A backwoods murder in Louisiana draws back the curtain on a place once infamous for Klan activity. It's not over yet
Bogalusa, La. — When a troubled woman named Cynthia Lynch was killed near here last November in what authorities maintain was a Ku Klux Klan initiation gone awry, longtime residents may have experienced déjà vu. In the 1960s Bogalusa was thought to have the highest per capita KKK membership in America. Klansmen held offices in city government. They assaulted and terrorized blacks — and whites who didn't share their bigotry. And it was a few miles up the road that the parish's first two black deputy sheriffs were shot — one fatally — in a case still unsolved 44 years later, but presumed to have been the work of the Klan.
In the aftermath of Lynch's murder, local officials were quick to deny that this gritty lumber-and-paper mill town remains a hotbed of Klan activity. The mayor said he "probably hadn't heard the word [Klan] for 20 years." The police chief claimed he had seen no sign of the KKK in his 13 years on the job.
Black residents, however, insisted that while public cross-burnings and robed demonstrations were a thing of the past, the KKK was still a lurking presence around town. Bogalusa resident Fate Ferrell said that news of the purported Klan initiation murder was no shock to him. "I was surprised it didn't happen sooner. The blacks say, 'If they do that to their own, what are they going to do to us?'"
Months later, the criminal case against those charged with killing Lynch and covering up the crime was pending. But this much is clear: The Klan is in Bogalusa. "I would say there are members that do reside in this area," Police Chief Jerry Agnew tells the Intelligence Report. As many as 40 of them, adds Agnew, the same chief who initially dismissed the notion of modern-day Klan activity in his jurisdiction. After the FBI was called in to probe Lynch's murder, and following his own department's investigation, Agnew amended his comments. "But I've never seen activity like demonstrations," he adds.
It wasn't long ago that Klan demonstrations were a fact of life here. The KKK openly and brutally wielded power and influence in this, one of the most combative and volatile arenas of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, where violence in the name of resistance to "race-mixing" and federal authority was largely accepted, if not openly celebrated. A lifelong black resident, the Rev. Coleman Moses, 55, recalls his father telling him how he learned of John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. His father was conducting business in a Bogalusa bank when customers, upon hearing the news, erupted in applause.
Although the victim of the most recent flare-up of reported Klan violence in Bogalusa is a white woman from Oklahoma, the case nonetheless draws back a curtain and offers a glimpse of the machinations of a Klan faction in today's Deep South that proved no less deadly for being almost comically dysfunctional. At the same time, the case is disinterring bad memories from shallow graves in Bogalusa — memories of burning crosses and gunfire, and of billy clubs striking bone — in the tough little city once dubbed "Klantown, U.S.A."
The Magic City
When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, the Klan had people in high places in Bogalusa.
The city attorney, for example, was the "Exalted Cyclops" or leader of the town's "klavern," or local branch. An estimated 800 Klansmen attended a rally in Bogalusa in 1964. In December of that year, the mayor and police chief met with 150 hooded Klansmen in an effort to avert possible violence. The mayor would admit later that he was "frightened when he looked into 150 pairs of eyes," according to a court document. And for good reason, it turned out. Many months of confrontations, beatings — even murders — would soon follow.
Located about 60 miles north of New Orleans and across the Pearl River from Mississippi, Bogalusa today is the largest settlement in Washington Parish and has always been a working-class town. Forty-one percent of its 13,000 residents are black. People living in Washington Parish are less educated than Louisianans as a whole, and more than 25% of them fall below the poverty line. All eight people arrested in connection with Cynthia Lynch's murder said they were indigent and had attorneys appointed for them.
Bogalusa's neighborhoods are riddled with small, ramshackle homes, boarded up or barely habitable. Many businesses on the dreary main street downtown — at one time the epicenter of raucous civil rights demonstrations — are vacant. Among the survivors are two rent-to-own stores.
