Murder Conspiracy Theories: Episode 3 NPR White Lies Civil Rights Crime Podcast In Episode 3, we break down the conspiracy theory that emerged after the Rev. James Reeb's murder: that he was allowed to die or was killed because the civil rights movement needed a white martyr.

The Counternarrative

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Previously on WHITE LIES.


CLARK OLSEN: And then a car full of white men pulled up and stopped right behind the ambulance. I remember a rush of feeling, Clark, you just have to get out of here. Just run.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I understand you wanted to talk to me about whatever it is. Leave me out of it.

BILLY BOOZER: I think they killed the man on the way to Birmingham. I just swore - I always will believe it.

DAN: But you notice, every layer of the onion, there's something a little wackier than the first layer underneath. And you ain't - what? - halfway through the onion yet.


BRANTLEY: Toward the end of the trial for the murder of Jim Reeb, the defense attorney Joe Pilcher spoke to reporters on the steps of the Dallas County Courthouse.


JOE PILCHER: And Reverend Reeb did not receive proper medical attention, and that he was negligently - and you might almost say wantonly - permitted to die.

BRANTLEY: Pilcher's defense strategy was to argue that the civil rights movement was in need of a white martyr and that the attack on Jim Reeb, the Unitarian minister from Boston, had provided the perfect opportunity for the movement to get one, that somehow, some way, the movement had conspired to kill Reeb.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You said this morning in court that they willfully let him die.

PILCHER: That was my statement, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you mean that, sir?

PILCHER: I mean that the evidence indicates that, yes, sir.

BRANTLEY: When the reporter pushed him on this claim - did you really mean that, sir? - Pilcher replied, that's what the evidence indicates. Look at the evidence.


That evidence Pilcher presented at trial, that's what Sol Tepper documented in his open letter to make the case for the conspiracy theory that the movement had had a hand in killing Jim Reeb. We told you last episode about Tepper, Selma's notorious propagandist. Here he is in an interview he did with a historian in the 1980s.


SOL TEPPER: Selma was most integrated place in - in the United States anyway. We loved the black people down here. You may not believe that. We got along with them. Black people lived right next to me. Some of them lived in my backyard. But when it'd come to forcing it down our throat, that's what we resented. I guess it was the principle.

GRACE: Yeah, I know. So that open letter, Sol Tepper wrote in early 1966, the letter we were given in the Confederate Memorial Circle, in that letter, Tepper makes three main claims to prop up the conspiracy theory about Reeb. So we decided to fact-check these claims. And as we were doing this, we looked for the tape recordings Tepper mentioned in the letter.


BRANTLEY: Remember, Tepper claimed to know so much about the case because, he wrote in the letter, the judge allowed him to tape record the entire trial. Tepper's passing mention of these tapes was like a dangling thread, a thread that we hoped could connect us back to that moment in 1965. But once we started pulling on this thread, we realized it had become woven into the fabric of life here in the years since. And so as we followed the thread, we began to unravel a strange and illuminating story about Selma then and now.


BRANTLEY: From NPR, this is WHITE LIES. I'm Chip Brantley.

GRACE: And I'm Andrew Beck Grace.


GRACE: In the winter of 1965, Vicki Levi was a medical student at Yeshiva University in Queens. When she heard about an opportunity to go provide medical care for civil rights workers in the South, she'd never been South before.

VICKI LEVI: You know, there were so many different impressions that I had. But it was - you were going into a different world, clearly into a different world, where you were singled out as being somebody who should be targeted. That was my feeling...

GRACE: Yeah.

LEVI: ...That this is treacherous country.

GRACE: She was in Selma for Bloody Sunday and was, herself, chased after the march by state troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark's posse men. She escaped by running into the home of a black family and hiding behind their couch. During her time in Selma, she wrote a report analyzing the medical facilities in town.


LEVI: Can I look through my notes for one second?

GRACE: Yes, please. Yeah, yeah.

LEVI: OK, hold on. Just give me a chance to do that, yeah. Sorry.

GRACE: The first claim Tepper makes to try to prove that the movement martyred Reeb has to do with where they took him for medical care in Selma. Tepper wrote, quote, "Selma has three fine hospitals - very modern. But arrangements were made at the time to take the three ministers to the Burwell Infirmary. The Burwell Infirmary is not even classified, in the modern sense, as an up-to-date hospital, but it is an old wooden structure that reminds me of a rundown residence," end quote.

LEVI: I write in my note here, the Burwell Infirmary, an all-Negro institution, understaffed, overcrowded, rundown building with less than 30 available beds.


GRACE: So Tepper was right about the Burwell Infirmary. It wasn't even a hospital. It was a kind of rundown clinic in one of Selma's black neighborhoods. But he's wrong in suggesting that Reeb could have gone anywhere. Two of Selma's three hospitals were for white people only. And even though Reeb was white, he was there in support of black voting rights. And in the same way that Jim Reeb's reason for being in Selma made him unwelcome in white-owned restaurants, taking him to a white hospital wasn't even considered.

