Inside a KKK murder plot: Grab him up, take him to the river

PALATKA, Fla. (AP) - Joseph Moore was breathing hard, his face glistening with nervous sweat. He was holding a cell phone with a photo of a man spread out on the floor; the man appeared dead, his shirt torn and his pants wet.
Puffy dark clouds obscured the sun as Moore greeted another man who had pulled up in a metallic blue limousine. They met behind an old chicken stall in rural northern Florida.
"KIGY, my brother," said Moore. It was short for "Klansman, I greet you".
Birds chirped in a tree above them, and traffic rushed by on a nearby road, blurring the sound of their voices, which were secretly recorded.
Moore took the phone to David “Sarge” Moran, who wore a camouflage baseball cap with a Confederate flag patch and a metal cross. His arms and hands were covered with tattoos.
A nervous, dizzying giggle escaped Moran's mouth.
"Oh shit. I love it," he said. "Mother - mad at yourself. Well done."
"Is that what you all wanted?"
"Yeah, damn yeah," Moran said in a high voice.
It was 11:30 a.m. on March 19, 2015, and the Klan members were celebrating what they believed to be a successful murder in Florida.
But the FBI got wind of the murder plan. A confidential informant had infiltrated the group, and his recordings offer a rare, detailed glimpse into the inner workings of a modern Klan cell and a domestic terrorism investigation.
This investigation would reveal another mystery: an unknown number of Klansmen worked in the Florida Department of Corrections, with considerable power over inmates, black and white.
___
Thomas Driver pulled out a cigarette and exhaled the smoke at Warren Williams'. Driver, a white prison guard, and Williams, a black inmate, faced each other.
It was a sultry August day in 2013, about a year and a half before the secret murder photo was revealed.
The two men stood in a muggy prison room at the Reception and Medical Center in rural north Florida, a barbed wire-lined complex built an hour south of the Georgia state line in the middle of farmland. The RMC is the state prison hospital that treats new inmates.
Williams, a quiet 6-foot, 210-pound inmate, suffered from severe anxiety and depression. According to the records, he served a year for beating a police officer. Williams agreed not to appeal in exchange for a reduced sentence and a mental health examination and treatment order under county supervision.
He found himself in front of Driver after losing his ID, a prison violation.
Williams told Driver to stop blowing smoke at him, he would be in touch later. Driver blew more and Williams told him to stop again.
As Driver continued, Williams jumped at him and they landed on the floor. As they fought, Williams bit Driver and gained an advantage, according to both men's reports of the fight.
A group of guards responded and beat Williams so badly he had to go to the hospital, said his mother and attorney.
The driver, in turn, required a series of screening tests for HIV and hepatitis C because of the bite. They would all be negative, but the ordeal infuriated him.
He wanted revenge.
___
More than a year later, in December 2014, a wooden cross caught fire in a field hidden by tall trees.
Dozens of hooded clansmen gathered for a "cloneclave," a meeting of the Florida traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Members of a biker club were "naturalized" as citizens in the invisible realm of the clan.
Security was tight. The bikers were concerned about recorders and checked people.
Driver, known as "Brother Thomas" by his peers, was there with Sarge Moran, who was also a prison guard. Moran had worked for the Florida Law Department for decades; he had also been a clansman for years. The AP records that he had been disciplined by law enforcement officials for violent incidents more than once. Even so, Moran had been kept in a position of power over the inmates.
Moran and Driver wanted to discuss an urgent matter with Joseph Moore, the group's "Grand Night Hawk" in charge of security.
Moore was a US Army veteran. When he wasn't in his clan "helmet," he often wore a baseball cap with military medals, including a purple heart. Demanding respect and fear from his Klan brothers, he often delighted them with stories of his work killing targets overseas as part of an elite US military force.
The three men left for a private conversation and had another clansman stand guard nearby so that they would not be overheard.
The guards gave Moore a piece of paper with a picture of Williams, his name, and other information. Driver described the struggle and how he and his family had worried about a false positive test for hepatitis C for weeks.
"Do you want him six feet below you?" Asked Moore.
Driver and Moran looked at each other and then said yes.
___
The very existence of a conspiracy to kill a black man by members of the Ku Klux Klan who work in law enforcement is reminiscent of past tragedies such as the 1964 Mississippi Burning case in which three civil rights activists were murdered by clansmen. Sheriff's deputy Cecil Price Sr. was involved in the deaths and was convicted of violating the young men’s civil rights.
