Ex-diver testifies about skull pulled from Mississippi River in 1964

Published 3:16 pm Thursday, June 7, 2007

Testifying Wednesday in the trial of reputed Klansman James Ford Seale, a retired Navy diver recalled finding a human skull and rib in a Mississippi River backwater while searching for remains of two black teenagers in 1964.

James Bladh testified that his crew also found railroad rails, a metal chain and other objects in the murky water south of Vicksburg six months after Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore were abducted, beaten and dumped into the river to drown.

Federal prosecutors say Seale and other Ku Klux Klansmen kidnapped the two 19-year-olds and beat them with tree branches, stuffed them in a car trunk, drove them 70 miles to the river, tied them to iron weights, railroad rails and a Jeep engine block and threw them in the water, still alive.

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Seale, 71, has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping and conspiracy charges in May 2, 1964, attacks. He also has denied involvement with the Klan, although a confessed Klansman testified Monday that he and Seale belonged to the same chapter, or “klavern,” in the secretive white supremacist group.

Bladh is now 81 and, like Seale, he wore a wishbone-shaped device to boost his hearing in the courtroom. He testified that his team spent five days searching the muddy waters off Davis Island — a place where historical markers say Confederate president Jefferson Davis once owned a plantation.

Two law officers and a funeral home worker from Louisiana testified earlier this week that they fished portions of the badly decomposed corpses of Dee and Moore from the waters off Davis Island in July 1964. The Navy dive team was brought in to search for other body parts and objects.

In the courtroom Wednesday, prosecutors showed jurors and spectators a black-and-white photograph of the skull, which Bladh said “was almost a polished black.” He said he assumed the skull had turned that color because of the mud.

He testified that divers turned over the remains and the other objects to law officers working on the investigation, who told the Navy team to drive immediately back to Florida and “don’t stop any place.”

Bladh said he interpreted that as meaning the divers might be threatened by people who didn’t want the bones and other objects to be found.

Seale was arrested in January in the latest of more than a dozen Jim Crow-era cases to be revived across the South since the early 1990s.

Also appearing Wednesday, the third day of testimony, was John Ellis Briggs. His father, the late Rev. Clyde Briggs, was pastor of five churches in southwest Mississippi in 1964, including Roxie First Baptist.

John Ellis Briggs read from his father’s handwritten journal that included a brief description about white law officers searching Roxie First Baptist on the day Dee and Moore disappeared. The journal said the lawmen told Clyde Briggs that white men were going to bomb the black church that night.

The journal entry partly confirms testimony Tuesday by confessed Klansman Charles Marcus Edwards, who said he and Seale were among the KKK members who abducted Dee and Moore because they suspected Dee might have information about rumors that black people were stockpiling guns for an uprising.

Edwards said Dee and Moore told the Klansmen during the beatings that guns were being kept in the Roxie church. Edwards said Seale and others took Dee and Moore to a farm and put duct tape over their mouths before driving them to the river, using a meandering rural route in eastern Louisiana.

Edwards also said he split off with another group of Klan members who got local law enforcement officers to help them search Roxie First Baptist. He said no weapons were found in the church.

A jury of eight whites and four blacks, with three white alternates, is hearing the trial, which is expected to stretch into next week.