Remember, Reeb was attacked just two days after Bloody Sunday. And those who needed medical attention after the attack on the bridge, black and white, were treated in Selma's black medical facilities.

VERA BOOKER: Let me tell you this. After Bloody Sunday, all those white folk were at our hospital. They did not take them to a white hospital. They put them in black areas because of them being here to support us or support Selma.

BRANTLEY: That's Vera Booker. She worked as a nurse at Good Samaritan, a recently renovated hospital run by the city's Catholic mission. Vicki Levi also wrote about Good Samaritan in her report on medical conditions in Selma.

LEVI: The Good Samaritan Hospital, built and run by Selma's Catholic mission, has a policy of serving all races but which, in reality, is used only by the Negro community and boycotted by local white patients.

GRACE: So the choice of where to take Reeb really came down to Burwell or the Good Samaritan Hospital. So why wasn't Reeb taken to Good Samaritan? It's a good question. The main reason is that Burwell had been a fixture in the black community for decades. And black ambulance drivers were generally loyal to what had been, for a long time, the only black clinic in town.

BOOKER: Burwell was the only little black hospital for years, even when I came here. Before Good Samaritan was there, Burwell was.

GRACE: In fact, one of the drivers who transported Reeb, his mother owned and ran Burwell for over 40 years. So that's where Reeb was taken, to the Burwell Infirmary. For this to seem strange, you'd have to ignore decades of habit and tradition.

BRANTLEY: When Reeb arrived at Burwell, he was first examined by a nurse named Princess Anderson.

What were your thoughts as you began to examine him?

PRINCESS ANDERSON: I believe this man's going to die. That was my thought.

BRANTLEY: It looked that serious to you at that time.

ANDERSON: Yeah. But my mother-in-law was right there. And she - she took over. She - she had this grim look on her face. And the doctor, Dr. Dinkins, came in and said, we got to take him right now to Birmingham.

BRANTLEY: The doctor quickly determined that Reeb's injuries were so serious, he needed a neurosurgeon. And there wasn't one in all of Selma. So Tepper's first claim, that Reeb's death was hastened by intentionally taking him to an inferior clinic, it's simply wrong. Good Samaritan or Burwell, it did not matter. Reeb would have been sent to Birmingham regardless of where he was sent in Selma.

GRACE: Sol Tepper died in 1995. But his letter and the counternarrative it had espoused, it kept going. And so we kept going too. And that always led us back to the tapes Tepper allegedly made of the trial. When we got in touch with his family still living around Selma, they said, nope, don't know anything about tapes. But then, a Tepper family friend we talked to mentioned that Sol's lawyer was, at one time, a man named Alston Keith.

BRANTLEY: We're back.


GRACE: He, too, died many years ago. But his son, who was also a lawyer and whose name is also Alston Keith, said he had some of his dad's old files in a storage unit behind his law office. It had been years since anyone had set foot in it. Around the office, they refer to it as the jungle.

Alston Keith Jr. didn't think he had anything that would have belonged to Sol, but he was interested in what we were up to and said that we were welcome to take a look. So on a cold, clear winter morning, we stopped by.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You see how far that goes too.

GRACE: No, that's - I can see how it has not been accessed in quite a while.

BRANTLEY: But this used to be the Keiths' house. Is that right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It used to be his mom and dad's, his grandparent's house.


GRACE: And this - I assume this used to be the servants' place.


GRACE: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There's no light.

GRACE: Enter at your own risk.

BRANTLEY: Sol Tepper and Alston Keith's father were two leaders of the Dallas County Citizens Council, an all-white group of businessmen and civic leaders who opposed any form of integration. In the 1950s and '60s, these citizens' councils were common all over the South. One historian described them as pursuing the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary Club.

At the Dallas County Citizens Council's first meeting, Alston Keith pledged to make it difficult, if not impossible, for any black person who advocated for desegregation to find and hold a job, get credit or get a mortgage. And the group, which included the mayor, several judges and the editor of the Selma Times-Journal, once published a full-page ad in the paper inviting readers to, quote, "ask yourself an important question; what have I personally done to maintain segregation?"

GRACE: Oh, my God. I can't describe how - this is a - you can't - you actually can't walk through here. I don't - I'm not sure what they're ever even going to do with this. I mean, there's - someone has thrown an air conditioning unit right in our path, basically.

BRANTLEY: After only a few minutes of rummaging through Alston Keith's garage, we did find some boxes of old cassette tapes. But I was the only one getting my hopes up.

GRACE: I don't...

BRANTLEY: 'Cause these are the - this - dude, I'm telling you, these recordings - Mamas and the Papas and Neil Diamond, Jimmy Buffett...

GRACE: I hate to be the bearer...

BRANTLEY: ...Gordon Lightfoot.

GRACE: I hate to be the bearer of obvious news, but that's not...

BRANTLEY: But you know how I had tapes where I would, like, record the Indiana Hoosiers playing in the national championship game against the Syracuse Orangemen and then maybe record over part of it because all I wanted to watch was Keith Smart's jump at the buzzer to win the national championship, but I might use the rest of that tape to record an episode of "The Simpsons"?

