ANDREW BECK GRACE, HOST:
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CHIP BRANTLEY, HOST:
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GRACE: And now, the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRACE: Previously on WHITE LIES...
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
CLARK OLSEN: Just as we're walking in there, we saw three or four men. I was quite sure at the time there were four men who came across the street at us.
FRANCES BOWDEN: They asked me questions about what I saw. And I told them. But I answered truthfully except for telling them who it was. I did not name no names - did not.
JOHN FLEMING: Going back to those communities and telling those stories from beginning to end is something of a healing process for those communities and for the South and for the nation. And of course, we still haven't had that.
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BRANTLEY: Hello, hello. Got to - make sure we got the levels. So y'all were saying - sorry. Go ahead.
INA PORTWOOD: I think I was talking about him and his relation to Elmer Cook. Now, can you tell us about Elmer Cook?
BILL PORTWOOD: I tried to forget it 'cause I knew damn well a long time ago they were going to kill me. But I can't do a whole lot. I really can't. It's honest. You ever had an honest truth from something there? And that's what - I don't even want to talk about it 'cause...
BRANTLEY: You said it scared you just thinking about - thinking about being a part of it was scary...
B PORTWOOD: I was a part of it. I was part of it.
GRACE: That's Bill - Bill Portwood - the fourth man. We'd been visiting for months when he and his wife Ina finally allowed us to record them. It would turn out to be the only interview we'd ever get on tape with Bill Portwood - in fact, the only interview anyone would ever get with him.
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GRACE: During these visits, we'd watched as his mental state further declined. Sometimes he couldn't remember us. He often claimed to have no memory of the years we wanted to talk with him about. But then something would kind of unlock in him, and we could glimpse the memories he claimed to have forgotten. And these glimpses of Bill Portwood's memories, that's what finally allowed us to tell the true story of what happened to Jim Reeb.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRACE: From NPR, this is WHITE LIES. I'm Andrew Beck Grace.
BRANTLEY: And I'm Chip Brantley.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRACE: In 1965, Bill Portwood worked as a cabinetmaker. On the side, during the '60s and early '70s, he also worked as hired muscle for Elmer Cook, the man Frances Bowden told us was the first to swing the club at Jim Reeb. Cook ran a bar called Club 21, where there was gambling and other illegal activities. And Portwood worked as a bouncer at the club and also was an enforcer when Cook needed to collect gambling and loan debts. This all happened before he met his third wife, Ina, in the mid-'70s.
BRANTLEY: What about that night that Elmer hit James Reeb? Do you remember anything from that night?
B PORTWOOD: What was it?
I PORTWOOD: Do you remember anything about the night that Elmer hit that Reed man?
I PORTWOOD: Reeb.
B PORTWOOD: Did I?
I PORTWOOD: You were there. Do you remember anything about it?
B PORTWOOD: I was there, but I can't tell you. Hell, man, I didn't want to know nothing. You know, you've been with something that you don't want it. I don't want it. I told her. I said, Ina, I've got to get it out of my system.
I PORTWOOD: I think he was with the ones that night.
B PORTWOOD: I was...
I PORTWOOD: He saw the man. He was in the group.
BRANTLEY: With the Hoggle brothers and Elmer Cook?
I PORTWOOD: He was in with them, and he saw it.
B PORTWOOD: Yeah. You know, I can't remember that. I don't - hell, when you get bad stuff, you leave it alone - learn not to hear it. I had to get rid of it in my mind, and it's gone.
I PORTWOOD: But you worked in that group. And you were the muscle, I think, behind them. You were the bouncer.
B PORTWOOD: Yeah, I was.
I PORTWOOD: But he got out of it. But he had never, never had any trouble with the law.
I PORTWOOD: In fact, him and the sheriff was buddies, too. They were all friends. These men, they did their thing. And they were mean and hard and vicious, but they never broke the law as far as I've ever heard. And back in them times, Bill was a mean son of a b****, too.
BRANTLEY: Bill - this Bill?
I PORTWOOD: Yeah.
BRANTLEY: How so?
B PORTWOOD: I was real, real bad. But I didn't kill. It was mostly just stomping the hell out of somebody that Duck - that they didn't like. I was a bad, bad boy. And - but I never have been able to get, you know, caught. I didn't get no...
I PORTWOOD: No. No, you never were - had any trouble with the law. Never.
