Clewis admitted to playing a slight shell game with receipts and funds. A cornerstone of his defense was that while he was charged with embezzling funds from the city, the funds did not belong to the city but rather to the show promoter.
Graddick thinks it was deeper. “It’s a long story,” he said. “But there was some people who would go to the auditorium and sit over there and drink whiskey with Buddy Clewis and play cards and gamble. One of them was a Mobile Press-Register reporter, but it wasn’t Arch.”
Graddick said he knew Clewis also liked to frequent the games at Riviere du Chien. He considered the gambling angle as a possible motive for Clewis.
Outrageously, the Mobile Register once again publicly identified the jurors by name as Clewis was acquitted on the first count. “It was rumored there were people on the jury who had some friendly prior relationship with Clewis,” Graddick said. “But the fact of the matter is they found him not guilty, and you live with it.”
Judge Joseph M. Hocklander then dismissed the remaining 13 counts, claiming their prosecution would place Clewis under double jeopardy. Graddick was frustrated. “Back then the state didn’t have any right to appeal a matter like that,” he said.
By the fall of 1975, Clewis would be back in his old position at the auditorium.
By 1978, things had changed somewhat.
Charlie Graddick was chief district attorney, elected in 1974.
Bip Beasley was found guilty in federal court on heroin charges. His suppliers were none other than the illustrious Dickie Diamond and Barbara Heron, a local woman.
Buddy Clewis’ health worsened as cancer seized control of his life.
In the midst of an active load, the Arch McKay case had diminished in focus. Graddick told the Register in 1999 that work on the case “continued actively” but that there was a lack of information. “There were no real hot tips,” Graddick said.
When recently asked about the “Shreveport file,” Graddick initially claimed “the connection between that stolen car and Arch’s murder was tenuous at best.”
He then denied having seen the file. “I certainly do not remember Wilbur doing that. I mean, I can assure you that if he had come to me and said “I’ve located the car that matches the description and two shotguns were found,’ well, we would have encouraged law enforcement to jump on it with both feet,” Graddick says.
Wilbur Williams begged to differ. “I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles as high as you want to stack them,” he stated and slapped his desk emphatically. “That’s just not so. I walked into Graddick’s office with that file from Shreveport. He told me they didn’t need it.”
Graddick feels Wilbur’s story isn’t accurate. He insists Williams possessed animosity toward him as the result of a previous incident between them, an event Wilbur feels almost cost him his job. Graddick offered the animosity between the men as evidence Williams’ memories are wrong.
“From that point on, Wilbur Williams didn’t like me very much,” Graddick said. “He wouldn’t have brought me anything. If he told you he was communicating with me, I think Wilbur’s got some poor recollection because he wouldn’t even talk to me then.”
Williams doesn’t entirely deny some of Graddick’s assertions, but says the timeline being offered by the former prosecutor doesn’t hold water. “As a matter of record, yes, I admit there were personal feelings of animosity toward him, but that stuff he’s talking about happened in March of 1976. You can go check the records.
“The car was found in ‘74 and that’s when I went up to his office.”
In 1978, evidence from the McKay murder was first sent to the FBI crime lab, five years after the incident.
That same year, police detectives Hubert Bell and Walter Pickett approached Graddick with stories concerning Vernon Johnson, resident of an Atmore prison cell.
They told of running into a pair of Bishop State Community College students who recalled hearing Johnson brag back in ‘73 about killing Arch McKay. They didn’t reveal why the informants waited five years to say anything, though Johnson was behind bars for that duration.
Bell and Pickett went to Atmore and questioned Vernon Johnson. The detectives reported that he taunted them. A grand jury indicted Johnson for murder. Graddick was set to prosecute, but the electorate got in the way. The district attorney was elected state attorney general in 1978. His rise was shaping up to be meteoric.
Chris Galanos became Mobile’s district attorney. He hired Danny Goddard as an investigator. Goddard was aware of the ongoing prosecution of Vernon Johnson.
Goddard was also a confidante of Williams’ and knew about Wilbur’s “Shreveport file.” He asked Wilbur, a sergeant in the investigations department by then, to talk to the district attorney about it.
Williams was understandably cagey. “The very first thing I asked him was, ‘Can we trust him?’” Wilbur recalled. “Danny said we could, so I went to go see him.”
The evidence in the file solidified things for Galanos. His review of the Vernon Johnson case convinced him the wrong man was being prosecuted. “This case was one of those that just really sticks with you,” he now says of the entire Johnson incident. “It’s almost unbelievable that something like that could happen,” he stated pensively.
Galanos was more strident with the Register in 1999: “It’s my opinion that either willfulness or ineptitude that defies description led to the indictment and trial of Vernon Johnson.”
Galanos notified Graddick of his determination that Johnson was innocent and charges should be dropped. Graddick took exception. The resulting exchanges between the men underscored the depth and conviction of their disagreement.
Galanos refused to prosecute.
Graddick would have none of it, according to Galanos and Wilbur Williams. Exercising his powers as attorney general, Graddick assigned the prosecution to the district attorney from Houston County. That DA reviewed the case and refused to proceed.
Williams said Graddick then sent it to Talladega County. That district attorney also looked it over and declined to prosecute.