GRACE: Sure.

BRANTLEY: So what I'm saying is this tape that says Gordon Lightfoot and The Mamas and the Papas...

GRACE: I think it really has...

BRANTLEY: ...Could actually be...

GRACE: Gordon Lightfoot in it? That's not the Tepper tapes, I'm just telling you.

BRANTLEY: Did you hear what Andy said there, the Tepper tapes? That's what we'd started calling them. We'd taken this brief mention of a recording referenced in a passing line from a letter written more than 50 years ago - a letter by a well-known propagandist - and we had named this possibly nonexistent recording so that it seemed real, so that it could become something we could keep looking for.

But after a while of searching, even I could see the Tepper tapes were not here in the storage shed that used to be Alston Keith's grandparents' servants' quarters. I didn't want to admit it, really, but Andy was getting cold and hungry. And when he gets cold and hungry, he gets fussy.

GRACE: This is really stupid. Let's get out of here. This is - it's a good thing you're wearing your mountain climbing jacket.

BRANTLEY: I'm telling you, protect me from...

GRACE: I think you need some protection from your own stupid ideas, too.

BRANTLEY: (Laughter).

GRACE: Does it include any of that?

BRANTLEY: I don't think there's a jacket for that.

GRACE: (Laughter).

BRANTLEY: It's too late, too late.

GRACE: Sometimes when I find myself on wild goose chases with Chip Brantley, I'm reminded of Raymond Chandler's iconic detective Philip Marlowe. The protagonist of Chandler's crime stories from the '30s and '40s, Marlowe is basically the archetype for the film noir private eye. These stories invariably start with Marlowe minding his own business until trouble walks into his office.

He knows not to get involved, but he can't help himself. And soon, things have spiraled far beyond his control. In this case, I'm Marlowe, minding my own business, trying to be a good reporter. And Chip - he's the trouble that walks into my office and turns everything upside down.


BRANTLEY: Sol Tepper's second big claim in his letter is that those with Reeb intentionally delayed getting him to University Hospital in Birmingham, that they permitted him to die so that the civil rights movement would have a white martyr to help get voting rights legislation passed. The first 90 minutes between 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., when Reeb is still inside Selma's city limits, this part of the timeline is mostly undisputed by Tepper.

The part of the trip that he zeroes in on comes next, as the ambulance sets off up Highway 22 for Birmingham. You may remember that the ambulance had a flat tire outside of town. And this incident will become the focal point for this part of Tepper's alternate theory of the night.


GRACE: Tepper cites a defense witness named John South, who testified that that night, he'd stopped in at a filling station on his way home from work when he saw an ambulance drive by - an ambulance driving very slowly. It was headed in the same direction as South's house. So what the heck? He followed it.

But something strange happened. The ambulance turned around and headed back toward town. So South did too. And when the ambulance pulled into the parking lot of a radio station, South was right behind it. He went up to the ambulance and asked the driver of the ambulance what the deal was. Flat tire, the driver said. But - and this is perhaps the most crucial part of the defense's case - South will testify at the trial that he checked the ambulance and found no flat tire.


GRACE: Remember, the trial was in December of '65, a full nine months after the attack. South had refused to give a statement to the FBI but told the agent that he had already given a statement to the Alabama state troopers just 10 days after Reeb was killed. What had he told those investigators about the flat? After some back-and-forth with the state police, they finally found the report we were looking for. And after some wrangling, they allowed us to see the files in a nondescript conference room in an office tower in downtown Montgomery.

BRANTLEY: Here, you want to look - you want to come over here? You want to pull a chair up? Yeah?

GRACE: They wouldn't let us copy the files, but they did allow us to bring our tape recorder. So we basically narrated the entire contents to one another while a staffer, who'd been assigned to be our minder, sat at the end of the conference table, playing a game on her phone.

BRANTLEY: (Reading) The Statement of John H. South, white male, Route 4, Box 498, Selma, Ala. I asked the Negro male on the passenger side what the trouble was. I understood him to say he was having tire or car trouble. There were three white males in the back, one of which lay on the cot. I again asked what the trouble was, and Ace Anderson told me they had a man with a head injury and were calling for another ambulance. About 20, 30 minutes later, another ambulance drove up.


GRACE: I was - I understood him to say he was having tire or car trouble.



But nothing else. He doesn't say that he didn't see a flat. During his testimony at trial, though, he will say he specifically checked all four tires and observed no tire trouble.

CONNOR O'NEILL, BYLINE: You wouldn't think, from reading that, that John South would turn out to be the defense's star witness.

GRACE: Yeah.

That's one of our producers, Connor O'Neill. And Connor's right. This crucial piece of evidence to substantiate the defense's claims of negligent and wanton treatment of Reeb - nowhere to be found in this document, his only statement to law enforcement.

BRANTLEY: The ambulance driver, Ace Anderson - he's clear about the flat tire in his statement to state investigators.

Let's go through this. This is more - this is Ace Anderson's statement.

