Answers Elusive in 1965 Slaying


VARNADO, La.--The two deputies drove quietly down Main Street, crossed the railroad tracks and headed home for a late dinner. It was not yet midnight on June 2, 1965.

Alongside came a dark pickup with a Confederate flag decal on the front bumper, a driver, maybe one man with a firearm at the passenger window, maybe two men with firearms in the back of the truck.

Oneal Moore was killed instantly, the back of his head blown out by a bullet from a high-powered hunting rifle. Creed Rogers was wounded in the shoulder by shotgun pellets and blinded in his right eye.


They were the community’s first black deputies, on duty for a year and a day, sworn in by a sheriff hoping to accommodate the rising impatience of local blacks for more jobs and more respect. But it angered much of the white power structure in Washington Parish, particularly the influential chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

No one stood trial in the ambush, no one went to prison, and today, nearly 40 years later, no one in this rural Louisiana community has come forward with any solid evidence that might bring the gunmen to justice.

Yet everyone seems to think they know at least one of them. Ernest Ray McElveen, then 41, of nearby Bogalusa, was charged with murder, briefly held and then released when friends put up $25,000 bail. For reasons that remain unclear, the case was never prosecuted and the charges were dropped.

Every 10 years or so, it seems, federal or local law enforcement authorities reopen the case.

People can recall at least two grand jury investigations. Once, authorities dug up a concrete patio after being tipped that the firearms used in the shootings were buried underneath. Another time a woman with cancer told authorities on her deathbed that her boyfriend had whispered in her ear that he was one of the killers.

When the name of yet another alleged accomplice surfaced, the man claimed amnesia because of a car wreck 12 years earlier.

Nothing came of any of this, as has been true in countless efforts over the years to reopen unsolved, race-driven murders from the 1960s.

More recently, there have been successes, raising hopes in other old civil rights cases. Just last month, Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted for his role in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four black girls nearly 40 years ago.

At least 11 other such cases, including the shootings of Varnado’s two black deputies, are alive across the South. But there are countless other unsolved killings of blacks from that era that are doomed to remain forever below the radar of young prosecutors or others with an interest in justice. Indeed, the life span of prospective witnesses is fast expiring.

Moreover, the handful of old cases that are being revived appears to have slim prospects for successful prosecution, plagued by the damage time does to evidence. The reopening of these old cases might serve mainly to remind Americans of the fragility of justice.

Now the case of Oneal Moore and Creed Rogers has been reopened again, this time by the FBI field office in New Orleans. Though they will not say what sparked the new interest, agents felt optimistic enough to announce a $40,000 reward for information. Green-and-white reward posters are being hung in some of the shop windows and in government offices around Washington Parish, and a fresh crop of investigators is knocking on doors, hoping to pry loose a clue or two.

“We’ve got some leads and we’re covering those leads,” said FBI Agent Dave Picard, who handles civil rights cases in Louisiana. “We’re hoping something will shake here. I’m hoping we’ll get some kind of lead where somebody will come forward late in life.”

But that seems unlikely, given how Washington Parish has managed to live with its secret for so long. Some shop owners won’t even put up the reward posters.

Varnado sits in the northeast corner of Washington Parish, a lumber and paper mill town just off the Pearl River where Louisiana meets Mississippi, an hour north of New Orleans. The hamlet is still little more than a mix of gas stations, a beauty salon, a takeout pizza place and a smattering of churches. The old Gulf, Mobile & Ohio railroad tracks, now the Illinois Central Railroad, still cut through town.

It is not a community where new ideas readily take hold. As soon as the case was reopened, Moore’s widow, Maevella, got another death threat. Even Rogers, now 80, who with a glass eye went on to complete a long career as a local deputy, said: “I’ve pretty well learned not to think about it too much anymore. I’ve made up my mind I’m never going to find out who did this to us.”

Said Frank Sass, a retired FBI agent who worked the case at the time: “You’re whistling in the dark about anything to do with that case now. I just don’t think it will go anywhere. Once McElveen and everybody else stopped talking, this whole thing came to a screeching halt.”

