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History

A Brief History

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Special Agent in Charge
Percy Wyly

The FBI opened the Jackson Division in May 1941, as the Bureau’s responsibilities expanded following the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Percy Wyly was the first special agent in charge.

During its early years, FBI Jackson searched for fugitives and investigated crimes such as motor vehicle theft and violations of the White Slave (interstate prostitution) and Selective Service Acts.

The division’s caseload, however, waned after the war, and the Bureau’s staffing budget was cut. As a result, the FBI decided to close the Jackson Division in 1946 and to divide its cases between the New Orleans and Memphis Divisions.

Responsibility for FBI investigations in Mississippi during the 1950s continued to be divided between other Bureau offices, but Mississippi’s industry was growing, and a number of important civil rights investigations in the state were drawing national attention.

1960s and 1970s

Two high-profile cases in Mississippi in the early 1960s brought the issue to a head.

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The charred station wagon discovered by FBI agents on June 23,
1964, led to the case name “MIBURN,” for Mississippi Burning.

In 1963, Medgar Evers—the Mississippi field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—was shot in the back by a sniper’s high-powered rifle. The next year, three civil rights workers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—disappeared after visiting a church torched by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). After their car was discovered burned, a massive investigation was launched that the FBI called MIBURN (for “Mississippi Burning”). Agents ultimately located the men’s bodies buried 14 feet below an earthen dam on a local farm. The FBI’s exhaustive interviews and investigation led to the culprits. Seven—including Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and KKK Imperial Wizard Samuel Holloway Bowers—were convicted under federal civil rights statutes, though not on murder charges. One major conspirator, Edgar Ray Killen, went free because one juror couldn’t bring herself to convict this Baptist preacher. Killen, however, was eventually brought to justice when he was convicted of manslaughter in June 2005.

During this time, President Lyndon Johnson told Director J. Edgar Hoover that the FBI should have a stronger official presence in Mississippi. Hoover ordered the Memphis special agent in charge to scout out potential rentals for a new office in Mississippi and to begin putting everything together to open one. The preparations were completed on July 10, 1964, and the Director himself attended the re-opening of the Jackson Division to demonstrate the Bureau’s commitment to its civil rights and other investigative work in the state.

Among its first acts, the division opened 100 cases on individuals associated with the KKK and additional white supremacist organizations. The office was soon handling 1,540 total cases, with dozens of agents working exclusively on MIBURN, another 33 agents on special assignment pursuing numerous other civil rights investigations, and 60 agents handling a range of other cases.

In the coming years, church burnings continued, as did bombings, shootings, and attacks on buildings holding classes for blacks. The field office also investigated riots, beatings, and threats made by the KKK and other extremist groups and the intimidation of voters and registration workers during elections. The Jackson Division lent its support to federal peacekeeping efforts at civil demonstrations as well, including when 16,000 individuals rallied at the state capitol in 1966 to protest the shooting of James H. Meredith, the first African-American to enter the University of Mississippi.

The division also handled a growing number of other criminal cases—from bank robberies to illegal gambling. During the late 1960s, FBI Jackson and other field offices conducted simultaneous raids on the gambling operations of Gilbert Lee Beckley and his associates. These raids seized detailed gambling records and paraphernalia that proved an extensive nationwide network of mobsters existed. Beckley eventually pled guilty.

In Biloxi, the division investigated another gambling enterprise that involved huge cockfighting pools and illegal gambling equipment. During the investigation, agents found that the gambling ring used “juice joints”—electromagnets embedded in the concrete floors under the craps tables that could control the roll of the dice. Agents also revealed that the club used a fraudulent account to deposit checks cashed for gambling in order to hide records.

The Klan was not the only violent organization in Mississippi. To protect Mississippi communities, the FBI kept its eye on all hostile groups, including the Republic of New Africa (RNA). In 1971, FBI Jackson received a lead that an RNA member, who was wanted for murder and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, was hiding in the RNA headquarters in Jackson. The Jackson Police Department also advised the division of orders that had been taken out on other fugitives who were thought to be hiding there. As law enforcement converged on the building, a standoff ensued. When Jackson agents and the police used tear gas, RNA members started shooting. During the crossfire that ensued, a police officer was killed, and Jackson Special Agent William R. Stringer and another police officer were wounded. Eleven RNA members were subsequently arrested, and seven were later found guilty on charges including conspiracy and using a firearm to commit a felony.