GRACE: (Reading) The two ministers, the Reverend Reeb, myself, Dr. Dinkins and Lee Chapman left en route to Birmingham. I'd gone about two miles when my right rear tire blew out.

BRANTLEY: Right rear tire.

GRACE: That's the same thing Orloff says.

BRANTLEY: That's what Orloff says.

GRACE: (Reading) Up to this time, no one had...

BRANTLEY: All the men with Reeb gave sworn statements to investigators about the flat tire - Reeb's two companions, Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen, the driver, Ace Anderson, the doctor, William Dinkins. And they also noted that as they waited for the second ambulance, Selma police and sheriff deputies arrived at the radio station. So just play that out for a second. If there were a functional ambulance idling in the parking lot with an unconscious civil rights activist in the back and everyone in the ambulance was claiming a nonexistent flat, then why don't the police testify to this later? Why don't they corroborate the account of South and say loudly and clearly, there was no flat tire on that ambulance?

And there's something else about this incident. There was another witness at trial who corroborated South's testimony about the flat tire. He was the owner of the filling station where South been hanging out when he saw the ambulance pass by. The man's name was Charles Buchanan. In his letter, Tepper refers to Buchanan as a reputable witness. But in the 1980s, during an interview with a historian, Tepper himself said something revealing about Buchanan's service station.


TEPPER: In fact, there used to be a little old filling station right out Selma - Buchanan Service Station. Some of the Klan would gather there and drink beer. One of...

GRACE: So Buchanan's service station, where South had been hanging out that night, it was a known Klan hangout. And John South, South was a member of Sheriff Jim Clark's notorious posse - hardly an unbiased witness. Here's what the driver of the second ambulance told state investigators on March 11, two days after the attack. He picks up the story from the time he gets the call from the radio station.

(Reading) ...Tuesday. It was the 9 of March, approximately 9:15 when we got the call. We arrived in front of the WGWC radio station on Highway 22, north of Selma, approximately 9:25. We made the switch from Anderson's ambulance to our ambulance. The city police arrived just prior to me. There, two more, it was a little Cosmopolitan Rambler, and there seemed to be a '63 four-door Impala sedan.

BRANTLEY: So - wait, so 9:15.

GRACE: 9:15 is when they get the call. And then they arrive at 9:25.

Changing ambulances, moving Reeb's stretcher, that takes maybe 10 minutes. So they leave the radio station around 9:35. And they arrive in Birmingham by 11? From the radio station to the hospital is exactly 84 miles and mostly on dark, rural back roads, through small towns, in a hearse doubling for an ambulance. An hour and 20 minutes for a trip that usually takes two hours - they were flying. Here's Orloff Miller.


ORLOFF MILLER: And we careened around those curves at 60 and 70 miles an hour on the back roads until we finally got to a main highway. We did get a police escort for a few miles on the main highway from the state patrol. And we actually hit 110 miles an hour at one point, heading for Birmingham.

GRACE: Tepper's version of events at the radio station - set that story in the context of multiple corroborated statements from others who were there too, and it falls apart completely. But the story Tepper tells in his letter doesn't bother with context.

BRANTLEY: The third claim Tepper makes in his letter is by far the most pernicious. It's what Pilcher, the defense attorney, had hinted at during the trial - that Jim Reeb's companions had not just let Reeb die, but had instead played an active role in his murder. Clearly, it's what the juror Billy Boozer believed at the time and believes to this day.

BOOZER: I think they killed the man on the way to Birmingham. I just swore - I always will believe it.

BRANTLEY: It's a theory meant to absolve white Selma for any responsibility for the violence. And it turns out, this kind of theory used during the Reeb case - it was nothing new.

BILL BAXLEY: Some of these people that feel and say these things, they don't want to admit that they're prejudiced. And they'll go to any length to deny it to themselves.

BRANTLEY: Bill Baxley is a former attorney general of Alabama. In 1977, he gained the first conviction for one of the men who had planted the bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which had killed four little girls.

BAXLEY: I got the state trooper's file. And then later we got copies of the Birmingham Police and Jefferson County Sheriff's files. And it was incredible. Most of the stuff in that - all those three files - were useless because most of the man hours spent by the state and local authorities were aimed at investigating this crazy, nutty theory that the blacks had bombed themselves trying to get sympathy for the cause. And some people really believed - I remember that happened. I remember hearing some people in my family that really believed the blacks were setting these bombs themselves.

DOUG JONES: That is - that's - that's stunning. But again, it was - it was a product of the time. And it was part of that narrative. And sometimes those stories take on a life of their own as fact.

BRANTLEY: That's Doug Jones. Today he's the junior senator from Alabama. But in the early 2000s, as a U.S. attorney based in Birmingham, he gained convictions against two other men who were part of the bombing.

JONES: And so now, when you can lay out those facts, it's important - because in the church bombing cases, you don't hear any counternarrative other than Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry and Tommy Blanton bombed that church. Once you can establish those facts and once you can demonstrate those, there will always be those that just say it's fake. But most people of goodwill and common sense are going to look at that. And then they will come to grips with it.