‘Klan’s Bloody Answer’

They buried Moore a week after the shooting, on a stifling hot June afternoon, the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church so chock-full of mourners that those who could not fit inside gathered under spreading trees in the churchyard. He was married in that church, and he sang in the choir.

Seven women fainted at the funeral, including the widow, the newspapers reported. “I can’t go on without him,” she cried. Her four daughters, the oldest 9, the youngest 9 months, sat silently up front.

When the mourners marched with the coffin down Jones Creek Road to the black cemetery, a sudden rain and hailstorm drenched them.

The streets were flooded in Bogalusa, Washington Parish’s largest city, seven miles south of Varnado, where that evening the black activist James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, spoke at a rally. He proclaimed that the shooting was “the Klan’s bloody answer” to a local voters’ league request that more blacks be hired as law enforcement officers.

He was speaking to the true believers. Black residents in Washington Parish for some time had been agitating for a greater role in their community: more jobs, fair housing, equal rights.

In the weeks leading to the shooting, they had staged rallies and marches, demanding that public facilities be desegregated. A large force of state troopers was brought in to quell any disturbances and try to keep the demonstrators safe. By the time the two officers were shot that night, about 50 whites had been rounded up for attacking or harassing blacks.

The local Ku Klux Klan was a potent force, so entrenched that many members seldom bothered to hide beneath hoods. Indeed, that year a Georgia congressman addressed the U.S. House of Representatives and named several hundred white men in Washington Parish that court records indicated belonged to the Klan or other white supremacy organizations.

“The Ku Klux Klan uses three basic techniques: secrecy, terror and intimidation,” said Rep. Charles L. Weltner, a white Democrat.

The Klan and members of the ultraconservative Anti-Communist Christian Assn. were particularly enraged at the sight of two black men in deputy uniforms, driving around the parish in a county patrol car. They denounced the white sheriff and accused him of “selling out.”

Lou Major Jr., today the white publisher of the community’s largest newspaper, the Daily News, a job he inherited from his father, can sometimes still feel the tension from those days.

“The Klan was pretty active,” he recalled. “They did quite a bit of cross burning in front of our newspaper. I can think of four that were burned at my dad’s home too. The radio station, which happened to be owned by a Jewish man for a time, it got hit.”

A Klan rally a month after the shooting drew 10,000 whites down to the riverfront, no small gathering for Bogalusa, population 26,000. They burned three crosses, and 50 Klan leaders paraded, not all in hoods and robes. Half a dozen speeches fired up the night.

“Look how far we’ve come now,” Grand Titan Saxon Farmer of Bogalusa told the crowd, boasting of the Klan’s growth in Washington Parish in recent years. Before, he said, “it was just me and the man they’re now charging with murder of the Negro deputy sheriff.”

Louisiana’s governor at the time, John McKeithen, a white man, came to Bogalusa and announced a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone else responsible for the slaying.

“We’re going to catch them,” the governor vowed. “We’re going to catch them all.”

An Unsure Witness

Daniel R. “Scrap” Fornea had just gotten home and was climbing the front porch steps when the patrol car drove by. He saw the pickup coming up behind it too, like it wanted to pass, and--he wasn’t sure--but “there could have been five, two, or one person in it. I just don’t know.”

Then he heard the gunfire. “Louder than an M-1,” recalled the former soldier.

He ran to where the patrol car had smashed into a tree. Deputy Moore lay dead, his body straddled over his partner. Deputy Rogers was making frantic radio calls to the dispatcher, describing the truck and the Rebel flag on the bumper.

“That’s about all I know,” Fornea recalled. “Except we thought of them deputies as good Negroes.”

The deputies had been headed to Moore’s home for a late dinner of fried catfish that Maevella was preparing. They were diverted at the last minute by a report of a suspicious brush fire. It might well have been a ruse, because moments later they were shot, every window of their cruiser blown out.

An hour later, McElveen, a paper mill employee and insurance salesman, a respected member of the community who was active in white power groups, was pulled over in Tylertown, Miss., an hour’s drive from the shooting.

