LESSONS FROM THE MURDER OF JIM LESLIE

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by Elliott Stonecipher

Most of us would agree, I think, that the murder of Shreveport advertising executive Jim Leslie, 36 years ago next Monday, happened “a long time ago.”  That period is, after all, nearly as long as Jim’s 38 years of life.  So, it makes sense that I encounter more and more people who know nothing about Jim Leslie, much less the hugely meaningful reason his life ended so violently and tragically.

It is time, now, for us to learn, or to remember.  Jim Leslie’s death, at the very least, personalizes for us what can happen – and did happen, right here – when corruption has its way.

Jim’s story, or at least the part of it I know so well, is very personal to a group of us still active in Shreveport and Louisiana.  I speak only for myself, though, when I acknowledge that I could have long ago written this piece – and much more – about Jim’s life, and the causes for its untimely end.  But, I never did.  That, I can no longer rationalize, much less justify.  Here, three plus decades later, that approach avoidance ends.

George Wendell D’Artois, Shreveport Public Safety Commissioner

When a hired hit team killed Jim at the Prince Murat Hotel in Baton Rouge just before 2:00 AM that Friday, July 9, 1976, it was for only one reason:  he stood in open opposition to corruption in Shreveport.  He was killed because he was directly invited into that corruption by former Shreveport Public Safety Commissioner George D’Artois, and because he just as directly told him no, a fact to which I and others can personally attest.  To make certain his “no” was unambiguous, he told its details, on the record, to the Shreveport Times where he had been a reporter, and which published those details on subsequent front pages.  He was the key source in a Caddo Parish corruption investigation targeting D’Artois because the Commissioner tried to pay him for campaign services with a City of Shreveport check.

That no other person had ever stood against D’Artois – “The Dart,” as he was called by many, but never to his face – is a gross understatement, to which Jim’s murder bears dramatic testimony.

Such a chapter in the history of one’s hometown may also become an important part of that person’s personal story.  When it does, the broader and more important narrative tends to be lost in the emotion of the personal one.  As the count of years since 1976 rises, the lines between the two blur for me.  Now, the two stories are, in many important ways, one.  I am more driven today by what Jim Leslie’s murder taught me than ever before.  I wish all of us knew what, in that context, Jim knew best, and what I have learned.

I worked in only one political campaign with Jim, the 1975 bombshell win by Kelly Nix to the office of state Superintendent of Education.  I was 24, and though I didn’t yet know much about applied politics, my two brothers and I grew up as devotees.  They were reporters for the Shreveport Journal, along with my future sister-in-law.  So, Jim Leslie’s work required no education:  I knew that work, and saw it as just this side of magic in influencing voter opinion.

The cutting-edge political ads of Jim and his team – notably the late Joe Callicoatte, and Deno Seder – were masterfully woven into Nix’s campaign, managed by one of Jim’s good friends, Buddy Roemer, with whom I worked.  My day job was teaching, and my night job was finishing my masters degree, but my heart and mind were deeply invested in this chance to learn how the power to “fix” things is given by voters to only a few, select politicians.  In days when campaign contributions might well be cash, and were stored in places like stuffed shoe boxes in candidates’ bedroom closets, Edwin Edwards was coasting to a second term as governor, while Nix, his Executive Assistant, campaigned to take the helm of our state’s already failing public education system.

Of his many successes, including Bennett Johnston’s 1972 election to the U. S. Senate, Jim Leslie’s biggest win, by far, was salted away on July 8, 1976.  That day, Louisiana’s epic battle to break organized labor’s hold on the state by passage of a right-to-work law succeeded in the legislature.  Everyone knew that Ed Steimel’s campaign leadership, and Jim Leslie’s media, pulled off what most believed was impossible in Louisiana.  Jim left those legislative chambers after the deciding vote, on his way to celebrations at Baton Rouge’s Camelot Club and Sheraton Hotel.  Before the victory could yield so much as a well-deserved night of good rest, a team of murderers, including a triggerman hiding behind a wooden fence and looking through a loose board, cut Jim down with a single magnum load 12-guage shotgun blast from twenty feet away.  East Baton Rouge coroner Hypolite Landry later said the eleven double-aught pellets that went through Jim’s heart and lungs made it certain he never heard a thing.  Such may seem of little solace to some, but it isn’t to me; for that, I have always been very thankful.