In 1973, Jackson agents and local law enforcement in Biloxi caught a fugitive from the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list—Garland Rex Brinlee, Jr. Brinlee was wanted for escaping from a federal penitentiary, where he had been serving a life sentence for murdering a teacher.

During the late 1970s, FBI Jackson saw an increase in racketeering and public corruption cases. Like other divisions, it tackled these complex cases with a variety of new tools and techniques. In its probe of De Soto County Sheriff Harvey Hamilton in 1978, the division launched a successful undercover sting to pinpoint corrupt law enforcement officials in the Memphis, Mississippi Police Department. Undercover law enforcement officers posed as a saloon manager, his girlfriend, and an organized crime figure who wanted to expand into De Soto County’s gambling operations. Hamilton and his six associates were arrested; he was the first sitting sheriff in the Southeast to be convicted on federal racketeering charges.

FBI Jackson’s public corruption efforts next hit Mississippi’s state level. In one of the FBI’s significant political corruption cases, state senator David Flavous Lambert, Jr.—an influence peddler and political fixer—facilitated a state contract and played “bagman” for fellow senator William G. Burgin, Jr., who chaired the state senate appropriations committee at the time. Over the course of the investigation, Jackson agents faced hostile witnesses and the ramifications of perceived federal interference in state affairs. Nevertheless, they established the rapport needed to collect evidence from formerly hostile sources. Burgin and Lambert were convicted in 1979 of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. The case showed the impact that the FBI was starting to have on public corruption and led Mississippians to consider the state’s first ethics and conflict of interest laws.

1980s and 1990s

During the 1980s, Jackson agents continued investigating civil rights and corruption matters even as they became increasingly involved in countering illicit drug activities. Teaming with other FBI field divisions, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and state and local agencies, Jackson agents raided an 86-acre farm in Harrison County in 1983 and arrested that county’s sheriff, chief deputy, and seven others who used the location as a drop site for hundreds of pounds of cocaine. Weapons, ammunition, and money were also seized. These agencies partnered again in 1987 on another farm drug raid. In that case, they busted a major cartel that had been storing 5,000 kilograms of cocaine in Haiti and flying it into Mississippi in 500-kilogram increments (each increment had a street value of $75 million). This successful joint law enforcement operation caught every trafficker involved, including seven Colombians, and led to the seizure of the largest amount of cocaine ever brought into the state.

Also in 1987, the gangland murders in Biloxi of sitting State Circuit Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife at the hands of the so-called Dixie Mafia exposed the lawlessness and corruption that had overtaken Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in the 1980s. After a state investigation into the murders stalled, the FBI opened its case in 1989. The investigation lasted eight years. In the final trial in 1997, former Biloxi Mayor Pete Halat was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his role in the murders. Inmate Kirksey McCord Nix, the Dixie Mafia kingpin who ordered the hits from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, as well as the hit man who killed the Sherrys, each received life sentences.

Based on an anonymous call received by the Jackson Division in the mid-1980s, another significant public corruption case was initiated—this time at the federal level. The caller claimed that U.S. District Court Chief Judge Walter Louis Nixon, Jr. had intervened with the prosecutor in a state-level drug case of Nixon’s business partner’s son. The prosecutor dropped the case. The business partner was a wealthy Mississippian and a big political contributor; a payoff was alleged. Jackson agents skillfully overcame sensitive issues in the case, from the reticence of potential witnesses to matters dealing with a sitting judge. In 1986, a federal grand jury indicted Nixon on perjury charges, and he was later convicted. While in jail, Nixon continued to receive his salary as judge and promised to return to the bench upon serving his time. In 1989, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached him, and the U.S. Senate removed him from office.