He was driving a black 1954 pickup with a Confederate decal on the front bumper. He was carrying two pistols, and in his pockets were four identification cards. He belonged to the Citizens Council, the National States Rights Party and a group identified as the National Riflemen’s Assn. He also was an honorary special agent for the Louisiana State Police.

But the police did not find a rifle or a shotgun. And McElveen was not talking. Many townspeople in Louisiana recognized him as an upstanding neighbor, a tall, lanky World War II veteran who was active in veterans affairs and community fund drives.

He was booked, held overnight in the Mississippi jail and extradited to Louisiana. There, Sheriff Dorman Crowe signaled that more arrests were sure to follow. “You can’t shoot a high-powered rifle and a shotgun and drive a pickup truck at the same time,” the sheriff said.

At the parish jail, all the guards could get out of him was that he had been at a campsite near the state line and then had driven to Tylertown for treatment of a back injury.

He was charged with murder on the strength of the truck identification. He said he was innocent, and a coroner’s jury convened. But it determined only that Moore died “by gunshot wound.”

Several days after his arrest, McElveen was set free when friends came up with the $25,000 bail.

A white judge, a white prosecutor and McElveen’s white attorney agreed that it was unfair to keep the prisoner behind bars indefinitely because the only real witness, Rogers, was in a New Orleans hospital and might not be coming home soon to testify. He might not ever see again, either.

Why no one was tried is unclear. Court records reveal little. The sheriff, the prosecutor and the judge are dead. The defense attorney, Ossie Brown of Baton Rouge, now retired, did not return repeated phone calls.

Theirs was a tightly run, white-dominated community, as described by Rep. Weltner in his speech before Congress. He said the Klan and other white supremacy groups were ensconced around Bogalusa. He said the Klan had members in the police and fire departments, at the housing authority, connections to the mayor’s office, and that even a city judge had a brother who wore the Klan robes.

At the time, recalled Sass, the former FBI agent, there was concern that McElveen would be “taken care of” once he was placed in the hands of authorities in Louisiana. That is why the FBI was called in.

Sass was home in bed in New Orleans when he got the call about the shooting. He monitored how local officials handled civil rights cases. He hustled up to Washington Parish, but McElveen had already hired a lawyer and was refusing to talk.

“If we in the bureau could have gotten to McElveen before they turned him over to Louisiana, we might have gotten something out of him,” Sass said in a recent interview.

He said he and other FBI agents tried to interview other suspects but came away empty-handed.

“They were all provided alibis, for themselves and everybody else they knew,” Sass said. “With the political structure at that time, everyone was leaning in favor of the poor Klansmen.”

Today McElveen, 78, is seen around Washington Parish, often shopping in downtown Bogalusa. He still is not talking.

“Nope, no comment,” he said good-naturedly enough, when recently asked about the shooting. “No comment. Not a thing. I just don’t have anything to say. Goodbye.”

Some around town say that the old white structure still exists.

“The KKK is alive and well here,” said Lee Kelley, who until recently ran a local alternative newspaper and print shop. She said she lost her business after raising questions about the 1965 shooting. She said she received threats and was snubbed by many of her customers.

“They’ve traded in their hoods and ropes for navy blue suits,” she complained about many of the older white people in the community. “But they are just as manipulative now. They undercut you financially instead of burning a cross on your grass.”

Indeed, some shop owners who were asked to put up the reward posters did not want to stir up the old memories, or had other reasons for not getting involved. “People around town are probably afraid,” said Marilyn Bateman at the Bogalusa Chamber of Commerce.

Varnado Mayor Paris Sumrall said: “This community is largely still made up of the old-timers. There’s not a lot of new blood. Most people my age, I’m 41, have moved away, and the old people want to let it alone. The consensus of the community is to let it lie.”

Meanwhile, Maevella Moore says she is receiving threats again.

When they reopened the case this time, her phone rang and the caller instructed her to drive over the Pearl River Bridge “if you really want to know who killed your husband.” And, the voice added, “I hope you don’t get killed before you get over there.”

She thought about that phone call for a moment, then said, “You hate it, but what can you do about it?”