The way Lester Haley tells it, the Ku Klux Klan in these parts was nothing but a social club--a few ol’ boys who got together now and then for meetings, turkey shoots and the like.
As local leader, he said he doused down hotheads who tried to cause trouble. But sitting in his trailer, his rebel flag propped in one corner, a shrine to Elvis in another, Haley had to admit he didn’t do a very good job.
During his two-year reign as exalted cyclops, authorities say, klansmen tried to start a race war. Haley denies that. But there’s no denying that church arsons, knifings and beatings all occurred during his watch.
Of the almost-300 church fires that federal authorities have investigated since the start of 1995, the only charges of conspiracy involving an organized hate group are aimed at local klansmen.
Now Haley’s brother and former brother-in-law are in prison on arson charges. Another brother is living large, having allegedly traded information on his kin for his own freedom. And Lester Haley, at 58 the oldest brother, is waiting to see if he, too, will be charged with burning churches as the federal investigation continues.
That trouble trailed the Haley family comes as no surprise to folks who live in this heavily forested part of the Carolina lowlands. For three generations, locals say, the Haley name has been legend.
“They have a reputation for stealing; they have a reputation for burning, they have a reputation for everything under the sun,” said Horace Swilley, who was sheriff of Clarendon County for 12 years until 1992.
To understand what really happened here, local authorities say, you must first understand the Haleys.
A burly man with a steely countenance, Lester Haley says the large family came by its bad name honorably--its members stand up for themselves. That often means getting into scraps. But others here say that doesn’t begin to explain the Haley aura.
Sue Nell Hinkle, one of Lester’s five sisters, says the family reputation started with their late father, Lamont Pleasant Haley. Some folks called him the “swamp man,” she said, because he lived by himself out in the woods and was said to be eccentric.
“My daddy’s the one who started the arsons in my family,” she said. “My daddy burned my momma’s house down.”
That rumor has never been proved, but three of his children have since served time for starting fires, including Hinkle herself before she says she found the Lord.
In addition, two members of the younger generation--Lester’s son and stepson--have faced charges of murder. The stepson, acquitted of murder in 1980, was himself shot to death by an acquaintance in 1993.
With all of the problems they have endured, some family members say the Haleys are cursed. But Kenneth Gardner, for one, has little sympathy.
“There is fear and awe about the Haley name down there,” said Gardner, who lives in nearby Sumpter. His 29-year-old son was killed in a barroom brawl in 1993 by Lester Jr. The bar was filled with people, but most everyone said they were looking the other way.
Before the case could go to trial, one “very valuable witness” died in an apartment fire, said Sheriff Hoyt Collins, who called the fire “suspicious.”
Unable to prove murder, prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain. The judge could have sent Lester Jr. to prison for three years, but suspended the sentence.
“I liked to fainted,” said Collins.
“I will feel to my dying day that there was a very serious misjustice done to my son,” said Gardner. Alleging that the Haleys have been protected by what he calls Clarendon County’s “criminal injustice system,” Gardner has tried unsuccessfully to get federal and state authorities to investigate.
The most notorious member of the Haley family is Romeo, Lester’s charismatic 49-year-old brother. He has a long string of convictions ranging from arson and assault with intent to kill to drug distribution. He has avoided long stays in prison, apparently by becoming a snitch for police, which has not endeared him to his kin.
Romeo Haley declined to speak with a reporter.
“He stated to me one day that he had been working [for previous sheriffs as an informant] for 20 years,” Collins said. “I told him I couldn’t operate that way.”
Swilley, the former sheriff, says Romeo Haley “acted as an informant,” but he denies ever having cut any deals with him. “I didn’t trust him any further than I could throw him,” Swilley said.
But Collins says Romeo Haley has a pattern of cutting deals, and is now providing information on his family members to federal authorities in the church-burning investigation in return for leniency on charges of firearms violations against him.
Burnings Drew Scant Investigation
When the Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville burned down one night in June of last year, authorities first chalked it up as an electrical fire. Macedonia Baptist Church in nearby Bloomville burned down two nights later. An act of nature, the fire chief said.