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BRANTLEY: Bill Portwood is mentioned nine times in the over 200 pages of the FBI file, usually just as a passing reference. Page 119 - quote, "Pruitt also stated he does not know a William or Bill Portwood." Page 169 - quote, "Woodson advised he does not know Bill Portwood but stated there is a customer who frequents the club and who is called Pulpwood (ph)." And then on Page 181, agents try and talk to Portwood himself, but he refuses to give a statement. The next page, Portwood's wife at the time talks to agents. Quote, "it is Mrs. Portwood's recollection that her husband remained home the evening of March 9, 1965, going over schoolwork with his daughter," end quote.
B PORTWOOD: When I wanted to lose it, I lost it. People say, well, you hear it. I don't hear it. I couldn't hear it if you sit there and tell me of it 'cause it was tough. And hell, he'd kill you if you - (laughter) - you didn't interfere with him.
B PORTWOOD: Yeah, Elmer. You left that alone. And I was close to him as - (spitting) - right there. And I played that damn thing with him, and I could've got hurt, got killed. But I don't know - how did I get by it?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRACE: How did I get by it? It was hard to know sometimes, when talking to Bill, what he meant by these elliptical thoughts. But looking at the FBI file, it's pretty easy to see how he got by the investigation. There are 192 names indexed in the file, and Portwood was far from a central character. But the statement of Stanley Hoggle, one of the men arrested and later tried for the murder along with his brother Duck and Elmer Cook, that's the reason why we decided to knock on Portwood's door. Stanley was the only one of the defendants who made a statement to investigators. He says that he, Duck, Elmer and Bill Portwood were together that night on Washington Street at the time of the attack. He even says what all the men are wearing - Portwood in, quote, "khaki pants and shirt."
Memory loss after a stroke is common. If you think of the brain like a map, it's as though certain portions of that map have been erased, and so the route from one place to another doesn't make sense anymore. But what Portwood describes to us is something different. He tells us that decades ago, before the strokes, he willed himself to forget that part of his life. He says after Elmer died in 1972, he made a conscious decision to change. At Elmer's funeral, he looked down at the casket and said he didn't want this life anymore. And by the time Ina met him, he had turned his life around. And because no one ever called him to account for what he did on March 9, 1965, he was allowed to forget, allowed to will himself into oblivion.
B PORTWOOD: I just - I just wouldn't talk about it no more, would I, Ina?
I PORTWOOD: No. You told me that that was your life and that you didn't want it anymore - that it was dangerous and you was getting out of it; that when you looked at Elmer, you told me what you felt. But when you walked out of that church away from the casket, you were a different person. And you never did want to go back.
BRANTLEY: What do you remember thinking about that?
B PORTWOOD: I don't remember nothing. I just don't remember nothing. I don't want to remember nothing.
BRANTLEY: Why don't you want to remember?
B PORTWOOD: 'Cause, hell, they'd kill me.
I PORTWOOD: See; this happened way long before I met him. That's what he told me. But he was scared to - scared of it, afraid of being killed, knew people that had been killed. And he wanted out of that life and got out. Now, when I met him, he had got back in the church and was a deacon in the church and doing good. But he told me the life he was in - to a point - that it was bad and that he got out. And he...
B PORTWOOD: She can tell you more of it than I can tell her.
BRANTLEY: So you don't remember anything from the Reeb trial - I mean, 'cause Elmer and Stanley and Duck were tried and then acquitted. And you managed to lie low, right?
B PORTWOOD: Stay away from it and never say a word for it. I never opened my mouth for nobody. I believe - I would really like to remember. I mean, hell, that's like reading a good book. But you know more about it than I do, I believe.
I PORTWOOD: I only know what you told me. So I don't know - I just know you were there.
B PORTWOOD: I was more than there (laughter). But I can't tell you.
BRANTLEY: Did you catch that? I was more than there, he said. And so that's where we were - 50 years later, sitting under the cedars, talking to a man whose brief moments of recall revealed a pride about the life he once led, but a man who was not fully oriented to time and place, a shell of the man investigators tried to talk to in 1965, a man who, by denying his own memories, couldn't even understand himself.
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GRACE: So what could we possibly hope to understand about him? What were we even doing here? Was it wrong to try and extract something from this man whose mind was so clearly diminished, especially if what he'd said was true, that all he did was kick one of them? According to Alabama law in 1965, everyone who was involved in the attack could be charged equally with murder.
But still, if he didn't swing the club that caused Reeb's fatal injury, how culpable was he really, especially if he couldn't remember the attack? Should a person who has no memory of his role in a crime be held responsible for that crime? Anyway, it was so long ago. Why go back? Why dig this up? Why reopen these old wounds, bother this old man? That was then. What's past is past, water under the bridge.
