Rogelio Solis/The Associated Press
An Aug. 20 daytime burglary leading to a frantic search, including the use of an armored personnel carrier, is the talk of the tiny Delta town of Sumner, shown in this Aug. 28 photo, known for its painful past.
The Associated Press
In the Mississippi Delta, nothing spreads faster than a rumor that an armed white mob chased black thieves through a cotton field. Throw in an armored personnel carrier and a racially charged past, and it's no surprise federal investigators are checking it out.
It's especially so in Sumner, population about 400, the town where two white men were tried and acquitted in the notorious 1955 slaying of Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Clearly, there was some kind of search Aug. 20 in a cotton field near Sumner, and a young black man was arrested. The details, however, are anything but clear. The local speculation is as plentiful as cotton bolls, rife with suspicion and distrust.
And beneath the racial overtones is tension between the father of one suspect and the elected Tallahatchie County prosecutor, both strong-willed, small-town lawyers with colorful personalities.
This much is known: A crop duster pilot named Pat Ryan came home from work Aug. 20 and interrupted a burglary. Two men dashed out the back door and into a cotton field. One ran out of his boots, which were found in the field near a trail of stolen pocket change.
Word travels fast in Sumner, where even a hint of excitement draws a crowd, and neighbors rushed to Ryan's home. Police officers from nearby towns, sheriff's deputies and a dog team from the State Penitentiary searched for the burglars. Even firefighters showed up.
John Whitten III
(Photo by Charlie Smith)
John Whitten III, 60, the white-haired and bearded county prosecutor, headed for the scene in a Vietnam-era Jeep. Friends followed in a British FV432 armored personnel carrier that's part of his military memorabilia collection.
Cornelius Pittman, 24, heard his brother was one of the suspects and rushed to the scene to talk him into surrendering.
What happened next depends on which witness you ask.
Whitten says he offered the personnel carrier - which he says is licensed and street-legal - to aid police in their search. Whitten said police declined, and the vehicle was sent home.
That's not how Pittman describes it.
"John said, 'I can run over him with the tank and get human meat in the tracks and that ... can stink for weeks or I can burn him out,' " Pittman said.
Cornelius Pittman also said Whitten wouldn't let him leave.
Whitten disputes that, saying he told Pittman "to get your brother to give himself up before somebody gets hurt." Whitten acknowledged looking in Pittman's trunk to make sure he wasn't helping the suspects escape, but he said Pittman opened the trunk voluntarily.
The Tallahatchie County sheriff has not responded to numerous calls. Sumner's police chief said the burglary happened in his jurisdiction, but not the search, and he provided little information.
Authorities said they arrested William Pittman, 28, uninjured, at a nearby home. Charged with breaking and entering, he was released from jail that day.
Whitten, a self-described military history buff, said he's the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by Clarksdale attorney Ellis Pittman - the Pittman brothers' father - who wants to discredit authorities to keep William Pittman out of prison.
Attorney W. Ellis Pittman
(Photo By Thomas Beck)
The two lawyers have a turbulent history, according to Ellis Pittman, 46, a Tallahatchie County native. He said the two nearly came to blows in a judge's chambers more than a year ago when Whitten used a racial slur. Whitten denies it.
Whitten's father, John Whitten Jr., was a defense attorney for two men accused of killing Till in 1955. Till was abducted in neighboring Leflore County and his body was found in the Tallahatchie River. The trial took place in the Sumner courthouse.
John Whitten III says his family connection to the infamous case makes him an easy target for racial hysteria.
This isn't the first time Whitten has been accused of taking the law into his own hands. Whitten was fined $2,500 in the 1990s when he was a city judge and accused of holding three suspected trespassers at gunpoint after shooting their truck tire.
Federal authorities, meanwhile, are trying to sort out the events of Aug. 20. Several people said the FBI has contacted them.
Britt Brown, a 59-year-old black former police chief of nearby Tutwiler, said there was no white mob while he was there.
Instead, Brown said, it was a group of people both black and white who were concerned or curious and just standing around.
But Terry Taylor, an officer for the Webb and Tutwiler police departments, said at least six civilians, some armed, including Whitten, joined the search.
Recordings Ellis Pittman made indicate someone fired several shots.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose 2nd District includes Sumner, asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate.
"I've talked to a number of people in the community who, to be quite honest, have been traumatized by what they saw as vigilante activities on the part of unauthorized citizens," he said.
Ryan, the burglary victim, wants to move on.
"There was no tank. There was no machine gun. There were no missiles. There was nobody shooting into the cotton field," Ryan said. "I've got two wishes in this whole thing: I wish it was two white guys (who broke into the house) or I wish they would have gotten away with it before I got home."
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