George D’Artois arrested

For those of us who knew the real story – the George D’Artois, Shreveport corruption investigation story – the early conjecture about the killing being somehow related to the right-to-work campaign was foolish and frustrating.  Because my family members were reporters working hard on the story for the Journal, and because it, the larger Times and the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate competed very aggressively to root out and report all the details, I learned and knew a lot about the only thing really at issue in his murder, Jim’s refusal to be intimidated by D’Artois.  Perhaps even more to the point, I bore personal witness to some key events.

I was in a meeting with Jim Leslie and others just a short time before his death in which he took what we believe was his last phone call from D’Artois.  It was a call that clearly shook him.  None of us in the room needed him to identify the caller since it was clear from Jim’s end of the conversation that D’Artois was still trying to get Jim to somehow settle everything without further involvement of others, notably the Times.  When Jim hung up and spoke, his words seemed to freeze time and everything else:  “The man’s gonna have me killed.”  I still wonder – no, regret – why neither I nor anyone else said anything in response.  I knew he meant it, just as I knew the details of why it could actually be true.

No more than a couple of weeks later, I, too, moved into the Prince Murat as I looked for a Baton Rouge home following Nix’s election, and my hiring as the state Director of Teacher Certification.  The night Jim was killed, Buddy Roemer and I saw him at the Sheraton Hotel, but we called it a night soon thereafter.  I had been asleep for only a bit when the Murat exploded with activity following Jim’s death.

Within a few hours, Buddy Roemer and I met as he handled details for transport of Jim’s body back to Shreveport as quickly as possible.  Another of Jim’s good friends, Virginia Shehee, arranged through a Baton Rouge funeral home a flight for that purpose, later in the afternoon.  Flying low and slow in that small, four-seat, single engine plane on that hot summer afternoon imprinted a memory which has never faded, even the tiniest bit.  Jim’s body was wrapped in a plasticized material, and I sat beside it in the plane’s third seat.  The mix of heat, humidity and formaldehyde was working on me, and to me, a severely damaged Jim Leslie was there, and I knew precisely who was responsible for his terrible condition.

The specific thoughts today are not that much different than on that long and awful flight home.  A wife and children were left without a husband and father, and a state in desperate need for such without a young and powerful agent for reform.  Our hometown had a lot of very serious and difficult questions to answer about the costs of its corruption, costs which were suddenly so very real … and undeniable.

In fact, however, Shreveport’s leadership undertook no such effort.  Even given that there was no doubt about who was responsible for Jim’s death – five men signed affidavits confirming that D’Artois asked them to kill Jim – the investigation was botched, most notably by competing investigative and prosecutorial agents and agencies in East Baton Rouge Parish.  Yes, D’Artois was later arrested by Caddo Sheriff’s deputies on a first degree murder warrant from East Baton Rouge Parish for Jim’s hired killing, but his death from a heart attack shortly thereafter slammed the most important door to the public learning the truth, and responding accordingly.  In years that followed, those of us who pursued the facts learned plenty, including the identities of various members of the group directly involved in the killing.  Not one of them was ever arrested for – much less charged with – Jim’s murder.

D’Artois and riot control

Today, armed with a lot of real experience, I understand much better why Shreveport moved quickly to forget about the corruption that netted Jim’s death.  The reason, neither pretty nor popular to discuss, is that George D’Artois served what many here believed were very useful purposes.  Many in Shreveport’s leadership, and by that I do not mean only those who are elected as so-called “leaders” – wanted their own Bull Connor.  D’Artois is, to this day, applauded by many for “keeping the peace” during the Civil Rights era, code throughout the South for law enforcement of a kind that was likely at any given moment to turn into brutality against blacks.  D’Artois’ Shreveport was certainly no exception, as local men such as Rev. Harry Blake and Dr. C. O. Simpkins – from harsh personal experience – can and have powerfully described and documented.

Going to jail…

D’Artois also “handled” a lot of “personal problems” for a lot of “important” local citizens.  Such is certainly not indigenous to Shreveport, but its place in the mix should not be hidden or minimized.  It is one more reason that in the years following the deaths of Jim Leslie and George D’Artois, only a relative handful of us actively kept up with various investigations, all of which were soon over.  The signs of a quick sweeping of everything under the community rug were, in fact, obvious from the jump:  when Buddy Roemer and I flew into Downtown Airport with Jim’s remains that day, there were a half-dozen or so reporters, and a double-handful of others.  I don’t know what, exactly, I expected in that context, I only know how wrong it seemed then, and still seems now.

