Joseph Edwards, missing since 1964, is believed to have been murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen and sheriff’s deputies. His case is thought to be the only one investigated by the FBI and Justice Department during the Civil Rights era in which the body has never been found. (Concordia Sentinel photo)
This story was written by Claire Sullivan and Eternity Honore for the LSU Manship School News Service.
Six decades after a Louisiana man’s disappearance and presumed murder, his family is still looking for answers and a body to bury.
Carl Ray Thompson, then 26, spotted his cousin’s two-toned Buick on the side of the Ferriday-Vidalia highway as he sat in the back of a sheriff’s car in July 1964.
His cousin, Joseph “Joe-Ed” Edwards, had gone missing just a couple days prior, his family left with only rumors as to his whereabouts.
Thompson had spent a night sitting in a Ferriday jail cell for a robbery he did not participate in, listening as sheriff’s deputies beat three or four other young Black men arrested for the crime. As the night dragged on, Thompson felt his turn for a beating coming. But morning came, and the arrival of the regular office staff spared him the brutality the deputies reserved for the privacy of night.
As deputy Frank DeLaughter drove the men to the parish jail in Vidalia that morning, he pointed out the green-white Buick, belonging to Edwards, on the side of the highway.
DeLaughter, 6 feet 4 inches and 280 pounds, peered at Thompson through his rearview mirror. He told the men that if any of them spoke about what happened the night before, they would meet the same fate as Edwards.
No arrests were ever made in Edwards’ case, but FBI files and tips from local residents suggest that members of a Ku Klux Klan organization known as the Silver Dollar Group–and sheriff’s deputies, including DeLaughter and Bill Ogden–were responsible for the disappearance and presumed murder of Edwards, who was in his mid-20s. His disappearance is the only Civil Rights-era cold case examined by the FBI in which a body has never been found.
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Still, Thompson, Edwards’ sister Julia Dobbins and other family members remain hopeful that they may someday give Edwards a proper burial.
“I was really hurt that they never told us what really happened to my brother,” Dobbins said. “Everybody lied from one person to the other. I had got disgusted with people.”
Dobbins said she would sit every day, waiting for her brother to come home to visit his 11 siblings, like he always had. But weeks, months and years passed, and he never came.
The FBI surmised that the Silver Dollar Group targeted Edwards after he kissed a white woman he worked with at the Shamrock Motor Motel in Vidalia one afternoon in July 1964. According to the FBI files, the woman reported the incident to her boyfriend, who, in turn, reported it to Vidalia Police Chief Johnnie “Bud” Spinks. Spinks and another man visited the woman’s house, where she declined to press charges against Edwards.
Spinks, according to an FBI informant who was a Silver Dollar Group member, turned to the group, led by Raleigh “Red” Glover of Vidalia. The FBI listed DeLaughter and Ogden as members of the group, which acted as a Klan hit squad.
One witness saw a Buick matching the description of Edwards’ vehicle and an unmarked police car pulled over on the side of the Ferriday-Vidalia highway by what was then the Dixie Lane Bowling Alley. Another witness told the FBI that Edwards ran up the levee after being pulled over and that Ogden pursued him in his patrol car while DeLaughter chased him on foot.
The FBI investigated the case from 1964 to 1968 and took another look at it from 2007 to 2014. The bureau identified seven individuals–including Glover, Spinks, DeLaughter and Ogden–as “most likely suspects” but said it could not determine what happened to Edwards. However, multiple witnesses pointed to the sheriff’s office deputies as the main participants in his disappearance.
Reporters for the LSU Cold Case Project are now reviewing hundreds of pages of FBI files and tips from other people to try to figure out the most likely places where Edwards might have been buried.
Edwards grew up just south of Natchez, Mississippi, in an unincorporated community called Sibley. In the 1950s, he moved with his grandparents to Clayton, Louisiana.
As a child and an adult, Edwards had a vibrant, outgoing personality. He was a small man at 5 feet 6 inches and 160 pounds. Thompson said that wherever they went, Edwards would always try to start a conversation with someone.
The FBI agents who worked on Edwards’ case were astounded at how well known a motel porter, who mowed grass and cleaned rooms, had become among Klansmen and the Sheriff’s Office. His reputation for flirting with white women spread through the community, and some people said that Edwards helped manage prostitution activities at the Shamrock.
Ill will against Edwards from local white supremacists mounted in the days before his presumed murder.
Thompson and other family members pleaded with Edwards to leave the Shamrock, which was frequented by Klansmen and sheriff’s deputies. But Edwards would not listen.
Thompson said that one day Edwards came to his house and told him a man had pulled a gun on him at the Shamrock. Thompson told Edwards not to come around to his house anymore unless he quit his job, saying he was living too dangerous of a life.
Thompson feared there could be repercussions for their family, and he felt them that night after Edwards’ disappearance when he was held in jail with the other young Black men.
After Thompson had been transferred to the Vidalia courthouse, prominent local businessman Joe Pasternack called the Sheriff’s Office and demanded he be released, vouching that Thompson had never stolen anything in his life.
Ogden, one of the deputies who would become a suspect in Edwards’ disappearance, then escorted Thompson to the front door of the Sheriff’s Office and told him to run home as fast as he could.
Dobbins and Thompson described Edwards as a sociable, generous man who always looked out for his family.
“He wouldn’t hardly miss a date coming to my house,” Thompson said. “Now you don’t think that’s love?”
Dobbins said her brother would want to be remembered as “the good and kind-hearted fellow like he was.”
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The subject of Edwards’ disappearance remains difficult for the family. Since the subjects connected to the presumed murder are all dead, finding the body is the sole resolution left for the family.
Thompson said that those responsible for his cousin’s death could have at least given the family a body to bury.
As for justice, he said, “God can take care of that.”
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