Defender

Vernon Dahmer was born on March 10, 1908 and murdered in January 1966 in  Hattiesburg.  Dahmer had lived in Forrest County all his life. A  successful businessman, he owned a store, a sawmill, a planning mill,  and a 300-acre commercial cotton farm. He also served several terms as  president of the Forrest County Chapter of the NAACP.



On January 9, 1966, Dahmer led a voter registration drive. A  local radio station announced that Dahmer would allow black prospective  voters to pay the two dollar poll tax at his store. At about 2 am on the   morning of January 10, 1966, Dahmer’s home was firebombed in  Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Two or three carloads of White Knights  Klansmen pushed their way into the Dahmer home and ignited 12 one-gallon   containers of gasoline. While the house and adjacent store were on  fire, shots were fired at the home by the Klansmen. Dahmer returned fire   from a window in the house in order to hold off the Klansmen while  Dahmer’s wife, Ellie, and their small children, all in the home during  the attack, escaped from a rear window. His family survived the attack  but Vernon Dahmer did not. He died as a result of his burns the next  day.  The Dahmers’ home, store and car were all destroyed.



Legal Status

An agent of the FBI agent in Meridian quickly opened an investigation in  concert with local authorities. Nearly 20 FBI agents began canvassing  the area. They interviewed local Klansmen and Klan informants and  gathered 120 pieces of evidence—including tire tracks and shell  casings—that were analyzed by the FBI Lab in Washington. FBI agents soon  identified a number of suspects and compiled a 1,100 page report  outlining the case. On March 27, a complaint was filed against fourteen  men. Thirteen were arrested by the next day. Sam Bowers turned himself  in several days later.  Thirteen suspected Klansmen were brought to trial, eight on charges of  arson and murder. Four of those involved in the murder were found guilty  and sentenced under federal law and another entered a guilty plea.  Three were sentenced to life terms, each serving less than 10 years.  Another man sentenced to 10 years for arson served two. Eleven of the  defendants were also tried on federal charges of conspiracy to  intimidate Dahmer because of his civil rights activities.   Bowers, believed to have ordered the murder, was not convicted in  connection with Mr. Dahmer’s death, but served six years in prison for  his role in the 1964 killing of civil-rights workers James Chaney,  Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (“The Mississippi Burning” case).  Bowers was tried four times in connection with the Dahmer murder; these  cases ended in mistrials.  At the Dahmers’ prompting, Forrest County District Attorney Lindsay  Carter reopened an investigation into the murder in 1998.  State and  federal authorities obtained new evidence that indicated there had been  jury tampering in Bowers’ earlier trials. Bowers was arrested on May 2,  1998 on the old indictment and the case was tried before a state court  jury consisting five black citizens, 6 white citizens, and one Asian  citizen.

At the trial in August 1998, Ellie Dahmer and her two children,  Bettie and Dennis, testified as to the events of that night.  Billy Roy Pitts, a former White Knights Klansmen involved in the Dahmer murder,  was the state’s star witness. Having been granted immunity, he testified   that Bowers organized, commanded and planned the Dahmer firebombing and  murder.

On August 21, 1998, Sam Bowers was found guilty of conspiracy to  commit the murder of Vernon Dahmer. He received a mandatory life  sentence. He died in prison on November 5, 2006.

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