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GRACE: But you know what? That's bulls***. We know it's not true. The past is not past. Bill Portwood escaped justice in 1965. And so did the men who were tried for the murder, acquitted by that all-white jury in a total sham of a trial - and the counternarrative that sprung up in its wake, a story to blame Reeb's death on the civil rights movement itself instead of these vicious thugs who attacked the ministers because they saw them as race traitors; and all these white people who had willed that counternarrative into existence and let it fester for decades.
And now Bill had willed himself to forget his own role in the murder. And we were sitting there evaluating whether that willful forgetting could exempt someone from punishment. Is this what it means to be white, to grant Portwood the benefit of the doubt? This hobbled old man sitting in front of us isn't just an 87-year-old suffering from dementia. He's a 34-year-old in khaki pants and shirt on Washington Street who's avoided punishment for over 50 years.
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BRANTLEY: We went back to Frances Bowden. She had started us down this road in the first place. She told us about the fourth attacker. And then, after we'd found Bill, she confirmed it was him while saying she would lie to anyone else who might ask. But now that Bill was on tape, it was her turn to go on the record, to tell us that she saw Bill Portwood among the attackers that night.
BOWDEN: Bill is a character. Or he used to be a character. I don't know what he's like now 'cause, damn, I ain't seen him in 30 years, I don't guess.
BRANTLEY: What kind of character - I mean, like an Elmer type of character?
BOWDEN: No, no, no, no. Bill was a good fella, always was a good fella. Now, he was comical, a lot of fun to be around. But - and they always clowned and monkeyed around until one of them would get mad, then there'd be a damn fight - just like all drunks.
GRACE: So you know, we - in reading the FBI files, initially they say - and even the people who were attacked - say four to five people. At one point, the FBI says five to six people. When the attack happened, were there - was there a group of folks?
BOWDEN: Oh, they drawed a crowd after it started. But there wasn't that many there, just the ones doing the beating. But it drawed a crowd, sure did. It drawed a crowd out of here, and it drawed a crowd off the street. So any of them could have told you who it was and what they done. But they just wouldn't do it.
BRANTLEY: It's really unclear when you read the FBI file. You know, pretty quickly, they have people who say Elmer was there, people who say Stanley was there, people who say Duck was there. But nobody ever mentions Portwood. And then later, he surfaces in there. It's unclear, though, why his name was never brought up.
BOWDEN: Well, a lot of them probably didn't know Bill 'cause, now, Bill didn't run with them and drink like they did. Stanley drunk every day, and Elmer was, too. So - but Bill didn't do that. Now, Bill drank occasionally, but he was not an everyday drinker. So that's probably the reason that nobody didn't mention him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BRANTLEY: All right. Can we make it across?
BOWDEN: I think so, baby.
GRACE: We walked outside with Frances...
BOWDEN: Oh, these are some hell of a streets we pay taxes for, I'm telling you - some hell of a streets.
GRACE: ...Because we wanted to see from her vantage point what she had seen that night.
BOWDEN: Through that door, turn that corner. They come down the sidewalk, went right around. And they come out behind them.
BRANTLEY: All right, wait. So start over. So who's walking down the sidewalk?
BOWDEN: The preachers were. When they come by the window of the Silver Moon, they was waiting on them.
BRANTLEY: Who was?
BOWDEN: Elmer and Duck and Stanley and Bill - they come by the Silver Moon, and they turn the corner. They come out the door and went 'round the corner behind them.
BRANTLEY: So you saw Stanley Hoggle, Duck Hoggle, Elmer Cook and Bill Portwood come out of the Silver Moon.
BOWDEN: And follow them around the corner and attack them, I sure did.
BRANTLEY: So Bill Portwood was, in fact, the fourth man. The other witnesses who saw Portwood cross the street with Elmer and Duck and Stanley to attack the three ministers, they all kept their mouths shut about forward's involvement. Maybe they didn't recognize him. But Frances did recognize him, did know he was there, saw him participate in the attack that killed Jim Reeb. And now, sitting just steps from where the attack took place, she had finally told us the full story of what she'd seen that night.
But why do you think it's important for the truth to be told about what happened now, all these years later?
BOWDEN: Well, it's time to tell the truth - time to tell it. Let false stories go out the window and tell the truth 'cause all they've told since it happened is false stories - people saying what they thought happened. And that's the same thing as telling a lie. If you wasn't there and didn't see it, you don't know what happened. You made it up. So...