Never mind that the pastor at Mt. Zion maintains the breaker box had been turned off and members at Macedonia say there had been no lightning the night of their fire. And never mind that the pastor at Macedonia had already complained to the sheriff about finding klan posters nailed to the church door and about the klan holding disruptive rallies nearby during services. No serious probes were conducted.
Authorities arrested two of the arsonists within days of the fires, but--as it happened--that was just a coincidence.
Timothy Welch, 23, and Christopher Cox, 22, members of Lester Haley’s klan chapter, were brought in for questioning about the beating and stabbing of a black man who’d recently been attacked at random as he waited for a bus.
Once in custody, Welch and Cox voluntarily confessed to the other crimes, officials said.
In part because of potential civil rights violations but also because of the Haley connection, the sheriff immediately requested federal assistance, said Joe Floyd, who then was Collins’ deputy chief and is now the Manning police chief. He said federal help was needed because he and Collins didn’t know who in their department might have had past relationships with the Haleys that could taint an investigation.
Floyd complained, however, that federal authorities did not take the case seriously until early this year, when the staggering number of church fires nationally prompted President Clinton to declare the arson investigations a top priority.
Cox and Welch told federal agents they had been ordered to set the fires by superiors in the klan. They told authorities that Arthur Haley, Lester’s 51-year-old brother, had provided them with fuel and that Hubert Rowell, Arthur’s former brother-in-law, showed them how to mix it.
The two older men now are charged with participating in a conspiracy to burn black churches, among other crimes, and are being held without bail. Their trial has been scheduled for next year.
Lester Haley, who says he dropped out of the klan last year when all the trouble started, strenuously denies that his family members were involved. “Those boys done that on their own,” he insists of the fires. He maintains the whole thing is a government frame-up.
The arrest of Ku Klux Klansmen for burning churches “lit up the whole country,” Lester Haley said. “When they said one of those boys had a klan card on him it got everybody’s attention.”
In an unusual lawsuit filed last week, the klan is accusing the Sheriff’s Department of using illegal measures to drive the group out of the county. State-level leaders of the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan say sheriff’s deputies violated the group’s rights by aiming rifles at klansmen during rallies, tearing down legally posted fliers and searching klan members without cause. North Carolina Imperial Wizard Virgil Griffin and Grand Dragon Horace King of South Carolina are seeking $200,000 for emotional distress, injury to reputation and court costs. Collins denies the charges.
Lester Haley says, however, that local authorities had a much more personal goal in mind than damaging the klan. “When it comes down to it,” he said, “they’re targeting the Haley family.”
A Pattern of Racial Abuse
For the Rev. Terrance G. Mackey, pastor of Mt. Zion AME Church, the problems are far larger than one trouble-prone family. According to him and other local African Americans, racial inequity and intimidation are the norm in this part of South Carolina. This week, Gov. David Beasley even cited the animosities here as one of the reasons he believes the Confederate battle flag should no longer fly atop the state capitol, the last statehouse to still haul it up each day.
Noting that members of the same statewide klan organization to which the Haleys belonged were charged last month with shooting into a crowd of black people on a street in Pelion, S.C., Mackey said, “These types of things go on and no one in the past has been stepping up to say they cannot go on any longer.”
Mackey is helping to organize a march, now scheduled for April, that he hopes will bring people from around the country to Clarendon County. “It’s time to stand up and say in America that we’re not going to take it anymore,” he said. “I’m calling for the government and law enforcement of South Carolina to do their job.”
Mackey said he thinks his church was burned because of his outspokenness on racial and social issues. His only personal encounter with a member of the Haley family occurred last year, before the fires. He said that when he passed Arthur Haley on a sidewalk in downtown Greeleyville, Haley insulted him with a racial slur.
“If that preacher said it he’s a liar,” Lester Haley said. He depicts Arthur as a kind-hearted klansman who treated black people fairly.
But Manuel LeRoy Thompson, a 35-year-old African American whose car and workplace were torched in 1994 and 1995, said Arthur Haley threatened him during a sidewalk confrontation two years ago.
Thompson said he approached Haley because he suspected him of putting up Ku Klux Klan posters at the recycling center where he worked. The posters depicted a hooded klansman and the caption: “We’re watching you.”