Today researchers believe tens of thousands of Americans belong to groups identified with white supremacist extremism, the Klan being just one of them. The efforts of these groups to infiltrate law enforcement have been repeatedly documented in recent years and have been referred to by legal scholars as an "epidemic".
FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a Senate hearing in March that "racially motivated violent extremism", mainly by white racists, is responsible for the fastest growing proportion of domestic terrorism cases.
"The same group of people ... has been responsible for the deadliest attacks in the last decade," added Wray.
During the January 6th Uprising in the US Capitol, “thin blue line” flags fluttered alongside white signs and banners of supremacy, and more than 30 current and former police officers from a number of departments across the country were identified as attendees.
"White supremacist groups have made strategic efforts in the past to infiltrate and recruit law enforcement," said an FBI document released by a congressional committee in September, about four months before the Capitol Riots. In the 2006 Intelligence Assessment, the FBI said that some of the law enforcement agencies were providing "professional resources for the purposes of white supremacy with which they sympathize."
While the FBI would not confirm whether it had provided a recent assessment of the ongoing threat, recent cases have confirmed that the problem the agency described in 2006 persists.
In November, a Georgia MP was caught in an FBI wiretap that was bragging about attacking blacks for arresting crimes so they could not vote and was recruiting colleagues for a group called "Shadow Moses". In 2017, an interim police chief in Oklahoma was found to have ties to an international neo-Nazi group. In 2014, two officers in Fruitland Park, Florida, were outed as members of the clan and forced to quit.
Despite repeated examples, white racists discharged from police work after being discovered can often find jobs with other authorities. There is no database that officials can use to verify that someone has been identified as an extremist.
In 2020, an official in Anniston, Alabama, was hired by a district sheriff's department just years after the Southern Poverty Law Center posted a video of him speaking at a meeting of the Southern White Nationalist League.
“There is no trail that follows them even if they are fired. It's spreading the problem, ”said Greg Ehrie, former head of the FBI's New York Department of Domestic Terrorism, now partnered with the Anti-Defamation League.
Domestic terrorism experts are calling for better screening to identify extremists before they are hired. Some states, like California and Minnesota, have tried to pass new screening laws only to be thwarted by the police unions, whose legal challenges have successfully argued that such requests violate freedom of expression.
Without screening, white racists who get in can operate with impunity, target blacks and other colored people, and recruit others who share their views.
"Unless your name ends up in an FBI wiretap," said Fred Burton, a former special agent with the US Diplomatic Security Service. "The investigation process in the background shows gaps."
___
Warren Williams got out of jail a few months after his fight with Driver, the prison guard. It was just before Christmas and he arrived at his mother's one-story brick house in Palatka, a small town in northern Florida. It was close with his three little sisters.
The road ended at a few railroad tracks behind which the St. Johns River flowed. The wide, rushing waterway runs through town on its way back out to sea to the northeast, near Jacksonville.
After months in a prison cell, Williams longed to fish the St. John's again. He looked forward to spending days outdoors in his landscaping and writing poetry and music in his spare time.
Palatka, with a population almost equally divided between blacks and whites, had been devastated by the 2008 Great Recession. Many of the valuable murals were fading, and the old town had more shuttered shutters than open ones. A coal-fired power station on the river is Palatka's biggest employer, as is a paper mill that fills the air with sour stink.
Williams struggled with anxiety and had violent outbursts at times. His mother called these episodes his "protective mode". But he was at home where she could watch him. He kept his parole and held his prescribed sessions.
And in the 21st century, the Klan wasn't on Williams' worry list. Images of burning crosses and Klansmen targeting Black people for acts of violence seemed anachronistic.
But the symbols of the group's rule in Palatka remain. Every time Williams met with his probation officer, he would pass the statue of a Confederate soldier outside the Putnam County Courthouse in downtown Palatka, the county seat. The lanky, live oak trees in the courtyard are fascinating for some observers, but a painful reminder of past lynchings for others.
Jim Crow Florida was one of the most dangerous places in the south to be black. During that era, a black man in Florida was more at risk of being lynched - an execution without trial, often with a gun or by hanging - than any other state, according to a University of Georgia study of lynching records.
In 1925, the KKK controlled Putnam County. A clansman named R.J. Hancock was elected sheriff and helped unleash a reign of terror in which lynch mobs dominated civic life. To stop this, Florida's governor threatened to declare martial law in 1926.
But the Klan and his ilk held out. Today it is just one group in a modern, decentralized white supremacy movement.