GRACE: The Alabama investigators had wasted their time in 1963 investigating local black activists when they could have been looking for the Klansmen who actually planted the bomb. The next year in Mississippi, when three civil rights workers went missing, the governor speculated that they had fled to Cuba. Their bodies were found six weeks later in an earthen dam. And in 1965, when Jim Reeb was attacked in Selma, the defense attorney, Joe Pilcher, argued that the movement itself had had a hand in his killing. But where Pilcher had only hinted at this theory, Tepper's letter lays the claim bare.


GRACE: To justify this claim, Tepper isolates one part of Dr. William Dinkins' testimony, that in his examination of Reeb he thought maybe the injury was just a bruise. What Tepper fails to mention is that this was the first thought Dinkins had at the very beginning of the examination. It was just a provisional diagnosis, a starting point. But then Tepper skips over the next phases of Dinkins' exam.

In a statement to the FBI, Dinkins describes how he felt around the wound and began to suspect a skull fracture, how he ordered an X-ray to be taken, how right after Reeb vomited and lost consciousness in the X-ray room, Dinkins saw evidence of a blood clot, how within a matter of minutes, Dinkins had determined that Reeb was severely injured and needed to get to Birmingham to see a neurosurgeon.

When we interviewed two of the University Hospital doctors who treated Reeb, they said his symptoms were classic hematoma, when veins around the brain tear, allowing blood to accumulate between the brain and the skull. This is Alan Dimick, the admitting physician.

ALAN DIMICK: He had a big hematoma and a skull fracture. And the neurosurgeon had to operate on that. And, again, because of the head injury, he was unconscious.

GRACE: And this is James Argires, the neurosurgeon who operated on Reeb.

JAMES ARGIRES: It was obvious that he was comatose. And there was hardly any response to anything. So I just rushed him right away, right up to the operating room, and removed a large, what they call epidural hematoma, epi, and placed him on a respirator. And I had bad feelings that he wasn’t going to survive.


BRANTLEY: These kinds of injuries generally caused the brain to bleed slowly. So the symptoms - headache, confusion, loss of consciousness and eventually life-threatening pressure on the brain - they develop over time. This explains why Jim Reeb was able to, with help, get up and stumble to safety.


BRANTLEY: But the story Tepper told, it didn't track those worsening symptoms over time. Instead, Tepper froze time and pulled out two frames from the night - that first instant of Dinkins examination, when he thought there might only be a bruise, and then the moment Reeb was placed on the operating table in Birmingham, when the brain injury was clearly life-threatening.

Tepper's reasoning here is like one of those stop-motion special effects from an old silent film, like the magician making his assistant disappear under the table cloth. But what we found is this. Jim Reeb was hit hard on the head with a club. And then after a mad scramble to get him the medical care he needed, there was nothing anyone could do to save him.


BRANTLEY: We'll be right back.



GRACE: That Tepper succeeded in persuading white people in 1965 is not surprising. They had to go on living there, to move forward. And casting themselves as the victims allowed them to close ranks, to cling to power however they could. It freed them from any obligation to ever reckon with what really happened to Jim Reeb. And the counternarrative in the letter has endured because it operates on an emotional level, not a factual one.


GRACE: We'd got in the habit of just asking everybody we talked to if they knew anything about the Tepper tapes. Ever hear anything about Old Man Sol recording the Reeb trial? Did you ever see a big recorder in Judge Moore's courtroom? It was our lame, occasionally awkward version of Colombo's just-one-more-thing gambit except, unlike in "Colombo," the technique had never paid off - not, at least, as it related to our search for the tapes. But we did hear some stories about Sol.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I've interviewed Sol mainly about putting fluoride in the water or rat poison, as he called it. They had quite a group of people that were against fluoride in the water.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Sol Tepper - now there was a real piece of work. The Teppers - or some of them - had colorful nicknames. Pookie Tepper was one. And somebody said, if you want to talk to a crazy Tepper, you ought to go see Sol Tepper in Selma. So that's how I found him (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: He was out in the woods and either involved with an axe or a chainsaw and cut a big hunk of his foot off, perhaps even half. And he grabbed it and took it to the hospital, hoping they could sew it back on. And they stopped the bleeding and said, no, we can't do anything with it. And he just flipped it over in the garbage on his way out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: And to see him, you wouldn't think he had a dime - multimillionaire. He wore Rustler blue jeans that cost $6.95 a pair, maybe, bought a new truck every year, year and a half, and tore it up going across cow pastures. You'd see a old white man coming down the street in a brand-new truck like he'd been in demolition derby with it - you know, where the cows would run into him and stuff.


GRACE: Stories like these can be seductive sometimes because in their absurdity, they seem to be describing someone who is not real. But Sol Tepper was a real person - the person who spread the conspiracy theory to absolve white Selma. Then one day, we were talking with Kim Ballard, the probate judge in Selma who is nearing retirement but who's been on the scene for decades and had been described as one of those people we had to talk to to get the lay of the land in Selma. And suddenly, our wild goose chase started to pay off.