When Arthur Haley defiantly insisted he would put his posters up anywhere he wanted, Thompson said he told him, “You’re not going to put them up on my job. If you do I’m going to pull them down.” He said Haley responded by saying, “Boy, you don’t know who you’re messing with.”
Then one morning Thompson arrived at work and found someone had burned the building down. Not long after that, someone set his car on fire. After someone shot and killed his dog, he said, “I had to keep my children in the house. I couldn’t let them go out in the yard to play at all.”
The federal indictment accuses Rowell of burning the building and Rowell and Haley of setting the car on fire. It also charges the men with other crimes, including burning down a migrant camp that was populated by Mexican farm workers and co-owned by Everett Haley, a wealthy farmer who is a distant cousin to Lester and part of the so-called “good Haley” family branch.
Collins said the “bad Haley” brothers had had a dispute with Everett Haley. The brothers wanted to hunt deer with their dogs, but Everett wouldn’t let them cross his land.
A judge denied bail because of supposed threats Arthur Haley made to a witness and because authorities found an arsenal of 13 rifles and shotguns in his possession.
The Haleys insist that Arthur, who suffers from a number of ailments, including a nervous disorder that runs in the family, chronic ear infections and kidney stones, is not receiving proper medication in prison.
When a reporter visited recently, one of Arthur’s sisters and his wife were sitting around the telephone in tears because an expected call from Arthur in prison did not come.
“He’s going to die,” said Sue Nell Hinkle. “They’re killing him.”
Lester insists it is an injustice to keep his brother locked up, comparing it to the government sieges on Waco and Ruby Ridge in which innocent people were killed. “They’re doing the same thing here to my brother,” he said.
Contempt for Government
Across the street from Lester Haley lives a cousin who flies an upside-down U.S. flag from a pole in his yard--a sign of his contempt for the government. Lester Haley said he shares that contempt for excessive government control. The people in power “do not give a damn about a poor white man or a poor black man,” he said. “If they got the little office or money then the hell with you.”
“The little guy has a hard time,” he said. “A poor white man catches hell in this country. Poor black people do, too. But a black man will stick up for another black man a lot quicker than a white person will.”
Such social inequities provide his rationale for joining the klan in 1994 and for agreeing to become it’s local leader. They also are his explanation for the troubles that seem to follow the family like a hungry hound.
Lester Haley, an ex-welder who makes a living building patios and lakefront docks, said he went to his first klan rally in 1994 “to see what it was all about.
“They were talking about the government . . . one thing and another,” he said. He went back the next day. Then he attended another rally a month later. This time he got an application and joined. “It was kinda stupid in a way,” he said of joining. “I thought I could make changes.”
When the local leader quit, Lester said he was one of the four or five members who kept the organization going. Active membership grew to perhaps a dozen, he said. They were like lodge meetings, he said. “It really didn’t amount to anything. More or less just a get-together.”
Haley insisted that he and his brother Arthur are not racist. “I look at a man as an individual. I don’t look at a man for his color,” he said. “The klan wasn’t just against black people. It was against homosexuality, abortion, against a lot of the government crap you have to put up with.”
During local rallies the speakers were higher-level klan leaders from Columbia, the state capital, and farther away. He said he asked the grand dragon to tone down the racist language and asked that members not display guns. Then, to avoid offending the sensibilities of African Americans, he said he asked the sheriff not to bring black deputies to monitor the rallies.
“At the klan meetings they use the n----- word a lot,” he said. “I told him they don’t need to listen to that if they don’t have to.”
Despite all of his supposed attempts to keep the peace, he acknowledged that his membership included troublemakers. When some members caught a black man tearing down directional signs pointing the way to one of their rallies, Haley said he had to restrain Christopher Cox to keep him from beating the man.
Another time, Cox and another klansman tried to pick a fight with a different black man on the street, he said. “I wouldn’t let them do that.”
The black church is attacked frequently in klan speeches, he said. “It’s always the same. They go on and on about the blacks going to church to get information about how to vote and to get benefits and to get government cheese--that sort of thing.”
An impressionable young person might be influenced by the speeches, he acknowledged, but he insisted that no one was ever directed to destroy churches. And no Haley family member, he insisted, ever played a part.
“There wasn’t any campaign to burn those churches,” he said. “It looks like it became some kind of fad.”