Federal authorities are investigating an Aug. 20 incident in which armed white citizens, using a military vehicle, helped search for an unarmed black burglary suspect in the Delta.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi's second congressional district, confirmed to the Jackson Free Press Monday that the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice are investigating the manhunt, which took place outside Sumner in Tallahatchie County.
"Anytime one takes the law in their own hands—if it's in this situation or others—it's absolutely illegal," Thompson said. "While people have the right to protect themselves, they don't have the right to put other people at risk at any time."
The Mississippi NAACP and ACLU have also condemned the incident, which NAACP President Derrick Johnson said should be investigated as a "racial hate crime."
"The time for individuals or a group of individuals to have a reign of terror on a town in Tallahatchie is long overdue," Johnson said.
Here Comes the Tank
The Jackson Free Press accompanied Johnson on a fact-finding trip to the Delta on Sunday, Aug. 30.
At his home in Clarksdale, Tallahatchie County Sheriff's Deputy Willie Booker said that the target of the search was Will Pittman, a 28-year-old black man from Sumner. Around 2:35 p.m. on Aug. 20, Booker received a call reporting a burglary at a home on the outskirts of Sumner.
Booker, who says he spoke to FBI agents Tuesday, went to the house and discovered a flat-screen television lying in the center of the kitchen floor, along with several guns belonging to the owner, Pat Ryan. Booker assumed that Ryan interrupted a burglary in progress and that the suspects had fled.
After receiving a tip that Will Pittman may have been involved, Booker called Ellis Pittman, Will's father and an attorney in Clarksdale, informing him that police were looking for his son and asking for his cooperation. On the instructions of Tallahatchie County Sheriff William Brewer, Booker also called for assistance from a Parchman State Penitentiary K-9 unit and officers from the police departments of nearby Tutwiler and Webb.
With the other officers, Booker began searching the woods and cotton field near Ryan's house on Cassidy Street. Soon, a civilian joined the manhunt: Tallahatchie County prosecutor John Whitten, who also serves as the town of Tutwiler's attorney. Whitten arrived at the field in a Jeep with another man, whom Booker identified as Brian Smith. Booker said he saw Smith and Whitten drinking beers as they sat in the jeep.
After conducting a fruitless search of the field, Booker returned to the burglarized house. "When I went back to the house, I heard Pat Ryan saying he was going to go down there and shoot up the field," Booker told the Jackson Free Press.
Soon afterward, making another pass by the field, Booker overheard another troubling statement. "I heard Whitten telling the guy in the Jeep with him that he was going to go back and get his tank," Booker said. "(To) flush him out of the field."
Booker called Sheriff Brewer and warned him that citizens were threatening to bring out a tank for the search. Brewer told him to leave, Booker claims. As he was leaving, Booker saw an armored personnel carrier driving toward the cotton field.
Like It Was a Party
At roughly the same time, Cornelius Pittman arrived in Sumner, having heard from Will's girlfriend that the police were looking for his brother.
When Cornelius came to the gravel road near Ryan's house, he discovered a group of mostly white men standing around their trucks, drinking beer and holding weapons. The armored personnel carrier, which he describes as being the length of one-and-a-half SUVs, was parked nearby. One man was carrying a shotgun and wearing a bandolier of shotgun shells.
"When I initially pulled up, folks were drinking beer and getting guns like it was a party," Cornelius said.
Cornelius introduced himself to the first man he encountered and explained that he was there to get his brother to surrender peacefully. The man directed him to John Whitten, explaining that Whitten's brother lived in the burglarized home.
"I go up and shake Mr. Whitten's hand, and the first words out of his mouth are he's going to kill whoever's out there," Cornelius remembered.
Whitten, who was wearing a pistol on his side, told Cornelius that he had one minute to find his brother.
As Cornelius searched the woods bordering the cotton field, he says he saw Officer Michael Daves arrive in a Mississippi Department of Corrections truck. Daves works for MDOC as a K-9 officer and for the Tutwiler Police Department. Daves brought with him James Nichols, who was wearing a town of Tutwiler Police T-shirt, a police badge on his belt and a gun.
