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New clues sought in 'diabolical' 1964 slaying

  • Story Highlights
  • FBI reinvestigates case of Frank Morris, savagely killed in a 1964 attack on his store
  • Friend says: "You never seen something so dreadful looking"
  • Former employee breaks silence, tells FBI Morris had argument with three whites
  • Worker says: "Our life hung in the balance of keeping your mouth closed"
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From Sean Callebs and Eric Marrapodi
CNN
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FERRIDAY, Louisiana (CNN) -- The blaze engulfed Frank Morris' shoe repair shop in minutes, bright orange flames stretching 60 feet into the air. Morris was so severely burned, only the soles of his feet were spared.

Jake Davis recently broke years of silence and went to the FBI with details about the killing of his former boss.

Frank Morris was killed by a fire that tore through his shoe repair shop in December 1964.

He clung to life for a few days before dying in a hospital. It was December 1964. Morris, a 40-year-old African-American, repaired shoes for blacks and whites in Ferriday, Louisiana, a small town near the Mississippi border terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan.

Nearly 44 years later, not a single person has been charged in the killing. Last year, the Justice Department made investigating about 100 civil rights era killings, including Morris', a priority after urging from the Urban League, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups.

The Rev. Robert Lee Jr. said on his deathbed, Morris never named his killers but said two "white friends" carried out the attack.

"He thought they were his friends, and he said, 'Yes, I thought they were my friends,' " Lee, now 94, recently said.

Lee recalls the horrible condition his friend was in right after the attack. "The doctors wondered why he survived those two or three days. You never seen something so dreadful looking." See orginal 1964 FBI memo urging inquiry of "diabolical act" »

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Time is of the essence for prosecution -- witnesses are dying, as are the possible perpetrators.

"The average age we believe of those who would have carried out these crimes is probably going to be in his mid-70s if he is alive," said U.S. Attorney Donald Washington, whose district includes Ferriday. "We are concerned about whether there are live witnesses and live subjects." Video Watch "a whole lotta people know more" »

Washington hopes publicity will help move the Morris case forward. He wants people to think, "Do I know someone or do I know personally any information that can help these federal prosecutors?" Anyone with information is urged to call 318-443-5097 or 504-816-3000.

It was in the early morning hours of December 10, 1964, when the front window of Morris' store was shattered. Someone poured gas in the cluttered building and torched it. Morris was sleeping in a back room and tried to run through the inferno, according to authorities.

Jake Davis was a young teen back then. He often played with Morris' son and had begun working at the store a few weeks before the killing. He's still haunted by what happened.

"It bothers me to this day, and I'm 56. It's a thing constantly on my mind," he said.

Cold-case Convictions

1977: Ex-Klansman Robert Chambliss convicted of 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham, Alabama
1994:
Byron de la Beckwith convicted in 1963 sniper murder of Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers
1998:
Former Klan leader Samuel Bowers convicted in the death of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer Sr., killed in 1966 firebombing of his Mississippi home
2001, 2002:
Thomas Blanton Jr. then Bobby Frank Cherry convicted of involvement in 1963 Birmingham church bombing
2003:
Earnest Avants convicted in 1966 slaying of handyman Ben Chester White, purportedly to lure the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Natchez, Mississippi
2005:
Edgar Ray Killen sentenced to 60 years in prison for the 1964 "Mississippi Burning" manslaughter of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi
2007:
Former sheriff's deputy and Klansman James Ford Seale convicted in the 1964 deaths of two Mississippi teenagers

-- Sources: CNN, The Associated Press

Today, Davis wears cowboy boots and jeans with a crease so sharp, it looks like it would cut your fingers. He spends his time working on old cars and playing Zydeco music.

Davis recently shared his story with the FBI after years of silence. He said he was simply too scared to talk about the incident at the time it happened.

He says he remembers three white men coming into the store the day before it was torched.

"I was hearing a whole lot of talking, loud talking, cursing," Davis said. "After a while, [Morris] came back up front and told me and my brother to leave and come back tomorrow. That's what we done.

"We didn't ask no questions. I had an eerie feeling, but I left and went home and told my mom, 'Some white folks and Mr. Frank, they arguing and cussing; what could we do?' She said, 'Ain't none of our business.' "

The next morning, the storefront was still smoldering when Davis stopped by. He later visited his boss in the hospital, descibing a wretched sight.

"He was burned all the way from his head all the way to his feet," Davis said. "When I saw him -- actually saw him -- I just turned around and walked out."

As the years passed, he sometimes regretted not speaking up about the incident.

But growing up black in rural Louisiana meant living in fear of being tortured or killed for looking the wrong way. Video Watch blues legend B.B. King describe what life was like back then »

"When you [saw] a white person, you couldn't look them in the eye. You had to look down. You couldn't walk on the same side of the street," he said. "Our life hung in the balance of keeping your mouth closed."

Davis added, "As I got older, I wondered, 'Should I say something?' I had no one I could turn to to talk about this."

Washington, the prosecutor, has read through the case files and says the FBI had about a dozen agents on the Morris killing in the 1960s. He says the order came from the very top, President Lyndon Johnson and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

"It was handled in very professional, very aggressive manner," Washington said.

But they came up empty.

"Maybe they couldn't make the proof at the time. Maybe there were other cases that required that they not take down this one case in order to go forward on another case," Washington said.

Morris' old friend, the Rev. Lee, whose grandfather was a slave, is glad the case has been reopened but laments, "Why did they wait so long?"

"Most people who knew about that is gone. But the few that's left feel like, if justice could be achieved there would be a sense of satisfaction."

Whether that is still possible remains to be seen.

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Washington says this case could be unique in that there could be a point where prosecutors go to Morris' family and say, "We can't prove it, but here's what we think happened."

"We have talked briefly about that with the folks in the civil rights division," Washington said. "It would be nearly impossible for us to do that, but if we can I think we ought to."

CNN's Wayne Drash contributed to this report.

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