Thursday, September 03, 2009

Jackson Free Press: A Delta Manhunt, With Booze And Guns...

Attorney W. Ellis Pittman
Photo By Thomas Beck

A Delta Manhunt, With Booze And Guns

by Ward Schaefer
The Jackson Free Press
September 2, 2009
Originally Appeared:

Federal authorities are investigating an Aug. 20 incident in which armed white citizens, using a military vehicle, helped search for an unarmed black burglary suspect in the Delta.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi's second congressional district, confirmed to the Jackson Free Press Monday that the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice are investigating the manhunt, which took place outside Sumner in Tallahatchie County.

"Anytime one takes the law in their own hands—if it's in this situation or others—it's absolutely illegal," Thompson said. "While people have the right to protect themselves, they don't have the right to put other people at risk at any time."

The Mississippi NAACP and ACLU have also condemned the incident, which NAACP President Derrick Johnson said should be investigated as a "racial hate crime."

"The time for individuals or a group of individuals to have a reign of terror on a town in Tallahatchie is long overdue," Johnson said.

Here Comes The Tank

The Jackson Free Press accompanied Johnson on a fact-finding trip to the Delta on Sunday, Aug. 30.

At his home in Clarksdale, Tallahatchie County Sheriff's Deputy Willie Booker said that the target of the search was Will Pittman, a 28-year-old black man from Sumner. Around 2:35 p.m. on Aug. 20, Booker received a call reporting a burglary at a home on the outskirts of Sumner.

Booker, who says he spoke to FBI agents Tuesday, went to the house and discovered a flat-screen television lying in the center of the kitchen floor, along with several guns belonging to the owner, Pat Ryan. Booker assumed that Ryan interrupted a burglary in progress and that the suspects had fled.

After receiving a tip that Will Pittman may have been involved, Booker called Ellis Pittman, Will's father and an attorney in Clarksdale, informing him that police were looking for his son and asking for his cooperation. On the instructions of Tallahatchie County Sheriff William Brewer, Booker also called for assistance from a Parchman State Penitentiary K-9 unit and officers from the police departments of nearby Tutwiler and Webb.

With the other officers, Booker began searching the woods and cotton field near Ryan's house on Cassidy Street. Soon, a civilian joined the manhunt: Tallahatchie County prosecutor John Whitten, who also serves as the town of Tutwiler's attorney. Whitten arrived at the field in a Jeep with another man, whom Booker identified as Brian Smith. Booker said he saw Smith and Whitten drinking beers as they sat in the jeep.

After conducting a fruitless search of the field, Booker returned to the burglarized house. "When I went back to the house, I heard Pat Ryan saying he was going to go down there and shoot up the field," Booker told the Jackson Free Press.

Soon afterward, making another pass by the field, Booker overheard another troubling statement. "I heard Whitten telling the guy in the Jeep with him that he was going to go back and get his tank," Booker said. "(To) flush him out of the field."

Booker called Sheriff Brewer and warned him that citizens were threatening to bring out a tank for the search. Brewer told him to leave, Booker claims. As he was leaving, Booker saw an armored personnel carrier driving toward the cotton field.

Like It Was A Party

At roughly the same time, Cornelius Pittman arrived in Sumner, having heard from Will's girlfriend that the police were looking for his brother.

When Cornelius came to the gravel road near Ryan's house, he discovered a group of mostly white men standing around their trucks, drinking beer and holding weapons. The armored personnel carrier, which he describes as being the length of one-and-a-half SUVs, was parked nearby. One man was carrying a shotgun and wearing a bandolier of shotgun shells.

"When I initially pulled up, folks were drinking beer and getting guns like it was a party," Cornelius said.

Cornelius introduced himself to the first man he encountered and explained that he was there to get his brother to surrender peacefully. The man directed him to John Whitten, explaining that Whitten's brother lived in the burglarized home.

"I go up and shake Mr. Whitten's hand, and the first words out of his mouth are he's going to kill whoever's out there," Cornelius remembered.

Whitten, who was wearing a pistol on his side, told Cornelius that he had one minute to find his brother.

