Cold case justice: Inside the hunt for civil rights era killers


The phone call came on Sunday, three days after Thanksgiving, 1974. A 19-foot motorboat had been found drifting off Florida’s Gulf Coast near Pensacola. The five men using it for a weekend fishing trip had vanished, and the Coast Guard, which spent the night before searching motels and bars and issuing missing persons bulletins, hadn’t found them.

One of the fishermen was Lee Roy Holloway, a 49-year-old World War II veteran and warehouse worker from Atlanta who lived in a ranch house in a quiet, tight-knit neighborhood on the city’s northwest side. At the time, Holloway’s daughter Janice was a 19-year-old student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, but she was staying with her parents during a fall internship at an Atlanta department store. She was ambitious and adventurous, though her father—a stern but devoted family man—still meant everything to her. He was the one who insisted she attend family reunions, who chauffered her around when she didn’t have a driver’s license, who taught her to share no matter what. “He was an awesome father,” Janice Cameron-Holloway told me.

Despite the disturbing call, Janice felt optimistic. Her father was an experienced fisherman with more than two decades on the water, someone who was known in the neighborhood for being generous with his catch. But this time, he didn’t come home. None of them did. And the agony of the days ahead was matched by a disorienting crush of attention: palm readers and psychics offered their services. Reporters wanted interviews. “It was the worst time in our lives,” Cameron-Holloway said.

That Monday, the Coast Guard called off the search, and the men were presumed dead. The following week, Escambia County Search and Rescue discovered the first of the bodies in Santa Rosa Sound, and the agency’s assistant director announced a theory: choppy water had swamped the boat. Drowning was the presumed cause of death.

This baffled Cameron-Holloway and the other men’s relatives. “We were like, how did five men fall off the boat and drown?” recalled Nedra Walker, whose father, Robert Walker, owned the motorboat. He was a good swimmer and an experienced fisherman. There were no storms in the area, and the water was calm. The Coast Guard ruled out weather as a possible factor.

All five men were African-American, and their families worried about how authorities would handle their deaths. “In most civil rights cases, we didn’t have the police on our side,” Cameron-Holloway explained. Pensacola in 1974 wasn’t like Alabama or Mississippi a decade earlier, where brutal, civil rights-related violence was largely accepted by—if not perpetrated by—the state. But racism was still raw and the threat of violence still real, recalled H.K. Matthews, a civil rights activist and former president of the Pensacola Council of Ministers.

(Read more about the long history of connections between law enforcement and white supremacy groups, especially in the South.)

Matthews told me that he counted eight attempts on his own life, including a failed car bomb, and there were repeated police killings of young African-American men. In the months after the five fishermen vanished, protests erupted over one such death, and a sheriff’s sergeant named Jim Edson told a St. Petersburg Times reporter that if marchers demonstrated that night, he planned to play a game called “Selma.” “You grab a club and hit a nigger,” Edson said.

Against this backdrop the families reached out to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group founded by Martin Luther King Jr., which dispatched its own investigator to Pensacola. Shortly after, Leadership Conference president Ralph Abernathy traveled there with his communications director, Tyrone Brooks. Their report, released the following January, raised even more questions about the authorities’ conclusions.

Why, for instance, had the boat been found with a cut anchor line? And if the men had gone fishing, why was their gear and food still in their truck—and their life jackets stowed? What about their argument with a local bait store owner, a man who told the Leadership Conference’s investigator that he planned to “get” that “nigger Sterling,” as he called one of the fishermen, John Sterling? And what about Joe Sullivan, a local fisherman who told sheriff’s investigators that he’d seen the men in a “heavily overloaded” boat and had warned them to stay ashore? As the Leadership Conference pointed out, he said he’d seen the men Saturday around dusk. This would have been impossible: the Coast Guard found the boat on Saturday morning. And even if Sullivan meant Friday instead of Saturday, it still would have been impossible. The group didn’t leave for Pensacola until that night.

A sheriff’s deputy said that if marchers demonstrated, he planned to play a game called “Selma.”