Jackson also launched the PRETENSE case based on a call-in tip. The investigation looked at claims that companies had to pay kickbacks to local politicians and participate in a “good ol’ boy” network in order to do business in Mississippi. Jackson set up an undercover company that sold road construction supplies, including culverts, chemicals, and grader blades. About one-fourth of the state’s county supervisors were caught up in this case; many were found to be falsifying invoices and documentation. Defying threats made against them, FBI Jackson personnel brought the case to a successful conclusion. They prepared over 3,000 exhibits and hired another accounting technician to handle incoming evidence boxes. By 1987, 68 subjects had been charged with corruption found during the investigation.

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Steven Ray Stout

Jackson agents caught two more fugitives from the Ten Most Wanted list during the 1980s. Working with local law enforcement, agents apprehended Charles Everett Hughes at his Myrtle car repair job in 1981. Hughes had killed two adults and two teenage sisters after they discovered his marijuana operation. The second Top Tenner—Steven Ray Stout—had strangled and stabbed to death his former mother-in-law and one of her daughters. After he was named to the fugitives list, his crime was highlighted on the television program America’s Most Wanted. A viewer’s tip led Jackson agents to arrest Stout in December 1988.

Post 9/11

Following the events of 9/11, preventing terrorist attacks became the overriding priority of the FBI—including the Jackson Division. In response, the division created a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in 2002, ramped up its counterterrorism efforts, and reengineered the collection, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence through a new Field Intelligence Group.

These new capabilities paid off in the investigation of Gale Nettles, a convicted counterfeiter. Nettles was angry at the federal government for his prison sentence and told a fellow inmate that he intended to blow up the 26-story federal courthouse in Chicago with a fertilizer-based bomb more powerful than the one used in Oklahoma City in 1995. His fellow inmate reported this information to the Jackson JTTF, which immediately relayed it to the Chicago JTTF. After Nettles was released from jail, he started searching for ammonium nitrate and expanded his plan beyond a domestic terrorism event to an international one. The Jackson and Chicago Divisions worked with other federal, state, and local authorities to investigate and arrest Nettles. In September 2005, he was convicted on two charges of plotting to bomb a federal building and later received a life sentence.

In 2003, the Jackson and Minneapolis Divisions began a cyber crime case when security officials from a large U.S. electronics firm contacted the FBI. According to the officials, an individual claiming to work for the “IPC Corporation” had tried to extort $2.5 million from the firm. E-mails demanding this payoff were traced to Thomas E. Ray, III of Jackson, who was indicted on two federal counts of extortion. The victimized company found no evidence that its customer data or accounts were compromised.

In 2005, the Jackson Division provided support to the states of Mississippi and Louisiana when they were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The division also investigated a wide variety of frauds and other crimes that followed in the wake of the disaster. In one case, Jackson agents took part in a multi-agency investigation of Lee Taylor, of Moss Point, Mississippi. Taylor falsely claimed he had resided in a Katrina-damaged home that he owned. On account of his claim, he received more than $23,000 in funds and a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He was approved to receive more than $90,000 from the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA). He was found guilty of wire fraud, defrauding FEMA to receive disaster assistance funds, theft of government funds, and making false statements to the MDA. At the time of his conviction, Taylor was living in a local hotel at FEMA’s expense while the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency installed the trailer on his property. Crimes like this led to the creation of federal and local fraud task forces designed to deter, investigate, and prosecute disaster-related federal crimes such as identity theft and charity, insurance, and procurement fraud.

Jackson Division Today

Over the last five years, numerous other fraudulent activities were investigated by the Division. Some of these were basic mortgage and financial frauds, others continued to target the federal government aid in the wake of Katrina as well as storm victims. Color of law and other civil rights crimes remained top priorities of the office as it pursued violations both old and new. On June 8, 2010, the Jackson Division moved into a new office building built specifically for the Bureau. And on July 10, 2014, the Division celebrated its 50th anniversary in continuous operation.

In keeping with the FBI’s mission, the Jackson Division has proudly helped protect local communities and the nation for decades, and it looks forward to continuing to do so in the future.