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Johnnie Mae Chappell

Woman's children wait 32 years before they learn what happened in a Civil Rights-era race-based slaying that still haunts investigators

Long road to truth

JACKSONVILLE, FL-It was pitch dark along U.S. 1, but Johnnie Mae Chappell kept searching. That wallet held every cent she owned.

Somewhere on this roadside it had silently dropped from her torn and soggy grocery bag. Now she was retracing her steps, headed back to Moncrief Road, where just like yesterday and the day before that, she had trudged off the evening bus after a 30-mile ride from the rich part of town, where she scrubbed the floors of white women.

Her home was in Pickettville, the poor part of town, where everyone was black. The date was March 23, 1964. Race riots raged downtown over segregation laws that decreed that black people weren't good enough to even drink from the same water fountain as white people.

But in mind-set and geography, the weary inhabitants of Pickettville were miles from rebellion.

As she walked, Chappell enlisted two sympathetic neighbors. One swept the lonely beam of his flashlight across the weeds and tall grass. A car passed, its headlights flicking over the intent trio.

Then they heard a bang.

For nearly 40 years, the death of Johnnie Mae Chappell has tainted everyone associated with it and everyone who loved her: the chief of detectives accused of ignoring her killing; two white investigators who bucked their boss to fight for justice; and the Chappell children forced into foster care.

On the unlit four-lane country highway leading out of Pickettville, the taillights of a speeding car faded from view. Chappell, 35 and the mother of 10, sank to her knees and grabbed her belly.

To Tildia Sanders, who lived four blocks from her, and to Albert Smith, who lived two streets over, she said, "I've been shot."

They got her across the open road to the lights outside Banner Food Market. Someone called for a "colored" ambulance. Someone ran to get her husband, a strong man who worked two jobs.

Inside the ambulance -- a hearse with no medical equipment, dispatched by a black funeral home -- blood soaked her white shirt and black-and-white skirt. A .22-caliber bullet was lodged in her pelvis, fired by a 22-year-old white man she had never met.

Willie Chappell held his wife's hand on the way to Duval Medical Center.

She bled to death before they got there.

At the Mount Ararat Baptist Church, an aging white man eased himself onto a wooden pew, surrounded by more than 100 relatives of Johnnie Mae Chappell. The stranger carried a mighty burden.

This was the church where Johnnie Mae had met her second husband, Willie. This was where her children worshipped after she died, until the county sent them to foster homes, where some were beaten, some were neglected, and all lost touch with each other.

The date was March 23, 1996. The reunited family sang We Shall Overcome. The white man, whose name was Lee Cody, joined in.

In the morning paper, he had seen a photograph of Shelton Chappell kneeling at his mother's grave, just outside the church where Cody now sat.

The accompanying article said Shelton Chappell hoped to bring his family together on the 32nd anniversary of their mother's death. Her nine remaining children were spread across three states, and none of them knew the whole truth about her killing.

After all these years, Shelton Chappell wanted to talk about it with them.

Shelton Chappell was born four months before his mother died. He grew into a gentle, guarded man. Life had taught him to be frugal with trust, especially when it came to white people.

He was only 4 or 5 when county welfare workers placed him in a juvenile detention center with his four older brothers. He still doesn't know why.

There, "another little boy kicked me and broke my nose," he remembers. "That was my first encounter with a white person."

Much of Florida had long been more Deep South than Yankee resort.

In Jacksonville, four years before Johnnie Mae Chappell was shot, Klansmen had gathered at a downtown park on a morning remembered as "Ax Handle Saturday". They stood in the back of pickups, in a city that was 45 percent black, and distributed ax handles and baseball bats to white men enraged by the prospect of racial equality.

They swarmed inside Woolworth's, where blacks could shop but not eat, and dragged teen-agers from the local NAACP's Youth Council off their lunch-counter stools and beat them in the street.

A month before Chappell's killing, a homemade bomb had exploded in the house of a first-grader whose mother sent him to an all-white school.

Chappell's children have only one photograph of their mother, and it is from a magazine. She is lying on a morgue table, a sheet pulled to her chin. Her husband looks down on her, his face frozen in disbelief. The image was captured by a Jet magazine photographer assigned to the riots.