BRANTLEY: So telling the truth about what happened, though, like, what could it do, if anything?
BOWDEN: Make people hate me. And I really don't give a s*** (laughter). I really don't. I mean, if the hurts, then I'm sorry. Put a little lotion on it or powder on it or put some salt on it, whichever one you want to do. But the truth is the truth, and it speaks for itself, stands for itself. Sure does.
GRACE: Frances admitted to lying to investigators and lying during the Reeb trial. The statute of limitations for perjury and for making false statements to the FBI, it ran out during the Nixon administration. But if Frances had said then what she was telling us now, then it seems clear Bill Portwood would also have been tried for murder. Regardless of his role in the attack, according to the law in 1965, he was just as culpable as Elmer Cook and the Hoggles. And the statute of limitations on murder never runs out.
We'll be right back.
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GRACE: Shortly after Frances confirmed Bill Portwood's involvement in the attack, Chip went down to Selma to follow up with some people. I was in the office, and he called me early in the afternoon and said we needed to record ourselves.
GRACE: Before I turn the recorder on, you had a big sigh.
BRANTLEY: Yeah. Bill Portwood is dead.
GRACE: Oh, my God. Are you serious?
GRACE: When did he die?
BRANTLEY: He died September 30.
GRACE: What? How - we...
BRANTLEY: I know.
GRACE: We were there, like, less than a week before that. Weren't we?
BRANTLEY: I know, yeah. Yeah.
GRACE: How did you - what happened? How did you find out?
BRANTLEY: I went to their house. Nobody answered. And so I called on his phone, basically from in front of their house...
BRANTLEY: ...And said, hey, I'm in the neighborhood. I'm actually really close. I'd love to come by. She said, that's fine. She goes, but I need to tell you that Bill died...
GRACE: Oh, my God.
BRANTLEY: ...At the end of September. And I was just, like...
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BRANTLEY: Bill Portwood died just 11 days after Frances confirmed that he was the fourth man.
AUDREY SUTHERLAND: I used to go hunting with my dad and fishing with - I fished with him a lot. I was his pal, you know? He didn't have a boy, so I was the one that went fishing with him and hunting with him and things like that.
BRANTLEY: That's Audrey Sutherland, Bill Portwood's oldest daughter. When the FBI tried to talk to Portwood in 1965, he refused. But his wife at the time said she believed that Bill was at home helping one of their teenage daughters with some schoolwork. This is that daughter.
A few months after Bill died, I talked to Audrey on the porch of the house where she lives in Selma, the same house where she grew up, where she was living with her mother, father and a younger sister in 1965. Their house was in West Selma, away from where most of the marches and demonstrations had been happening. So she felt removed from everything.
SUTHERLAND: I knew what was going on, but I just wanted it to be over. And I knew that they were trying to stir up trouble. It was not a peaceful thing in my mind.
BRANTLEY: And so what was your understanding about why they were here?
SUTHERLAND: Trouble. Martin Luther King was here to stir up trouble. The civil rights was just pushed on us. I just wish that there could have been a better way than what happened here.
Well, there's more to this town than just civil rights. In fact, we have a motto that says "From The Civil War to Civil Rights." And they don't care anything about the Civil War part. All they care about is the civil rights. And they're letting everything else just completely die away. And there's more to it here than just that bridge. And it's such a shame.
GRACE: The bridge, the most iconic landmark in the city - all because of the violence that happened there on the day that would become known as Bloody Sunday. It just so happened that Bloody Sunday was also Audrey's 16th birthday. Her dad was absent that morning. Later, he told her he'd been standing at the foot of the bridge waiting for the marchers with the other onlookers. He was close with Sheriff Jim Clark, the leader of the posse, the man who was named in the DOJ lawsuit about voter intimidation, the man who encouraged Frances Bowden to lie to the FBI.
And that day, at the foot of the bridge, Portwood had stood with Elmer Cook and the Hoggle brothers right near Sheriff Clark, watching the state troopers and sheriff's posse as they attacked the marchers - the attack, the images beamed around the world, the call from Dr. King for ministers of conscience to come to Selma and then, two days later, the attack on Washington Street.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SUTHERLAND: I heard about it on the news 'cause, even at our age, you know, we would watch the news. And I - probably the Reeb sunk in more because it happened in Selma - you know? - and probably because I've heard those names before - you know? Cook and Hoggle and all of them, those are local names.
