Civil Rights Era Slaying Haunts Family, Detectives

Associated Press Writer

It was dark as pitch along U.S. 1, but Johnnie Mae Chappell kept searching. That wallet held every cent she owned.

Somewhere on this roadside, it had silently dropped from her torn and soggy grocery bag. Now she was retracing her steps, headed back to Moncrief Road where, just like yesterday and the day before that, she had trudged off the evening bus after scrubbing the floors of rich white women.

Her home was in Pickettville, the poor part of town, where everyone was black. The date was March 23, 1964. Race riots raged downtown over segregation laws that decreed that black people weren’t good enough to even drink from the same water fountain as white people.

But in mindset and geography, the weary inhabitants of Pickettville were miles from rebellion.


As she walked, Chappell enlisted two sympathetic neighbors. One swept the lonely beam of his flashlight across the weeds and tall grass. A car passed, its headlights flicking over the intent trio.

Then they heard a bang. On the unlit country four-lane leading out of Pickettville, the tail lights of a speeding car faded from view.

Chappell, 35 and the mother of 10, sank to her knees and grabbed her belly. “I’ve been shot,” she said.

The two neighbors got her across the road to the Banner Food Market. Someone called for a “colored” ambulance. Someone ran to get her husband.


Inside the ambulance -- a hearse with no medical equipment -- blood soaked her clothes. A .22-caliber bullet was lodged in her pelvis, fired by a 22-year-old white man she would never meet.

Willie Chappell held his wife’s hand on the way to Duval Medical Center.

She bled to death before they arrived.

For nearly 40 years, the death of Johnnie Mae Chappell has tainted everyone associated with it and everyone who loved her: the chief of detectives accused of ignoring her killing, two white investigators who bucked their boss to fight for justice, and the Chappell children forced into foster care.


At Mount Ararat Baptist Church, an aging white man eased himself onto a pew, surrounded by more than 100 relatives of Johnnie Mae Chappell. The stranger carried a mighty burden.

This was the church where Johnnie Mae married her second husband, Willie. This was where her children worshipped after she died, until the county sent them to foster homes and they lost touch with each other.

The date was March 23, 1996. The reunited family sang “We Shall Overcome.” The white man, whose name was Lee Cody, joined in.


In the morning paper, he had seen a photograph of Shelton Chappell kneeling at his mother’s grave. The accompanying article said Shelton hoped to bring his family together on the 32nd anniversary of their mother’s death. Her nine remaining children were spread across three states, and none of them knew the whole truth about her killing.

Shelton came into this world four months before his mother left it. He grew into a gentle, guarded man. Life had taught him to be frugal with trust, especially when it came to white people.

He was only 4 or 5 when county welfare workers placed him in a juvenile detention center with his four older brothers. He still doesn’t know why.

There, “another little boy kicked me and broke my nose,” Shelton remembered. “That was my first encounter with a white person.”

Much of Florida had long been more Deep South than Yankee resort.

In Jacksonville, four years before Johnnie Mae Chappell was shot, Klansmen had gathered downtown on a morning remembered as “Ax Handle Saturday.” They stood in the back of pickup trucks, in a city that was 45% black, and distributed ax handles and baseball bats to white men angry at the prospect of racial equality.

They swarmed inside Woolworth’s, where blacks could shop but not eat, and dragged teenagers from the local NAACP’s Youth Council off their lunch-counter stools and beat them in the street.

A month before Chappell’s killing, a homemade bomb had exploded in the house of a first-grader whose mother sent him to an all-white school.


Chappell’s children have only one photograph of their mother, and it is from a magazine. She is lying on a morgue table, a sheet pulled to her chin. Her husband looks down on her, his face frozen in disbelief.

“She hated having her picture taken,” said Alonzo Chappell, Shelton’s older brother.

He was 6 when his mother died. “She was like a duck, with all of us trailing behind her,” he recalled. He doesn’t remember much else.

She had five daughters from her first marriage. They were sent to relatives on their daddy’s side after she died. Alonzo doesn’t ask them about his mother, although they are older and knew her best. “They took it the worst,” he said.

Shelton reckons that he lived with eight or nine foster families. For a little boy, he carried a very big weight.

“I knew that I had a father and brothers who loved me and cared about me, not just these people I didn’t know,” he said.