"It's surprising that we even have a conversation about something that was prevalent in the 1920s and taking place 100 years later," said Terrill Hill, Williams' attorney and Palatka's mayor. "It's frustrating. It's annoying."
___
It was a cool and cloudy January day when Joseph Moore, the clan's Grand Night Hawk, arrived at a small house behind tall trees. The air smelled of pine.
It was the home of Charles Newcomb, a petrified-faced and chain-smoking former prison guard who was the Clan's Exalted Cyclops, a local chief. Newcomb had given up his job in prison, but remained close to "Sarge" Moran. He wanted to talk to Moore about the "Brother Thomas topic".
“I see it that way, brother. It was direct ... attempted murder of him, ”Newcomb said, referring to Williams' biting driver. "I don't care how you look at it."
"We just have to do our deeds, and where it falls, it falls," Newcomb said. "Because he's a piece of trash anyway."
Given Moore's alleged background as an elite government assassin, Newcomb trusted him to help carry out the plan.
"I want things to be done professionally," said Moore in the tone of a skilled hit man. “There are skills and techniques and things that stand the test of time. If you bury someone, say, in an open field or whatever ... it will be dug up. "
"But if you bury someone in a cemetery over someone who is already buried, it will never be exposed for a septic tank."
Both agreed that they should take a trip to Palatka to explore Williams' neighborhood.
"We'll find him out there one night and I can go straight to him and put him out of his misery," Newcomb said.
Newcomb wanted to make sure Driver had an alibi.
"What we need is Brother Thomas (driver) to be at work," Newcomb said. "And if we do that when Thomas is at work, (he) has an alibi."
___
Joseph Moore was husband and father, veteran and clansman. He was also a confidential informant paid to provide information to the FBI.
It's life-threatening work. If his Klan brothers found out, Moore had no doubt how it would end.
The relationship also carries significant risks for the FBI. Moore had suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to hospital after an honorable discharge from the US Army in 2002, where he had been trained as a sniper.
He was drunk and had gone to a hospital in New Jersey in a tactical vest. His pockets were crammed with a few thousand dollars in cash. He was carrying a plane ticket to Jordan and told police that he planned to fight with the Peshmerga in the Kurdish region of Iraq. He would be under medical observation for four months.
The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have long relied on informants to investigate domestic extremist groups, with mixed results. Federal investigators were occasionally deceived and manipulated by informants. And the effort is expensive. Informants often work in secret for years and, if discovered, are placed in protective custody.
In 2008, Moore appeared at the FBI's Gainesville office because he wanted them to investigate the local sheriff's office. His brother-in-law had been arrested for drug offenses, and Moore thought a crooked MP had implanted the drugs. An FBI agent met with Moore and eventually recruited him to join an investigation into a member of another Florida Klan group suspected of planning a murder.
During this investigation, Moore's wife had become suspicious of his activities. She wanted answers. Finally, he told her - and her family - about his FBI work. It was a fundamental breach of the rules and the FBI fired him.
A few years later, Moore's cell phone lit up with an unknown number. The voice seemed familiar to me, however. It was an agent who knew him from his previous job at the FBI and asked to meet with a new investigation at another violent office. Due to Moore's success in infiltrating the clan earlier, the agency recruited him again.
The FBI bought him a computer and a phone so that he could contact the new sound troupe online. Within weeks, Moore had scheduled a meeting with the Grand Dragon and his deputy in a Dollar General parking lot in Bronson, Florida.
The Klanmen checked Moore's driver's license and tested him in an exchange of Klan jargon.
Moore told them that he had killed people before, including a hit in China in 2005. He lied. He had never seen a battlefield before and the medals he wore were fakes.
But the guides were impressed. They invited Moore to be "naturalized". He filled out an application, paid a fee of $ 20 and an annual fee of $ 35.
He also signed a "blood oath", part of which read: "I swear ... to be Klanish in all things, to accept the life of the Brotherhood of Service, to regenerate our country and the white race and to preserve the whites". Blood and the natural superiority with which God made it possible. "
The dragon told him that violating his blood oath would be punishable by death.
___
On January 30, 2015, less than two years after Moore signed his clan oath, the murder plot got underway.
Moore's tires crunched on Newcomb's driveway as he pulled his SUV past a weathered sign on a fence post. It showed a gun barrel aimed at potential intruders. WARNING: There is nothing here to die for.
Moore found Newcomb excited about a new idea he had for killing Williams.
