Vernon Dahmer was born on March 10, 1908 and murdered in January 1966 in Hattiesburg. Dahmer had lived in Forrest County all his life. A successful businessman, he owned a store, a sawmill, a planning mill, and a 300-acre commercial cotton farm. He also served several terms as president of the Forrest County Chapter of the NAACP.
On January 9, 1966, Dahmer led a voter registration drive. A local radio station announced that Dahmer would allow black prospective voters to pay the two dollar poll tax at his store. At about 2 am on the morning of January 10, 1966, Dahmer’s home was firebombed in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Two or three carloads of White Knights Klansmen pushed their way into the Dahmer home and ignited 12 one-gallon containers of gasoline. While the house and adjacent store were on fire, shots were fired at the home by the Klansmen. Dahmer returned fire from a window in the house in order to hold off the Klansmen while Dahmer’s wife, Ellie, and their small children, all in the home during the attack, escaped from a rear window. His family survived the attack but Vernon Dahmer did not. He died as a result of his burns the next day. The Dahmers’ home, store and car were all destroyed.
An agent of the FBI agent in Meridian quickly opened an investigation in concert with local authorities. Nearly 20 FBI agents began canvassing the area. They interviewed local Klansmen and Klan informants and gathered 120 pieces of evidence—including tire tracks and shell casings—that were analyzed by the FBI Lab in Washington. FBI agents soon identified a number of suspects and compiled a 1,100 page report outlining the case. On March 27, a complaint was filed against fourteen men. Thirteen were arrested by the next day. Sam Bowers turned himself in several days later. Thirteen suspected Klansmen were brought to trial, eight on charges of arson and murder. Four of those involved in the murder were found guilty and sentenced under federal law and another entered a guilty plea. Three were sentenced to life terms, each serving less than 10 years. Another man sentenced to 10 years for arson served two. Eleven of the defendants were also tried on federal charges of conspiracy to intimidate Dahmer because of his civil rights activities. Bowers, believed to have ordered the murder, was not convicted in connection with Mr. Dahmer’s death, but served six years in prison for his role in the 1964 killing of civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (“The Mississippi Burning” case). Bowers was tried four times in connection with the Dahmer murder; these cases ended in mistrials. At the Dahmers’ prompting, Forrest County District Attorney Lindsay Carter reopened an investigation into the murder in 1998. State and federal authorities obtained new evidence that indicated there had been jury tampering in Bowers’ earlier trials. Bowers was arrested on May 2, 1998 on the old indictment and the case was tried before a state court jury consisting five black citizens, 6 white citizens, and one Asian citizen.
At the trial in August 1998, Ellie Dahmer and her two children, Bettie and Dennis, testified as to the events of that night. Billy Roy Pitts, a former White Knights Klansmen involved in the Dahmer murder, was the state’s star witness. Having been granted immunity, he testified that Bowers organized, commanded and planned the Dahmer firebombing and murder.
On August 21, 1998, Sam Bowers was found guilty of conspiracy to commit the murder of Vernon Dahmer. He received a mandatory life sentence. He died in prison on November 5, 2006.