The boy made a promise to God.

“If you allow me to live to be an adult and let me find out who killed my momma,” he prayed, “I will not take vengeance into my own hands.”

When Shelton was 17, Alonzo rescued him from foster care. “I took him back to Miami with me,” Alonzo said. “I opened up a barbecue joint on the weekends and Shelton started working in electronics.”

In 1995, when he was 31, Shelton returned to Jacksonville. He had a promise to keep.

He went to the city library. His mother’s shooting had received passing mention at the bottom of a front-page story about the race riots. Its headline: “Large Area Is Terrorized by Negroes.”

He went to the Jacksonville sheriff’s office. A records supervisor went through every homicide file from 1964. There was none marked Chappell, he said.

Shelton went to the county courthouse. There, he was handed a thin file containing few court documents. On one, he saw a name that he didn’t know -- J. W. Rich. The man had been charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Johnnie Mae Chappell. Three others had been charged as well.

Shelton said he didn’t talk about it with his father. “I didn’t want him to relive it. He never got over it.”

Willie Chappell died six months later, at age 80. Only then did Shelton tell his siblings. Then he started planning the reunion.

He persuaded the local paper to write about it. He hoped that the story would make someone come forward, someone who could help the family make sense of the past.

Lee Cody, a former Sheriff’s Department detective, stepped into that role.

When the reunion ended, Cody strode up the church aisle. “Who’s in charge of this reunion?” he boomed in a deep voice. Everyone pointed at Shelton.

“Shelton,” he said, “you have no idea what really happened. I can tell you because I was there.”

He and his partner, Donald Coleman, had solved the murder of Shelton’s mother five months after it happened, he said. But in the end, no one wanted to hear about it, he added. Their crusade for justice got them fired, and four men got away with murder, the partners believed.

To this day, they are obsessed with the case.

“It was just pure racism,” Cody said. “They didn’t give a damn about that poor woman. They just wanted to make sure four white boys didn’t go to jail for killing her.”

Cody had just made detective when he was paired with Coleman in 1964. Both were brash and ambitious.

Cody started each shift by rifling the lieutenant’s inbox, taking notes on the daily patrol logs of other officers. On March 24, he jotted “dark-color car heading north at a high rate of speed” from the handwritten report of two sergeants responding to a shooting on U.S. 1 in Pickettville. “No information or evidence could be found,” the report concluded. “Investigation continuing.”

Five months passed. On a hot August day, Coleman and Cody were sharing a meal at a local drive-in called the Freezette. There, they became intrigued with the behavior of Wayne Chessman, a local tough. He sauntered up to their table and began rambling about getting his life together and getting a job.

A few days later, it happened again. This time, Chessman told the detectives to come find him if they ever needed help. Help with what, Cody wondered.

Chessman walked outside and got into the dark blue car of Elmer Kato, another neighborhood troublemaker.

Cody’s mind flashed to his notebook. “Dark-color car headed north.”

They didn’t know who had been assigned to the Chappell case and they didn’t much care. They drove to Chessman’s house, where Cody told the young man that they might need his help after all. Would he come to the station?

There, Cody pulled a stunt he and Coleman never tire of telling. He opened a Bible, slid it in front of Chessman and pointed to the Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.

Coleman had to will himself not to laugh. Until that moment, his hard-living partner had no use for Scriptures.

Chessman began to sob. He hadn’t killed anyone, he said, but J. W. Rich had. Chessman had just been riding in the back seat with James Alex Davis. Kato had been driving.

Rich and Kato were quickly found and brought in. Davis, who had joined the Army, was at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

As the partners tell it, Coleman then went looking for the Chappell case file. He was gone a long time. “What’s taking you so long?” Cody yelled.

“I can’t find the file,” Coleman hollered back.

They ended up in the office of J. C. Patrick, the chief of detectives. Sometimes case files went into his office and stayed there for days. But they saw no Chappell file there either.

“What are we going to do?” Cody asked.

Then they noticed an inch of white paper peeking from the floor pad under the chief’s chair.

They pulled it out. It was the same handwritten report on the Chappell murder that Cody had read five months earlier in the lieutenant’s box. The case, the partners realized, had never even been assigned to a detective.

They walked out of the chief’s office and opened a case file for Johnnie Mae Chappell.


Next week: The conclusion.