September 22, 2013 12:11:21 AM
William Browning - [email protected]
STURGIS -- Something felt wrong.
A nagging unrest. A shadow lurking in her mind. She couldn't figure out what it was. It made her worry, though, and stayed all day long.
This was a Friday nearly a half-century ago. It was almost fall, before the leaves turn, and she remembers her son had a high school football game that night. She didn't want to go. Whatever unseen ghost was bothering her had not gone away. But she gave in and off they went, a carload of family and friends heading south through Winston County to watch a game.
She's 81 now, an elderly woman with a cane still living in Sturgis. Not long ago she sat on her couch recounting that day. When specifics wouldn't come she put a palm to her forehead and closed her eyes.
"I'm going to be honest, I've been through so much," she said. "Bringing this memory back has brought a lot of trouble on my mind."
Her son's team lost that night. When a player got hurt an ambulance with flashing lights came. Afterwards, riding home in the dark, she thought that was the premonition she had carried all day: Those emergency lights had struck her so strange. Then their car, after entering Oktibbeha County, came up on their Sturgis home. Out front, on the road, was a line of sheriff's cars with flashing lights. It was about 11 p.m. That's when Evelett Willis knew.
"I had a hunch something happened to my brother," she said.
She was right. Jimmie Lee Griffith was dead. While Willis and her family and friends had been at the game, his body was found on a road outside of Sturgis. Murder was suspected. There were three investigations -- one by state officials, two by federal agents. The earliest began that night. The most recent ended last year.
The case has never been solved.
There are at least two photographs of Jimmie Lee Griffith. He smiles in both. He is handsome and trim, with broad shoulders. He looks like a young man who knew hard work but enjoyed life. He liked fedoras.
Like his six siblings, he was born in Winston County. Their father farmed and worked at a sawmill. Their mother was a homemaker. At some point they moved to Sturgis.
Leaving Sturgis toward Louisville on Sturgis-Louisville Road there is a hill. At the top there was a home and by the early 1960s that is where they lived: Mr. and Mrs. Griffith; Evelett Willis and her husband; and Jimmie Lee Griffith and his daughter.
The house is gone now. But back then it was a lively place packed with three generations of Griffiths. Everyone had a nickname and together they had a good time.
"We did until that happened," Evelett Willis said.
It happened on Sept. 24, 1965.
Here is what is known: Griffith, who worked at Sturgis Lumber Company, rode to Starkville with someone when he got off. He took part in a dice game and drank some alcohol. Then someone gave him a ride back to Sturgis, where he visited a friend. At approximately 8 p.m. he left that friend's home, walking alone. A little while later, on Sturgis-Louisville Road, less than two miles from where he lived, someone found his lifeless body.
He was a 28-year-old black man. This was during the civil rights movement. Across the state tensions were high.
Evelett Willis screamed when she saw the deputies' flashing lights that night.
"I had had that feeling all day," she said.
A crowd had formed in their yard. Oktibbeha County Sheriff Bill Harpole was there, and he wanted to speak to Willis, but in her panicked state, she ignored him and rushed in the house. When she didn't see Griffith or his daughter, she went to her parents' bedroom. Griffith's 6-year-old daughter was there, sitting up in bed, crying out for her father.
Willis went back outside where Harpole told her what she already knew: Her brother was dead. His body had been taken to a Starkville funeral home. Willis wanted to see it. Harpole said she couldn't.
After a passing motorist had discovered the body and notified authorities, a doctor came to the scene. Griffith had been struck by a vehicle, but the doctor believed it wasn't accidental. A vehicle appeared to have backed over the body. There were burn marks on Griffith's shirt and a 5-inch-long wound near his genitals.
Through the next few days Harpole and his deputies interviewed about 30 people. According to a news story at the time, someone unnamed was given a polygraph. Then the investigation petered out.
Despite FBI agents coming to Sturgis a year later at the request of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, no eyewitnesses or suspects ever turned up.
Both investigations, however, suggested Griffith may have been the victim of an intentional hit-and-run. This fueled more rumors.
But after Griffith was buried at Spring Hill Methodist Church outside of Sturgis, the people who knew and loved him suppressed their unanswered questions. His death became a rarely-spoken-of part of family lore.
Decades passed. People moved on.
Jeffrey Griffith is Jimmie Lee Griffith's granddaughter. She is named after an uncle and grew up in Sturgis. By the late 1980s she was a teenager gathering pieces of rumors.
"I wanted to know about him," she said of her grandfather. "And I wanted to know what happened."
But when she asked questions, it became apparent it was a "hush-hush" thing in the family. A distant cousin, though, told Jeffrey Griffith a story.
