MIKE PESCA, host:
With a slogan of Help is on the Way, Frank Melton was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, three years ago. His platform concentrated on two big issues, reducing crime and improving infrastructure. In a strange interpretation of that charge, Melton took to personally leading strike forces into breaking windows and taking sledgehammers to houses he deemed worthy of destruction. After one such incident demolishing an alleged crack house, Melton was indicted, tried and acquitted. But those were local charges, state charges. He's now been indicted on federal charges stemming from the same alleged sledge-hammering. Donna Ladd is editor of the Jackson Free Press, the alternative weekly, as they say. Hello, Donna.
Ms. DONNA LADD (Editor, Jackson Free Press): Hey, how are you?
PESCA: I'm well. So, you've been on a couple ride-alongs with Melton, huh?
Ms. LADD: I have.
PESCA: What goes on there?
Ms. LADD: Some midnight raids, as he calls them.
PESCA: Were they kind of press-friendly raids, or were they real raids? What was your take?
Ms. LADD: Well, I was the first reporter to go out in his mobile command center, as it's called, the big RV, the big police RV, and they were certainly, I think, geared toward impressing me as a member of the media.
Ms. LADD: Even though they didn't, actually.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: OK, so it didn't work, but what does he do? Does he take command? Does he bark out commands? Does he tell police what to do? Or do they kind of storm the house and then he comes like a conquering hero with the sledgehammer? How's it work?
Ms. LADD: Well, when we went out - the sledgehammer incident came later. I mean, that was a more dramatic thing. But when we were going out on the raids, you know, there's a lot of stopping in the middle of traffic, searching cars, going up to - in one instance, we went up to a private home about midnight, because he had heard that they sell pot, pounded on the door. And then when the young residents came to the door, he and his two police officers with their submachine guns ran into the house and kind of searched around with flashlights, and then lectured the young people on the porch.
PESCA: Did they have warrants for that house?
Ms. LADD: No, no.
PESCA: Whah (ph)?
Ms. LADD: No.
PESCA: And that was supposed to impress you?
Ms. LADD: I guess so, yes. And because, you know, he kind of has this, you know, this - he really seems to believe that he's above the law, and if he has the right reason at heart to do these things, then he can target people, certain people, anyway, certain young people that he believes are troublemakers, even as he doesn't target others, which is a big problem.
PESCA: I'll get to the indictment in a second, but just that submachine gun raid with the alleged or supposed pot dealers. He gave them a talking to, did he, afterwards? That's how it ended?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LADD: Yes. Yeah, it ended with all of us standing on the porch, because everybody knows who he is. You know, he goes by Frank in the community, and a lot of young people are - they're afraid of him. You know, they - it's as if they don't know what to do about it. So everybody stands on the porch and he listens - and they listen to him lecturing him about how they should get jobs, or you know, not smoke pot, that kind of thing.
Ms. LADD: And then we all leave and go to the next spot.
PESCA: So, what are the circumstances of the indictment?
Ms. LADD: Well, the indictment itself, it was a - it was - he's got a lot of young people who have been in trouble who are kind of his, his - the young - I don't know, his chosen young people. Some of them live in his house with him. And they had started riding around with him on the mobile command center. And you know, one night, he goes to this alleged crack house, although I have to say that no drugs were found there, which is an important fact that gets left out of the headlines.
Ms. LADD: But goes to this alleged crack house, takes these young people there. His bodyguards who are police officers, one of them goes in, pounds on the door. They open the door. He has his gun. He orders them out of the house at gunpoint. And then Melton takes a big walking-tall-type stick and starts breaking the windows of the house as the young man who lives there watches. And he's a young schizophrenic man.
And then, the young people, many of whom are minors, he tells to get off the mobile command center with sledgehammers. And they start just destroying the house. And they even pull the facade off the house. I mean, the pictures of it are just amazing. They destroyed everything in the house. They broke the toilet with the sledgehammers. I mean, it was just - oh, and threw paint all over the place.
Ms. LADD: You know, so it's a little hard to - and it was half of a duplex. So, the other half was left alone.
PESCA: So, at trial on the state charges, which were straightforward charges of destruction of property and so forth, he was acquitted.
Ms. LADD: He was, and...
PESCA: Fancy lawyering? How did that work?
Ms. LADD: Well, he had very good lawyers, and - but the - you know, it was an emotional thing. I mean, the judge allowed the defense attorneys to order that the prosecution had to show, quote, "evil intent." And so, for him to be prosecuted - for him to be convicted on these charges - and so - and that's kind of an archaic label that you don't hear very often...
PESCA: Yes, so the whole trial just became a referendum on if Frank Melton was goodhearted.
Ms. LADD: That's exactly right. It became a referendum. And you know, they began calling it a crack house, and...
Ms. LADD: And they had changed judges midstream to a judge that would kind of allow them to go around talking about the drug house and the crack house. Even though, as I said - now, I've no doubt that people did drugs there, that the young man who lived there was a drug addict, no question. But they didn't find drugs that night. That's very important to remember. And so, it just - it became a referendum on whether Frank was trying to save the inner city.
PESCA: Now Frank Melton is the second black mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. It's two-thirds black, the town. But this is not a black-and-white issue. He has - what did you name it? A rainbow - a weird rainbow coalition of supporters?
Ms. LADD: Yes, he has a bizarre - or has had a bizarre rainbow coalition of support. And another way I've put that in the past is a coalition of people who have long hated each other. And what I mean by that is when he was elected, he - and you know, he used to run one of the TV stations here, and he's long - he's a populist in probably the worst sense of the word, in what - you know, a lot of emotional appeals to people, but very divisive.
And so, he had support that was among the most white, conservative support that hasn't been the most friendly to the black community in the past. And then he had support among some powerful blacks, like from a - one of the black newspapers here that, for instance, will put a black leader in what they call the brown society if they work with white people. So, he had people from that - supporting him from that newspaper. Then he had a great deal of poor, black support, of people who live in communities who are really frustrated with abandoned houses and the drug problem.
Ms. LADD: And that kind of thing, and believed that he was going to come in and put money and resources in their community. So, he had this kind of bizarre coalition of support, and then his opponent, who was much more of a plodding - but I wouldn't say in a bad way, but he takes his time, and he makes decision, he's into urban planning...
PESCA: So sledgehammers, not teams of youths in mobile command units...
Ms. LADD: Exactly, exactly.
PESCA: None of those crazy ideas about politics, yeah.
Ms. LADD: Yeah, and so, for years, Melton, you know, when he had been on WLBT, the TV station, had just criticized and yelled about this - the former black mayor, not getting anything done, not fighting crime. A lot of it is just based on crime hysteria.
Ms. LADD: And we do have crime issues, but you know, you don't - it's hysteria. It's not actually fixing the crime problem. In fact, crime is up on Melton's watch.
PESCA: All right, thank you very much, Donna Ladd, editor in chief of the Jackson Free Press. Thanks, Donna.
Ms. LADD: Thank you, Mike.
PESCA: Coming up on the shop, new iPhones. This is the BPP on NPR.