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Thompson vs. the moonshine scofflaws

Times Staff Writer

. -- The case appeared to be open and shut.

The county sheriff had been caught selling an illegal whiskey still from the back of the county jail. The buyers were a federal informant and an undercover federal investigator. The sheriff, to elude honest police, had even escorted the illegal still out of town.

But for Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Thompson, few cases would prove easy.

Today, as a Republican candidate for president, Thompson is cultivating an image as a tough prosecutor who, like the character he played on TV’s “Law & Order,” battled powerful criminals during his three-year stint as a prosecutor.

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He was “attacking crime and public corruption,” boasts a video played at his campaign events. During a candidate debate this month, Thompson said he spent those years “prosecuting most of the major federal crimes in middle Tennessee -- most of the major ones.”

But a review of the 88 criminal cases Thompson handled at the U.S. attorney’s office in Nashville, from 1969 to 1972, reveals a different and more human portrait -- that of a young lawyer learning the ropes on routine cases involving gambling, mail theft and, in one instance, talking dirty on CB radio.

There were a few bank robbers and counterfeiters. But more than anything, Thompson took on the state’s moonshiners and a local culture, rooted in Tennessee’s hills and hollows, that celebrated the independent whiskey maker’s battle against the government’s revenue agents.

Twenty-seven of his cases involved moonshining -- more than any other crime.

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“Hell, I made whiskey and was violating the law, but I didn’t do nothing wrong,” said one of Thompson’s many moonshining defendants, Kenneth Whitehead. “I would do it again if I had a still. I can’t afford a still now.”

Thompson had just turned 27 when he became a prosecutor. The public stage of the courtroom became a place where he learned to develop the strengths -- and to navigate around his weaknesses -- that would later boost him to the U.S. Senate and, now, to a top slot in the GOP presidential field.

The candidate who today shows an uncertain command of current events -- he flubbed questions last month about the death penalty -- was prone as a younger man to getting dates wrong in indictments.

The candidate who ended his first, unsteady debate appearance with a one-liner (“It was getting a little boring without me,” he said of his decision to join the presidential race) would disarm tense situations with an offhand joke after he committed a mistake.

And there were plenty of mistakes.

“I’ve seen a lot better lawyers,” said Burton Moulder, the former sheriff whom Thompson prosecuted for selling a still from the county jail. “But he was very charming. He had a nice, clear voice.”

Thompson is better known for his two later stints in public service: as lead Republican counsel for the Senate Watergate committee and as a U.S. senator representing Tennessee for eight years. Thompson’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview.

Thompson got the prosecutor’s job through politics. He had been handling divorces and other small cases in his hometown of Lawrenceburg when Republican Richard Nixon won the White House. Soon after, the new U.S. attorney for middle Tennessee began replacing the Democratic legal staff with Republicans, as was customary at the time.

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Thompson was only two years out of law school, but he had managed a Republican congressional campaign (albeit a losing one). “That gave me, I guess, some Republican credentials,” he said in a 2003 interview.

U.S. Attorney Charles Hill Anderson granted his prosecutors wide latitude in choosing which cases to handle, old colleagues say. In his early months, Thompson indicted a company for selling medication that turned out to be castor oil. He later prosecuted a man who tried to board an airplane while carrying a loaded revolver. James Howard “Daddy Jim” Gipson pleaded no contest to obscenity charges that Thompson brought because of Gibson’s habit of saying obscene things over a CB radio while drunk.

“We didn’t get any coaching, really,” says W. Buford Bates, who prosecuted cases with Thompson. “We did pretty much what we wanted to do.”

Trials of his own

In his most publicized case, Thompson successfully prosecuted Johnny Pace, a bank robber who had escaped from the federal tank inside the Nashville jail. “Mr. Thompson was a true gentleman,” said John Blalock, the sheriff’s deputy who captured Pace in Los Angeles County. “I’ve never been treated with more courtesy by a prosecutor.”

But Thompson’s charm did not work on U.S. District Judge Frank Gray Jr., who presided over nearly all of his cases. A liberal Democrat who had worked on presidential campaigns from Al Smith’s to Estes Kefauver’s, Gray had little patience for fools, and even less for Republicans.

In court, the judge would make guttural sounds or break pencils as lawyers tried to form arguments. “Judge Gray was very tough on Fred and the lawyers in Charlie Anderson’s U.S. attorney’s office -- he didn’t think they knew what they were doing,” recalled Gilbert S. Merritt, Anderson’s predecessor, who is now a judge on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

There was much to learn. After charging a man with stealing checks from the mail, Thompson saw the case dismissed because the wrong date appeared in the indictment. Another indictment, against a group of counterfeiters, was thrown out when Gray ruled that Thompson had failed to allege a crime. The judge often chided Thompson for a bad habit of leading witnesses.

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In the trial of a man charged with aiding bank robber Johnny Pace in his escape, Gray completely lost it as Thompson struggled with the concept of hearsay evidence.

“I don’t see any reason for the consummate passion of the United States attorney’s getting stuff reversed by getting stuff in the record that has no business in there at all,” the judge declared, adding that he found Thompson’s conduct “utterly incompetent.”

“I got initiated by Judge Frank Gray,” Thompson said in a 2003 interview, “and I use that term advisedly.”

Thompson’s saving grace in court was his calm demeanor (“the coolest lawyer I’ve seen,” recalls one juror, Henry Bledsoe Jr.) and his sense of humor. During a particularly tense trial, as one law enforcement witness tore seals on three successive envelopes before he could get to the evidence within, Thompson quipped, “Is there really anything in there at all?”

