Informant, now dead, feared testifying against fellow Klansmen

Published 4:12 pm Wednesday, May 2, 2007

FBI informant Earnest Gilbert so feared his fellow Ku Klux Klansmen that he never had the courage to testify about the brutal 1964 murders of two black teenagers. Now, after his death, his voice was finally heard in court, but it wasn’t the home run prosecutors were looking for.

Prosecutors in a revived civil rights-era case wanted a federal judge to allow a television interview that Gilbert gave in 2000 to be used as evidence in the upcoming trial of reputed Klansman James Ford Seale. Gilbert died in 2004.

In the tapes played Tuesday during a pretrial hearing, Gilbert said Seale and the other men allegedly involved in the slayings were his “friends.”

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“And did I rat on my friends? Yes, I did,” he said.

After Jimmie Gilbert, the informant’s widow, testified Tuesday that her husband was having mental problems by the time he gave the interview, U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton withdrew his request to admit it as evidence.

The move came after defense attorneys on Tuesday played clips of the ABC “20/20” interview about the slayings of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, both 19.

On May 2, 1964, exactly 43 years ago today, the teens were abducted in the tiny southwest Mississippi town of Roxie and beaten in the Homochitto National Forest before being weighted down and thrown into the Mississippi River to drown.

Seale, 71, was arrested in January and has pleaded not guilty to two counts of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy. Jury selection begins May 29, and U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate was hearing evidence to decide whether prosecutors could show the video clips during the trial.

Prosecutors say Seale and Gilbert were both high-ranking Klan members at the time of the slayings, and Gilbert implicated Seale to FBI agents.

In an ironic twist, a black lawman from Louisiana testified Tuesday that he befriended Gilbert, the founder of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, and acted as a “go between” when ABC producers began urging Gilbert to tell his story.

Eddie Stewart Jr., the former police chief of Clinton, La., told the court that he didn’t know Gilbert was involved in the Klan until he got a late-night call in 2000 from Gilbert, who said “that I was the only person he trusted” and he needed advice.

When Gilbert arrived that night at Stewart’s house, he told Stewart about being the spokesman for the Klan in Mississippi, responsible for “motivational speeches” and “intimidation.”

One clip played at the hearing showed Gilbert giving one of his speeches in the 1960s.

“I am damn proud of what I am, because I know what a Klansman really is,” Gilbert said in the old home movie. “The people of this state are going to war, and to hell with anyone who tries to stop them.”

Stewart testified that Gilbert said he was so scared of the Klansmen involved in the murders of Dee and Moore that he always carried a 9 mm pistol in his back pocket.

“He called some names,” Stewart testified. “James Seale, Clyde Seale, Jack Seale and Earnest Parker.”

James Ford Seale is the only one still living.

In earlier testimony Tuesday, retired FBI agent Reesie L. Timmons testified that Klan informants told him that James Ford Seale; Seale’s father, Clyde Seale; and brother, Jack Seale were feared even among other Klansmen because of their reputation for violence.

“They were absolutely considered the leaders — the dictators — of the Klan in that part of the country,” Timmons said, adding that other Klansmen believed that “they were killers.”

Timmons also testified that it was “common knowledge” among Ku Klux Klan members that the Seales were involved in the deaths of Dee and Moore.

Federal public defender George Lucas asked why none of that information showed up in FBI reports Timmons filed at the time.

Timmons said that he “didn’t think rumors amongst the Klan were pertinent.”

“That’s all you have is rumors,” Lucas said.

Seale, shackled and wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, shook his head during testimony about his family.

Timmons said he visited Gilbert in 1964, trying to convince him to testify, but Gilbert feared for himself and his family.

“He could hardly walk. He was absolutely certain he was going to get shot,” Timmons testified.

Wingate is weighing testimony as he considers motions in the case, including one to dismiss the charges and another to reveal the identities of confidential informants.

At the time Moore and Dee were abducted and killed, the FBI was consumed by the much more highly publicized search for three civil rights workers in Neshoba County and turned the Seale case over to local authorities. The charges were thrown out.