PHILADELPHIA, Miss. (AP) – Olen Burrage, who was acquitted in the case of three civil rights workers killed by Ku Klux Klansmen in Mississippi in the 1960s, has died. He was 82.
Burrage died Friday at a hospital, according to McClain-Hays Funeral Home Chapel.
Burrage owned land in Neshoba County in central Mississippi where the three civil rights workers were buried under an earthen dam after KKK members killed them in 1964. He said he knew nothing about the killings and was acquitted of conspiracy in 1967.
The FBI called its investigation “Mississippi Burning” – which was later used as the title for a 1988 film loosely based on the case.
Among the others charged with conspiracy in 1967, seven were convicted. None served more than six years in prison.
The jury deadlocked on charges against a local minister, Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen.
Killen was accused of orchestrating the killings. He was charged again in 2005 with killing Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney and convicted on three counts of manslaughter. Killen is serving a 60-year prison sentence.
Ben Chaney, the younger brother of James Chaney, met with Justice Department officials in 2009 and asked them to pursue charges against Burrage and other suspects before they died, but Burrage was never charged again.
After learning of Burrage’s death, Ben Chaney told the Clarion-Ledger newspaper, “I am disappointed. Wow! I’m very disappointed.”
Burrage’s funeral was set for Sunday. His death was first reported by the Clarion-Ledger.
In a 1964 confession, Klansman Horace Doyle Barnette talked of meeting Burrage after the bodies were buried in the dam. His confession was read to the jury by an FBI agent during the trial.
“Burrage got a glass gallon jug and filled it with gasoline to be used to burn the 1963 Ford car owned by the three civil rights workers,” Barnette said. “Burrage took one of the diesel trucks from under a trailer and said, ‘I will use this to pick you up, no one will suspect a truck on the road this time at night.’ It was then about 1 to 1:30 in the morning.”
Norma Bourdeaux, who was on the federal grand jury that indicted Burrage in the 1960s, told the Clarion-Ledger she believed Burrage was guilty.
“A man who has a piece of property doesn’t generally have people come in, take a bulldozer and bury three bodies under a dam unless he knows about it,” she said.
U.S. Attorney Doug Jones of Birmingham, Ala., who successfully prosecuted the 1963 church bombing that killed four girls there, told the newspaper authorities need to quickly assess this case and other civil rights cold cases.
“The window to true justice in these cases is closing,” he said. “Today is just another example of one who escaped justice, and we’ll just have to rely on a higher power now to bring justice.”