Even so, Sullivan’s account of the reckless greenhorns from Atlanta became the account of their death, and the case of the Atlanta Five, as it came to be known, drifted out of public view—although so many questions remained. Until 2010. That’s when Cameron-Holloway was introduced to two crusading law professors from Syracuse University, Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson. The women were in the midst of an unprecedented effort to grapple with one of the darkest corners of recent American history—a systematic accounting of the untold number of racially motivated, civil rights-related killings that were forgotten by history but could still be investigated. Their list began with one name. Now, it contains hundreds, including the Atlanta Five.

The urgency of their work, which they called the Cold Case Justice Initiative, has grown more acute as witnesses, relatives and suspects grow old and die, and as the church massacre in Charleston drew grim parallels to the worst atrocities committed decades ago by the Ku Klux Klan. In their telling, the police killings in Ferguson, North Charleston, Chicago and beyond have laid bare not only a continuum of violence that African-Americans have faced for generations, but a culture of impunity that has made justice so elusive. “It’s not like there’s some part of our history where these cases stop,” Johnson told me. This view has turned the professors into activists trying to force the government to reckon with this legacy of racial killings. And no one could do more, they say, than the authorities charged with enforcing the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.

Named after the 14-year-old African-American boy who was brutally murdered in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman, the act was signed into law in 2008. It provided the Department of Justice with $13.5 million a year to investigate and, if possible, prosecute civil rights era racial killings. But with funding set to expire in 2017, it’s unclear if the government has even spent these millions of dollars, and McDonald and Johnson say that the law’s promise has languished—and so have cases like the Atlanta Five.

Are they right?

In 2007, three years before Janis McDonald had ever heard of the Atlanta Five, the law professor was in Ferriday, Louisiana, a town of a few thousand just over the Mississippi line, best known, perhaps, for its once prominent spot on the Delta Blues circuit.

Warm and chatty, McDonald spent her early law career working for Phil Hirschkop, the legendary lawyer who argued Loving vs. Virginia before the Supreme Court. McDonald had come south for a book project, and on her last day in Ferriday stopped by the one-story newsroom of the local weekly, the Concordia Sentinel, to talk with its soft-spoken editor Stanley Nelson, who had been recommended as a source. Mostly, though, they talked about a man named Frank Morris.

In 1964, the 51-year-old black businessman burned inside his shoe shop when it was set on fire by the Ku Klux Klan; he died four days later. Morris’ murder was among the many killings of black men and women in the South no one was held responsible for, a fact that Renee Romano, a history professor at Oberlin College and author of last year’s “Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders,” attributes to a justice system that was often little more than an instrument of Jim Crow.

Estimates of these targeted killings range from hundreds to thousands. “Part of the challenge is: some of these were investigated as crimes,” Romano told me. “Others weren’t even considered crimes.” Digging through court records, she found just 33 cases from across the South in the 1950s and ‘60s where murder charges were prosecuted; three-quarters ended in acquittals or hung juries.

The 1968 deaths of three girls from Louisiana were described as accidental despite evidence that at least one had been raped.

The month before McDonald’s trip to Ferriday, the FBI announced that it was reexamining dozens of killings, including Morris’. Nelson was working on a story about the case, and when McDonald stopped by his office, she overheard him on the phone with an FBI spokesman. “My ears were burning,” she said. Nelson was getting nothing from the spokesman and wasn’t sure how to proceed. In McDonald, he saw a resource. “I said, ‘Help,’” Nelson recalled.

McDonald flew home and told her friend, fellow Syracuse professor Paula Johnson, about her visit. The more measured of the pair, Johnson grew up in the 60s and 70s in Anacostia, a section of Washington, D.C., so isolated from the rest of the city that it was known as “the reservation.” She was raised with a firm understanding of social justice and racial identity. NAACP’s magazine “The Crisis” was always around her home, and Paul Robeson was often on the stereo. The values stuck. She pursued public interest law, working on sexual assault and domestic violence cases in Massachusetts. While at Syracuse, she founded a public interest law program in Zimbabwe. When McDonald approached her about looking into Morris’ death, “it didn’t take a minute to say yes,” she said.

That summer, they started traveling to Ferriday. They searched court basements for files and library shelves for city directories. They sent Nelson documents from a House Un-American Activities Committee investigation into the Klan. He connected the women with Morris’ granddaughter, Rosa Morris Williams. On Morris Williams’ behalf, they called the Justice Department, trying to learn what they could about the case. At one point, Nelson invited the professors to his office. “There were three other families waiting to talk to us,” Johnson recalled.

