Convict-Turned-Snitch Dodges Death and Enjoys His Dull Life
His life is in ruins, but Billy Wayne Sinclair is pleased that it also has become downright dull.
He has had enough ups and downs since the day they clamped shackles on his wrists and ankles 24 years ago and hauled him off to Angola State Prison to be executed.
But the big, rough-hewn electric chair where Sinclair was supposed to pay the penalty for murder didn’t get him.
Instead, the appeals process dragged on so long Sinclair wound up among hundreds of condemned men who lucked out when the U.S. Supreme Court decreed in 1972 that death penalty laws in effect at the time were unconstitutional.
In Louisiana, all death sentences of that day were reduced to life in prison without parole. Though the law was rewritten and reinstated, it could not apply to them.
Angola’s “Dixie Mafia” didn’t get him either when, 14 years later, he broke one of the great crooked commandments: Thou shalt not snitch to the cops.
The Dixie Mafia is described by the Louisiana State Police as a loosely connected group of traveling thugs who are prone to violence and operate primarily in the Southeast. It should not be confused with more-sophisticated organized crime syndicates.
So here Sinclair stands today at age 45, 6-foot-2 in his favorite pointy-toed cowboy boots, too lucky to perish in the copper clasp of “Old Smokey,” too quick for the Dixie Mafia, too felonious to be a free man.
In the years between his two abortive escape attempts, he managed quite a career. He was one of the most upwardly mobile lifers in custody.
Determined to get out of work in the field or the kitchen, he read his way to the top, evolving into a hotshot jailhouse lawyer and co-editor of the prize-winning prison magazine, the monthly Angolite.
As a writer, his articles won the George Polk Award and the Silver Gavel from the American Bar Assn., no small potatoes in the news business.
He even got married. Since he figured that the warden would forbid such goings on at Angola, he didn’t ask. In a style befitting a smart jailhouse lawyer, it was done by document. A notarized statement designated a proxy to stand in for him.
The bride? A Baton Rouge TV reporter he met at the prison while she was covering a death penalty story.
“It was very unromantic,” his wife, Jodie Sinclair, recalls. “It took place on June 9, 1982, in the office of a courthouse clerk in Texas. My brother-in-law stood as Billy’s proxy.”
Somewhere along the way, this four-time loser, convicted of murdering a store manager during a 1965 holdup in Baton Rouge, grew a shiny new set of ethics. These even led him to become a friend of the FBI.
His secret dealings with the FBI in 1986 still echo at the 18,000-acre, plantation-style prison--and triggered a disapproving New York Times editorial and a critical article in the Columbia Journalism Review.
His sin? He told the FBI that the then-chairman of the state Pardon Board, Howard Marsellus Jr., was selling the “gold seals” that every prisoner yearns for.
“Gold seal” is prison slang for the governor’s signature approving a Pardon Board recommendation that a sentence be reduced. The state seal, applied when the governor signs, is gold in color.
In tipping the FBI to the scam, Sinclair decided that the investigation was more important than the prison magazine where he was co-editor, the Times editorial said.
Word that Sinclair had become a “snitch” shattered the magazine’s credibility and left its remaining staffers faced with skeptical readers and sources, the editorial added.
Sinclair is big, hawk-nosed, his eyes wary and hooded. Though he no longer writes for the magazine, the knock on his journalistic ethics troubles him. And he glumly considers the possibility that his switch to honesty won’t pay any better than crime.
So far, what it got for him was an emergency transfer out of a dangerous prison to a placid and relatively comfortable state police barracks in Baton Rouge.
Sinclair looked back on his last prison crisis recently in an interview at the barracks.
Rumors that pardons were for sale had been rampant at the prison for months. Sinclair said that at the time it was just another layer of the prison corruption that he had been complaining about to the Department of Corrections for months, with no reaction.
Confirmation of the pardons scam didn’t come until a prison official took him off to one side and told him he could buy his way out for $15,000.
“He said maybe it might be as much as $20,000, it depended on the level of Howard’s greed,” Sinclair said. “He said Howard was a greedy man.”