Finally, Graddick took it to Montgomery to prosecute out of his own office. He assigned assistant attorney general Don Valeska to the case. Charlie Graddick seemed determined to nail Vernon Johnson.
However, a witness for the state now recanted his testimony against Vernon. A report dated May 6, 1980, details his revelation of coercion, of how Bell and Pickett threatened him with perpetual jail time unless he cooperated and “fingered” Johnson.
Wilbur Williams said this wasn’t unheard of for Bell. Williams says he has in his possession other statements alleging such coercion, including some Williams claims almost derailed the Michael Donald lynching case in the early ‘80s.
The attorney general’s office sent for the evidence from Mobile County. “The last time anybody saw the files for the McKay case, Bell and Pickett were loading them up to take to Montgomery,” Williams said. “Far as I know, it all just disappeared.”
Vernon Johnson went to trial. Testifying for the defense were Peggy Peterson and Kater Williams. Williams was the police captain in charge of the initial McKay investigation.
Peterson was the eyewitness from the Register who saw the assailant flee. The man she described was white, broad shouldered and tall with “reddish hair.” Johnson was 5’2” and black.
The state’s case was so tenuous, it easily wilted away. Johnson was acquitted.
Galanos started his own research into the Louisiana side of things. He set investigator Bob Eddy on the trail of evidence from the “Shreveport file.”
Eddy found Jean Scott. She willingly described her tours with Charles Thrash.
Talking to Thrash would be harder. He was killed while in bed with a woman. His lover’s father stumbled upon them and shot the “gambler.”
The district attorney’s office readied photos of Thrash for Peggy Peterson to identify, but she died before it could be done. Williams felt the stress of the situation played a part in her demise.
“I’ve interviewed all kinds of people over the years in a variety of situations,” Galanos recalled, “and I’ve never seen anyone as frightened as that woman was. She was just completely terrified about her involvement with this.”
In the early ‘80s, Williams happened upon one more curious incident.
While at the old police headquarters, he found evidence, files and reports being cleared from the crime lab. Among the items being thrown away were multiple cardboard boxes of information from the McKay case.
“It was separate, ancillary stuff that Bell and Pickett had missed,” Williams explained. Evidence, including crime scene photos and important affidavits, for one of the highest-profile “cold case” murders in Mobile history was being swept into the dustbin.
Williams rescued it.
Buddy Clewis died from cancer in 1980.
Chris Galanos successfully prosecuted City Commissioner Gary Greenough and two auditorium managers, George Juzang and Henry Gwin, for embezzlement in schemes like the one for which Clewis was charged and cleared. Galanos moved on to the Circuit Court bench and is now in private practice.
Noble Beasley was eventually paroled on the heroin sentence, and then was nabbed with cocaine.
Charlie Graddick served as attorney general and moved up through the state ranks. His acrimonious runoff with Bill Baxley for the governor’s seat paved the way for the 1986 election of Guy Hunt. Graddick is presently a Circuit Court judge running for election.
Wilbur Williams retired from the department as a major. He is now the police chief in rural Andalusia, Alabama.
But his questions about the chain of events nag him still.
Why was law enforcement in Mobile so opposed to investigating Charles Thrash? Williams and Bob Eddy both felt it no coincidence that most every major player in the drama was connected with New Orleans, and the Marcello family, in some way. “All the elements of the Dixie Mafia are in there,” Williams said, “gambling, heroin and New Orleans.”
Clewis was connected with Jack Ruby, an associate of the Marcello family.
Noble Beasley was dealing heroin. His supplier was “connected” in New York.
Bolton Ford and its staff stemmed from New Orleans.
Charles Thrash was part and parcel of the Big Easy.
Williams is also at a loss to explain Graddick’s determination to prosecute Vernon Johnson for the McKay murder, or the attorney’s denial of valid evidence presented to him. Williams said Graddick’s name was not in Jean Scott’s green notebook.
Though much key evidence seems to point to Thrash’s involvement in McKay’s murder, questions remain as to why the prosecution was taken in a direction most everyone involved felt had no merit. Why did Charlie Graddick continue with a case that three separate district attorneys turned down, a case in which a principal witness for the state tainted the investigators’ core evidence with aspersion?
When asked about his persistence, Graddick said he doesn’t remember the chain of events, that it was too long ago.
However, Graddick still elicits references. “Charlie’s the guy who would remember the most of it,” Don Bekurs said. “Because he was coordinating everything and directing everything.”
“I’m just an old flat-foot gumshoe, not some kind of conspiracy theorist,” Wilbur explained. “But you’ve got to believe the auditorium is involved in this in some way. It seems to be a common thread … along with New Orleans. Anyway you cut it, organized crime was involved.”
And the green notebook still looms. “It’s all about Thrash’s connection to Mobile,” Williams stridently stated, “and that notebook and some of the names that were in it. It went to the very highest level in government, in medicine, the legal profession, in everything.
“And it hasn’t changed a whole lot.”
Wilbur Williams served as president of the Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police before retiring in 2013. He still lives in Andalusia.
Louise McKay died Jan. 9, 2006, at age 90.
Judge Charles Graddick is set to retire as the presiding judge of Mobile County Circuit Court later this year.
Kevin Lee is Lagniappe arts editor. Email him at email@example.com.
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