From these relatives they heard about a factory worker and NAACP treasurer killed by a car bomb in Mississippi in 1967. They heard about three young girls from Louisiana whose 1968 deaths were described as accidental drownings, despite some evidence that at least one had been raped—a detail not included in the official account.

With the help of their law students, McDonald and Johnson began looking into these other deaths, too. They dug through newspaper archives and thousands of unredacted FBI files obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, which yielded new information on even more cases. There was the father from Concordia Parish, Louisiana, who was killed by police in 1965 in front of his two children. There was the hotel worker from the same parish who vanished in 1964; his car was later found with blood inside and a necktie twirled like a noose around the steering wheel. And there was the Louisiana sheriff’s deputy who was possibly involved in both deaths, according to interviews and FBI documents. An informant had identified the lawman as a one-time Klan leader.

In 2008, after a string of high profile prosecutions for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the so-called Mississippi Burning killings and the 1964 murder of two men believed to be Black Panthers, the Emmett Till Act was signed into law. The act authorized an annual $13.5 million in appropriations for the investigation of civil rights era cold cases. The bulk of the funding—$10 million—was allocated to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI; $2 million was earmarked for grants for local and state agencies; and $1.5 million was allotted to help law enforcement and communities work together to solve these cases.

Initially, Johnson said, she and McDonald were hopeful. “Without sounding pollyannish, we felt that this was going to finally make a difference—that the U.S. government through its law-making bodies had determined this to be a priority,” she told me. As the years wore on, though, “there was disappointment” over the department’s handling of the law, she said. Nelson, who went on to be a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work on the Morris case, is less diplomatic. “They’ve literally not done any work on these cases at all,” he told me.

That might be overstating it. But only one new case has been successfully prosecuted since the law passed. In 2010, an ex-state trooper in Alabama pleaded guilty to manslaughter for the 45-year-old killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose death was featured in the film “Selma.” In its annual reports on the Emmett Till Act, the Justice Department describes this case as a “federally-assisted” success, but the district attorney behind the prosecution, Michael Jackson, told me that assistance consisted of receiving an FBI report from 1965 and help finding old photos.

After securing the plea deal, Michael Jackson asked the Justice Department for financial help with several other cold cases—money for experts, forensic testing and defraying investigative costs. The department, he said, sent a letter back. “It said, ‘There’s no money,’” he recalled. Which is startling, considering a provision in the Emmett Till Act sets aside $2 million for what Jackson was asking for.

Even in cases the department has pursued — like Morris’ — McDonald, Johnson and others argue that it has appeared woefully unprepared. Nelson told me that in fall 2010, after he’d gathered enough information to identify a man allegedly involved in Morris’ murder, he called the authorities for comment. “The FBI, the Department of Justice, they said, ‘Please don’t run the story, it’ll jeopardize the case,’” he recalled. “They wouldn’t say why.”

This made little sense to Nelson, because the same witness who tipped him off said that a year earlier, he’d given the FBI the same name—Arthur Leonard Spencer, a 71-year-old truck driver identified as a former Klansman living about an hour north of Ferriday. “We couldn’t understand,” Nelson said. “Not until they found out we had a story did they go interview him.” Nelson gave them until January. After he published a piece in which Spencer’s own son identified him as one of Morris’ killers, federal prosecutors empaneled a grand jury. But two years and three grand juries later, the Justice Department produced no indictment, Nelson said, and after Spencer died in spring 2013, the case fizzled. Later that year, it was closed.

“They’ve literally not done any work on these cases at all.”

The FBI and the Department of Justice didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. The annual reports posted on the department’s website only offer vague details about how cases are identified, investigated and closed, and about the $13.5 million in annual funding. The Justice Department appears to have received a sliver of that money just once—$1.6 million in 2010—and despite Michael Jackson’s appeal for aid, the reports say that the department has never received a request for a local or state grant.

The reports instead emphasize past prosecutions and the true difficulties of these investigations. In addition to the department’s limited jurisdiction, the reports cite inevitable obstacles that can make solving old cases akin to discovering the Lost City of Z: “Subjects die; witnesses die or can no longer be located; memories become clouded; evidence is destroyed or cannot be located; original investigations lacked the technical and scientific advances relied upon today. Even with our best efforts, investigations into historic cases are exceptionally difficult, and rarely will justice be reached inside of a courtroom.”