Jimmie Lee Griffith, according to the tale, had been beaten to death by a group of white people, castrated and left on that road. The killing, according to the distant cousin, was racially motivated.
The image of her mutilated grandfather was seared in Jeffrey Griffith's thoughts. She remembers sitting in class at Sturgis High School and wondering if some of her classmates could be the grandchildren of people involved in a murder. She never knew if she would find out.
Then, in 2007, the Civil Rights Era Cold Case Initiative began. It was a partnership between the FBI, civil rights groups and federal and state law enforcement branches aimed at pursuing justice in unsolved murders that occurred before 1969. As part of the initiative, the FBI released the names of more than 100 victims of possible racially-motivated murders. Someone Jeffrey Griffith went to church with showed her a list of the names and Jimmie Lee Griffith was there. Family members were asked to come forward. Jeffrey emailed the FBI, an agent visited her home and an investigation began.
It wasn't justice or revenge she wanted. It was closure.
"I wanted to know what really happened," she said.
The new investigation spanned five years.
A lot of important people from 1965 had died: the person who found the body; Sheriff Harpole and his lead investigator; and the doctor who examined the body. Complicating matters was the fact that the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office had not retained records prior to 1975.
But leads shook loose. Theories surfaced. Each went in a different direction.
Eight months before he died, in Jan. 1965, Jimmie Lee Griffith had been a passenger in a vehicle involved in a head-on collision in Sturgis. In that crash, Leonard Terry, the driver of the car Griffith was in, died. Griffith survived, and was scheduled to testify in an upcoming criminal trial about the accident. For several months following the crash, Griffith was visited, time and again, by a man who had been in the logging truck that took Terry's life.
That man's name was George Rhodes. He was white. Griffith wouldn't talk to him. Rhodes died in 1974, but in 1966 he acknowledged to the FBI that he had tried to speak with Griffith about how he would testify. He denied threatening Griffith, however, and said he was at home with family the night Griffith died. Some of Griffith's family members told investigators that they did not believe Rhodes would have threatened Griffith. Rhodes was never arrested.
The FBI also discovered that on the night Griffith died, while he was riding back from the Starkville dice game, he got into a fight in the car's backseat. That allegedly led to a "knifing," according to the driver, and may explain the wound discovered near Griffith's genitals.
Some people told the FBI that Griffith could have been killed over unpaid gambling debts. Some said he could have died at the hands of a jealous lover.
According to family members, Griffith was not involved in the civil rights movement. And the evidence to suggest his murder was racially motivated is scant.
Yet, at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., at the Civil Rights Memorial Center, Griffith is listed as one of "The Forgotten." The list is made up of the names of 74 men and women who died during the civil rights era under circumstances suggesting racially motivated violence.
"It still has not been resolved as to why his body was run over twice," Lecia Brooks, the director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center, said. "It suggests to us that there was something else behind (his death)."
Brooks added that the manner of Griffith's death was similar to that of others who lost their lives during the civil rights era. No matter the motive, she said, Griffith deserves to be remembered.
Last year, an FBI agent visited Jeffrey Griffith in Columbus, where she works at PACCAR. The agent brought a letter detailing the FBI's findings.
"He sort of gave me a pep talk," she said. "He told me the letter would tell me more than I knew, but that it wouldn't give an answer."
The seven-page letter outlined the possible theories and said, "We regret to inform you that we are unable to proceed further...because the federal investigation...has failed to identify any eyewitness or viable suspect. Please accept our sincere condolences on the loss of your grandfather."
The Griffith family realizes no one will probably ever be able to tell them what happened to Jimmie Lee Griffith. Jeffrey Griffith, 37, is still thankful for what the FBI did.
"I just wish there was something that could close it," she said.
Spring Hill Methodist Church, the church where Jimmie Lee Griffith is buried, is gone. Where it once stood is just an open space in the woods. A small cemetery is still there, and Griffith's gravestone reads, "Not My Will But Thine Be Done."
Today, Evelett Willis lives alone on Sturgis-Louisville Road, less than two miles from where her brother was found. She has tried to accept the unknown.
"I guess I never will know," she said.
She hinted, though, that the ghost that began bothering her the day her brother died hasn't gone completely away.
"I know that some of the people have gone off to glory," she said of her brother's possible killers. "But some might not be. I never know who's tracking around."
This story is based on multiple interviews with Evelett Willis, Jeffrey Griffith, Jeff Griffith and Alcurtis Griffith, along with information from a Starkville Daily News article from Sept. 28, 1965, FBI files from the 1966 investigation, the 2012 letter the FBI gave the Griffith family and an interview with the director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.