For much of the day and into the night, smoke belches from a hulking paper products manufacturing plant, the town's largest employer. An explosion in an adjacent chemical plant in 1995 turned the sky orange, forced the evacuation of about 3,000 residents, flooded emergency rooms, and prompted years of litigation and settlements.
Bogalusa's nickname is "The Magic City." It was here that a 300-pound Klansman, Raymond Charles "Chuck" Foster, came to live a few years ago.
Wizard or Wannabe?
Chuck Foster held a variety of jobs over the years, including working on tugboats and installing siding on homes. In 1994, he stabbed and killed an acquaintance near Bogalusa who held a knife to a woman's throat and threatened to kill her. He was arrested for manslaughter, but a grand jury did not indict him. Foster headed a Ku Klux Klan group near Baton Rouge in 2001. Then he went to prison for 20 months on forgery charges. When he got out, his wife and kids had moved to Bogalusa, and he joined them. He formed the Sons of Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 2007 and took the title of imperial wizard. By then he was spending his days "sitting on his ass, doing nothing," says his wife, Theresa.
"He didn't like blacks and whites mixing," Foster's wife tells the Intelligence Report. The Sons of Dixie Knights had around 30 members at one time, but many of them quit, she says. Her husband coerced three of their four sons to join and recruited many of their friends. He also tried to get her to be a member, Foster adds. She refused. "We argued hot and heavy about it. I can't stand the Klan."
Last year, the Sons of Dixie Knights circulated fliers around Bogalusa for a "second annual" crawfish boil. "Bring a Friend! (Whites Only!)" the flier urged. The location: the house Foster was renting 100 yards back from a busy road. The house's owner: Thomas Anderson Jr., a lieutenant with the Washington Parish Sheriff's Office. "He knew for months and months" of the Klan activity there, Theresa Foster contends. Anderson angrily refused to comment.
Theresa Foster says around 30 Klan members and personal friends attended the crawfish boil in March 2008. Over seven or eight hours, the partiers devoured three sacks of crawfish, finger sandwiches and chips, but Theresa Foster forbade drinking any alcohol at her home.
There was some excitement when a couple the Fosters knew complained to Chuck that their son, who was in his early 20s, was causing them problems. Chuck Foster responded by smashing the couple's son in the face with a pistol, and a friend called 911, Theresa Foster says. Police did not respond, she adds. If they had, she thinks Cynthia Lynch might still be alive. The young man has a scar on his face, courtesy of Foster's disciplining, according to Theresa Foster.
A few months later, Lynch, 43, of Tulsa, apparently responded to information she saw about Sons of Dixie Knights on the Internet. A "Chuck" of Bogalusa who claimed to be 28 years old (Chuck Foster is 44) created a MySpace page about that time in which he extolled the virtues of the "Christian-based" Sons of Dixie Knights. In broken English, he wrote that "we are not a dateing serivce though so must be taken serious we do not allow dating in the klan unless u came in as a couple." Lynch applied for membership and was designated a "Grand Kleagle," or recruiter. Then she rode a bus to Louisiana to be initiated.
Theresa Foster says she spoke to Lynch by telephone two days before she got on the bus and tried to dissuade her from joining the Klan. "It's just something I want to do," was the woman's response, she says. Contrary to media reports, the Tulsa woman did not arrive in Louisiana the Friday before she was killed. She came on Wednesday and stayed at the Fosters' home, Theresa Foster says.
It only took Lynch a day to become depressed and homesick, Theresa Foster says. "I knew she was bipolar. I could tell she did not like Chuck from the get-go. I couldn't blame her for wanting to go home."
That weekend, Foster, his 20-year-old son Shane, and four other men and two women from the Bogalusa area between the ages of 20 and 30 took Lynch to a wooded campsite next to the Pearl River Navigation Canal, nine miles south of town. On Sunday, Lynch reportedly asked to leave. That enraged Chuck Foster, who shot her in the chin with a .40-caliber handgun, killing her, investigators contend. The bullet didn't exit her body, so Foster extracted it with a razor blade, then ordered some of his followers to burn Lynch's belongings, authorities say.
