Police agree to investigate Klan-Nazi files in reversal
Following a public tug-of-war between the city of Greensboro and four local pastors over an allegation made by that a police sergeant ordered the destruction of about 50 boxes of files related to the deadly 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings, the department announced that it would investigate the claim.
Chief Tim Bellamy directed that an internal investigation be conducted to determine if any department directives or standard operating procedures were violated, the city announced on Feb. 29. The decision came after the city and department provided a shifting set of rationales for not investigating the allegations.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, a survivor of the 1979 attack, met with City Manager Mitchell Johnson and then-Mayor Keith Holliday last October, and told them that according to an anonymous source, Sgt. Craig McMinn ordered the destruction of files in the possession of the department’s special intelligence section. The matter was turned over to Bellamy, who pressed the Rev. Johnson for the name of the source. When the pastor declined to betray the anonymous police officer’s confidence, the chief responded that the department could not investigate the allegation.
The pastors stated that “Chief Bellamy explained that the issue of destruction of files was being treated as a criminal matter and that it would be necessary to inform Sgt. McMinn of his rights. The Chief expressed the view that Sgt. McMinn would likely call his lawyer and invoke the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer any questions. With this scenario, the investigation would then be stalled unless there was another source to validate the claim that SID files were destroyed.”
McMinn, now a lieutenant assigned to the vice-narcotics division, could not be reached for comment for this story.
Statements from within the police department had displayed shifting rationales for why the allegations could or should not be investigated.
In an interview several hours after the Rev. Johnson and three other pastors made their public statement, Bellamy distanced himself from the pastors’ contention that he viewed the allegation as a criminal matter. Bellamy said, instead, that he had not received enough information to proceed with an investigation. In a separate interview the same day, police attorney Maurice Cawn gave the opinion that destruction of the documents would not be a violation of the law. Later, YES! Weekly received an official statement from public information officer Lt. Hope Newkirk indicating that the department had reviewed the anonymous allegation and was consulting with the Guilford County District Attorney’s office to determine whether the allegation would constitute a criminal violation if validated.
“We talked with the police chief,” Johnson said. “He really – somewhat over our objections – treated it as a criminal matter.”
The pastors suggested that police investigators simply ask McMinn whether he, in fact, ordered the destruction of the files.
“I think his employers have a legal mechanism called the Garrity rule to ask him, and ensure that it wouldn’t be used against him,” Johnson said. “For the life of me, I don’t know why that isn’t being used so that you could get this information without subjecting this person to criminal liabilities, even if it was an offense. This seems to me to be the greater good to determine who gave this order, because we don’t believe a sergeant would get up in the morning and give an order like this on his own. We feel like we should find out who gave Sgt. McMinn instructions and find out: Where does this stop?”
He added, “It was ethically wrong, it was morally wrong, and it was a very bad thing to do. Whether it violated the law or not, I don’t know. I did consult with an attorney, and he said it was not his view that it violated the law.”
The sitting police chief told YES! Weekly that the pastor’s information was simply too vague to be of any use.
“If Rev. Johnson would have given me something to investigate, we could have investigated,” he said. “If we investigated every anonymous accusation we would be working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The only thing he told me was that some files were destroyed. … It’s an anonymous third party, and I just didn’t have nothing to go on.”
Pressed on why he decided to treat the allegation as a criminal matter instead of an administrative concern, Bellamy said, “That’s why I needed to talk to the [anonymous] officer. At that point, I don’t know if it was personnel files. I don’t know if it was investigative files.”
The files allegedly destroyed would have fallen under neither of the categories mentioned by the chief, the pastors indicated.
“We were told that if the proper officials questioned Lt. McMinn, he would not lie but would tell the truth about giving the order for destroying the files,” the Rev. Cardes Brown told reporters on Feb. 26. “At least four other officers were with him when he gave that order. Several police officers then took the boxes and threw them into a Dumpster.”
A written statement distributed to reporters indicated that the files allegedly destroyed “related to the 1979 Klan-Nazi killings, including information on surveillance of members and/or persons thought to be members of the Communist Workers Party.” Johnson said he believed that the records, allegedly kept by special intelligence separate from ordinary police files, were destroyed in either 2004 or 2005.