BRANTLEY: Yeah, one of the rumors that we've heard about the trial in '65 was that Sol Tepper Sr., who is now deceased, got permission from Judge Moore to set up a audio recording station and basically tape - get tape of the whole trial.

KIM BALLARD: I've heard of that. I heard that Jim Rutledge was the one that taped it.

BRANTLEY: Who's that? Jim who?

BALLARD: Jim Rutledge. He's dead now. He was an avid photographer and fooled with recordings. I've heard that.

GRACE: You know what - I mean, did he - someone who takes a lot of pictures and was into recordings probably kept all that stuff, ostensibly. Do you know anything about it?

BALLARD: No. The house is - that they lived in is for sale. It's - they had a place out back, a garage or something.

GRACE: And did you see any big recordings with...

BRANTLEY: (Laughter).

GRACE: ...Jim Reeb, 1965, written on it or anything?

BALLARD: I can't talk about that (laughter).

GRACE: I don't know if there's a phrase to describe going down a rabbit hole and then going down an entirely different rabbit hole while you're still down the first rabbit hole. But that's what happened to us after hearing the name Jim Rutledge.

BRANTLEY: Some people called him Jim. Others called him Rutledge. His wife called him by his middle name, Calhoun. And for reasons that are still unclear to us, a lot of other people called him Turkey Bill. Anybody who knew Turkey Bill will tell you he was a mechanical genius, somebody who could disassemble, fix and put back together any machine. Turkey Bill loved antique cars - collecting them, restoring them.

The thing Turkey Bill is most known for around Selma is the so-called atomic car he built. The details are murky, but legend has it that Turkey Bill had an inside source at the hospital in Selma who would pass along radioactive material, which he used to somehow power a small Chevy truck. The story goes that eventually the feds got wind of what was going on and came to Selma to investigate. But Turkey Bill had worked for a time with the Selma Police Department, and someone tipped him off that he was being investigated. So Turkey Bill puttered down to the bluff and pushed his supposedly atomic car into the Alabama River.

GRACE: That's just some of what we heard during the weeks we were down the Jim Rutledge rabbit hole. But that same day we talked to the probate judge, Kim Ballard - actually, it was right after we talked to him - we went looking for traces of Turkey Bill.

All right. So this is - what street is this?

BRANTLEY: Well, we're on McLeod. And on McLeod, we're going to take a right on Church.

GRACE: And so the address you got was from the phone book, and it was of the - it was of...

BRANTLEY: It was Jim Rutledge in the phone book, which makes sense, I mean, that maybe his wife just kept the listing...

GRACE: Yeah.

BRANTLEY: ...And then when she died, maybe had prepaid for five years or something. I don't know. But that's in there. The phone book also may be a few years old.

GRACE: OK, so that's 627. Oh, that's it - 619.

BRANTLEY: There you go. So - looks abandoned.

GRACE: Yeah, it does. It's beautiful.

BRANTLEY: Beautiful.

GRACE: Yeah, beautiful house.


The house and the garage out back were empty. We talked to a neighbor who said that Rutledge's daughter had held an estate sale a year or so before. The man who handled the estate sale was named Robert Gordon. She also suggested talking to another neighbor who had known Turkey Bill. So I called her from the car. Andy he was sitting next to me and could hear bits of what she was saying.

GRACE: The tapes might exist?

BRANTLEY: The tapes exist. I think they exist. She's like, yeah, he has tapes of Dr. King, which - I don't know what that is. I mean just, like...

GRACE: What?

BRANTLEY: And then she sent them to George Needham. Then she said he may have made copies.

GRACE: Oh, my God. Oh, my God. The tapes are not a lie?

BRANTLEY: The tapes might exist.

GRACE: Shit just got very interesting. If those tapes exist, that is, like - wow. What a beautiful day in Selma, Ala.

BRANTLEY: So we called George Needham, the guy Turkey Bill's neighbor said had heard the tapes and possibly made copies.


BRANTLEY: Who am I calling? George Needham.

GRACE: Come on. Come on, tapes.


BRANTLEY: I'm trying to reach George Needham.


BRANTLEY: Needham told me that when he moved to Selma in the 1990s, Rutledge was one of the first people he met. They bonded when they realized they had both restored Rolls-Royces. They were both into cars, both really into mechanical things in general.

I was speaking earlier today with some people in Selma about some tapes I'm looking for. And your name came up as a - somebody who might possibly know something about these tapes - A, whether they exist or not, and B, if they ever existed, whether they're still around.

I told him about Sol Tepper, about Tepper's claims to have recorded the Reeb trial, about how it could've been Rutledge who helped him. Needham didn't know about the Tepper tapes, but he did know that Rutledge had made other tape recordings during this era. In fact, at the request of the Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, he had installed a secret recording device in the pulpit of Brown Chapel AME, the nerve center of the civil rights movement.

NEEDHAM: He put a bug in the pulpit, and he made 10 hours of recordings of what was going on.

GRACE: It was an open secret that the pulpit was bugged. And eventually, movement leaders would talk directly into the bug to mess with Sheriff Clark. So if it was Rutledge who placed this recording device at Brown AME, it seems within reason that Rutledge could have been the one who helped Tepper record the Reeb trial.

