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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Cleaning up Phenix City

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Fifth 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 wasn't until nearly a year after the murder that Jack Culpepper wrote to the new sheriff of Russell County, which had been installed by the National Guard, and told him everything he had seen. The sheriff checked his files and found a report of a vehicle that matched the description of Jack's Dodge leaving the scene at a high rate of speed. However, by this time, Chief Deputy Sheriff Albert Fuller had already been found guilty of the crime.

Russell County Solicitor (chief prosecutor) Archer Ferrell, who many claimed to be the legal brains behind the $100 million syndicate, was acquitted. Alabama Attorney General Silas Garrett, who stayed in a Texas mental institution, never went to trial.

The victim's son, John Patterson, took his father's place as attorney general and later became governor. But while he was hailed as a hero at the time for the vice clean up, history will no doubt be less kind to him in the area of civil rights.

This still was the 1950s in Alabama and as attorney general, Patterson banned the NAACP from operating in the state and instigated legal action to combat the black community's boycott of Tuskegee businesses and Montgomery buses. With his anti-civil rights record and backing from the Ku Klux Klan, Patterson succeeded in defeating George Wallace in the 1958 governor's race.

As governor in the early 1960s, Patterson backed the state's segregationist stance, instigated the expulsion of black students who staged a sit-in at Alabama State University and clashed with federal officials over voter registration policies and the state's reluctance to intervene in the violence that accompanied the "Freedom Riders" to the state.

As for the crooks, they didn't all disappear; some of them ended up relocating to Tennessee and setting up business in McNairy County, facing a man named Buford Pusser, who later gained national fame in the Walking Tall movies.

Newspapers covered the unfolding story following the assassination and magazines such as Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post ran lengthy features on the investigation. Across the river in Georgia, The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting and editorial attacks on the corruption in Phenix City, which they had been covering since before the Patterson murder occurred.

In 1955, the film noir classic, The Phenix City Story, hit the silver screen, a highly dramatized account of what happened in the community. The movie was filmed on location with many local residents appearing in the film, including Ma Beachie [owner of Beachie's Swing Club] and other local faces.

All the names of the gangsters were changed, perhaps from fear of lawsuits or just fear, but the Pattersons and others were identified. Starring John McIntyre, Richard Kiley and Edward Andrews, and directed by Phil Karlson, the movie had the basic elements of the events, but fictionalized many parts, including having the future governor of Alabama (John Patterson) getting into fistfights with the gangsters and nearly beating the godfather to death.

Director Karlson went on to direct a similar movie 18 years later, Walking Tall, which was ironic since some of the gangsters from Phenix City were the criminals the Tennessee sheriff dealt with in real life.

The plot of the 1984 movie Tank, starring James Garner, also seems to take many of the elements from the history of Phenix City, with a crooked sheriff in control of the vice next to an army base.

Two books on the events of 1954 have also been published: "The Tragedy and Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama" by Margaret Anne Barnes and "When Good Men Do Nothing: The Assassination Of Albert Patterson" by Alan Grady, which was an instrumental source while researching this story.

In just the space of a year, Phenix City went from being called "the wickedest city in America" to being voted "All American City" by the National Civic League, but the town struggled with its reputation and negative stereotypes for decades to come.

As for Jack Culpepper, what happened after the events in Phenix City? His request for transfer to Huntsville was denied, however, he was offered a job at a new Air Force facility that was opening up outside a small Tennessee town called Tullahoma: Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC). He started work there in August of 1954 and retired 30 years later.

His wife Christine said when they first came to Tullahoma and heard where Jack was from, people would say, "Oh, you're from Sin City!" The couple still live in Tullahoma.

Today, anti-gambling organizations use Phenix City as an example of what can happen when gaming interests come to a town or state. A museum in the small Alabama town tells the story of the community's lurid past and books and DVDs of The Phenix City Story are sold.

Many of the buildings and landmarks seen in the movie, including the site of the Patterson murder remain unchanged, although 14th Street is now a business area -- legitimate businesses, that is. The Dillingham Street Bridge no longer exists and the 14th Street Bridge is a walkway closed to vehicular traffic.

Christine said considering the place where her husband grow up, "it's a wonder he turned out as well as he did.

"I guess that shows the strength of people, to come through that type of situation and turn out all right."

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