At one slow-paced hearing, Thompson attempted so many jokes that the defense attorney objected: “Is there any way you could rule against the assistant United States attorney for his continued humorous attempts at humorous remarks, and also his references to the fact that he would like to leave here in a hurry?”

Alcohol apostasy

For a small-town boy such as Thompson, pursuing rural whiskey makers represented a mild apostasy.

“Rocky Top,” one of Tennessee’s official state songs, tells of “two strangers,” presumably tax agents, who disappear forever while “lookin’ for a moonshine still” on a mountaintop. NASCAR auto racing grew from roots in bootlegging, and movies such as Robert Mitchum’s 1958 classic “Thunder Road” romanticized the moonshine culture.

Nearly 40 years after the demise of Prohibition, most of Tennessee’s counties remained dry, creating a demand for moonshine -- home-brewed, untaxed liquor. The federal levy on legal whiskey was more than $10 a gallon. By contrast, a Tennessean could buy moonshine for $6 a gallon.

Chasing the moonshiners “was hard work,” said Charles Lowe, who investigated cases for the federal division then called Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “The population in general bought the whiskey, and they kind of sided with the bootleggers philosophically. But Fred believed in what he was doing. . . . He fought.”

Moonshine was commonly made with sugar, yeast, and a still to separate the alcohol from the fermented mash. Most Tennessee moonshine was tasty, agents say, though irresponsible moonshiners gave their customers lead poisoning by using automobile radiators in the condensing process.

Thompson’s defendants were often poor, and few had high school educations, according to Bureau of Prisons reports included in court files. One typical report described a bootlegger Thompson prosecuted -- a high school dropout who had married at age 14 -- as “the product of a rural, hill-country environment where illegal distilling and running of whiskey have existed for decades.”

Many in the illegal whiskey trade say Thompson was merciful and sensitive. Dwayne Kent, a moonshiner who also served as a witness in a Thompson prosecution, recalls Thompson dealing with a bootlegger who had not seen an elevator before and was afraid to board it at the courthouse.

“It was like trying to load a wild cow in a truck,” said Kent, who quit bootlegging and now is chairman of his county’s tax board. “But Fred handled things. He stopped himself and the other attorneys when they used big words so we could understand what they were saying.”

Thompson easily won convictions for possession of moonshine, but Judge Gray was lenient in sentencing, rarely doling out jail time.

“It was a game,” said Merritt, the former U.S. attorney. “Gray didn’t like these cases. He thought they were a waste of time, and he was right.”

Pursuing sheriffs

In his third and final year as a prosecutor, Thompson went after law enforcement itself, seeking indictments against two county sheriffs who, investigators told him, were involved in the moonshining business. These were the only public corruption cases he handled, court records show.

In the first case, he won a conviction against Sheriff Charles Crockarell of Stewart County, near the Kentucky border. The prosecution of the other sheriff, Burton Moulder of Cannon County, would prove to be the most difficult case of Thompson’s tenure.

As sheriff, Moulder had investigated moonshiners on nearby Short Mountain. But according to testimony, Moulder also sold a confiscated still for $175 to an undercover federal agent and an informant, who was a moonshiner himself.

Moulder admitted he had sold the still, but he said it was only to assist federal officials in setting up other moonshining investigations.

At the trial, Moulder’s wife dropped a bombshell: She testified that she had been having an affair with a state alcohol agent who was part of the investigation of her husband. Susie Mae Moulder claimed that when she broke off the affair, the state agent threatened to put her husband in the penitentiary.

The trial then focused on whether the sheriff’s wife had fabricated her claims in order to damage the prosecution case and save her husband. In his cross-examination, Thompson accused her of sleeping with a different law enforcement agent.

The case was hopelessly compromised in the eyes of at least some jurors. They failed to reach a verdict, and a mistrial was declared. The U.S. attorney’s office later dismissed the charges entirely.

Burton Moulder still lives in Woodbury, a quiet town of 2,500 southeast of Nashville. In an interview on his front lawn, Moulder said the trial finished him in politics, though he managed to repair his marriage and build a career in emergency medical services.

He remains bitter with the state alcohol agent, but not with Thompson, who he believes was professional in court.

“Fred didn’t really turn the heat up when I got on the stand. He could have, but he didn’t,” recalled Moulder. “I’m still grateful. I think he knew there was something wrong with the case.” When he ran into Thompson at a gun show years later, Moulder said, they “talked to each other like old friends.”

A return to politics

Later in the 1970s, moonshining began to die out in Tennessee, but not because of the federal prosecutions. A sharp rise in the price of sugar made it harder to turn a profit.

“That era was the beginning of the end of moonshine,” said Linzie Jones, a federal agent who worked with Thompson. “Then the marijuana started coming in.”

The Moulder case would be Thompson’s last in the U.S. attorney’s office. Less than a week after the trial, he resigned and went into private practice in Nashville.

Thompson also returned to politics. He spent much of the rest of the year working for the reelection of U.S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr.

Baker won, and he soon had to look for someone to serve as lead counsel on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal.

Thompson was a political loyalist and friend. And he had earned an important credential: He had been a prosecutor.

By early 1973, eight months after he had failed to convict a county sheriff, Fred Thompson was on his way to Washington to investigate the president.

joe.mathews@latimes.com

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Times researchers John Jackson and Robin Mayper contributed to the reporting of this story.


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