BRANTLEY: And when did you become aware that your dad was involved somehow?
SUTHERLAND: I guess when my mother told me. She told me that they had been watching our house. I don't know if it was the police, the FBI, whoever - had been watching our house. And I think I said where, you know, where? And she said they had parked down at the end of the street, I guess, or they had been watching our house for weeks - who came and who went, you know? I think that was when I first became aware of it then. And I asked her why, and she told me.
BRANTLEY: What did she say?
SUTHERLAND: She told me that he was suspected of being involved with that Reeb deal.
BRANTLEY: How - what did she say about her interactions with the FBI? - because she clearly was interviewed by the FBI. She said that your dad was home helping you study.
SUTHERLAND: That's what she told me, that she told them that.
BRANTLEY: She told them...
SUTHERLAND: That he was home helping me study.
BRANTLEY: Did it change in any way the way you thought about your dad?
SUTHERLAND: No, no. I wish he would never have been there. I really do. I didn't. You know, if I'd had my druthers, I would rather him not be there. I didn't want him to be around him Elmer Cook.
SUTHERLAND: Elmer Cook was trouble as far as I - he had a bad name.
BRANTLEY: Even then?
SUTHERLAND: Yeah. I knew he was trouble. I would just rather him not been around him. And no, I wasn't proud for him being there.
BRANTLEY: Did y'all talk about that?
SUTHERLAND: Later on. Later on, not then.
BRANTLEY: When later on?
SUTHERLAND: Years later. Much - years later.
BRANTLEY: Like, when you were both - when he was older, you were an adult?
SUTHERLAND: Well, yeah. I never brought it up all those years. I just - and he didn't either until he was much, much older. And we talked about it. And he said he didn't - I just asked him if he hurt that man in any way. And he said no. And I believed him.
BRANTLEY: Why did you ask him then? Is it something you felt you needed?
SUTHERLAND: I knew in my heart of hearts that he didn't. I just wanted to hear him say it. I just wanted to hear him say it. That's all.
BRANTLEY: And what else did y'all talk about that night? Did you talk about any other details about the night, or was that your only question for him?
SUTHERLAND: That was my only question.
BRANTLEY: Did he ever say who did it?
SUTHERLAND: Well - we did - that wasn't - he did say something about Elmer. Elmer did it. Elmer did it. It was Elmer.
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GRACE: Bill Portwood told us that for years he had tried to will away the memory of that night, to learn not to hear it. But despite his best efforts, toward the end of his life, he still heard it. And he had told his daughter Audrey about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BRANTLEY: Were you scared for your dad during that period of time?
SUTHERLAND: No, he was friends with Jim Clark. No.
BRANTLEY: Was the sense that those guys were kind of above the law because they were such good friends with Jim?
SUTHERLAND: No. No, they were not above the law.
BRANTLEY: But they did escape justice, so to speak. I mean, do you think that had something to do with their standing in the community or their closeness with Clark or with any of these other people?
SUTHERLAND: That was the South and the way it was back in the South then. And I hate they got off. I really do. They were guilty as everything, and they got off because it was the South during the '60s. What do you expect? They were white men. They had certain rules you go by. I mean, that jury knew the verdict before they went in there. It was just set and dried. This was a white jury. This was the rules back in the '60s. You just don't convict a white man for this civil rights stuff. You just don't do it. That's what they had to do.
GRACE: That's what they had to do. This is such a common refrain in this story. Hell, in the entire history of our country, this is a common refrain. The people of the past were governed by rules different than the ones we live by now, and so it's not fair to judge them. Their choices were inevitable. They had to do it.
But what does it mean to treat the people of the past like this, like they had no free will, no choices? When we say the past is off limits for our judgment, we're not just saying leave it alone. We're convincing ourselves that our past has nothing to do with our present.
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BRANTLEY: Our mission from the beginning has been to set the historical record straight, to tell you the true story of what happened to Jim Reeb. And it's this - on the night of March 9, 1965, Elmer Cook, Stanley Hoggle, Duck Hoggle and Bill Portwood crossed Washington Street around 7:30 p.m. and assaulted Jim Reeb, Clark Olsen, and Orloff Miller.
Elmer Cook first swung the club and hit Jim in the head. This squares with what Francis Bowden, the eyewitness, told us, and with what Clark and Orloff testified to at the trial in 1965. The Hoggles and Bill Portwood had participated in the assault, too. And according to the law, they were just as culpable for the murder as Elmer Cook. But Elmer, Stanley and Duck had been acquitted on the murder charge. And Bill had managed to avoid being tried altogether, hadn't even been brought into it until we knocked on his door.
