Pete Halat was not exactly dumbstruck when his former law partner, Judge Vince Sherry, and Sherry’s wife were found executed in their Biloxi, Miss., home.
Halat, called upon to give the funeral eulogy, delivered a bizarre, long-winded speech that ruminated on Biloxi’s need for “honest, open and accountable government.”
The crowd packed into church on that somber September 1987 day tittered at his audacity – turning a sad occasion into a political event.
The clueless Halat even passed out copies of his speech to the media. A few weeks later, he announced he was a reform candidate for mayor of Biloxi. And he won.
There was plenty to reform in the Gulf Coast resort city, 90 minutes east of New Orleans.
Biloxi had long been infamous as a vice capital of the deep South. The Devil got a grip there in the 1920s, and there wasn’t enough fire and brimstone in the Magnolia State to drive him out.
Gambling, prostitution and narcotics thrived like kudzu at seedy clubs along the beach road, Highway 90. There were 300 vice dens in Biloxi by the 1950s, and vice welcomed to town its crime cousin, public corruption.
And corruption rarely correlates with civic competence.
Local cops stumbled through the Sherry murder investigation by focusing on one blind-alley suspect after another – a former mayor, an adopted son of the couple, a disgruntled former law client.
Nabobs whispered that lawmen might better focus on organized crime.
Working from home, in prison
With more gambling than any place between Atlantic City and Las Vegas, wicked little Biloxi was a crime Petri dish, and the Dixie Mafia – a rather ragged collection of Southern crooks, cons and killers – took root there.
Halat and Sherry had formed a law firm in 1981, when Sherry retired to Biloxi after an Air Force legal career. Before Sherry was appointed a circuit judge in 1986, the lawyers made a handsome living defending Mike Gillich, king of Biloxi’s strip clubs.
Gillich and his protégé, Kirksey McCord (Junior) Nix, were regarded as poobahs of the Dixie Mafia.
By 1989, Lynne Sposito, eldest of the Sherrys’ four children, had grown impatient with the murder probe and hired a private investigator, ex-state trooper Rex Armistead.
Authorities had quietly discovered that 345 phone calls had been placed between Halat’s law office and Louisiana’s Angola Prison from December 1986 until Sept. 15, 1987, the day after the Sherry murders.
Halat explained the calls were between a law office aide and his client Junior Nix, in Angola for the murder of a New Orleans grocer. Prison records also showed that Halat had visited Nix at about the time the string of phone calls began.
Law enforcement insiders tipped Armistead that Nix was at the center of an improbable cash scam orchestrated entirely from prison.
The Dixie mob kingpin placed lonely hearts classifieds in The Advocate and other gay publications. Posing as a buff young stud named Eddie Johnson (complete with a fake photo), Nix seduced lonely gay men into sending him cash to help with his legal defense – promising true love when he could finally live free.
Dozens of men wired money to “Eddie” via Western Union offices. A Midwest postal carrier took out a second home mortgage and sent $100,000. A West Coast news reporter sent nearly $20,000.
In many cases, Nix parlayed small donations into big bucks by blackmailing closeted lovelorn saps.
On a hunch, Armistead drove to Angola to visit a con named Bobby Joe Fabian, a Dixie mafioso serving a long sentence for kidnapping.
By the time he left Angola that day, Armistead had teased enough information out of Fabian to unravel the Sherry murder scheme.
A Halat employee who worked full-time on the Nix scam collected cash by the armful and deposited it in the law firm’s trust account. In December 1986, Nix learned that $100,000 of his money was missing from the account. He summoned Halat for a prison sit-down, and Halat blamed Vince Sherry for stealing the money.
As Fabian later put it in a TV interview, “Peter Halat knew that somebody was gonna die, and better Sherry than him.”
Two down, one to go
In 1991, federal prosecutors won convictions against Nix and Gillich for conspiracy to murder the Sherrys.
But they delayed charging Halat because the case against him would have hinged on the word of Fabian, a career con with little credibility.
Meanwhile, the big-living Mayor Halat – with his Mercedes, mini-mansion and jones for wining and dining – twisted in the wind.
“Any suggestion that I was involved in planning the murder of Vince and Margaret Sherry is an outright lie,” Halat said. “What would be going through your mind if you were accused of killing your best friend?”
Finally, in 1994, the FBI flipped Gillich, who was looking to cut short his life sentence. Gillich confirmed Fabian’s account – that Halat fingered Sherry to save his own hide.
Halat was convicted in the conspiracy in June 1997, a full decade after the murders of his friends. And over the past 11 years, he has won a well-deserved reputation as a fierce legal advocate – for himself.
Halat has clogged the federal court clerk’s inbox with one appeal after another – all unsuccessful. At age 65, he now lives at a genteel minimum-security federal lockup near Durham, N.C. He is due for release in five years.
Mike Gillich’s testimony against Halat helped win him early freedom in 2000, after nine years. Barring a jailbreak, Junior Nix, now 64, is in prison forever, doing hard time at the stern “supermax” federal joint in Florence, Colo.
Mississippi legitimized Biloxi’s bad habits by legalizing gambling in the 1990s. Today, the funky roadhouses and strip joints on the beach road have been replaced by shiny casinos – wrung out or rebuilt after the soaking by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
City fathers allow that the Dixie Mafia may still be lurking there on the Gulf Coast – but as a mere shadow of its former might and ruthlessness.
The Dixie Mafia Murders – BY DAVID J. KRAJICEK – Saturday, July 5th 2008, 6:50 PM – NYDailyNews.com – This story was found at: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/ny_crime/2008/07/05/2008-07-05_the_dixie_mafia_murders.html