"She hated having her picture taken," said Alonzo Chappell, Shelton Chappell's older brother.

He was 6 when his mother died. "She was like a duck, with all of us trailing behind her," he remembers. He doesn't remember much else.

She had five daughters from her first marriage. They were sent to live with relatives on their daddy's side after she died. Alonzo Chappell doesn't ask the women about his mother, although they are eldest and knew her best.

"They took it the worst," he explains.

Shelton Chappell reckons that he lived with eight or nine foster families. For a little boy, he carried a big weight.

"My father came to visit. Sometimes he had my brothers with him," Shelton Chappell recalls. "I would be so sad to see him go. I didn't want him to leave me."

His brothers sometimes ran away and made their way back to the tiny cinderblock house on Pipit Avenue, where their daddy still lived. But the county always caught up with them, and back they went to the homes of strangers.

All the family knew about their mother's killing was a story repeated for years throughout the black community: A man named Parnell had shot her and died not long after.

Shelton Chappell made a promise to God.

"If you allow me to live to be an adult," he prayed, "and let me find out who killed my momma, I will not take vengeance into my own hands."

When Shelton Chappell was 17, his older brother rescued him from foster care.

"I took him back to Miami with me," Alonzo Chappell said. "I opened up a barbecue joint on the weekends, and Shelton started working in electronics."

In 1995, when he was 31, Shelton Chappell returned to Jacksonville. There were questions he could no longer ignore. There was a promise he had to keep.

He went to the city library. His mother's shooting had received passing mention at the bottom of a front-page story about the race riots.

Its date: March 24, 1964. Its headline: "Large Area Is Terrorized By Negroes."

He went to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. A records supervisor went through every homicide file from 1964. There was none marked Chappell, he said.

The only record with her name on it was an old microfilm of index cards bearing case names and file numbers. "CHAPPELL, Johnnie Mae CF 35," was typed at the top; CF meant colored female, 35 was her age. Written underneath, in loopy cursive, was "Confidential File."

Shelton Chappell went to the county courthouse. He was handed a thin file containing few court documents. On one, he saw a name he didn't know -- J.W. Rich. The man had been charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Johnnie Mae Chappell. Three others had been charged as well.

Shelton Chappell didn't tell his father.

"He had lived this tragedy for 30-some years," Shelton said. "I didn't want him to relive it. He never got over it."

Willie Chappell died six months later, at age 80. Only then did Shelton Chappell tell his siblings. Then he started planning the reunion.

He persuaded the local paper to write about it. He hoped the story would make someone come forward -- someone who could help the family make sense of the past.

They got Lee Cody, a former sheriff's department detective.

When the reunion ended, Cody strode up the church aisle. "Who's in charge of this reunion?" his deep voice boomed. Everyone pointed at Shelton Chappell.

Cody grasped the man's firm, black hand in his wrinkled, white one. "Shelton," he said, "you have no idea what really happened. I can tell you because I was there."

He and his partner, Donald Coleman, had solved the murder of Shelton Chappell's mother five months after it happened, he said. But in the end, no one wanted to hear about it, he said.

Their crusade for justice got them fired, and four men got away with murder, the partners believed.

To this day, they are still obsessed.

"It was just pure racism," Cody said. "They didn't give a damn about that poor woman. They just wanted to make sure four white boys didn't go to jail for killing her."

Cody began his story at the beginning. He is not a man to be hurried, even though his audience was Chappell's youngest son.

He had just made detective when he was paired with Donald Coleman in 1964. Both were brash and ambitious, Cody more so.

He was so rambunctious that he started each shift by rifling the lieutenant's in-box. In a little notebook he kept in his pocket, Cody wrote details from the daily patrol logs of other officers.

On March 24, he jotted "dark color car heading north at a high rate of speed" from the handwritten report of two sergeants responding to a shooting on U.S. 1 in Pickettville.

"No information or evidence could be found," the report concluded. "Investigation continuing."

Five months passed. On a hot August day, Coleman and Cody were sharing a meal at a local drive-in called the Freezette, popular with young people and police officers.

They were intrigued by the weird behavior of Wayne Chessman, a local tough. He sauntered up to their table and began rambling about getting his life together and getting a good job.

The detectives made noises about that being nice and kept eating.

