Fourth of a five part series of Jack Culpepper's memories of growing up in Phenix City, Ala., widely known for years as the most corrupt city in the nation until 1954. Culpepper, 83, now resides in Tullahoma.
It seemed the only way to stop the corruption in Phenix City was at the state level, so attorney Albert Patterson ran for the office of the Alabama attorney general. His 32-year-old son, John, took over the elder Patterson's law practice while he ran his "man against crime" campaign.
John Patterson graduated high school one year before Jack Culpepper did. Jack remembers that they would tease one of Patterson's high school sweethearts about missing out on his later fame and fortune.
"I knew him to see him," Jack said of the younger Patterson, "but I didn't 'know' him. His daddy was a lawyer and we were just cotton mill workers."
Despite the efforts of the corrupt political machine to steal the election, Albert Patterson won the Democratic nomination for attorney general in early June of 1954, virtually guaranteeing his election later in the year. However, questions about how the votes had been counted were soon raised after irregularities appeared in the tabulations, leading to an election fraud investigation by a Birmingham grand jury.
During this inquiry, the chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic executive committee, attorney Amos Lamar Reid, testified that he had been ordered to alter numbers on the voter sheets by the current Alabama Attorney General Silas Garrett, as well as Russell County Solicitor (chief prosecutor) Archer Ferrell.
Telling friends that he "had the goods" on Garrett and Ferrell, Patterson was scheduled to testify at the fraud investigation on June 21.
He never lived to tell what he knew.
Three days before he was to testify, the 60-year-old Patterson was bleeding to death on a downtown sidewalk, shot three times with a .38 as he left his office around 9 p.m. on the night of June 18.
Jack had just left the scene of the murder and saw the killer laying in wait. Thirty seconds later, Patterson was gunned down in an assassination that would rock the state of Alabama and the nation.
It was in June of 1954 that Jack was trying to arrange a letter of transfer with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) from Langley to Huntsville, Ala., so he could be closer to home. This was in the days before interstate highways were built, so it had been a long, tiring 700 mile trip to his home town and he intended to stay a couple of days.
On the night of June 18, Jack was tired and hungry and made a short trip down to the Elite Cafe on 5th Street a little before 9 p.m. to pick up a late night snack for his wife Christine and himself.
"I went up there and there was no parking place in front of the restaurant," Jack said. He parked his car next to a light colored vehicle parked in the alley, the car owned by Albert Patterson. The alley which sits between the Coulter Building, where Patterson's law office was located, and the Elite Cafe, is as wide as most residential streets with plenty of parking available.
Jack noted that there was no one outside the cafe when he entered to get his sandwiches and cold drinks, but he definitely recalls the man standing outside when he left.
"I saw a man with a Stetson hat, standing at the corner of the building," Culpepper said. "It was Albert Fuller. I spoke to him, but he didn't speak to me." [Fuller had been a year ahead of Jack in high school.]
Chief Deputy Fuller was well known in the community ... as the most corrupt cop in the county, controlling and collecting a third of the money from the local prostitution racket in exchange for furnishing legal protection. It was Fuller who would "arrest" unaccompanied young girls and jail them in hopes of steering them into prostitution.
Returning to his blue 1951 Dodge, Jack backed up on to 5th Street and headed down the road. He wasn't even a block away and was making a left turn when he heard "BAM BAM BAM."
He hadn't been home too long when a bulletin came over the television that Albert Patterson had been shot in an alley beside the Elite Cafe -- exactly where he had been just minutes earlier.
What did he do? Knowing how Phenix City worked, he kept his mouth shut.
"I didn't say a word to her [Christine] or anybody else ... she didn't know where I'd been, she knew I'd been at the Elite, but that didn't mean anything to her. We got loaded up and got out of there early the next morning. I had to go right past the Elite of all places and then took the Georgia way on to Huntsville."
"I wasn't naive, but I knew some things you just didn't mess with," Jack said.
But when he saw pictures of Fuller much later in a newspaper, he knew the crooked deputy was the man he had seen waiting outside the cafe.
However, no one else would say they got a good look at the killer, and there was little physical evidence for investigators to go on. However, there were plenty of suspects since many in Phenix City wanted to see Albert Patterson dead.
But the murder shocked the state of Alabama. A grand jury began to investigate the connection between Patterson's assassination and the charges of voter fraud starting with the current state attorney general. After a 10-hour interrogation, Attorney General Garrett fled Alabama for Texas and checked into a mental institution.
On the day of the assassination, Alabama Gov. Gordon Persons sent in National Guard troops to help local lawmen and keep the peace. However, it soon became apparent to state investigators and National Guard officers that local law enforcement was part of the problem, with one of the highest ranking lawmen in the county a prime suspect in the Patterson murder and the head prosecutor believed to be part of the plot.
In fact, Fuller, the man Jack saw in front of the cafe that night, and Ferrell, the county prosecutor, were trying to steer the murder investigation toward Albert Patterson's son, John.
In 1981, Adjutant Gen. Walter (Crack) Hanna, head of the Alabama National Guard, told National Guard Magazine: "It was a whole damn town of ill repute. We uncovered 28 murders that had taken place in the previous four years, without even an indictment, much less a conviction. Much of the time, it was cheaper -- and safer -- to kill people than to buy 'em, because dead people stay dead."
Just four weeks later, after consulting with President Dwight Eisenhower, FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover and constitutional lawyers, the governor declared "limited martial rule" after the local grand jury failed to make any headway in the investigation or clear out any of the corruption in Phenix City. Guardsmen stormed into the town and stripped the sheriff, his deputies, the police chief and officers of their guns, badges and power.
Guardsmen raided businesses, destroyed gambling equipment and made arrests, totally wiping out the vice syndicate. Aside from civil unrest or natural disasters, it is the only time in United States history that martial law was declared in an American city since Reconstruction.
Two weeks later, the mayor was jailed, charged with neglecting his duties by allowing all the crimes to go on right under his nose. Hanna put a hand-picked group of troops in control and Assistant Attorney General Bernard Sykes took up the investigation into the corruption and Patterson's assassination.
With the guardsmen bringing law and order to Phenix City, a number of witnesses began to talk. As a result, 2,500 subpoenas were served on witnesses to appear before a grand jury in August, which returned 749 indictments against more than 150 individuals, a state record. All but two either pleaded guilty or were found guilty.
The charges ranged from gambling to murder and the investigation of the Patterson assassination had more twists and turns that the killing itself, including the sudden death of a key witness and contradictory stories by others. Three were indicted for the Patterson murder: Chief Deputy Sheriff Albert Fuller, believed by many to be the trigger man; county prosecuting attorney Ferrell, who ran the murder investigation until martial law was declared; and state Attorney General Garrett.
Aside from Jack, several other witnesses spotted Fuller at the scene of the crime. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison but was paroled a decade later. He died in 1969.
Thursday: Phenix City turns its image around.