Maurice Cawn, who had been the city’s police attorney for only seven months when the 1979 shootings took place and who was tasked in 2005 with reviewing records requested by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said that in his opinion destruction of the files would not have been illegal. In any case, if special intelligence held files related to the surveillance of Johnson and other members of the Communist Workers Party such documents, Cawn indicated that they would not be considered public records.
State law provides that police records be disposed of in accordance with a schedule set by the NC Department of Cultural Resources. The Municipal Records Retention and Disposition Schedule published by the department in 1997 references three different types of files conceivably created by the special intelligence section in the general time period of the 1979 killings.
Crime analysis files “used to anticipate, prevent, or monitor possible criminal activity,” including “interoffice memoranda generated or accumulated in connection with investigations or directed patrols” should be “destroy[ed] in office when reference value ends, but within 2 years.”
Crime prevention records files “documenting police and community meetings and other functions which seek to prevent or monitor possible criminal activity” should be “destroy[ed] in office after 3 years.”
Also of possible relevance to efforts to understand the causes of the Nov. 3, 1979 killings would have been files kept on police informant Eddie Dawson, who led the Klan-Nazi caravan to Morningside Homes, where the communists and their antiracist allies were gathering to begin their march.
The schedule published by the department holds that “records concerning informants” should be “destroy[ed] when superseded or obsolete.”
“Intelligence information has a time-need thing,” Cawn said. “If it’s truly intelligence, it’s a public safety issue. If nothing happens, we have a standard operating procedure where [the files] are destroyed within ninety days, because we were accused of keeping dossiers on people…. For years, we kept material on the Klan. There’s a point where you’re just building files, and it looks like you’re monitoring groups. We, like every other agency that has criminal intelligence, throw out files just to avoid the appearance that we’re monitoring political groups or religious groups or anyone else.”
Within three days of the pastors’ press conference at New Light Baptist Church to publicize the allegations, Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson rendered the opinion that the destruction of the files would not have been illegal, and the police department announced its internal investigation of the matter.
Cawn categorically denied any knowledge of records related to the Klan-Nazi killings being destroyed by the police department around the time the commission was researching the incident.
Notwithstanding the possibility that the records were destroyed in anticipation of a public records request by the commission, one detail significantly undermines the claim that McMinn did what is alleged by the pastors. Johnson said the source said the records were destroyed after the request was made. McMinn’s tenure with special intelligence did not overlap with the period in which the commission’s staff undertook its research.
Jill Williams, who as executive director of the commission interacted with special intelligence because of the unit’s role in investigating potential threats to hearings and other public events, said she never dealt with McMinn.
The seven-member truth commission was empaneled in June 2004, and Williams was hired as its executive director in December. That same month, McMinn was transferred from special intelligence to the western division, according to city records. Williams did not begin assembling her staff until January 2005, and said to her knowledge no public records requests were filed on behalf of the commission prior to her employment.
“Wray actually – taking him at face value – said he was going to be helpful,” she said, “and led us to believe that he was going to be quite cooperative.”
Between August 2005 and February 2006, the department provided 49 bound volumes of records related to the Klan-Nazi killings to the commission. At the time Cawn told YES! Weekly he doubted the documents contained any major revelations. Among them were an administrative report prepared by former Chief William Swing and old newspaper clippings, all of which have long been available at the Greensboro Public Library and the Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill.
One critical document sought by the truth commission did not turn up, but it’s not clear whether it would have been in the possession of the special intelligence unit in 2004 or 2005.
As the commission neared the completion of research for its 2006 report, Research Director Emily Harwell drafted an internal memo that included notes on questions to ask officers who had declined to give statements, including Chief Swing; former Deputy Chief Walter “Sticky” Burch; and Sylvester Daughtry, a captain in 1979, who would rise through the ranks to become chief himself.
“Was there a written Operational Plan?” Harwell asked. “What became of this document? (Some officers have suggested that they saw it and that it was destroyed).”
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