NEEDHAM: And it could have been.


NEEDHAM: It really could have been because he was that kind of a guy. So it is entirely possible he did do that. There's an - I don't think this is cogent, but there's another hidey-hole he had at the airport. He was in charge of the landing system at the airport, the lights and stuff.

BRANTLEY: Rutledge was?

NEEDHAM: The - every airport has a landing - a lighting system.


NEEDHAM: He was in charge of that. Just before you get there, there's a concrete building off to the side. That would be a hidey-hole if there's anything.

GRACE: And that right there, that incidental, oh, yeah, don't think this is cogent, comment from George Needham - that is how we ended up spending a day searching through the cream-colored concrete bunker that was Turkey Bill's last hidey-hole.

DAN: This building smells like your grandma's house.

GRACE: Yeah, it does.

BRANTLEY: Remember Dan from last episode, our chaperone at the decommissioned air force base?

GRACE: This is so far afield from where we started. But it's worth it.

DAN: Isn't that where the best stories end up...

GRACE: Exactly.

DAN: ...When you had no clue?

GRACE: That's what - if not, we're screwed (laughter).

DAN: Now, are y'all having many people you run into that just don't want to talk?

GRACE: Yep, as you might imagine.

DAN: Are more of them older than younger? The younger people don't know anything to talk about, and then the older people are kind of that generation - shut up, and everybody will die off, and nobody will know anything in a few more years.

GRACE: A little bit of that - also, just people saying, what good is talking about any of this stuff going to do for any of us?

DAN: I think, to some degree, it's helpful to discuss it. I don't - if you don't have a factual portrayal of what happened, I think you are bound to repeat it. If you document it and learn from a mistake, are you less likely to make the same mistake again?

GRACE: Right.

DAN: Or do we wait 60 years and forget we did it, and it repeats itself? But that's just - I'm convinced this town can't heal till the ones with blood on their hands die, and the ones with scars die. And maybe the next generation can clean it up.

GRACE: Oh, my...

DAN: One side's got blood on their hands, and the other side's got scars. It's hard to forgive and forget at that point.

GRACE: I think this might be the evidence that we've been looking for - electric car into the river, April 6, 1984.

O'NEILL: Holy shit.

GRACE: Oh, my God (laughter). Oh, man. I like that he said electric car, too.

O'NEILL: Right.

DAN: Well, supposedly, it had a small nuclear reactor that generated electricity. And...

BRANTLEY: Yes, we confirm for posterity that Turkey Bill did, in fact, push his supposedly nuclear-powered Chevy into the Alabama River. But there in his hidey-hole, we did not find the Tepper tapes. And not finding them here, in this last best shot, it felt like waking up from a long, strange dream. But it turns out we weren't awake just yet. It was all about to get curiouser and curiouser.

ROBERT GORDON: Chip, this is Robert Gordon in Selma. Call me at the shop. OK, bye.

BRANTLEY: We had totally forgotten about Robert Gordon. He's the antiques dealer who managed the Rutledge family estate sale. When I finally talked with him, he said he didn't remember seeing any tapes during the sale. But talking about Sol Tepper jogged a memory of a guy he called one of Sol's disciples. He was living out in Texas somewhere. The guy's name was Jowers, William Jowers.

I called William Jowers one morning when I was on the outskirts of Selma. I wasn't recording, but once he started talking, I pulled over to take notes, then called Andy to tell him what Jowers had said.

GRACE: And he was described to us as, like, a disciple of Sol's.

BRANTLEY: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, totally, like a disciple of Sol's, a young - a slightly younger, younger disciple of Sol's. So he - guy answers the phone. And I say, I'm trying to reach William Jowers, this is he, went into my kind of rambling cold call explanation of what I'm looking for and who I am, went through my whole spiel. And he goes, OK, let me talk. Let me talk. It's my turn now.

GRACE: (Laughter).

BRANTLEY: And so he says, first of all, the tapes exist. I have heard them.

GRACE: Oh, my God.

BRANTLEY: And I was just like, what - they - what? He's like, yeah, I heard them. And the reason I heard them is because in the late '80s, early '90s, we made a time capsule.

GRACE: Oh, my Jesus.

BRANTLEY: And we put the time capsule in the concrete pillars that we put the cannons on in the Confederate Circle of the Old Live Oak Cemetery.

GRACE: You - this is not real.

BRANTLEY: And Sol Tepper - that was one of the things Sol put in the time capsule...

GRACE: You have got to be kidding me.

BRANTLEY: ...Was the tape - a cassette tape...


BRANTLEY: ...That he made of the Jim Reeb trial. I was like, cassette tapes like you put in a - like, in a boombox? And he's like, yeah. Yeah, yeah, that's what we listened to them on. And you know, he said the time capsule - he said, you - I don't know what's happened to it because they renovated that part of the cemetery.

GRACE: Oh, my gosh.

