute him.
Today, U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate called Seale's crime "horrific" and told Seale, "Justice itself is ageless." Seale, now 72, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and shackled at the waist and ankles, did not say anything during his sentencing, The Associated Press reported.
Veteran ABC News producer Harry Phillips spent months investigating the case for "20/20" in 1999 and 2000. He pored through records, interviewed law enforcement officials and uncovered the identity of an informant who, in the months after the murders, told the FBI exactly what had happened.
As a direct result of the "20/20" report, the FBI and the U.S. attorney for Southern Mississippi reactivated the investigation into the murders for the first time in four decades. What follows is a reporter's notebook by Harry Phillips detailing the ABC News investigation.
Inside the Klan
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, and they did not have 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 African-Americans and anyone who sought to end racial discrimination.
Ratcheting up the tension, civil rights organizations had just 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 bracing for what would become the worst summer in a most painful chapter of American history.
In 1964, young men like Dee and 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 male driver's offer of a ride.
But the fate of the two young men was already sealed. Ordered into the car, they were murdered for no other reason than the color of their skin.
More than two months later, investigators got their first clue about what happened to Dee and Moore when the partial remains of a young African-American male surfaced in a remote section of the Mississippi River, about 90 miles from Meadville. A college identification card found in a pants pocket helped identify the remains as those of Moore.
An Anonymous Informant
For another two months, FBI investigators conducted a fruitless investigation into 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 it would need to identify five Klansmen as prime suspects in a horrifying tale of how Dee and Moore were murdered.
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 beanpoles 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-30R's statements, and the informant himself remained unwilling to testify.
The 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 as if nothing further could be done to bring justice to Dee and Moore, until an ABC News "20/20" investigation in 2000.
The 20/20 Investigation
Our investigation made hundreds of contacts with retired FBI agents, former Klansmen, defense lawyers, 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 did not come from contacting people around at the time of the murders..
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 that 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 a clean, unredacted copy of the missing FBI file containing hundreds of FBI investigation reports including details of the murders, code-names of anonymous FBI informants and the gut-wrenching details of information about the murders gathered by federal agents in statements from the informants -- especially JN-30R. (A report by Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, inspired our search for the file. Mitchell had previously discovered that the FBI file may have survived when a source provided him with a heavily redacted copy with virtually every name and substantive detail blacked out.)
A painstaking review of the file confirmed that among several FBI informants -- JN-30R had provided by far the most information about the Moore-Dee murders. We began to wonder about his true identity. And we weren't alone. This informant's identity was even a mystery to most FBI investigators who worked the case. Former 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."
During the "20/20" investigation we found that one of the handlers had died, 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 whether he could remember JN-30R and the Dee/Moore murder case.
"I remember it, all right," he said as I 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 original files burned long ago. Prospere was not about to 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 -- not in 1964 and not now. He politely told me there was no point in any further discussion, and I left empty-handed.
It was many days later -- long after that fruitless meeting with 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 was mention of an individual named Ernest Gilbert who'd "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 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 Want Justice for Those Two Boys'
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.
The result of that interview was the "20/20" report "Justice at Last?" that aired on ABC in June 2000.
Gilbert did not live to see the justice he sought "for those two boys." He died in October 2004.
But one of the other reputed former Klansmen Gilbert implicated in his interview, Charles Marcus Edwards, will be the government's star witness when James Ford Seale is tried for the kidnapping and murder of Dee and Moore later this month. Seale has pleaded not guilty and maintains his innocence.
Edwards was briefly arrested at the time and allegedly admitted involvement in the murders, according to a 1964 FBI report, but quickly denied having ever made such an admission.
When Edwards appeared for an interview with "20/20" outside his Mississippi home back in 1999, he looked like a man bearing a tremendous burden. His face drawn, he told us that he had found religion back in the 1960s and had been a God-fearing, churchgoing man ever since. A large, well-worn Bible occupied a prominent place at the center of his kitchen table.
However, in the "20/20" interview, Edwards repeatedly denied having anything to do with the murders. He insisted that the FBI report of his alleged confession was false and he wished that the entire matter would just go away. Click here for a PDF transcript of the interview.
Now prosecutors say Edwards is ready -- finally -- to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
If convicted, Seale, now 71, could face life in prison.
Read the transcript of the original "20/20" report.
See the FBI files obtained by "20/20"
Read the transcript of the "20/20" interview with Charles Marcus Edwards (PDF)