Thursday, June 24, 2004

Fifty years after the murder of an Alabama politician who promised to clean up his crime-ridden town — a murder for which three men were indicted, two tried and one convicted — one historian says the case is not completely solved.

“A lot of people are not convinced that the one man out of the three indicted was responsible,” said Alan Grady, whose new book “When Good Men Do Nothing” chronicles the case. “I think it’s fairly clear no one knows and no one really has known exactly what happened.”

This real-life murder mystery is the case of Albert Patterson, who won the Democratic nomination for state attorney general — tantamount to election in 1954 Alabama — on his promise to drive organized crime and political corruption out of Phenix City, an Alabama town across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Ga.

From its 19th-century founding as a frontier outpost in Creek Indian territory, Phenix City had a reputation for lawlessness. It was a haven for bootleggers during the Great Depression. During and after World War II, soldiers from nearby Fort Benning, Ga., provided a steady stream of customers for the city’s notorious bars, brothels and gambling dens.

The assassination of the man who pledged to clean it up made national headlines — and was made into a 1955 movie.

“In Alabama, it was the biggest crime story, certainly for the century and possibly ever,” said Bob Ingram, who covered the case as a young reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser.

One reason the story remains so compelling 50 years later is that the murder of Patterson, who was poised to become the state’s top legal officer, exposed and brought down the Phenix City machine.

“Phenix City … was completely dominated and controlled politically and otherwise by the crime syndicate,” Mr. Ingram said. “It really was a terrible place.”

MacDonald Gallion, appointed by Alabama’s governor 50 years ago to investigate the case, remembers what Phenix City was like when he arrived.

“They had everything that you can think of in the way of vice,” he said. “They had open gambling. … They had what they called B-girls, bar girls in the open saloons. … Houses of ill repute for just about everything you can think of. … Abortion houses, dope houses, bootleg houses — you just name it, they had it.”

John Patterson, Albert’s son, described how the corruption developed.

“From the time of the Depression in the 1930s, Phenix City opted to permit illegal gambling to get the funds to run their town and pay off their bonded debt,” he said. “The folks in Montgomery at the state Capitol looked the other way. The federal people did not get involved. And Phenix City was just left to go its own way.”

It was only a matter of time, he said, before criminals controlled the juries and ballot boxes of Phenix City.

“If you didn’t like it, they would boycott you, they would pressure you, they would threaten you … [and] if that didn’t work, they would kill you,” he said.

When Albert Patterson campaigned on cleaning up the town, his crime-supported political opponents committed vote fraud to keep him out of office. When he won the nomination anyway, he was killed. His death brought the issue to statewide attention, and reform was fast and sweeping.

“After that, even people who didn’t know where Phenix City was were saying, ‘Clean it up!’…” Mr. Ingram said.

Gov. Gordon Persons sent Gen. Walker “Crack” Hanna of the Alabama National Guard, who imposed martial law on Phenix City and shut down illegal activities.

Mr. Ingram said his most vivid memory of the time is the day Gen. Hanna took all of the town’s preachers on a bus tour of the city.

The National Guard commander “took those preachers on a bus ride to show them what a sorry, sorry city they were living in and what a sorry job they were doing at saving souls,” Mr. Ingram said.

The indictments that followed revealed just how deep the corruption ran in Phenix City and surrounding Russell County.

“By the first of December, the Russell County Grand Jury had indicted 141 persons on 734 counts, a new record for any Alabama grand jury,” Mr. Grady wrote. “The list of indicted or convicted persons read like a who’s who of Phenix City and Russell County’s most prominent officials.”

Among those indicted was Alabama Attorney General Silas Garrett, who escaped prosecution for murder by checking into a mental hospital in Texas.

John Patterson, who was a young lawyer when his father was killed, said the slaying pushed him into politics.

“I was the logical person to step forward and take charge, and I did,” he said. “Shortly after he was assassinated, I decided that I would try to get that office myself to ensure that the cleanup would go forward and that the people who killed him would be found and prosecuted.”

Running unopposed in November 1954, Albert Patterson’s son was elected Alabama’s attorney general. Four years later he was elected governor, defeating George C. Wallace in 1958. Mr. Patterson said honoring his father’s memory remains a motivating factor in his life.

“History was rewritten because of it,” said Mr. Ingram, explaining that Mr. Wallace campaigned in 1958 as a moderate on racial segregation, rather than the “segregation forever” spokesman he became in the early 1960s. If Mr. Wallace had been elected that year, “He would have been a vastly different governor.”

Albert Fuller, chief sheriff’s deputy of Russell County, was convicted in 1955 of the Patterson murder. He spent 10 years in prison before being paroled, and died in 1969, never having admitted guilt in the case. Circuit Solicitor Arch Ferrell was tried and acquitted.

John Patterson, Mr. Gallion and Mr. Ingram said they believe they got the right man, but the elements of a murder mystery in the Phenix City story remain fascinating.

“I don’t think it will ever lose its attraction,” Mr. Grady said. “People have talked about it for years and will continue to talk about it.”

Mr. Patterson said it leaves a painful lesson about those who allow crime to flourish.

“At first, it doesn’t look so bad,” he said. “Phenix City mobsters contributed a lot of money to Little League ball teams and charity and paid off mortgages on churches and things like that, and the people said, ‘They’re not bad guys.’

“If you wait and don’t do any anything about it for a long time, you’ll wake up one morning and you can’t get a fair trial down at the courthouse, your vote don’t count for nothing, and suddenly you’ll be deprived of your rights. The cost of doing something about it at that point is probably more than you’re willing to pay.”

In Phenix City, that price was Albert Patterson’s life.

“There came a time,” Mr. Gallion said, “when good men did something.”

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