The crime came to light when Shane Foster and another defendant, Franky Lee Stafford, walked into a Circle K a few miles away about 4 a.m. on Monday and asked a clerk how to get blood out of clothing. The clerk called the sheriff's office.
They found Lynch's body almost at the end of Lock No. 3 Road in bushes near the police department building for the tiny town of Sun. Chuck Foster and the others were reached on their cell phones and surrendered. A St. Tammany Parish grand jury heard the case in February and indicted Chuck Foster for second-degree murder, Shane Foster and Franky Lee Stafford for obstruction and Danielle Jones with accessory after the fact. The jury did not indict the other four suspected Klan members on any charges.
Investigators discovered Klan robes, a KKK flag, a Confederate battle flag, a swastika banner and guns and knives, plus Lynch's membership application, at the campsite and in Foster's home. They found a Klan "blood oath" in which the signer swears to "be Klannish in all things" and to "maintain the purity of the white blood and natural superiority with which God has ennobled it."
A couple of those arrested in association with Lynch's death may not even understand the meanings of blood oaths they took.
Shane Foster has a brain injury from being hit by a car when he was 4 years old, his mother says. Aged 20 at the time of Lynch's murder, he has the mental capacity of a child of 7 or 8, she says. "Shane, he forgets a lot. My son didn't do anything wrong. [Chuck] has no right doing this to my son. He makes me sick to my stomach." In April, a judge agreed, ruling that Shane Foster was not currently competent to stand trial.
Among those arrested but not indicted was Andrew Yates, 20. "I really don't think he knows what the Klan is," says his attorney, Ernest Barrow III. Yates is mildly mentally retarded and was collecting Social Security disability checks at the time of his arrest, he adds. After Lynch was killed, Chuck Foster stole Yates' boat and his cell phone "so he couldn't call police," according to Barrow. "I think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Theresa Foster says her husband coerced some people, including his son, to remain in the Klan under threat of violence. "He threatened everybody. The way I look at it is Raymond Foster is wholly to blame for what happened." She's divorcing him, she adds.
Investigators also recovered a document with instructions on how to properly address fellow Klan members or officers, and definitions of various Klan titles. As imperial wizard, Foster supposedly was "a wise man, a wonder-worker having power to charm and control." Another document was an elaborate chart explaining in detail what color robe, cape and stripes each Klan officer must wear.
For all of that, some Bogalusa locals remain skeptical that Foster and his followers were the real deal. A man wearing a baseball cap and sitting outside a small store in Sun, a couple of miles from the murder site, echoed the sentiments of many other whites in the area when he said Foster and his group were merely Klan wannabes who committed a sloppy murder. "If they were Klan, nobody would have found out," he said.
The man, in his early 60s, declined to give his name. He said he had lived in the area his entire life, and that his grandfather and father were Klansmen.
"They're still around," he said of the Klan, "but they don't force it on you like the blacks do with Martin Luther King."
Fists, Belts, Clubs and Guns
The Klan certainly did "force it on you" in 1965, when they constantly clashed with blacks in Bogalusa and elsewhere in Washington Parish. Klansmen threw a tear gas canister at a group of blacks in Bogalusa, beat up black marchers in the city's downtown and chased blacks out of a city park with clubs, belts and other weapons.
A chapter of an armed black self-defense group called Deacons for Defense and Justice patrolled parts of Bogalusa and confronted the Klan. Members of the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, marched in Bogalusa and were assaulted, including its co-founder and national director, James Farmer. The Klan at one point reportedly planned to kill Farmer the next time he came to town. Scores of FBI agents were assigned to the town. President Lyndon Johnson dispatched an assistant attorney general to investigate.
