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Ole Miss students posing with guns in front of a shot-up Emmett Till memorial may face a Civil Rights investigation

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One of the students posted a photo to his private Instagram account in March showing the trio in front of a roadside plaque commemorating the site where Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River.


This article was produced in partnership with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. This story was originally published by ProPublica.

by Jerry Mitchell, Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in partnership with ProPublica

OXFORD, Miss. — Three University of Mississippi students have been suspended from their fraternity house and face possible investigation by the Department of Justice after posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled sign honoring slain civil rights icon Emmett Till.

One of the students posted a photo to his private Instagram account in March showing the trio in front of a roadside plaque commemorating the site where Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River. The 14-year-old black youth was tortured and murdered in August 1955. An all-white, all-male jury acquitted two white men accused of the slaying.

The photo, which was obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica, shows an Ole Miss student named Ben LeClere holding a shotgun while standing in front of the bullet-pocked sign. His Kappa Alpha fraternity brother, John Lowe, squats below the sign. A third fraternity member stands on the other side with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. The photo appears to have been taken at night, the scene illuminated by lights from a vehicle.

LeClere posted the picture on Lowe’s birthday on March 1 with the message “one of Memphis’s finest and the worst influence I’ve ever met.”

Neither LeClere nor Lowe responded to repeated attempts to contact them.

It is not clear whether the fraternity students shot the sign or are simply posing before it. The sign is part of a memorial effort by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, a Mississippi civil rights group, and has been repeatedly vandalized, most recently in August 2018. Till’s death helped propel the modern civil rights movement in America.

Five days after LeClere posted the photo, a person who saw it filed a bias report to the university’s Office of Student Conduct. The complaint pointed out there may have been a fourth person present, who took the picture.

“The photo is on Instagram with hundreds of ‘likes,’ and no one said a thing,” said the complaint, a copy of which was reviewed by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica. “I cannot tell Ole Miss what to do, I just thought it should be brought to your attention.”

The photo was removed from LeClere’s Instagram account after the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica began contacting fraternity members and friends. It had received 274 likes.

Kappa Alpha suspended the trio on Wednesday, after the news organizations provided a copy of the photo to fraternity officials at Ole Miss. The fraternity, which honors Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder” on its website, has a history of racial controversy, including an incident in which students wore blackface at a Kappa Alpha sponsored Halloween party at the University of Virginia in 2002.

Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, takes down a bullet-riddled sign honoring the slain youth, whose death helped propel the civil rights movement in America. (Courtesy of Emmett Till Interpretive Center)

“The photo is inappropriate, insensitive and unacceptable. It does not represent our chapter,” Taylor Anderson, president of Ole Miss’ Kappa Alpha Order, wrote in an email. “We have and will continue to be in communication with our national organization and the University.”

After viewing the photo, U.S. Attorney Chad Lamar of the Northern District of Mississippi in Oxford said the information has been referred to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for further investigation.

“We will be working with them closely,” he said Thursday.

University officials called the photo “offensive and hurtful.”

University spokesman Rod Guajardo acknowledged that an Ole Miss official had received a copy of the Instagram picture in March. The university referred the matter to the university police department, which in turn gave it to the FBI.

Guajardo said the FBI told police it would not further investigate the incident because the photo did not pose a specific threat.

Guajardo said that while the university considered the picture “offensive,” the image did not present a violation of the university’s code of conduct. He noted the incident depicted in the photo occurred off campus and was not part of a university-affiliated event.

“We stand ready to assist the fraternity with educational opportunities for those members and the chapter,” Guajardo said.

He said the university will continue to build programs to engage students in “deliberate, honest and candid conversations while making clear that we unequivocally reject attitudes that do not respect the dignity of each individual in our community.”

Since the first sign was erected in 2008, it has been the object of repeated animosity.

Weems taking down the bullet-riddled sign. (Courtesy of Emmett Till Interpretive Center)

Vandals threw the first sign in the river. The second sign was blasted with 317 bullets or shotgun pellets before the Emmett Till Memorial Commission officials removed it. The third sign, featured in the Instagram photo, was damaged by 10 bullet holes before officials took it down last week. A fourth sign, designed to better withstand attacks, is expected to be installed soon.

News of the suspensions and referral to the Justice Department came as Till’s cousin, Deborah Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, was already planning a moment of silence Thursday to honor her cousin with a gathering of supporters and friends dressed in black and white in “a silent yet powerful protest against racism, hatred and violence.” Thursday is Till’s birthday. Had he lived, he would have been 78 years old.