According to the department’s most recent report from May 2015, few of the 113 cases investigated under the Emmett Till Act remain open. A handful were referred to state authorities; the rest were closed without being prosecuted. Still, the report notes, the government has “devoted considerable resources” to tracking down next of kin and providing a sliver of peace: Assuming that they can be found, those relatives receive a hand-delivered letter notifying them that their loved one’s case has been closed.

To McDonald and Johnson, the government’s emphasis on “closure” has looked like something else entirely. To them, it looked like the Emmett Till Act was being used to secure an inaccurate view of civil rights history, one that refused to acknowledge how many African-Americans were victims of racially-motivated murders and was being used, as McDonald put it, “to say, we did these, we closed them all.” So the women got to work.

By 2010, they were running the Cold Case Justice Initiative full time, and eventually, they and their law students moved into a small, fluorescent-lit office jammed with documents, clippings, photos and books like “The Ku Klux Klan: An Encyclopedia” and “The Race Beat.” They were also developing what they called the “victim identification project.” As McDonald explained, “We realized that nobody’s ever done a full accounting of all the people that were disappeared or were killed.” Nobody, she added, “had scratched the surface.” They knew that the cases they were uncovering wouldn’t all be solved or prosecuted, but in a way, that was beside the point. “These families deserve the same justice everyone deserves,” McDonald told me. “They have struggled for 50 years to demand the promise of justice–not necessarily convictions, but the fair and even application of the criminal justice system to fairly and fully investigate.”

“These families deserve the same justice everyone deserves.”

So their students pored over archives in Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, Baton Rouge, Jackson and Atlanta. The professors spoke at law schools, community colleges and civil rights conferences from Indiana to Georgia, where they were approached by everyone from the rental car agent to the cafeteria worker, each with their own story about a loved one who, decades before, disappeared or died under suspicious circumstances.

Many of these deaths and disappearances weren’t covered by the Emmett Till Act, though: The alleged crimes occurred after December 31, 1969, the eligibility end-date written into the law. To McDonald and Johnson, this timeline was meaningless. As one of their students, Alphonse Williams, told me: “The civil rights era didn’t stop then. You can argue that it’s still occurring.” So they pursued those cases anyway, and hoped that the Justice Department would consider them.

Which is why, in the spring of 2010, they met with Janice Cameron-Holloway in a hotel in Atlanta. She’s 60 now, with radiant gray hair and an ebullience to match. Even though the death of her father and his friends in 1974 had become a largely forgotten footnote of the civil rights era, she never stopped thinking of him. When a documentary filmmaker suggested she get in touch with McDonald and Johnson, she agreed. They talked for over an hour, Cameron-Holloway recalled, and they left her struggling with a profound question: “How would you feel about coming face to face with the people who did this to your father?”

Cameron-Holloway eventually agreed. “I just want answers,” she said. With the filmmaker, Eddy Anderson, she’d already begun digging up old articles as well as the Leadership Conference report. And she began reaching out to relatives of the other men—for their support but also for help with grunt work like pulling clips, assembling spreadsheets and obtaining documents. Among the startling details she uncovered was this: an independent autopsy conducted on her father’s body found that his arms and legs appeared to have been struck with a “blunt object” before his death, a fact not noted in the official medical examiner’s report.

She also started visiting Pensacola and trying to do what, in her view, the authorities had never done. With the help of minister H.K. Matthews, who worked on the 1974 Leadership Conference investigation, Cameron-Holloway searched for witnesses and sources, including Joe Sullivan, the fisherman whose improbable story helped confirm the accidental death theory. She obtained the case file from the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, which showed that detectives had investigated virtually none of the questions raised by relatives and the Leadership Conference. In the file’s 32 pages, there was no mention of a bait store owner, a cut anchor line or a reasonable explanation for the apparent errors in Sullivan’s timeline.

Nor did detectives investigate this alarming lead from the Leadership Conference report: one of the five men dialed his girlfriend before his death, saying that the group was “being held 38 miles from Pensacola in something that resembled a ‘castle.’” The phone, the report noted, “was cut off before the conversation could be completed.” So Cameron-Holloway decided to visit a place called Fort Pickens, which she believed could have been the castle.

