Agent says 'time was right' for closure in 1963 bombing


NEWARK, N. J. - The crime was old, the witnesses even older. More than 30 years after a bomb exploded in a Birmingham, Ala., church and killed four girls, memories had faded and the demand for justice competed against a reluctance to reopen old wounds.

And yet, the passage of the years proved to be friend as much as foe.

"The time was right," said Joseph R. Lewis, who as head of the Birmingham's FBI office oversaw a renewed investigation of the 1963 bombing that led to two former Ku Klux Klansmen being indicted for murder Wednesday in the deaths of the girls. "Things have changed, feelings have changed. The South is obviously in a different posture today with respect to race relations."

The FBI has also changed in the years since the bombing, among the most galvanizing events of the civil rights movement. Birmingham agents in the 1960s had suspected the men who were indicted this week, Thomas E. Blanton Jr., and Bobby Frank Cherry. But FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover decided not to prosecute and closed the case.

Hoover was no friend to the civil rights movement and hostile to its leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he investigated and suspected of being a Communist. Today, though, the FBI is credited with helping uncover new information against the bombing suspects - and the agent in charge of the Birmingham FBI office when it jump-started the long dormant case happens to be a black man.

Lewis, the son of Panamanians, is in the long tradition of buttoned-down FBI agents the model of restraint. No, he doesn't think his race makes him feel any more outraged over the church bombing and the 37-year delay in indicting the two longtime suspects. But, yes, he does find it gratifying to have played a role in bringing them to justice.

"I suppose there is some satisfaction that I was able to participate in the investigation and bring some closure," Lewis allowed in an interview. "It was a significant event in civil rights history."

At 6-foot-5, the onetime college basketball player looks like someone who might have spent his 20-plus years as an FBI agent "kicking down doors," which is what he thought he was in for when he joined the force. Instead, with a background in accounting, he spent many of those years focusing on white-collar crimes, especially during a nine-year tour in Chicago, where he investigated political corruption.

He recently was transferred from Birmingham to Newark, N.J., where he is in charge of the 355-agent division. He kept in close contact with his former posting, though, tracking the progress of the investigation that had consumed much of the time and resources of the Birmingham office during his three-year tenure.

The FBI had started looking into the case as early as 1993. But it was not until 1997 that the office began "knocking on doors" and conducting new interviews, making public for the first time that the case had been officially reopened, Lewis said.

"The reality, with it being more than 30 years later, is that we were fighting against time," Lewis said. "That was probably the most difficult thing to address."

Witnesses had moved away, others had died. Lewis and other officials are not saying what new evidence they uncovered in their investigation that led to Wednesday's indictments.

The same four men, all Klansmen, have been suspects from the start, and over the years different investigators have tried to prosecute them. In 1971, a crusading Alabama attorney general vowed to bring indictments and managed to get one suspect, Robert Chambliss, convicted of murder in 1977. Chambliss died in prison in 1985.

Renewed investigations in 1980 and 1988 ended with no prosecution. In 1994, another suspect, Herman Cash, died without ever being charged.

By that time, other civil rights-era crimes were being brought to justice. In 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted, after two previous unsuccessful trials, in the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. In 1998, Sam Bowers was convicted for the 1966 murder of Mississippi NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer.

In Birmingham, religious leaders started pressing the FBI to renew their efforts in the bombing case that had so scarred their city. The leaders had been invited to meet in 1993 with the new agent in charge of the office, Rob Langford, and told him that the lack of action with suspects in the bombing still at large was a major concern. Langford quietly assigned an agent to pursue possible new charges.

Langford retired from the Birmingham office and Lewis took over in December 1996. The church bombing case would become a major priority."

Joe hadn't been [in charge] long when I became U.S. attorney, and the first time we had a chance to sit down and talk priorities this was on the top of both of our lists," said Doug Jones, who took office in September 1997.

"He was both a good resource and partner in terms of pursuing this case."

As a law student, Jones skipped class to watch Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley try the Chambliss case. While Blanton and Cherry, being held without bond, were charged with murder under state law, arrangements have been made for Jones to be lead prosecutor in the still unscheduled trial.

Although Jones and Lewis were united in their determination to bring indictments against Blanton and Cherry, they did not have universal support in the city. Some were reluctant to stir up the past, even in the name of justice.

"I wouldn't say there was a heck of a lot of support," Lewis said with understatement. "They saw it as opening a sore, a festering that they'd much rather ignore."

Birmingham became known as "Bombingham" during those years as a hot spot in the battle for civil rights. It was the home of Bull Connor, the sheriff who came to symbolize Southern resistance to desegregation, and the city that jailed Dr. King.

And it was the city that for years could not seem to do right by four little girls.

"This was such a significant and heinous act," Lewis said. "These children were so innocent."

Even as Lewis and others were pursuing new information in the case, they had to shift attention to another bombing in their midst. In January 1998, an abortion clinic in Birmingham was bombed, killing a police officer and triggering a massive and as yet unsuccessful manhunt for the suspect, Eric Robert Rudolph.

After fleeing into the mountains of North Carolina, Rudolph remains at large. Lewis believes he is probably dead.

Lewis, who was raised in upstate New York and has two sons and a daughter, ages 19 to 27, joined the FBI in an accounting technician program and became an agent in 1979. He expects to retire in several years.

Which he can do knowing he's made a big difference.

"We wanted to see if we could bring closure - not just for the families," Lewis said, "but for history's sake."

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