A few days later, it happened again. This time, Chessman told the detectives to come find him if they ever needed help. Help with what? Cody wondered.

Chessman walked outside. He got into the dark blue car of Elmer Kato, another neighborhood troublemaker.

Cody's mind flashed to his notebook. "Dark color car headed north."

Chessman, the partners agreed, was acting guilty.

They didn't know who had been assigned to investigate the Chappell case and they didn't much care. They drove to Chessman's house, where Cody told the young man that they just might need his help after all.

Would he come to the station? There, the trio filed into an interview room. Chessman sat down.

Then Cody pulled a stunt that he and Coleman never tire of telling.

Cody opened a Bible, slid it in front of Chessman and pointed to the fifth commandment: Thou shalt not kill.

Coleman had to will himself not to laugh out loud. Until that moment, his hard-living partner had no use for Scriptures.

But Chessman, according to the detectives, didn't think it was funny. He began to sob. He hadn't killed anyone, but J.W. Rich had. Chessman had just been riding in the back seat with another man named James Alex Davis. Kato had been driving.

Patrol officers were sent to arrest Rich and Kato and bring them in. Davis had joined the Army, and was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.

A court reporter was summoned to the Sheriff's Office.

As the partners tell it, Coleman went looking for the Chappell case file. He was gone a long time.

The detectives' division was so small that a shout could be heard from anywhere in the building.

Cody stuck his head out the door of the interview room and yelled, "What's taking you so long?"

"I can't find the file," Coleman hollered back.

They ended up in the office of J.C. Patrick, the chief of detectives. Sometimes case files went into his office and stayed there for days.

But there was no Chappell file. Coleman sat in the chief's chair; Cody perched on the desk. "What are we going to do?" Cody asked.

Then they noticed an inch of white paper peeking from the floor pad under the chief's chair.

They pulled it out. It was the daily log sheet filed by the patrol sergeants who responded to Chappell's shooting -- the same handwritten report Cody had read five months ago in the lieutenant's box.

Which meant, according to the partners, a file had not been started on the slaying, and it had not been assigned to a detective.

There were another 20 or 30 pages stuffed under the pad. Coleman and Cody said they didn't fish them out. They didn't want to know what else was under there.

They walked out of the chief's office with the log sheet. They opened a case file for Johnnie Mae Chappell.

A slain woman's family continues the fight for a conviction and a measure of closure

Still Seeking Justice

Lee Cody, a former deputy who investigated a 1964 Florida slaying, stands near the site where Johnnie Mae Chappell was gunned down.


The story so far: On March 23, 1964, a black woman named Johnnie Mae Chappell was shot near her home outside Jacksonville, Fla. Afterward, her family was split up, and none of her children knew the whole truth about her killing. Decades later, family members held a reunion, during which a detective revealed omissions in the initial investigation.

Sheriff's detective Lee Cody had never seen anyone who wanted to confess as badly as J.W. Rich.

The young man appeared plenty upset, Cody thought. It seemed he couldn't talk fast enough.

The interrogation began at 1 a.m. on Aug. 11, 1964, according to the court reporter's transcript. Cody's partner, Donald Coleman, asked the questions.

Rich said four men -- all white, all age 22 except for 19-year-old Elmer Kato -- had been drinking beer and driving around, listening to the radio describe race riots downtown, where black men and women were setting fires and throwing bricks.

Someone suggested that they "get" a black resident, Rich said, using a racial slur. Kato drove across the 20th Street Expressway, headed toward Pickettville.

"The gun was lying in the seat. It was a joke," said Rich, who said he saw three black people walking along the road. Again, he used a racial slur to describe them.

"What caused you to shoot?" Coleman asked.

"I don't know. I didn't mean to do it."

Rich put the .22-caliber pistol back where he got it -- on the front seat between him and Kato. The three people had been less than 30 feet away when the gun was fired, Rich said.

Rich, Kato and Wayne Chessman, all of whom gave similar statements to Jacksonville sheriff's detectives, were arraigned and pleaded guilty to murdering Johnnie Mae Chappell. James Alex Davis, extradited from North Carolina, where he was serving in the Army, pleaded not guilty.

Coleman and Cody went looking for the gun, which belonged to Chessman. He had sold it to the owner of the Freezette, who sold it to a sheriff's dispatcher, who sold it to "Blind Jim" Nobel, who ran the sandwich shop inside the sheriff's office, Cody said.