Nichols was not a Tutwiler police officer, however. According to minutes from a July 7, 2009, meeting, the town's Board of Alderman approved transferring Nichols from the police department to the town's Public Works Department "as a maintenance man and machine operator."
Nevertheless, Nichols identified himself in an Aug. 21 statement for the Tutwiler Police Department as "Officer James Nichols" and claimed that Daves had called him "to assist along with thermal imaging equipment."
"As we attempted to enter the woods, several rounds of gun shots were heard," Nichols wrote in his statement.
Cornelius says that he heard roughly 10 shots. Daves then called someone on his radio to inform them that civilians were firing weapons, Cornelius says. Finding no sign of his brother, Cornelius returned to his GMC Denali. He planned to talk to one of the other burglary suspects about Will's whereabouts, but found the armored personnel carrier blocking the road.
"The gentleman with the shotgun that was on the tank—he tells me I need to talk to John," Cornelius said.
Ready to Fire
Still wearing his gun, Whitten demanded to search Cornelius' car, including the trunk.
"I go back to raise the trunk, and they stand back with their guns, ready to fire," Cornelius said.
After searching the car and finding nothing, Whitten still did not let Cornelius leave. As they waited for a sign of Will, Whitten threatened to burn or trample the woods even if it killed Will, Cornelius alleges.
Finally, around 8:50 p.m., Sumner police received a phone call that Will, covered in mud, was asking to use a resident's phone. Nichols and Daves met a Sumner police officer at the resident's house and took Will into custody.
Cornelius followed them to the Sumner jail, where he was told to find clean clothes for his brother. Several minutes after he left the jail, Ellis Pittman arrived, having heard from Tutwiler police officer Terry Tyler that his son had been arrested.
Ellis Pittman arrived at the jail to find a motley assortment of law enforcement officers. In addition to officers from Tutwiler, Sumner and the county, Tutwiler Alderman Chris Hooper was present.
"It was obvious something was going on when I pulled up," Ellis Pittman said.
Pittman demanded to see his son—not as his father, but as his defense attorney. The jailer, Marcus Brown, informed him that he had to wait for the lead investigator to arrive. Fuming, Pittman stepped outside, where Tyler and Cooper informed him that Nichols was with Will in the jail. The news made Pittman irate.
"I went back into the jail in a very less-than-professional way," Pittman admitted.
After shouting down the jailer, Pittman was allowed through to his son's cell, where he saw James Nichols standing outside the door, still wearing his gun, badge and police T-shirt.
"All these law enforcement personnel are sitting out front, and there's a non-law enforcement person, white male, back with him with a gun on," Ellis Pittman said. "I worked in the penitentiary, in maximum security for seven years. You do not take a gun in the back of no jail, nowhere in this country."
Will was apparently unharmed, and he was released on bond later that night. He still faces charges for the burglary. His father says that although Will has had trouble with the law for drug possession in the past, he has no previous involvement in burglaries.
Whitten could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday or to confirm that he owned the armored personnel carrier or that he participated in the incident. On Aug. 25, the Associated Press reported that Whitten called the allegations baseless.
Rep. Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said that private citizens could only acquire military vehicles through an approved organization.
"If it was something that was surplussed and acquired that way, that's one way," Thompson said. "But you would have had to buy it with some eligible entity, some nonprofit or unit of government."
Reached Tuesday for comment, Nichols said that some private citizens were drinking alcohol by the field but emphasized that no law enforcement personnel were drinking. Nichols said no tank was present, but confirmed that there was a vehicle with tank-style "tracks."
Nichols also said that while "there were shots fired, it wasn't law enforcement."
"Nobody in law enforcement would act that ignorant," Nichols said. "Ain't nobody that damn stupid to start shooting guns when they've got officers in the woods."
Nichols averred that while he is not currently employed with the town of Tutwiler as a police officer, he was serving as one on Aug. 20, which was within the scope of his current contract, he claimed.
"I was hired onto this city as a police officer," Nichols said. "They needed some help with the city, and I volunteered to help them."
Nichols was reluctant to comment at length, though, citing the ongoing federal investigations.
"There's proceedings fixing to take place," Nichols said, "and I'd really rather not get into this, because it's fixing to get really stinky."