That the Commissioner was also living far above his $11,000 annual salary, and with a passion for gambling, was not a good thing for his city, of course.  It was, however, what too many in Shreveport figured was an allowable trade-off for his aforementioned “usefulness” to a relative few.  Much of that changed, though, as his abuses began attracting too much attention.  There was, in those days, a well-known downside risk for being “too” corrupt:  one or both of our newspapers might just splash the details of the offender’s crimes all over some front page or the other.  In fact, such is what brought D’Artois down.  By 1971, his abuses led to the hiring of a retired FBI agent, T. P. Kelley, as Police Chief.  (D’Artois, under Shreveport’s previous form of government, was Commissioner of Public Safety, not Police Chief.)  That action was prompted by the fears and concerns of a small group of policemen, honest to a man, who knew the details of D’Artois’ closeness to an assortment of notable professional criminals.  The Times bosses responded with strong published support for Chief Kelley’s hiring.  In time, he and they knew D’Artois was over the line.  A grand jury resulted.

Investigate to find the bug…

Jim Leslie, then, took center stage.  He was a reporter by training and trade, and never really stopped being one.  When D’Artois made the attempt to pay for Jim’s campaign services with taxpayer money, Jim never seemed to consider any action other than that which led, very directly, to his death.

If all of this happened today in Shreveport, T. P. Kelley would never be hired.  There is no Raymond McDaniel, the lifelong resident and then-editor of the Times, to turn to.  Those honest policemen of the early 1970s would today have to try, like the rest of us, to somehow convince local, state or federal officials to do something about the corruption.  Their effort, though, would fail because related facts and truth in its support would never hit the front-page of one, much less two, local newspapers.  Broad and active public opposition to corruption never occurs unless and until the public learns the facts.

Since there are virtually no public corruption cases and convictions in Shreveport and Bossier anymore, do we believe there is no corruption?  Do we notice when really outrageous – yes, criminal – acts seem to repeatedly occur around a handful of our public officials?  Do we know about entire highway projects being killed by a single elected official so a lone benefactor / partner of his can make millions of dollars on some deal?  What about professionals bidding for public projects who are more or less routinely shaken-down by elected officials who control the public funds for those projects?  Or what about professional services being provided to certain elected officials by vendors who are not required to compete for the business, and have repeatedly attracted federal law enforcement attention in other places?  What about local elected officials openly and illegally living out of their “campaign accounts,” or making plans to illegally convert those funds to the personal use of family members?  What about high-ranking appointed officials raking-in kickbacks as they hire “consultants” to interminably “study” public projects?  What about elected officials widely known to use side law practices to hide personal gains from the public’s business?  What about officials selling prosecutorial favors?

Missing???

I could go on and on, but the point is this:  thanks to every method of internet-based communication, each of those examples is routinely discussed here by a growing number of citizens who wonder what is happening to us … again.  If only one or two of these is fact, is that not “bad” enough for action to be taken against at least that one or two?

The last time we reached this point, there was a response from and by a system already in place.  Today, that system does not exist.  There is no proof of any downside risk for corrupt acts by local officials.  Jim Leslie’s murder was an event so horrific as to suggest to some that the corruption which led to it was much worse than now, but I strongly disagree.  The corruption at issue then was a process long underway, and Jim’s killing was its punctuating event.  In precisely the same manner, today’s corruption has worsened for years.  Is the punctuating event the fact that Shreveport has not grown for over 30 years, or will it be more dramatic?

Community confidence is stripped away by widespread knowledge of unchecked public corruption.  What is the incentive to work for the betterment of the community when the betterment sought, along with the community’s moral capital, are siphoned away by ever more open and obvious public corruption?

Jim Leslie and his family paid the highest personal price for a better place to live and work, and Jim did what he did because he required it of himself.

I – and the rest of us here, even if we don’t know it – miss him.

Elliott Stonecipher

Elliott Stonecipher’s reports, essays and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest.  No compensation of any kind has been solicited, offered or accepted for this work.

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