BRANTLEY: And when they renovated it, they got rid of the pillars. And I don't know what they did with it. But he said they put a sand clock outside of it so that people would know when it was put in. I said, well, when did - when were people instructed to open it? He said, never.


BRANTLEY: He's like, we just put it in there as a relic. We didn't have any instructions for anybody to open it...



GRACE: I don't know what to do with that.

BRANTLEY: ...Which felt very Selma.

GRACE: It does. It feels very Selma. But also, just, like, what? I just don't even - that doesn't even - it's...


GRACE: I can't - that comes into my brain and then my brain just fumbles around with it. It's - I don't understand - like, whose idea was that? And at what point were they like, you know what would be really great about this time capsule? To never open it.

BRANTLEY: I know. For it never to be found.

GRACE: I cannot believe that they buried that stuff in the ground with no intention of ever taking it up again.


GRACE: Oh, man. OK, so what's next?

BRANTLEY: Well, I think Pat Godwin.

GRACE: Pat Godwin.

BRANTLEY: Right? I mean, I think it's got to be Pat Godwin.

Pat Godwin, president of Selma Chapter 53 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and a friend of Forrest, the very person who gave us the Tepper letter in the first place. I called Pat and reminded her that we had met before. When I told her I was working with NPR, she said, I'm sorry, and then called it one of the world's largest communist organizations. I really wish we could play Pat's voice for you right now, but she declined this pinko's request to record our conversation. I asked if she knew anything about the renovation Jowers mentioned and, if so, what might have happened to the cannon pedestal containing the time capsule? She said, yeah, I know exactly what he's talking about. That renovation was mostly my doing. What about the pedestal? I asked. Was it destroyed? No, she said, of course it wasn't destroyed. It's property of Selma Chapter 53 of the UDC. The pedestal was just relocated. Where? I asked. To my farm, she said. The pedestal with the time capsule sits on the grounds of Fort Dixie.

For a long time, I tried to persuade Pat to let us crack open the pedestal, remove the time capsule and digitize the Tepper tapes, but she refused. Finally, I tried one last appeal to history. There were pretty much no records left of the Reeb trial, I said. This was really our only shot at getting something for the historical record. If we didn't do it now, what Tepper had hoped to preserve would be gone forever. She said, don't you find it incredible that those records are gone? They don't want people to know the truth about what happened to Jim Reeb. That movement had to have its white martyrs.


BRANTLEY: They don't want people to know the truth about what happened to Jim Reeb. It was like talking to a living embodiment of Tepper's letter, the conspiracy theory that the movement actually killed Jim Reeb still very much alive.


GRACE: So there we were, the tapes buried - entombed, even - in the pedestal of a Confederate memorial. A marker to the lost cause now held the evidence we'd been looking for. And those who could let us have access to it would rather let this particular story of the past remain unchallenged.

The trial records, Tepper's letter, the tapes - they weren't going to tell us the truth of what really happened to Jim Reeb that night. But we found another way. And now our story is about to change because we found someone who was there that night, who saw it all, someone who after years and years of silence is finally willing to talk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Of course, I was scared shitless 'cause I didn't know whether they going to get off or not. But I was glad when they did. So - even though they were guilty, and I knew they were guilty. And they knew they were guilty.

GRACE: Next time on WHITE LIES.


DUQUETTE JOHNSTON: (Singing) Well, I don't know where I'm going, but I know where I've been 'cause I've been searching and holding on. I came up for the short day. I was down with the cause. Had this feeling that I could fly. Well, maybe we're crazy enough to see. Maybe we're crazy enough to believe. Maybe we're crazy enough to see. Maybe we're crazy enough, just crazy to believe. They can walk through the tall stream, rest their heads in the fields...

BRANTLEY: WHITE LIES is produced by us, Graham Smith, Nicole Beemsterboer and Connor Towne O'Neill, with help from Cat Schuknecht. Our researcher is Barbara Van Woerkom.

GRACE: Robert Little is our editor. He gets help from N'Jeri Eaton, Keith Woods and Christopher Turpin. Audio engineers include James Willits (ph) and Alex Drewinzkis (ph). Music is composed by Jeff T. Byrd. Special thanks to Duquette Johnston for the use of this song, "Crazy To Believe," courtesy of Club Duquette.


JOHNSTON: (Singing) Maybe we're crazy enough to see. Maybe we're crazy enough to believe. Maybe we're crazy enough to see. Maybe we're crazy enough, just crazy to believe.

BRANTLEY: Archival tape in this episode comes from Washington University in St. Louis, ABC News, and WATV Birmingham. Special thanks to Stephen Longenecker (ph), Michael Robinson and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, Tim L. Pennycuff and UAB's Lister Hill Library and the people at the Craig Field Airport and Industrial Park.

GRACE: Neal Carruth is NPR's general manager for podcasts, and Anya Grundmann is the senior vice president for programming. Visit us on the Web at


JOHNSTON: (Singing) Maybe we're crazy enough, just crazy to believe. Maybe I'm crazy enough to see. I'm crazy enough to believe. I'm crazy enough to see. I'm crazy enough, just crazy to believe.

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