“How do you kill five people and keep it a secret? There are people who know.”

Fort Pickens, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, is a roughly 18 mile drive from Pensacola (not 38, as the Leadership Conference report claimed) and sits on the eastern tip of a barrier island. With its cannons and cisterns, black metal gates and gun batteries, the sprawling, nearly two-century old military fortification was as eerie as Cameron-Holloway imagined. In 1974, the fort was undergoing extensive repairs, transitioning from a run-down state park into a national park. The 10 gun batteries surrounding the main structure remained open, however.

But the amateur, part-time investigator working nearly four decades after the fact had no luck. Cameron-Holloway couldn’t establish any links to Fort Pickens, and the people she’d tracked down had little to offer. (The national seashore’s longtime historian, David Ogden, told me that apart from vandalism and theft, he’d never heard of any criminal activity there.) The house where Sullivan once lived had been boarded up, and she couldn’t find him anywhere. Paula Johnson also tried chasing down leads—she looked for the bait store owner, for instance—but she, too, came up empty.

The current sheriff declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a statement, a spokeswoman said that “the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Justice investigated this case and both came to the same conclusion. Their deaths were ruled accidental, caused by drowning.” It’s true: the FBI did investigate the Atlanta Five. But according to a letter sent to Ralph Abernathy dated January 13, 1974, that inquiry was “limited,” and agents only interviewed Leadership Conference members and relatives of the five fishermen. In the end, they found no evidence of a “violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes.”

Despite having developed no firm alternative theory about what happened to the Atlanta Five, Johnson and McDonald still believed that there were so many unanswered questions and inconsistencies—and the very real possibility that the men were killed because they were African-American—that their case deserved a new, proper vetting from federal authorities under the Emmett Till Act. So three years ago, they submitted a brief summary of the case to the Justice Department along with 195 other potentially racially-motivated killings that weren’t on any government list. “They said, ‘We’ll look at those,’” McDonald recalled. “We haven’t heard a word.”

If Cameron-Holloway has been frustrated by the lack of progress in her father’s case, she barely lets on, and despite the many obstacles before her, she’s staying positive. “The more we talk about it, someone will come forward,” she told me. “How do you kill five people and keep it a secret? There are people who know. They’re going to get to the point where they can’t carry the burden anymore.”

She’s still trying to get the case covered by the Emmett Till Act, so last December, she traveled to Washington D.C., with her 34-year-old son, McKenzie, to speak at a panel that had been organized by Johnson and McDonald. There, seated among lawmakers and journalists, relatives of Till and Frank Morris, she delivered an impassioned plea that connected her story with those of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. “These cases need to be told,” she said. “We are repeating our history every day.”

Afterwards, Cameron-Holloway, the professors and the other relatives caravanned to Capitol Hill for a meeting with Congressional Black Caucus members. “They were all talking about what they wanted to do, but nothing actually came of it,” she said. (I reached out to several caucus members for this story, including John Lewis, who sponsored the Emmett Till Act nearly a decade ago; they either declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.)

“These cases need to be told. We are repeating our history every day.”

Johnson and McDonald, meanwhile, have continued growing their ever-expanding list of cases; it now exceeds 300. They’re also coming up with new and shrewd ways to force the government to act. In March, they traveled to Geneva, where the United Nations was examining the state of human rights in the U.S. Before a specialized panel of the UN’s Human Rights Council, they detailed their grievances against the government’s handling of the Emmett Till Act and described the “continuing problem” of “suspicious” police killings across the United States.

The trip seemed to distill the latest objective of the Cold Case Justice Initiative: to connect what was happening decades ago with what’s happening now in Chicago and Baltimore, in New York and Minneapolis, and to forcefully show that the civil rights era never really ended. In the broader culture, McDonald said, the “fiction” persists that the activism and lawmaking of a half-century ago fixed everything, that the trauma of racial violence and institutional discrimination was repaired, that it’s time to move on. “Until we deal with the reality of what has been going on for black people in the U.S.,” she said, “we will never change the underlying attitudes and fix institutional racism in this country.”

Tim Stelloh is a writer based in Alameda, California, and often writes about crime
and the justice system. His work
has appeared in the New York Times, BuzzFeed, the New Republic and

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