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Jim Ingram, probed killings of civil rights workers for FBI

Jim Ingram investigated President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s killings and the mass suicide in Guyana. Jim Ingram investigated President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s killings and the mass suicide in Guyana. (Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press/File2007)
Associated Press / August 4, 2009

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JACKSON, Miss. - Retired FBI agent Jim Ingram, who helped state and federal officials reopen long-dormant investigations of killings from Mississippi’s violent civil rights era, died Sunday of complications from pancreatic cancer.

He was 77.

A 30-year FBI veteran, Mr. Ingram led bureau offices in Chicago and New York. He assisted in the investigation of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the 1978 mass suicide in Guyana of more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones.

He retired from the bureau in 1982. Two decades later, however, he would help agents investigate and arrest former key Ku Klux Klan figures implicated in several murders.

The Oklahoma native was among the agents who opened the FBI’s first office in Mississippi in the weeks after three civil rights workers disappeared in Neshoba County on June 21, 1964.

In what came to be known as the “Mississippi Burning’’ case, agents found the bodies of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman buried in an earthen dam on Aug. 4, 1964, several miles from where they had been abducted by Klansmen.

In 1967, seven men were convicted of federal charges for violating the civil rights of the men killed.

None served more than six years in prison. The trial for Edgar Ray Killen, a reputed Klan leader and part-time preacher, ended in a hung jury.

In 2005, Mr. Ingram helped Mississippi prosecutors bring the first-ever state charges in the case. On June 21, 2005 - 41 years to the day after the three men disappeared - a Neshoba County jury convicted Killen on three counts of manslaughter for masterminding the slayings. Killen was sentenced to three consecutive 20-year terms and remains in a state prison.

State Attorney General Jim Hood said yesterday that Mr. Ingram was invaluable to the revived investigation, knocking on doors and persuading witnesses to speak to authorities.

“He had the trust of the confidential informants to be able to contact them, and they knew that he would not disclose their identity,’’ Hood said. “He was the perfect go-between, between us and the confidential informants, whose identities have been and will continue to be protected forever.’’

In 2007, Mr. Ingram helped FBI agents reopen an investigation into the May 2, 1964, abduction and killing of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, two black teenagers. Their mostly skeletal remains were pulled from the Mississippi River more than two months later as investigators were still searching for Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman.

Justice Department lawyer Paige Fitzgerald led the prosecution of reputed Klansman James Ford Seale in that case. She said Mr. Ingram was “an incredibly effective investigator’’ who was genuinely interested in what people had to say.

“He could just charm anybody he ran across,’’ Fitzgerald, now deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Cold Case Unit, said yesterday. “Even the most hardened Klansman who would slam the door in anybody’s else’s face would invite him in for a cup of coffee.’’

On June 14, 2007, a federal jury in Jackson convicted Seale of kidnapping and conspiracy and was sentenced to three life terms. He is in federal prison and is appealing the conviction.

“If it hadn’t been for him, maybe the trial wouldn’t have happened,’’ said Thomas Moore, Charles Eddie Moore’s brother. He praised the former agent for stepping in to help long after his retirement.

Hood said Mr. Ingram’s death will make it more difficult for prosecutors in Mississippi to reopen other civil rights era cold cases.

“You lose someone of that stature and [with] that history in this state and respect as a lawman, it’s hard to replace that,’’ Hood said.

Mr. Ingram leaves his wife, Marie, and three sons, Steven W. and James M., both of Madison, Miss., and Stanley T. of Edwards, Miss.