As Cornelius searched the woods bordering the cotton field, he says he saw Officer Michael Daves arrive in a Mississippi Department of Corrections truck. Daves works for MDOC as a K-9 officer and for the Tutwiler Police Department. Daves brought with him James Nichols, who was wearing a town of Tutwiler Police T-shirt, a police badge on his belt and a gun.

Nichols was not a Tutwiler police officer, however. According to minutes from a July 7, 2009, meeting, the town's Board of Alderman approved transferring Nichols from the police department to the town's Public Works Department "as a maintenance man and machine operator."

Nevertheless, Nichols identified himself in an Aug. 21 statement for the Tutwiler Police Department as "Officer James Nichols" and claimed that Daves had called him "to assist along with thermal imaging equipment."

"As we attempted to enter the woods, several rounds of gun shots were heard," Nichols wrote in his statement.

Cornelius says that he heard roughly 10 shots. Daves then called someone on his radio to inform them that civilians were firing weapons, Cornelius says. Finding no sign of his brother, Cornelius returned to his GMC Denali. He planned to talk to one of the other burglary suspects about Will's whereabouts, but found the armored personnel carrier blocking the road.

"The gentleman with the shotgun that was on the tank—he tells me I need to talk to John," Cornelius said.

Ready To Fire

Still wearing his gun, Whitten demanded to search Cornelius' car, including the trunk.

"I go back to raise the trunk, and they stand back with their guns, ready to fire," Cornelius said.

After searching the car and finding nothing, Whitten still did not let Cornelius leave. As they waited for a sign of Will, Whitten threatened to burn or trample the woods even if it killed Will, Cornelius alleges.

Finally, around 8:50 p.m., Sumner police received a phone call that Will, covered in mud, was asking to use a resident's phone. Nichols and Daves met a Sumner police officer at the resident's house and took Will into custody.

Cornelius followed them to the Sumner jail, where he was told to find clean clothes for his brother. Several minutes after he left the jail, Ellis Pittman arrived, having heard from Tutwiler police officer Terry Tyler that his son had been arrested.

Ellis Pittman arrived at the jail to find a motley assortment of law enforcement officers. In addition to officers from Tutwiler, Sumner and the county, Tutwiler Alderman Chris Hooper was present.

"It was obvious something was going on when I pulled up," Ellis Pittman said.

Pittman demanded to see his son—not as his father, but as his defense attorney. The jailer, Marcus Brown, informed him that he had to wait for the lead investigator to arrive. Fuming, Pittman stepped outside, where Tyler and Cooper informed him that Nichols was with Will in the jail. The news made Pittman irate.

"I went back into the jail in a very less-than-professional way," Pittman admitted.

After shouting down the jailer, Pittman was allowed through to his son's cell, where he saw James Nichols standing outside the door, still wearing his gun, badge and police T-shirt.

"All these law enforcement personnel are sitting out front, and there's a non-law enforcement person, white male, back with him with a gun on," Ellis Pittman said. "I worked in the penitentiary, in maximum security for seven years. You do not take a gun in the back of no jail, nowhere in this country."

Will was apparently unharmed, and he was released on bond later that night. He still faces charges for the burglary. His father says that although Will has had trouble with the law for drug possession in the past, he has no previous involvement in burglaries.

Whitten could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday or to confirm that he owned the armored personnel carrier or that he participated in the incident. On Aug. 25, the Associated Press reported that Whitten called the allegations baseless.

Rep. Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said that private citizens could only acquire military vehicles through an approved organization.

"If it was something that was surplussed and acquired that way, that's one way," Thompson said. "But you would have had to buy it with some eligible entity, some nonprofit or unit of government."

Reached Tuesday for comment, Nichols said that some private citizens were drinking alcohol by the field but emphasized that no law enforcement personnel were drinking. Nichols said no tank was present, but confirmed that there was a vehicle with tank-style "tracks."

Nichols also said that while "there were shots fired, it wasn't law enforcement."

"Nobody in law enforcement would act that ignorant," Nichols said. "Ain't nobody that damn stupid to start shooting guns when they've got officers in the woods."

Nichols averred that while he is not currently employed with the town of Tutwiler as a police officer, he was serving as one on Aug. 20, which was within the scope of his current contract, he claimed.

"I was hired onto this city as a police officer," Nichols said. "They needed some help with the city, and I volunteered to help them."