In June of that year, the first two black deputy sheriffs hired in Washington Parish, Oneal Moore and Creed Rogers, were riding together in a village near Bogalusa. Men in a pickup truck pulled alongside them and opened fire, killing Moore and blinding Rogers in one eye. The crime was never solved.
Black members of the Bogalusa Civic and Voters League sued to have their rights protected. A federal court in New Orleans issued an injunction ordering Bogalusa and Washington Parish law enforcement officers and elected officials to use all reasonable means to protect blacks from being intimidated and assaulted. The next day, a pair of Klansmen responded by passing out more than two dozen clubs to young white men in downtown Bogalusa as blacks marched.
J.B. Stoner, an Atlanta lawyer and founder of the virulently white supremacist and anti-Semitic National States Rights Party, soon came to Bogalusa and addressed a crowd of 1,500 people. "The nigger is not a human being," he said. "He is somewhere between the white man and the ape. We don't believe in getting along with our enemy, and the nigger is our enemy." Two nights later, Stoner and a cohort spoke to 2,000 whites in Bogalusa. Later that month, black demonstrators were attacked at a shopping center and, in another incident, showered with stones, fruit and firecrackers.
Finally, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against a group called the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a front organization called the Anti-Communist Christian Association, and 38 individual Klansmen. Still, the violence continued. In December 1965, shots were fired into the home of a black leader of the Bogalusa Civic and Voters League. The following March, a black soldier was shot and critically wounded while using a public telephone booth. In July, Clarence Triggs, a black participant in several demonstrations, was killed outside of town. Two white men were arrested. After a jury acquitted one of them, charges were dropped against the second man.
Facing the Future
Even after the tumultuousness of the 1960s abated, the Klan retained a strong presence in Bogalusa. In 1976, the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan opened a new headquarters in town, complete with a cross lighting.
About 30 Klansmen and 100 spectators attended. And performing the ribbon cutting ceremony, as if he were celebrating the opening of a new department store, was the city's mayor, Louis Rawls. "They're citizens just like anybody else," he explained.
Bogalusa has had few overt Klan incidents in the years between then and Lynch's murder last November. But race relations remain strained at best. The public high school today still has separate proms for white and black students. There is a black YMCA and a white YMCA. Longtime black residents in Bogalusa say they still live segregated and unequal lives, and some of them say they are worse off now than in the 1960s. "I never realized there was such a division when I came here" in 1995, says Agnew, the white police chief. "I don't see much of a come-together."
"As long as you don't ask for too much, that's the attitude," says Marvin Austin, a black former city councilman. In a city where some of the most memorable battles of the civil rights struggles occurred, there is not a single historic marker commemorating any of those events.
Simmering racial tensions boiled over again in 2007 when the school board opted not to renew the contract of Jerry Payne, the black superintendent. Many prominent black residents, including ministers, vigorously objected. "I accused some of the school board members and their supporters of racism," Austin says. Soon after, a rock came crashing through his living room window.
Coleman Moses, pastor of the White Hall Missionary Baptist Church, says he received a phone call, then a visit, from a white man he won't name who warned him that black ministers and others who were vocal in their support for Payne would have their property vandalized — or even be killed — if they didn't back off. He told police of the threat after a dozen or so school officials — mostly black — had rocks and bricks thrown through their car windows late at night.
That was when Bogalusa Police Chief Agnew called in the FBI. Moses says agents asked him if he knew who might be behind the vandalism. His reply: "To be truthful, two-thirds of the white people in Washington Parish would like us dead."
Now, Washington Parish is about to face its past, and its present, once again. Chuck Foster, after pleading innocent to second-degree murder, is scheduled to be tried this spring. For many in this troubled region, that is not much consolation.
"The attitude of whites in this area still has not changed," Pastor Moses says. "They still desire to be separate and in control. Everything is still racially divided. But the methods have changed. They're more covert than back in the 1960s. You listen for code words. There is a KKK presence."