"I have several bottles of insulin here, if you want to do it that way," Newcomb said.
"Shall we make it quick and get out of here? Or do we want to grab him and take him somewhere and shoot him with insulin? ”Newcomb asked.
Moore hid his surprise. He had thought they were just investigating, and now Newcomb was planning to strike.
“It would be quieter,” Newcomb said, “if we can grab him, throw his ass in the car, and drive off with him somewhere. And we just inject him a lot of insulin into his lucky ass and let him start his floppy. "
An insulin overdose is an excruciating death characterized by uncontrollable tremors. It's hard for a coroner to see. A person's blood sugar naturally drops when they die, regardless of whether the person is diabetic or not. And syringe stitches are so small that unless you look for them specifically, they're almost undetectable.
"I have two full needles, and then I have two more bottles," Newcomb said.
"Is that your wife's medication?" asked Moore.
Newcomb said it was them, but that she had a lot more.
He went into his garage and returned with a children's fishing rod adorned with pictures of the cartoon character "Dora the Explorer".
"If we're going to catch him and take him down to the river, he'll need a fishing rod like he's been fishing, right?" Newcomb asked rhetorically. "I want it to look realistic."
They were looking at the fishing rod as "Sarge" Moran pulled into the driveway. He apologized for being late.
"Coffins. I brought some insulin with me. Me and Brother Joe (Moore) were talking, if only we can fuck his ass, ”Newcomb said before Moran cut him off.
"Are we going to get him now?"
"I mean, we're going to look at some things now and see if there is an opportunity," Newcomb said.
“I am obeying your orders. Whatever orders are given, ”Moran replied eagerly. “I am here to serve. I am at will and pleasure. "
The three Klansmen got into Moore's SUV and drove onto a two-lane highway that passed under branches covered with Spanish moss.
They had the syringe cooler, Dora the Explorer fishing rod, and Newcomb's handgun that he held between his legs.
They fell silent as they drove past dirt roads that led back into the thick brushwood of Florida.
Then Newcomb's cell phone rang. His little daughter's voice was on the other end of the line.
“You don't need to bother me today unless it's very, very important. OK? "He scolded. His voice softened." Good. I love you. Bye."
Without missing a blow, Newcomb returned to his plans. A gun sat between his legs as he spoke.
"However, I was wondering if we could pack the package and take him to the river, which is not that far from him," Newcomb said. "Put his ass face down and give him a couple of shots because I've got two full and they're ready to go.
“If I set the fishing rod up like he's been fishing and give him a few shots and we sit there and wait for him, then we can put him down like he's dipping into the water and he just took a breath little bit."
Moran had other logistical problems on his mind. What would they do with the body?
“If we do a complete disposal. If we chop up the body, ”he said before being cut off.
Newcomb said they had a lot of options.
"I mean, if we have to do pow-pow, we will," he said, referring to the shooting at Williams.
Whatever they decided, Moran said they had to protect themselves. They had brought face shields and coats to cover their skin in case things got messy.
Upon joining the Klan, the FBI authorized Moore to accept the group's two main leaders. Little did they know at first that the Klan members were also active law enforcement officials.
However, after the Klansmen brought Moore into the murder plot, the FBI expanded the number of people it could include. The FBI had equipped Moore's SUV with recording devices that the agents broadcast live as they drove to Palatka.
In addition, the FBI had taken a number of measures to protect Williams. They kept him in a safe house. They set up police vehicles in his neighborhood so that the FBI agents, Florida Highway Patrol, and Palatka police could be clearly seen when the Klansmen arrived.
When the Klansmen drove into Williams' neighborhood, they were unsettled by the sight of police patrol cars. "I can't do too many laps when he's sitting there," Newcomb said, eyeing a patrol car.
Moore tried to stay cool as he spun the car to return to Newcomb's house.
"I just hate that we didn't reach our goal today," said Newcomb.
"We're going to catch this fish," Moran reassured him.
Moore later called his FBI contact and breathlessly described what he'd recorded. "He actually loaded a couple of insulin syringes and was ready to grab it," he said, panting. "It's all on the recording."
___
Williams was lying on the floor of his mother's house pretending to be dead. The day before, he had received a strange phone call from his probation officer asking him to come to the office the next day.
Williams was confused. He had met the officer that day and hadn't gotten into trouble in the hours since.
He told his mother about the call and she told him to go.
"If you didn't do anything wrong, just go downstairs and talk to him," she said.
When he came to the mysterious meeting, there were unfamiliar faces in the room. These were federal domestic terrorism investigators.
