Even though as a result of the hypnosis session, I had satisfied my own mind and assured myself I’d given accurate information to Bob Eddy and Jon Yung, the questions raised by the FBI files and Mel Alexander’s reports were of some trouble to the investigative team. It had not been established that I would, in fact, be called upon to testify; or rather, I had not been told as a certainty. And if I were to take the stand against Robert Chambliss, would the testimony include only the information Robert himself had given me or was there an “eyewitness” account to be had? More to the point: was I being totally honest?
Bob Eddy asked if I would take a polygraph test. My first thought was that any polygrapher accepted as an expert in Birmingham would also be a part of the local law enforcement establishment or would be an FBI employee. This apparently was on Bob’s mind, also. I don’t recall who brought it up, but I do recall that we discussed it. He said that he would do some checking and find someone who could be trusted and would ensure that the tests would be confidential. With this assurance, I agreed. He also told me that he was going to ask Dale Tarrant to submit to a test.
Now life goes on and circumstances change for people—and circumstances change people. There had been 14 long years for things to get in the way. People who might have been willing to cooperate in 1963 or 1964 were less than enthusiastic in 1977. There were children who were grown and had lives and families of their own that would be disrupted. There was also the embarrassment of being put on exhibition and the shame of so many years of association with the defendant.
Aside from these issues, there were others even more disturbing. There were personal safety and the safety of loved ones. There was also Tee: how would all of this affect her after so many years? She was 65 years old in 1977, had never been alone, and was in poor health. Yet she would at least be free of the tyranny of Robert, wouldn’t she?, I reasoned. It was important, however, to protect her from any indication that she may have provided information that passed through informants to the FBI or the state investigative team.
All of these reasons for not testifying were multiplied during the investigative phase because it makes a lot more sense to silence a potential witness than it does to punish one who has already spoken. Besides, I was not convinced, nor was Dale Tarrant, that the matter would, in fact, ever come to trial. It had not come to trial during the Sixties; why was 1977 any different?
When Dale and I spoke on the telephone, I could not let even her know that I had agreed to testify, if needed, though she undoubtedly guessed that I would. She may not have understood at the time, but this was also a way of protecting her and her family.
If I were able to speak effectively, it might not be necessary for her to take the risk, especially since she had been one of the informants who had been isolated by a sheriff’s deputy, Floyd Garrett, into ineffectiveness and had been in danger all of those years. If she had come forward publicly, she would have been disgraced by lies about her reasons for the many meetings with the deputy—that is, if she had been allowed to live. Paranoia? No. Several years later when both her name and that of the deputy became public, Garrett did, in fact, discount the value of her efforts because he did nothing with the information she gave him. He led her on. He made her believe he was building a case while he compromised her credibility.
After a couple of days, Bob Eddy called me to say that the polygraph examination would be conducted in Savannah, Georgia. At first I protested. That arrangement would take so much time and effort, it seemed impossible. I was pastor of a church participating in a four-church parish program of community service. I was running a household with a spouse and my son, and I was a full-time student in my senior year at Birmingham-Southern College. I was busy, too busy to take a trip to Georgia.
There were also moments when I questioned my decision to trust Bob Eddy. Since he had learned of the Mel Alexander report, he had seemed a bit tense and guarded with me. I had never taken a polygraph examination before, and I had no reason to believe the tests were particularly credible.
“One day,” he promised me. “We’ll fly over, take the test, and fly back in the same day.”
“I want Robin to go with me.”
“You can take him if you’ll be more comfortable,” he agreed. He then set the date and time.
It turned out that Robin couldn’t take the day off from his job, so he just took me to the airport with plans to drop me off. When we arrived in the hangar area where the state-owned airplane was housed, we went into the small waiting area. Bob Eddy, Jon Yung, and a pilot were there.
Someone asked who Robin was and seemed upset by his presence. Bob explained that he was my son and was to go with us. We told them that he would not, after all, be able to go, and were informed that since he was there and knew about the trip, he had to go. One of the men, I think that it was Jon, escorted Robin to a pay telephone to call his employer and claim to be sick. The man Robin worked for was demanding and unreasonable and tried to insist that Robin come to work, “sick” or no. Finally Robin told him that he simply wasn’t corning and hung up.
Dale Tarrant joined us at the airport, and we gathered on the tarmac near the hangar where the small six-passenger plane sat waiting. As we smoked cigarettes and made small talk while the pilot did some last minute things, the subject of security came up. Dale questioned our safety. Bob assured her that every detail was attended to and there were no weapons or bombs on board.
