The Ouachita Parish Courthouse, where the grand jury met in the Fuller case, pictured before a renovation in 1969. (Courtesy of State Library of Louisiana)
This story was produced by Manship News Service at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication. It is the third story in a four-part series from the LSU Cold Case Project.
More than six decades ago a grand jury assembled to hear a grisly case. Four Black men had been shot to death and a fifth seriously wounded in a hail of gunfire on Ticheli Road near Monroe, Louisiana.
The all-white grand jury would do something in character for the segregated South of the early 1960s, finding that the white shooter had acted in self-defense. Later that day, the panel made another decision that also says a lot about the justice system back then: It charged the lone survivor with attempting to murder the white man.
“That’s when the justice system just gets flipped on its head, which it did so many times in these cases,” said former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, who prosecuted two Klansmen in the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four Black girls.
The FBI has compared the scale of the killings in Monroe to that bombing.
Jones and other criminal justice experts said the self-defense claim of the shooter, Robert Fuller, does not add up.
“It made no sense,” he said, after reviewing U.S. Justice Department documents on the case and other evidence provided by the LSU Cold Case Project.
Jones said it was common then for law enforcement to “try to protect those who committed the crime, to try to put the onus on the victims or their community.”
Damon T. Hewitt, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group based in Washington, D.C., went even further in criticizing how the case was handled.
“This case is unique in that the victim in the same incident is being falsely accused, and the legal apparatus is being used to punish someone who is a victim of a heinous crime,” Hewitt, a New Orleans native and LSU graduate, said after reviewing the documents. “This case flips justice on its head, upside down and inside out.”
News accounts said that Fuller, then 39, was behind in paying the men, all employees in his sanitation business, and shot them when they went to his house to collect their pay.
He claimed that they charged him with knives. He told law enforcement officials that he ran to his truck and grabbed a double-barrel shotgun, reloading three times as he shot his attackers one by one.
He would later ride the notoriety from the killings–and a new nickname, “Shotgun”–to join the Ku Klux Klan and become a statewide Klan leader.
Fuller’s self-defense claim quickly received support when his next-door neighbor, Patricia Sherman, rushed over as Fuller held the shotgun over the wounded survivor, Charlie Willis. Both Fuller and Sherman told sheriff’s deputies that day that when Fuller had ordered Willis to tell Sherman what he and his friends had been up to, Willis responded: “We came to hurt Mr. Robert.”
But Sherman, now 94, recently told the LSU Cold Case Project that she thought Willis would have said anything Fuller wanted to save his life. Another witness who spoke to the FBI many years later said that Fuller had threatened to kill Willis if he did not support Fuller’s version of events.
The FBI also quoted the witness, whose name was redacted in the documents, as suggesting Fuller had planted knives near the dead men and as having “personally observed” one of Fuller’s sons “finish off” some of the wounded men with a pistol.
GRAND JURY CLEARS FULLER
Six months after the shooting, on January 10, 1961, a 20-person grand jury convened at the Ouachita Parish Courthouse, a gray stone building on South Grand Street in downtown Monroe, to decide whether to charge Fuller with a crime.
Sherman remembers testifying before the grand jury, but she does not recall the specifics of her testimony.
It is unclear who else was called. No record of the proceedings exists other than a document in the Ouachita Parish Clerk of Court’s office that references the grand jury’s decision that day—that no charges would be filed against Fuller.
Some of the witnesses who have talked about the case in recent years say they were scared to come forward right after the shootings, and it appears that little forensic evidence was collected at the scene.
But it also was clear from the sketchy coroner’s reports that at least one of the men had been shot in the back. And that, along with simple logic, should have prompted prosecutors and the grand jurors to be more skeptical of Fuller’s self-defense claim, several experts said.
Ronald Hampton, the former executive director of the National Black Police Officers Association who also was a police officer in Washington, D.C., for 23 years, said that if five men were attacking Fuller, they “wouldn’t stand around and wait for him to reload and then shoot them.”
Former Sen. Jones agreed and said he believes Fuller murdered the men.
“If you can go to your truck, you can run away, you can go in the house, you can do whatever,” he said. “Now, that was before stand your ground laws, but standing your ground doesn’t mean that you go away, get a shotgun and then come back to the scene.”
Hampton said the files should have contained photographs of the crime scene, the bodies and their locations, testing of the gun or guns and ammunition, autopsy reports with details about the weapons used and how the men were shot, as well as interviews with witnesses.
“These steps were not new to policing at that time,” he said, adding that it was not uncommon in the South for elected sheriffs to do “whatever they wanted depending on the crime and who was the victim.”
Hampton added that the autopsy reports should have provided more information about where the men were shot and on the type of weapons and bullets used, which would have been critical in determining if there was more than one shooter.
Southern University Law Professor Russell Jones, who grew up in Monroe, says Fuller’s self-defense claim is “incredulous.” He said self-defense cases “don’t look like this.”
Jones said the local sheriff and the district attorney probably let the grand jury process play out to make it look fair, but they likely had no intention of prosecuting Fuller.
He said he believed that Fuller should have been charged with first degree murder and put in jail.
SURVIVING VICTIM CONVICTED
On the same day that the grand jury declined to indict Robert Fuller, it indicted the wounded survivor, Charlie Willis, on a charge of attempting to murder Fuller.