MICHAEL JACKSON: Well, to be quite frank, that's the big problem with cold case - first, trying to find live witnesses on a cold case, and the second thing is people memory on a cold case. That's why the quicker you solve a cold case, the better - because after years dragging, it just gets harder and harder and harder.
GRACE: That's Michael Jackson again, the current district attorney for Dallas County, the man who had reopened the Jimmie Lee Jackson case.
JACKSON: When you got several folks hitting somebody and kicking them, you don't realize the severity of what you're doing. And you're doing, and then you're getting caught up in it, kicking and beating. But one person actually goes a little too far and smashes somebody in the head with a stick or something, and it kills the person. But you got four or five others that were kicking. Do you charge all of them with murder? You know? It's - you're always in that moral dilemma. That's always a tough question for a prosecutor. Believe me.
GRACE: We wanted to lay out for him everything we'd learned. To be clear, we are journalists, not law enforcement officials. But still, John Fleming's interview with Fowler, Fowler's confession to shooting Jimmie Lee Jackson, that's what had prompted Michael Jackson to reopen that case. So we went to his office to tell him everything we'd found - the fourth man, everything that Frances had begun to unspool for us.
BRANTLEY: But then Duck died, and we went back more times...
JACKSON: So what's the official version of what actually happened?
GRACE: You want to play Frances' tape?
BRANTLEY: Sure, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Do you have it?
GRACE: Yeah. I mean, it's on my...
BRANTLEY: It's on the - yeah.
GRACE: So we played Michael Jackson tape of Frances telling us what she saw, telling us she saw Elmer Cook, the Hoggles and Bill Portwood attack the three ministers on Washington Street.
BOWDEN: So any of them could have told you who it was and what they done, but they just wouldn't do it.
GRACE: And we also played them this bit from the end of our first interview with Frances.
BOWDEN: Well, it is a part of my life, and I can't change that. But as far as being proud of it, I'm not proud of it. I'm not proud of being up in the courtroom telling a lie - 'cause I did tell a lie. I said I didn't know, and I did know. But I'm just - I can't change what happened. I wish I could. But there's nothing I can do about it. I can't change it.
JACKSON: Man, that's interesting. You got an actual eyewitness who saw everything. But it didn't come out in the trial...
BRANTLEY: Well, yes...
JACKSON: ...Which is not surprising, of course, but - given the time back then. But still, to live with that all these years. If she had said something different, who knows whether she'd still be around right now. You know, she probably would have been destroyed economically and every other way...
GRACE: Yeah, I don't think I've...
JACKSON: ...Ostracized by her community at the time.
GRACE: She portrays herself as so tough. That's her brand. But she must have been terrified.
JACKSON: Oh, no doubt. I mean, she had to know what would have happened had she went the exact opposite way and told the full truth. But it's always good to relieve yourself of certain burdens before you die.
JACKSON: I know she probably feels better that that got - finally got off her chest.
BRANTLEY: Why do you say that?
JACKSON: Because she had - there had to be a certain amount of guilt, not telling the truth back then. Even though she rationalized in her head that she had to do what she had to do back then, there had to be some kind of guilt that she's had to carry, yeah, which might be a part of her tough exterior as a shield and a front for what's really going on inside.
GRACE: Let me ask you this because we found Portwood. We got this sort of interesting new information that all I did was kick one of them. And then as we said, this aphasia came. You know, it's really hard to get him - and this was not on tape. So we worked for a long time. We'd visit. Some days he was better; some days he was worse. Finally, we got him on tape. And it felt like what we needed to do was to get what we could do and present it to the public. And I tell you all this because Bill Portwood died in the fall of last year.
JACKSON: That's what I was about ask - was that guy still alive? Is he the last one left?
GRACE: And when he died, as you might imagine from our perspective, it was crushing because it felt like - we wanted it - if nothing else, we wanted our story to come out while he was alive so that at least there could be some public accountability, you know?
JACKSON: Yeah, 'cause if had come out alive, somebody - one of these federal folk might have grabbed it and done something. But who knows? 'Cause every - it seemed like it was a lot out there. This is amazing to hear, that all this was out there at the time they opened up these cold cases. And none of this ever - this just was closed.