We were at the doorway to the small plane by this time, and she turned to me and joked, “I guess I’d better take this one out of my purse then.” I was horrified that she would so innocently say exactly the wrong thing. Bob stopped her with a hand on her arm. He took her purse and had the pilot stand by while he went through the purse’s contents on the wing of the plane. She repeatedly told him that she was joking and was both angry and embarrassed that he reacted so strongly. He did not know her, and I can understand that he could not behave otherwise under the circumstances.
The flight was long and boring, but napping was impossible due to tension and crowded conditions. After a while conversation lulled except for quiet exchanges between Bob and the pilot. Bob sat beside the pilot, Dale and I occupied the center seats, while Robin and Jon sat in the rear. I felt vulnerable and isolated, but I did not feel alone. There was also a sense of trepidation in facing a polygraph, yet this had to be faced with resolve the same way every other step had had to be.
I learned that the polygrapher was a man past middle age whose services were often used bv the FBI; he was the same one who would later be seen on television when he administered a test to Gary Thomas Rowe. His offices were in an upscale building fronting one of the many downtown parks or squares in Savannah; we could hear the river sounds, but there was no opportunity for sightseeing.
He wired me up to his machine in a small inner office and explained the procedure to me. His voice was kindly but efficient; nothing wasted. He asked a few questions to set criteria for the test, including, “Are you nervous, now?” Then without preamble he began the actual examination.
There were ten or so target questions, but only two or three upon which a great deal hinged. Had I been at or near the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church the evening of Saturday, September 14, 1963, or the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963; and had I told the FBI that I had been? These questions were asked in several different ways, but the effect was the same. Who was correct; was Mel Alexander or was I? After the test was complete, the polygrapher unhooked all the wires and buckles, handed me a tissue and walked me to the door of the room. Bob was standing there waiting just outside, a look of question on his face.
“You are either the most honest person I have ever tested or the calmest,” the examiner said to me as the three of us stood in the doorway.
“I’m certainly not calm,” I replied.
It was Dale’s turn then, and it seemed to take forever. At some point we had lunch and later coffee. I don’t recall eating much or even what I ate. Robin and Jon had walked around out in the parks while the tests were being done. During this time, Robin started to feel more at ease with the slight, boyish-looking attorney, and some of the tension of the day lifted for him. Having planned on going to work that morning, Robin was too warmly dressed for the muggy Savannah afternoon, so at some point during their walking, Jon bought Robin a shirt; my own distraction during that day was such that I lost sight of this for some years.
After Dale’s test was finished, Bob and Jon took me aside. They told me that she had not done very well on the test, and that they had to decide what to do. The two men suggested that it might be necessary to take her into custody; the attorney general might want to lodge charges against her as an accessory.
Every red light and panic button in me went on alert. “No!” I told them bluntly. If they did either, I would not testify and would have nothing further to say. I told them that if, and I emphasized “if,” she had not “done well” on the test, it was due to being highly excitable and intimidated. Her performance had nothing whatsoever to do with any “guilt” on her part. They looked at each other and led me back to where she and Robin were waiting. Nothing more was said about the results of her test to me.
When we were all together, they said only that the tests would be evaluated after we got back. Bob Eddy told me later that Dale would not be asked to testify, although he accepted the truthfulness of her statements.
So far as I know, when Dale reads this, it will be her first knowledge of the exchange between Bob, Jon, and me. As I reflect on that conversation and later conversations, I think I did exactly what they wanted me to do. I believe they were baiting me into a commitment. At that time, I don’t think Bob Eddy or Jon Yung realized that my only hesitation was that I didn’t want to become a target. I did not want my cooperation to be publicized and then to be left hanging. Nor did I want to testify in open court in a leaky case so that Robert and his cronies would come after me after they had been acquitted. I knew what they could (and would) do to someone they felt had betrayed them. I knew that violence was not only a practice for them, but a form of recreation. These men did their night-riding the same way other men played sandlot baseball.
I had also been made aware through the years that there were more subtle methods for eliminating enemies. Had no one noticed that “weak links” kept turning up dead just ahead of Bob’s investigation? Had he missed the implications that at least two Klansmen had died once he had made it known that he wanted to talk to them? Two of these men who had been FBI or police informants: John Wesley Hall and Ross Keith. And earlier, Troy Ingram had suddenly died, once the re-activated investigation had started to look serious.
We had to go to Savannah in order to be safe taking a polygraph, for heaven’s sake!