February 28, 2014 is an especially heavy day for Catherine Walker Jones. It is the 50th anniversary of the 1964 racial murder of her father, Clifton Walker, outside Woodville, Miss.
Walker was an African-American man who at 37 was ambushed and shot multiple times in the face by a gang of whites on his way home from a late shift at the International Paper plant in Natchez, Miss. Walker’s body was discovered in his car the next morning, on February 29, 1964. Catherine can remember running under crime scene tape at age 14 and looking into her father’s 1961 Impala after his body had already been removed, the floor still soaked with his blood and littered with broken glass from the car’s broken windows.
The Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol and the FBI investigated the murder from February 29 through November 1964. At least 10 different suspects were considered, but motive was never clearly established and the district attorney would not arrest two suspects put forward by the highway patrol.
The long neglected murder case was reopened in 2009, pursuant to a groundbreaking bill sponsored by civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 directed the FBI to conduct a "timely and thorough" investigation of this and 109 other unsolved civil rights cold cases. Since the legislation was passed, all but 12 cases have been closed. None have been prosecuted.
"At last somebody was going to talk to surviving old folks that could be witnesses," Jones at first had hoped, "and they could find the names of people who actually pulled the trigger. If they’re dead or alive, maybe we’ll know who did this."
Since then, however, there has been a series disappointments from the Justice Department, culminating this past November. One week before Thanksgiving and on the birthday of Catherine’s late mother, Ruby Walker, an FBI agent appeared unannounced at Catherine’s New Orleans home to hand deliver a letter from the Justice Department, informing her that the case was closed.
"[A]fter determining that many of the individuals mentioned in the 1964 reports, including all the individuals alleged to have had any motive to harm your father, are now deceased," the Department of Justice wrote to Jones, "it became apparent that continued investigation would not lead to a viable prosecution of a living suspect. Accordingly, we have no choice but to close this investigation."
"They only repeated things already written, things that came from the files," in the letter’s summary of investigative results, Jones says. "They did no work themselves at all. They never met with any of the family members. Their interest was not there."
As a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Civil Rights Cold Case Project, I’ve been investigating and writing about the Clifton Walker murder since 2007. I first met and interviewed Catherine, her sister Shirley and their brother Clifton Walker Jr. in Louisiana, in March 2008. Catherine Walker Jones heard from the FBI for the first time in 2010, in response to my reporting.
On August 14, 2010, I received a phone call from FBI Special Agent Kevin Rust. "I took over the Clifton Walker case a few months ago from the guy who had it originally," he explained. "Until I saw your article, I thought that he had contacted next of kin, but turns out he located some but never contacted them."
The Department of Justice had recently reported to Congress that "The FBI has devoted considerable resources to locating the next of kin for the victims, successfully locating family members for 93 of the 122 victims." Rust was referring to my blog post six days earlier, in which I reported that Clifton Walker’s family were not among those contacted.
It was "a terrible oversight on our part," Rust acknowledged, apologetically, "and one that I’m wiling to try to rectify."
Rust also said he wanted to sit down with me and go over what I’d found. "I can’t actually give you documents but we can sure discuss them. I can fill in some of the blanks."
When I told the sisters that Rust was asking to meet with them and was also offering to meet with me, they requested that there be a joint meeting instead, involving themselves, me and Rust.
For a couple of months we attempted to work out the details of the meeting–whether it would occur in Mississippi, Louisiana or Boston where I am based, what parts of the meeting, if any, the Civil Rights Cold Case Project could film, and whether the Bureau could pay for the Walkers’ travel to the meeting.
As of October 19, 2010 we’d established that the gathering would occur in Mississippi or Louisiana, within driving distance of the Walkers, and what part of the meeting the Cold Case Project would be allowed to film. And then Special Agent Rust stopped returning my calls and emails.
Eight months later, on June 16, 2011, I received an email from a new special agent, Bradley Hentschel, inquiring about "additional information and witnesses." Kevin Rust was "no longer working on the Walker matter," Hentschel said, "due to Agent transfers." Hentschel had been working on the Walker case for six to eight weeks, he said.
Hentschel was 25 years old and about nine months into his first year as an FBI Special Agent. Rust, on the other hand, was a veteran agent, 25 years older, with previous experience working southwest Mississippi civil rights cold cases. Rust was a case agent on the 1966 Ben Chester White murder case–for which Earnest Henry Avants was convicted in 2003 on federal charges of aiding and abetting in the murder of an individual on federal land–and on the double murders of Henry Dee and Charles Moore in 1964–for which James Ford Seale was convicted on federal kidnapping charges in 2007. Both crimes took place within 30 miles of the Walker murder and involved Klansmen associated with suspects in the Walker murder and allegedly involved in other related incidents of racial violence.
Two years into the re-opening of the Walker case, Hentshchel was at least the third agent on the case, and he was just getting up to speed. Rather than ask if we could compare notes, as Rust did, Hentschel simply wanted me to provide the unpublished draft of the article I was writing about the case and give him access to my sources. "You have one of two options," Hentschel said. "You can either provide information that’ll be helpful, or you can withhold that information."
Hentschel was equivocal about meeting with the Walkers. "If there’s new information that can push on the investigation, that’s one thing," he said. "If the family is looking to meet up with the Bureau to basically get a case brief on what’s going on that’s a very difficult prospect. We have those meetings when we can provide answers to a family, namely when an investigation is closed or there is a substantive prosecution that can happen."
The Clifton Walker case has been closed since November, but still no meeting has occurred or even been offered.
"I’m just totally disappointed in the manner in which promises are made by the Justice Department to families that have not gotten closure for the death of their loved ones," Jones says. "You make it sound real good with the Cold Case Initiative, but there was no substance to it, none whatsoever."
Department of Justice and FBI spokespersons refused to comment on why the more experienced agent was taken off the case and no meeting was ever offered to the Walker family.
Benjamin Greenberg is a contributor to Colorlines and a founding member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project. You can follow him on Twitter @minorjive and reach him at minorjive at gmail dot com