The offer upset him. He was certain it was designed to make him “dirty"--that is, incriminate him--or eliminate him as a threat of exposure. Simply killing him would have brought on too much attention, he said.
“I had one of three choices,” he said. “I could have accepted it and been a free man. My wife and I had that much money. I could have ignored the offer. Or I could report it.”
Acceptance went against his new ethics. Ignoring or reporting it was like blundering into a mine field.
The course available to a journalist on the outside was closed. He couldn’t develop the information and print it in the magazine as an expose. The Angolite had a degree of independence, but editors still had to watch their steps.
And he didn’t even know which officials were dirty or clean.
“There were a lot of inmates in that prison who had big money tied up in Marsellus,” he said. “If they knew that I knew, I would have been a dead man, pure and simple.”
He and his wife conferred by telephone.
“The only question was, we didn’t know who to turn to. I don’t even know who the hell is involved. I know I am fixing to step on some big toes. If I give information to the wrong one I’m a dead man,” he said.
When they decided the only safe route was the federal government, Jodie Sinclair called a cousin, U.S. Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.). He contacted the Department of Justice.
Four days later, the Justice Department called her back. Would she work with FBI agents in a sting operation? Would she wear a tiny microphone hidden beneath her clothing so agents could record contract negotiations? She would.
However, the FBI recordings and videotapes never saw the light of a courtroom because the federal sting was superseded by a sting that state police started a few days later and finished first.
The state sting swept up Marsellus plus a surprise catch--state Rep. Joe Delpit of Baton Rouge, Assistant Speaker of the House and political pal of Gov. Edwin W. Edwards.
Only Marsellus stayed hooked. He served 20 months on concurrent five-year sentences for public bribery and conspiracy and federal charges of mail fraud and conspiracy.
Delpit’s defense at his 1988 state court trial was that he was conducting his own sting investigation of pardon-peddling rumors when he took $20,000 from the state police undercover agent. He wept on the witness stand.
The jury acquitted him of bribery, corrupt influencing and conspiracy.
Dist. Atty. Bryan Bush was not happy. “But as far as I’m concerned, the case is over,” he said. “We all have to live with the jury’s verdict.”
Sinclair testified before both the state and federal grand juries in the investigation. With his role now public, his life was in danger.
U.S. Atty. Ray Lamonica of Baton Rouge first notified prison officials to protect Sinclair because he was a federal witness. The prison-wise Sinclair said the pressure only increased.
“I started seeing more and more of those people who had connections with the Dixie Mafia in my vicinity--which was unusual,” he said.
“I had the definite feeling that I was being watched so I could be set up for a hit. They were trying to get my movements down pat so they would be able to pick the right place in the prison where nobody would see me being done in.”
When Jodie Sinclair passed this information to Lamonica, he ordered two federal marshals to Angola to take Sinclair out.
“You can’t second-guess on something like that,” Lamonica said.
Sinclair said he never made any attempt to “work a deal” as a reward for helping the investigations. In fact, he said, the FBI cautioned him at the start that he probably was killing any chance of a commutation of sentence.
The end of it all is not in sight. The latest to feel the sting is Francis Berlin Hood, 62, former director of food services at the prison.
Hood stood in state District Court at St. Francisville in late January and agreed that, acting as prison middleman for Marsellus, he offered Sinclair the $15,000 pardon deal. He pleaded guilty to attempted public bribery. Sentence: five years, suspended, and a $1,000 fine.
Sinclair said Hood was his only direct contact, though he believes other prison officials of that time protected the pardon scam, or at least knew about it. They are gone from the Angola payroll.
He plans to file a new plea in March seeking a gold seal. But he and his wife both assume the chances are slim to none.
“I don’t believe Billy will ever come home,” Jodie Sinclair said. “Some people say we should have paid the money. A friend of mine says if this had happened in Mexico I could have paid the money and thought nothing of it.”
“My passion now is to put it all on the record,” she said. “We’re writing a book--276 pages so far. I mailed it off to an agent in New York last week.”