Sumner attorney John Whitten III looks out across his back yard Friday while discussing a manhunt last week that has drawn a U.S. Justice Department investigation. Whitten denied any wrongdoing and said he only assisted local law enforcement during a search for a burglary suspect. (Photo by Charlie Smith)
By Charlie Smith
The Greenwood Commonwealth
Published: Saturday, August 29, 2009 8:45 PM CDT
But federal investigations into a manhunt 10 days ago could reveal lingering elements of the region’s dark past.
The known facts look like a routine jail docket entry: William Pittman, 28, of Tutwiler was charged Aug. 20 with burglary of a dwelling and released on bond.
Murkiness seeps into the story when it comes to what led up to Pittman’s arrest.
W. Ellis Pittman
His father, Clarksdale attorney Ellis Pittman, told WABG-TV and the Charleston Sun-Sentinel that Tallahatchie County Prosecuting Attorney John Whitten III threatened his son’s life, fired weapons along with others into a cotton field where his son was hiding and drove a tank to the scene. Ellis Pittman could not be reached for comment by the Commonwealth Friday.
Whitten, 60, denied the accusations and defended himself in an interview Friday at his law office across the street from the Sumner courthouse.
“The whole thing’s bull,” he said. Ellis Pittman “is trying to ruin my reputation. That’s all it is. I never fired a round. I never threatened anybody.”
The Pittmans are black, and Whitten is white.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, whose district includes Sumner, said in a press release he has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate “vigilante type activities” surrounding William Pittman’s arrest.
“Unauthorized people with guns, terrorizing citizens of this area has no place in civilized society,” Thompson said in the statement. “The fact that this community still (bears) the stains of racial tensions and is the area that Emmett Till was murdered weighs heavy on the conscience and fears of this community.”
When Whitten’s wife called him Aug. 20 to tell him the home of their Cassidy Street neighbors, Pat and Cindy Ryan, had been burglarized at about 2:30 p.m., he was in court in Charleston. He got the message after finishing between 3:30 and 4 p.m.
A native and nearly lifelong resident of Sumner, Whitten is a stout man with a short white beard and closely cropped hair. He looks as if he’d be as comfortable in a cotton field or tree stand as a courtroom. A plate on his front bumper touts the Confederate States of America.
Whitten said a crime such as the Ryans experienced would normally have been surprising in the town of 407 people where everybody knows everybody.
“I can’t remember a burglary in Sumner until the last few months,” he said. “Everybody’s been a little bit scared.”
His wife and Cindy Ryan were driving down a nearby road looking for the suspect at the behest of law enforcement when he called back, he said.
He stopped home, changed out of his suit and tie, and switched vehicles to his Jeep before joining the search, he said.
By the time he arrived at the Ryans’ home less than a half-mile away, 20 to 25 people were there, according to Whitten.
He said the makeup of the group was roughly 65 percent black and included Tallahatchie County sheriff’s deputies, a canine unit from the state penitentiary in Parchman and police officers from Sumner and the nearby towns of Webb and Tutwiler. Bystanders drawn to the commotion were also present, he said.
Because everyone wears many different hats in small towns, Whitten said it wasn’t clear exactly in what capacity everyone was there. For example, he also acts as Sumner’s fire chief and Tutwiler’s town attorney.
Sheriff William Brewer and Sumner Police Chief Clifton Harris could not be reached Friday to confirm their departments’ presence at the scene.
However, Harris told the Sun-Sentinel that all of those agencies searched for two burglary suspects until about 6:15 p.m., and other officials continued looking for several hours after that.
The Sumner city limits end near the Ryans’ house and the road turns to gravel. Thickly grown Conservation Reserve Program land adjacent to a bayou covers one side of the road and a cotton field the other.
Whitten said he drove around the bayou and noticed nothing besides normal agricultural practices.
“Someone had done a good job keeping their turnrows clean,” he said.
After about a half-mile, the growth becomes less thick and the cotton changes to soybeans. Near that point Whitten said he noticed the group from Parchman n without their dogs n going through a grown-up, potholed field.
“I told the canine folks I’ve got a track vehicle that will get through that brush,” he said.
Whitten has collected military transport vehicles for about 20 years and has at least seven in sheds behind his home.
Someone n Whitten said he doesn’t remember who n went to his house and drove back his FV432, a British personnel carrier. It moves on two rubber tracks and seats 10. He said it is a defensive, not offensive, machine and definitely not a tank.
“No guns, just seats,” he said after pulling down the latch and opening the door of the green transport vehicle Friday.
In addition to the driver, four or five passengers may have been inside, Whitten said.
When the vehicle arrived at the scene, the canine crew was beginning to pull out because it was getting dark, Whitten said. The vehicle turned around and went back to his house, he said.
Whitten himself did not drive it or ride inside, he said. It never left the road, Whitten said, noting that he owns farm land himself and has too much respect for it to go running through it.
He also denies firing any shots and said no one else did either as far as he knows. He did report hearing a “bang, bang, bang,” but someone later told him it was bird bangers — which he described as similar to firecrackers — designed to make the suspect think he was being shot at and start running.
During the entire search, Whitten said, neither he nor anyone else ever saw any suspects, and he didn’t know whether they were black or white.
At one point, William Pittman’s brother, Cornelius Pittman, arrived. Ellis Pittman said Whitten then threatened to kill William Pittman and his entire family.
Rather, Whitten says, he told Cornelius Pittman to convince his brother to give himself up. Otherwise, he could be run over in a field or startle one of the authorities when they stumbled upon him and get shot and killed. That would devastate their entire family, Whitten said he told Cornelius Pittman.
According to what Harris, the Sumner police chief, told the Sun-Sentinel, William Pittman was eventually found by a woman in a nearby home who called authorities. Sumner officers took him in without incident, according to Harris.
“He’s lucky he didn’t get shot, and that’s what I was trying to tell them all the time,” Whitten said.
Differing versions of what happened began to spread soon afterward, fueled in part by Web sites and television reports. On Monday, Brewer said Ellis Pittman called him with complaints, and the sheriff forwarded the information on to the district attorney, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the FBI, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
In addition to requesting an attorney general’s investigation, Thompson confirmed to the Associated Press that the U.S. Justice Department was looking into the allegations.
The Mississippi branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union have also called for state and federal investigations.
Whitten said Friday no federal investigators had approached him.
“I wish they’d contact me,” Whitten said. “I’ve got some questions I want to ask them.”
Whitten said Ellis Pittman has unnecessarily turned the search into a racial issue. He said Thompson’s mentioning of Emmett Till is in that same vein.
Till, a 14-year-old Chicago youth, was killed in 1955 after whistling at a white woman at Bryant’s Meat Market and Grocery in Money.
Whitten’s late father represented n under compulsion by a judge, according to Whitten n the two men who were tried and acquitted in the Sumner courthouse for Till’s slaying. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant later admitted in a magazine interview to the murder, which drew national attention and helped spark the civil rights movement.
Since the story broke about the Aug. 20 manhunt, black friends have called him and voiced their support, Whitten said.
“They know me, and they don’t believe that mudslinging,” he said.
He said he’s trying to downplay the incident as much as possible.
“I really wish the whole thing would go in a hole and die,” Whitten said.
Copyright © 2009 - Greenwood Commonwealth
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