BRANTLEY: During my first visit with Bill and Ina Portwood, I asked him what he could remember about that night on Washington Street. He shook his head and said, I can see it in my head, but I can't say it. A couple of years ago, I could have told you, but not now. The number of times we have wished aloud to each other that we had looked into all this a few years earlier - if we had looked into it earlier, maybe we could have persuaded some people to talk when something still could have been done. Well, it turns out somebody did look into it earlier.
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STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Murders that were once ignored or under-investigated during the civil rights era are finally getting more attention. A new bill before Congress proposes the creation of special units within the FBI and the Justice Department. These units would investigate cold cases before the perpetrators die off.
GRACE: The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, known as the Till Bill, was passed in 2008. The new law tasked the FBI and the Department of Justice to re-examine unsolved racially motivated murders from the era, looking for cases where a prosecution might still be viable. They cast a wide net and came up with around a hundred cases to reopen, cases with evidence, witnesses, suspects.
CYNTHIA DEITLE: So you do a deep dive and all that, and we narrowed the list pretty well to the cases that we knew we needed to focus on that just - let's just make sure. Let's just make sure.
GRACE: That Cynthia Deitle. She's now retired from the FBI, but from 2008 until 2011, she was the FBI's civil rights unit chief, which meant she oversaw the cold case initiative for the bureau. The murder of Jim Reeb was one of the cases they looked into.
DEITLE: We wanted to make sure that every person who committed one of these homicides had been identified and investigated because some of the cases we really were looking at - are you sure there's no one else that helped? Sure there's no one else that could be investigated or prosecuted today? - you know, now that we're really giving it thorough time and attention.
GRACE: The 100 or so cases were divvied up between field offices, and agents in those offices were tasked with looking into the cold cases on top of the work they were already doing. The reinvestigation of Reeb's murder landed in the field office in Mobile, Ala.
JACKSON: Well, they came up to my office and talked to me.
BRANTLEY: This is Michael Jackson again, remembering when he first heard from the agent assigned to look back into the case.
JACKSON: They were saying they were going out and were going to start looking for witnesses and that kind of thing. But now, what exactly they did, you know, you - when somebody say they're investigate, unless you ask them directly - what exactly did you do? - investigation could be as far as looking through some newspaper articles or something - reading some articles. I don't know what they did.
BRANTLEY: He's right. The agent actually did start by going through old newspaper articles. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, we received a redacted copy of the file on the reinvestigation. From it, we were able to glean that the investigating agent did the following.
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BRANTLEY: In July 2008, the agent went to the National Archives up in Maryland and got all the same information we have. Then in August 2008, the agent interviewed Elmer's widow. She said she understood that Elmer had been falsely accused, that, quote, "she heard Reeb was beaten by cohorts in the ambulance," end quote. Next, the agent tracked down death certificates for both Elmer Cook and Stanley Hoggle. Then, the agent goes to Bama Motors, where he finds Duck Hoggle, who was still alive in 2008. But Duck says the same thing to the FBI that he said to us. He refuses to talk. And apparently, that's the end of it. The agent writes, quote, "a review of the 1965 file provides no leads for further investigation," end quote.
Remember; this is the file that details how agents in 1965 tried twice to interview Bill Portwood, the one in which Stanley Hoggle, one of the defendants, tells agents that Bill Portwood was with them that night. The agent didn't talk to Clark Olsen. He didn't talk to Bradley Capps, who had told us that the whole damn town knew who committed the attack. And he definitely didn't talk to Francis Bowden, who, in 2008, was sitting a couple of blocks from the courthouse smoking her Winston Light 100s in the office of Selma Bail Bond. We requested an interview with the agent, but the agent declined to discuss the case.
DEITLE: If I'm the agent in Birmingham and I get the James Reeb case assigned to me and I just look at, you know, the first few documents in the file - like who's James Reeb? - oh, right, right, right. OK, I remember this guy. OK. I got it. Right away, just three sentences into what happened, my first thought is going to be, there's no federal crime.
GRACE: OK. So here's the big caveat about the Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative, and it's been one of the biggest critiques since it was authorized. The FBI can only pursue federal charges, not state charges. They are, after all, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And federal jurisdiction on these cases is very narrow, limited to just three things - bombings, kidnappings or, if in the commission of a murder, crossing state lines. If there are none of those things - and the Reeb case had none of them - an agent might quickly determine there was nothing else to be done.