Nichols was reluctant to comment at length, though, citing the ongoing federal investigations.

"There's proceedings fixing to take place," Nichols said, "and I'd really rather not get into this, because it's fixing to get really stinky."

Read The Documents Related To This Story:
Town of Tutwiler July 21 Alderman's meeting minutes
Officer James Nichols' statement

© Jackson Free Press, Inc.

See Also On W.E. A.L.L. B.E....

Mob Rule In Sumner, MS:

W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Radio Special: Mob Rule In Sumner, MS:

Round 2: "Mob Rule In Sumner,MS" Update & Online Townhall Meeting With Tallahatchie County Citizens...

W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Radio Special: Online Town Hall Meeting...


Unknown said...

The story republished above from our newspaper, the Jackson (Miss.) Free Press needs a link back to the original story so people can comment there (as the father of Mr. Pittman has done). It is:

Anonymous said...

I was going to post this comment on the first blog post you made, but it seemed more appropriate to add it to your most recent lie.

Let's start with facts. Emmett Till was neither lynched in Sumner, nor was he lynched in the first place. He was murdered by gunshot in Money. Considering the nature of your blog, common sense would dictate that I need not define lynching; however, given your idiocy and inaccuracy, I think you should know a few things. A that a lynching starts with a mob. The definition of a mob is, quite simply, a large group of unruly people. Now that we have determined the definition of a mob, lynching has a various set of definitions, but after all has been said and done, the average and most accepted definition is a punishment excised by a mob, outside of the law, generally taken out in the form of hanging.

Emmett Till, by this given definition, was not lynched. Emmett Till was murdered. He was shot in the back of the head by either one or two men. His murder was race-related, but it was neither excised by a mob nor was it a lynching.

Next, let's consider the involvement and history that Sumner, MS has had with Emmett Till. Emmett's murderers were tried and acquitted in Sumner. That is all. This is the end of Sumner's involvement; there is nothing else to say, regardless of what anyone has to say. If anyone thinks Sumner has ever had more to do with Emmett's murder, they are as ignorant and (as much as I hate to use this word) stupid as his killers.

Now that the first set of inaccuracies has been taken care of, the remainder of this blog's journalistic trustworthiness should be quite questionable. Journalists are honed to be driven by a strict set of guidelines, one of which being the ability to write unbiased articles and report the truth. W.E.A.L.L.B.E. obviously cannot be truthful or unbiased.

Next, consider the circumstances of the actual "lynch mob" which was supposedly called in. For another few moments, let us pretend to be unbiased as journalists are supposed to be.

You come home and a large man has broken into your home and is stealing your things. You cannot reach your gun, cell phone, or anything to protect yourself. What do you do? You call on the assistance of a good friend a neighbor; naturally, he comes to your aid. The law enforcement in your town is quite lax and, generally speaking, you know if you were able to get to a phone, nothing would be done until at least the next morning.

The next morning/afternoon is quite unacceptable. At this point, a possibly armed man has just left your house with an unaccounted-for amount of your possessions, and quite possibly weapons that belonged to you.

The natural response of the people in question is neither racist, uncalled for, nor is it outside of the law.

The response of these men was in both self defense and instinct. In an area where convicted criminals and ex-prison inmates of Parchman roam free, why would anyone assume safety?

A crazed man and a nonrehabilitated ex-convict and extraordinarily dangerous criminal broke into an innocent man's house. The man came home too early and, thank the good Lord, was not killed out of the "necessity" of these men. What was necessary to them is heretofore unknown officially, but it seems quite obvious what they were after.

Just because a man's father is a lawyer in a "fine city" such as Clarksdale does not mean a thing. This fellow was obviously hanging out with an unruly crowd, and his intent was simple. Thank god these honest men are still alive. I pray daily for the justice these two criminals deserve, and will breathe an easy breath when they are locked underneath the jail and have the key thrown away.

These two men deserve nothing but the strictest punishment, both here and in the afterlife. They are the scum of the earth and though the general consensus of humans is we're all worthy of life, sometimes there is a gray area.

Arvis L. Perry said...

Anonymous, I typed more, but, actually you were'nt worth it, you are an ignorant racist, that's it.