Next, they went to see Sheriff Dale Carson, to talk about the papers stuffed under the chair pad of J.C. Patrick, the chief of detectives.

"I'll take care of it," said Carson, who died in 2000.

Their whistle-blowing visit backfired. Patrick hauled both detectives into his office. Stay away from the Chappell case, Patrick yelled.

"Don't try to rock this boat, boys, because the anchor's too ... big," both detectives recalled him saying.

The partners had complained before about corruption in the sheriff's office. But the Chappell case, they said, was the last straw. Both were fired months later after being accused of insubordination.

But on that hot afternoon, standing outside the chief's office, the partners still believed in their case. A county grand jury indicted all four men on charges of first-degree murder.

And then the case imploded. Rich, Kato and Chessman changed their pleas to not guilty. The gun vanished from the property room and was never seen again.

Trial was set for Dec. 1, 1964. Rich went first. By 1:30 p.m. the jury had elected a foreman and begun deliberating.

It took one hour and four minutes for 12 white men to declare Rich guilty of manslaughter, a much lesser charge. He was sentenced to 10 years at hard labor. He made parole after three.

The others weren't tried. The prosecutor, who is now dead, cited insufficient evidence and dropped all charges.

After they were fired, Coleman and Cody drove garbage trucks for a living. Then Coleman sold insurance and started a carpet company. He did well at both.

But he didn't do as well at letting go. His wife begged him to forget Chappell and focus instead on their sick daughter, who died in 1968 at age 14.

Cody drifted in and out of jobs, and watched more than one wife walk away over his obsession with a dead woman.

The same year Coleman's daughter died and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Rich was released from Florida state prison. Outside, he stumbled for decades from arrest to arrest, county records show, for offenses including grand larceny, public intoxication, public fighting and drunken driving.

Cody couldn't give up his fixation. He asked four governors to reopen the Chappell case. All said no. He wrote letters to federal and state authorities, who also said no.

Then he walked into the Chappells' reunion. And the white former investigator became the black family's ally in a quixotic fight for justice.

He helped search for more records, but they found little more than what Shelton Chappell already had. He helped hunt for a lawyer. But no one would take their longshot case until Shelton Chappell met Bill Lassiter.

He didn't think the suit had much of a chance either. "But I had to help them," he says. "No one else would."

In 2000, Lassiter filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Chappells against the city of Jacksonville and the four defendants. It claimed that the family's civil rights were violated by a racist conspiracy to bury their mother's murder.

They were long past the four-year statute of limitations for bringing such a suit. But Lassiter argued that the clock shouldn't have started ticking with the murder itself. Rather, he said, it should have begun when the family first heard from Cody.

The suit produced one more improbable ally -- James Patrick, the only child of J.C. Patrick, the chief of detectives who fired Coleman and Cody.

In a deposition supporting the Chappell lawsuit, he testified that he had accompanied his father to Klan rallies as a teen-ager. His father, he said, beat him and his mother, drank vodka at breakfast and consumed more than a quart a day.

"As far as a black lady like that dying, it would just be crap under his feet," James Patrick said in an interview. "He wouldn't care. It wouldn't even count to him."

His father often brought home guns from the sheriff's office evidence room, sometimes keeping them, sometimes giving them to friends, his son testified.

The Chappell suit, however, was rejected by trial and appellate judges who ruled that the statute clock began ticking at the time of her murder.

The family's last resort is the U.S. Supreme Court. It is a very long shot. Most of the murder evidence is gone, and most officials involved with the case are dead -- factors that also hinder opening new criminal investigations against the Chappell defendants who weren't tried.

In October, Rich told The Associated Press that the Chappells were "wasting their time. They don't have a damn thing on me." Cody forced him to confess, Rich said.

Coleman and his wife live near the ocean outside Jacksonville. He is a big-hearted man with graying hair whose eyes fill with tears when he speaks of what he lost -- his daughter, his law enforcement career, the chance to speak for Johnnie Mae Chappell.

"That poor woman didn't do nothing to nobody," he said, sitting at his dining room table holding a copy of Rich's confession. "And they shot her down on the side of the road like a dog."