Ouachita Parish District Judge Jesse Heard set Willis’ bail at $2,500. Sheriff Bailey Grant then detained Willis in the parish jail because he could not make bail.
Three and a half months later, on April 25, 1961, Willis returned to the courthouse and changed his plea to guilty.
No record of the court proceedings in the case–“State of Louisiana vs. Charlie Willis”–exists, although 17 possible witnesses were named in a court document.
The proceedings did not last more than a day. Judge Heard gave Willis a five-year suspended sentence with probation based on good behavior.
According to Sen. Jones, a probation sentence for an attempted murder conviction meant that the justice system officials knew Willis was not guilty of attempted murder.
In most cases, a Black man guilty of attempted murder at that time would have received a prison sentence, not probation, he said.
After his court hearing, Willis went to live with his older sister, who had reared him, after their parents died, on a farm on the outskirts of Monroe. Within months, Willis moved to Monroe and worked in construction.
Four years later, a year before his probation was set to end, Judge Heard issued a warrant for Willis’ arrest for a probation violation. The court documents state that Willis had left the state without permission.
On June 10, 1966, the court revoked Willis’ probation and sent him to the Louisiana Correctional & Industrial School in DeQuincy, Louisiana, some 200 miles away.
FULLER’S RISE IN THE KLAN
After the grand jury’s decision, Fuller helped organize the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Monroe in 1961.
While Fuller led Klan recruiting efforts in Monroe during 1961 and 1962, including heading up a “goon” squad designed to inflict violence on targeted victims, he longed for a statewide leadership role, according to FBI documents.
In 1963, to fend off a power purge, Original Knights leaders made Fuller the first head of the Klan Bureau of Investigation. The position gave Fuller the power to approve or reject any projects involving arson, beatings, whippings or murders.
But as FBI records show, that was not enough for Fuller, who in late 1963 and early 1964 helped lead a takeover of the Original Knights, resulting in the ousting of the grand dragon and the imperial wizard.
Throughout the decade, Fuller frequently held Klan meetings at his house, serving up barbeque for Klansmen and their families. His son William A. Fuller, who had been listed in grand jury documents as a possible witness to the shooting of the five Black workers, became an active Klansman, serving as captain of the guard, according to the FBI records.
In perpetual debt and often broke, Robert Fuller’s paid leadership roles in the Klan provided cover for his money problems.
In January 1966, the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Fuller to testify at hearings on the Klan.
The lead investigator, Donald T. Appell, noted that Fuller disguised the Klan organization under the name of the Monroe Hunting & Fishing Club. Fuller declined to answer questions. Appell did not ask about the July 13, 1960, shooting.
Known inside and outside the Klan as a habitual liar, Fuller claimed that he had Gov. John McKeithen in his pocket and that the Original Knights membership amounted to 100,000 statewide, although informants indicated to the FBI that at its peak, membership may have reached 3,000.
FBI documents note that Fuller’s claims were baseless, and over time his influence in the Original Knights diminished.
By the 1970s, he had formed his own Klan group, often counting less than a dozen members.
Fuller’s Klan organization ceased all operations by 1975, according to FBI documents. Fuller later claimed that he had cancer, but an FBI report indicates he falsely made the claim to garner sympathy and money from fellow Klansmen.
Within a few years of his Klan group’s demise, Fuller turned state’s witness against two friends, according to newspaper accounts. Fuller testified against the two, saying they had planned a series of arsons to defraud an insurance agency.
In exchange for his testimony, the district attorney provided Fuller with conditional immunity. Fuller admitted his motive for turning state’s witness was because his partners owed him money.
FINAL YEARS: WILLIS AND FULLER
After serving his prison sentence for the probation violation, Willis returned to Monroe.
He stayed in touch with his sister and her family, checking in a couple of times per month and with relatives of the slain men.
A few years later, he was diagnosed with cancer, according to Willie Mae Pitts Sallie, the sister of two of the men who were killed. Willis’ nephew, Charles Smith, said shotgun pellets were still in his body. Smith remembers Willis asking him to rub his back to relieve the pain from the wounds.
Fuller also had health issues in his later years.
After suffering a stroke and losing his ability to speak in 1986, he was moved to Monroe Manor Nursing Center, less than three miles from the killings in 1960.
At the end of his life, Fuller was forced to face Sallie, who was one of his nurses there.
“He recognized me,” Sallie said in an interview before she died late last month.
During his final days in the home, she defended him from other Monroe Manor workers even though he had killed her brothers Albert, Jr. and David Lee and their cousin Alfred Marshall as well as coworker Earnest Lee McFarland and injured her friend, Charlie Willis.
“I wouldn’t let them beat up on him,” Sallie said, telling them, “He can’t talk. His mouth is open, dripping water.”
For the Black men’s families, sometimes the hope of justice in the afterlife is the only thing left.
Let God handle Fuller, Sallie said, adding that she prayed with him and suggested he ask God for forgiveness.
Fuller died on March 7, 1987.
Four years later, Willis, a lifelong bachelor, passed away. He is buried at Richwood Memorial Gardens, less than three miles from where the shooting took place on Ticheli Road.
Additional reporting by Alaysia Johnson, Ashlon Lusk, Courtney Brewer, Karli Carpenter, Kaitlan Darby, Evan Garrity, Sydney Reynolds, Anna Jones, and Bailey Williams.
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