They told him his life was in danger. He would have to be taken into protective custody.
But first they wanted to go to his house and take a picture.
On the way, Williams saw his mother, Latonya Crowley, in a car at a traffic light on her way out of town for the weekend. The agents waved her down and she turned and chased her dark blue van back to her house.
Inside, the agents poured water on Williams' pants. They had torn his shirt to make it look like he had been shot.
When they finished, the FBI took Williams to a safe house. Even his mother didn't know where he was. They would only talk on the phone until the men who tried to kill Williams were in custody.
___
A few weeks later, Moore was waiting for Driver in front of a Starbucks in the parking lot of a mall.
He had already shown Moran the staged murder photo of Williams lying on the floor and videotaped his happy reaction. The day before, he'd done the same thing to Newcomb, who said "good job" to Moore and hugged him.
Driver was his last assignment. In their last discussion on Williams, Driver said he would stomp Williams ’" Larynx Closed "if he had the chance. Moore had said that either he or someone he had contracted with would quit the job.
They said hello and Moore told Driver to get in his car.
"We remembered how emotional this was and wanted for you - thought you might want a degree."
Moore handed Driver the phone with the photo of Williams' alleged lifeless body.
"Let us know what you think," said Moore.
"That works," said Driver curtly.
"Is that what you wanted?"
"Oh yeah," Driver said, relaxing into a chuckle.
Sarge Moran was home when a prison colleague called: Could he come by on his day off to get new uniforms? The authorities arrested him upon arrival and held him in prison, where he had served as a guard for decades.
Driver and Newcomb were arrested from their homes.
In August 2017, Newcomb and Moran were on trial in the Columbia County Courthouse in Lake City. Joseph Moore was the state's chief witness and testified against the men he had befriended for years. For a time the government protected Moore's family; his current whereabouts are unknown.
In the end, a jury convicted Moran and Newcomb of conspiracy to murder. They were each sentenced to 12 years in prison. The driver received four years after his guilty plea and is due to expire this year.
Following threats in Florida prisons, Driver was secretly moved to another state to serve his sentence, according to a source knowledgeable about the case. Despite being in jail, Newcomb and Moran were not on the Florida inmate search system and were unavailable for comment.
Although three current and former Florida prison guards were exposed as members of the clan, the state Justice Department said it found no reason to investigate whether other white racists were employed in its prisons.
There were no other "investigative leads," said Michelle Glady, the department's public relations director, in a statement to The AP. "However, any allegation made by an employee belonging to a group like this would be investigated individually."
People who "deliberately violate" the basic values ​​of the department can be dismissed or face arrest.
During a recent visit to the prison where the three Klan members worked, numerous cars and trucks in staff and volunteer parking lots were adorned with symbols associated with white supremacy: Confederate flags, QAnon symbols, and flag stickers thin blue line.
___
Williams and his family today live with insecurity and paranoia.
"My fears? That maybe some of the other clan members might come over and try to find us and harm us," his mother Latonya Crowley told The AP in their first interview about the ordeal.
In hindsight, Crowley recalls strange things going on in the house before the FBI was involved.
In one case, a neighbor said he saw two white men - they looked like police officers - in Crowley's garden at dawn. "No police came to my house," Crowley recalled, reacting dismissively to the news.
A bag of her trash full of empty insulin canisters - she's a diabetic - has also disappeared. She wonders if this is why Newcomb thought about using insulin.
But Williams and Crowley are also grateful. The FBI saved his life and the state of Florida prosecuted the men who threatened him.
Williams hat eine Klage gegen die Klansmänner und das Florida Department of Corrections eingereicht.
Williams' Anwalt ist frustriert, dass Florida nicht gründlicher untersucht hat, ob es mehr weiße Rassisten gibt, die für die Staatsgefängnisse arbeiten, und möchte, dass sie Verantwortung übernehmen. Florida hat seinerseits versucht, den Fall abzuweisen und weitere Kommentare dazu abgelehnt.
Williams wird von Drivers bevorstehender Freilassung heimgesucht und das Gespenst anderer Klansmänner hat es ihm unmöglich gemacht, weiterzumachen.
"In seiner heutigen Geistesverfassung sehe ich nicht, dass es ihm besser geht", sagte Crowley.
____
Eric Tucker in Washington und Randy Herschaft in New York haben zu dieser Geschichte beigetragen.
____
Folgen Sie Jason Dearen auf Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/@JHDearen

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