This is not the first time Ole Miss fraternity students have been caught up in an incident involving an icon from the civil rights movement.

In 2014, three students from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house placed a noose around the neck of a statue on campus of James Meredith, the first known black student to attend Ole Miss. They also placed a Georgia flag of the past that contains the Confederate battle emblem.

According to federal prosecutors, the freshmen students hatched the plan during a drinking fest at the house, where one student disparaged African Americans, saying this act would create a sensation: “It’s James Meredith. People will go crazy.”

One pleaded guilty and received six months in prison for using a threat of force to intimidate African American students and employees because of their race or color. Another student also pleaded guilty. He received probation and community service after he cooperated with the FBI. A third man wasn’t charged.

All three students withdrew from Ole Miss, and the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity’s national headquarters shuttered its chapter on the Ole Miss campus after its own investigation, blaming the closing on behavior that included “hazing, underage drinking, alcohol abuse and failure to comply with the university and fraternity’s codes of conduct.”

Shirley L. Smith and Debbie Skipper of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and Thalia Beaty, Benjamin Hardy and Claire Perlman of ProPublica contributed to this report.

Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities.

Email him at Jerry.Mitchell.MCIR@gmail.com and follow him on Facebook at @JerryMitchellReporter and on Twitter at @jmitchellnews.

If you have any information about the people who took this picture or who appeared in it, please let us know at Mississippi@ProPublica.org.

 

Crime

Vicksburg PD arrest woman for aggravated assault; incident report for Jan. 23

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Vicksburg Police officers charged Nakeisha Blue, 34, of Vicksburg, with one count of aggravated assault as a result of the altercation that occurred on Meadowvale Drive on Wednesday, Jan. 22.

As reported yesterday, the victim in the case had injuries consistent with blunt force trauma. She was transported to Merit Health River Region for treatment.

Blue is being housed in the Madison County Jail and will appear in Vicksburg Municipal Court on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.

Crescensio Mejias

The Vicksburg PD also reported the arrest of Crescensio Mejias, 27, of Tallulah, La. Mejias appeared in Vicksburg Municipal Court on Wednesday, Jan. 22, on a charge of possession of methamphetamine. He received a $5,000 bond and was bound over to the Warren County Grand Jury.

Other incidents reported for Wednesday:

At 3:29 p.m., officers responded to a report of a residential burglary in the 1100 block of Fayette Street. The victim reported that three televisions, two computers and jewelry were taken.

At 5:10 p.m., officers responded to the area of Letitia Street in reference to a report of shots fired. When the officers arrived on the scene, they found no evidence of shots being fired.

If you have any information on these incidents, please call the Vicksburg Police Department at 601-636-2511.

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Crime

Vicksburg PD reports a shooting into an unoccupied vehicle, theft from a business, shots fired and aggravated assault calls

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The Vicksburg Police Department reported the following incidents for Tuesday, Jan. 21, and Wednesday, Jan. 22.

On Tuesday at 9:02 a.m., officers responded to a residence in the 200 block of Railroad Alley on a call for a vehicle that had been shot into. The complainant reported that they had found a bullet hole in the rear passenger side door of their 2014 Nissan Rogue.

Tuesday at 3:38 p.m., officers responded to Divine Donuts, 1405 Clay Street, for a report of a theft. The complainant stated that two juvenile males stole a donation jar from the counter of the restaurant. Officers located the offenders and returned the stolen money.

Tuesday at 11:08 p.m., officers responded to the area of Clark Street and Patton Street in reference to shots fired. When the officers arrived on the scene, they found no evidence of shots being fired.

Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 5:30 a.m., officers responded to the 300 block of Meadowvale Drive for a report of an aggravated assault. The victim had injuries consistent with blunt force trauma and was transported to Merit Health River Region for treatment. This case is still under investigation.

If you have any information about any of these incidents, please call the Vicksburg Police Department at 601-636-2511.

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Crime

Dogan, wanted for auto burglary, is in custody

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Shortly before 3 p.m. today, an alert resident notified Vicksburg Warren 911 that they had seen Cody Dogan in the Oak Ridge Community.

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office was holding an active auto burglary warrant for Dogan.

The caller gave a vehicle description, and within minutes, Dogan was spotted by Sgt. Silento McMorris in the 2400 block of Oak Ridge Road.

McMorris stopped the vehicle and took Dogan into custody. An unidentified female was in the vehicle with Dogan and was also taken into custody.

Sheriff’s Investigators are en route to process the vehicle in relation to other suspicious activity.

Dogan has been transported to the Warren County Jail.

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