We told Deitle that we found a fourth man, that his name was right there in the 1965 file, that his address was in the phonebook, that we knocked on his door and he told us he'd been there, that he was one of the four men who'd attacked the ministers on the street that night, that by the time we found him, he was addled by strokes, claimed not to be able to remember much. And now he was dead. But 10 years ago, when Bill was of sound mind, the agent who handled the reinvestigation could have found this fourth man.
DEITLE: If the agent now is asked - well, why didn't you interview this person or, hey, I found this guy and you didn't. Why didn't you? I'm sure the answer is going to be, well, that's not going to lead me to a federal crime, so I don't know what you want me to do with this. That's going to be the answer. If there was no one to be charged under federal law, they were going to close the case, as you probably saw from the vast majority of the cold cases.
GRACE: In fact, the Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative has claimed only one successful federal prosecution of an old racially motivated case.
BRANTLEY: Had we come to you in 2010 with the name Bill Portwood...
DEITLE: Oh, that's a great question.
BRANTLEY: ...What would have happened? What could have happened? Or not even what could have happened - what should have happened?
DEITLE: What should have happened. Doesn't it always depend on who you're asking, though? I mean, if...
BRANTLEY: But I'm asking you.
DEITLE: If you're asking Cynthia the FBI agent, I would say, if there is a federal crime, we can prosecute that. But if there's not, there's nothing we can do. But again, it's - that's not a sufficient answer. It just isn't - it's not a sufficient answer for you, who's trying to tell a story. It's not a sufficient answer for Reeb's family either of - sorry, nothing we can do. Well, there's got to be something you can do. I mean, come on; You're the FBI. Can't you do something?
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GRACE: What the FBI did do in 2011 when they made the determination to close the case was to send a letter to Marie Reeb in Casper, Wyo. A special agent hand-delivered the letter. It read, we regret to inform you that we are unable to proceed further with a federal criminal investigation. Please accept our sincere condolences.
So this top - the top sheet here looks like the - to do with the 2011. So you got this letter, I think, notifying you that the FBI was going to close the case officially.
MARIE REEB: Yes.
GRACE: When you heard that they were going to reopen this case, did you have any thoughts about what that might - did it feel - what did it feel like to you when you heard they were going to reopen it?
REEB: Well, I actually felt that something might be done finally. And - but it didn't come to pass that...
BRANTLEY: Next time, the final chapter.
DREW COOK: Dear Mr. Reeb, I don't even know how to begin this letter. But I write you now out of a deep desire to communicate my sadness and shame over what happened to your father. I feel so deeply precisely because it was my grandfather, Elmer Cook, who was one of the men who perpetrated the violence that took your father's life.
BOB COOK: Well, again, I know it's wrong. And I never have been proud of the fact that it happened. So - and I hate it for his family.
JOANNE BLAND: I don't know what it's going to take to make the world right. I do know that you should not be sitting waiting for it to happen. You need to find out where we've been, then take us where we're supposed to go.
BRANTLEY: That's next time on WHITE LIES.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW I'VE BEEN CHANGED")
CHINA PETTWAY AND JACKLIN YOUNG BATES: (Singing) I know I been changed. Oh, I know I been changed. Lord, I know I been changed. The angels in heaven done signed my name. Lord, I know I been changed. Oh, I know I been changed. Lord, I know I been changed. Oh, the angels in heaven down signed my name. I stepped in the water, and the water was cold. Well, the angels in heaven done signed my name. It chilled my body but not my soul. Well, the angels in heaven done signed my name. Oh, I know I been changed. Oh, I know I been changed.
GRACE: 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.
BRANTLEY: Robert Little edits a show along with N'jeri Eaton, Keith Woods and Christopher Turpin. Audio engineers include Jay Sizz (ph) and Alex Drewinzkis (ph). Music is composed by Jeff T. Byrd. Special thanks to China Pettway and Jacklin Young Bates for the use of this song, "I Know I've Been Changed," courtesy of Matt Arnett. A big thanks also to Bergen Matthews (ph) and Steve Grauberger (ph).
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 npr.org/whitelies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW I'VE BEEN CHANGED")
PETTWAY AND YOUNG BATES: (Singing) I been changed. God know I been changed. I been changed. I been changed. I been changed. God know I been changed. I been changed. Somebody cry Monday. I been changed. Say I know I been changed. I been changed. On a Tuesday - I been changed. Say I felt like running - I been changed. One Wednesday morning - I been changed. Say I didn't feel the same. I been changed. On a Thursday - I been changed. Say I felt brand new. I been changed. On a Friday - I been changed. Say I know I been changed. I been changed. On a Saturday...
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