PALATKA, Fla. (AP) — Joseph Moore breathed heavily, his face slick with nervous sweat. He held a cellphone with a photo of a man splayed on the floor; the man appeared dead, his shirt torn apart and his pants wet.
Puffy dark clouds blocked the sun as Moore greeted another man, who’d pulled up in a metallic blue sedan. They met behind an old fried chicken shack in rural north Florida.
“KIGY, my brother,” Moore said. It was shorthand for “Klansman, I greet you.”
Birds chirped in a tree overhead and traffic whooshed by on a nearby road, muddling the sound of their voices, which were being recorded secretly.
Moore brought the phone to David “Sarge” Moran, who wore a camouflage-print baseball hat emblazoned with a Confederate flag patch and a metal cross. His arms and hands were covered in tattoos.
A nervous, giddy chuckle escaped Moran’s mouth.
“Oh, shit. I love it,” he said. “Motherf—– pissed on himself. Good job.”
“Is that what y’all wanted?”
“Yes, hell yeah,” Moran said, his voice pitched high.
It was 11:30 a.m. on March 19, 2015, and the klansmen were celebrating what they thought was a successful murder in Florida.
But the FBI had gotten wind of the murder plot. A confidential informant had infiltrated the group, and his recordings provide a rare, detailed look at the inner workings of a modern klan cell and a domestic terrorism probe.
That investigation would unearth another secret: An unknown number of klansmen were working inside the Florida Department of Corrections, with significant power over inmates, Black and white.
Thomas Driver took a pull off a cigarette, and exhaled the smoke at Warren Williams. Driver, a white prison guard, and Williams, a Black inmate, faced each other.
It was a humid August day in 2013, about a year and a half before the clandestine murder photo reveal.
The two men stood in a sweltering prison dorm room in rural north Florida’s Reception and Medical Center, a barbed wire-encircled complex built among farmland an hour south of the Georgia state line. The RMC is the state’s prison hospital where new inmates are processed.
Williams, a quiet, 6-foot-1, 210-pound inmate, suffered from severe anxiety and depression. He was serving a year, records show, for striking a police officer. Williams agreed to plead no contest in exchange for a reduced sentence, and an order to receive a mental health evaluation and treatment under county supervision.
He found himself in front of Driver after he lost his identification badge, a prison infraction.
Williams told Driver to stop blowing smoke at him, he’d report later. Driver blew more, and Williams told him to stop again.
When Driver continued, Williams jumped him and they hit the ground. As they struggled, Williams bit Driver and gained an advantage, according to both men’s accounts of the fight.
A group of guards responded, and beat Williams so badly that he required hospitalization, his mother and lawyer said.
Driver, in turn, needed a battery of precautionary tests for HIV and hepatitis C because of the bite. They would all be negative, but the ordeal enraged him.
He wanted revenge.
More than a year later, in December 2014, a wooden cross ignited in a field hidden by tall trees.
Dozens of hooded klansmen gathered around for a “klonklave,” a meeting of the Florida Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Members of a biker club were being “naturalized” as citizens into the Invisible Empire of the Klan.
Security was tight. The bikers were worried about recording devices, and were checking people.
Driver, known by his fellow klansmen as “Brother Thomas,” was there with Sarge Moran, who was also a prison guard. Moran had worked for the Florida Department of Corrections for decades; he’d also been a klansman for years. He had been disciplined more than once by the corrections department for violent incidents, according to records obtained by The AP. Despite this, Moran had been kept in a position of power over inmates
Moran and Driver wanted to discuss an urgent matter with Joseph Moore, the group’s “Grand Night Hawk,” in charge of security.
Moore was a U.S. Army veteran. When not in his klan “helmet,” he often wore a baseball hat pinned with military medals, including a Purple Heart. He commanded respect and fear from his klan brothers, and often regaled them with stories of his work killing targets overseas as part of an elite U.S. military squad.
The three men moved away for a private talk, and had another klansman keep watch nearby so they weren’t overheard.
The guards gave Moore a paper with a picture of Williams, his name and other information. Driver described the fight, and how he and his family had worried for weeks about a false positive test for hepatitis C.
“Do you want him six feet under?” Moore asked.
Driver and Moran looked at each other, then said yes.
The very existence of a plot to murder a Black man by Ku Klux Klan members working in law enforcement evokes past tragedies like the 1964 ”Mississippi Burning″ case, where three civil rights workers were slain by klansmen. Sheriff’s deputy Cecil Price Sr. was implicated in the deaths and was convicted of violating the young men’s civil rights.
Today, researchers believe that tens of thousands of Americans belong to groups identified with white supremacist extremism, the klan being just one. These groups’ efforts to infiltrate law enforcement have been documented repeatedly in recent years and called an “epidemic” by legal scholars.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a March Senate hearing that “racially motivated violent extremism,” mostly by white supremacists, accounts for the most rapidly rising share of domestic terrorism cases.
“That same group of people … have been responsible for the most lethal attacks over the last, say, decade,” Wray added.
During the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, “Thin Blue Line” flags flew alongside white supremacist signs and banners, and more than 30 current and former police officers from a number of departments around the nation were identified as attendees.
“White supremacist groups have historically engaged in strategic efforts to infiltrate and recruit from law enforcement,” said an FBI document released by a congressional committee in September, about four months before the Capitol riots. In the intelligence assessment, written in 2006, the FBI said some in law enforcement were volunteering “professional resources to white supremacist causes with which they sympathize.”
While the FBI would not confirm if it had produced a more recent assessment of the ongoing threat, recent cases have confirmed that the problem the agency described in 2006 continues.
In November, a Georgia deputy was caught on an FBI wiretap boasting about targeting Black people for felony arrests so they couldn’t vote, and recruiting colleagues into a group called “Shadow Moses.” In 2017, an interim police chief in Oklahoma was found to have ties to an international neo-Nazi group. In 2014, two officers in Fruitland Park, Florida, were outed as klansmen and forced to quit.
Despite repeated examples, white supremacists who are fired from law enforcement jobs after being discovered can often find jobs with other agencies. There is no database officials can check to see if someone’s been identified as an extremist.
In 2020, an officer in Anniston, Alabama, was hired by a county sheriff’s department just a few years after the Southern Poverty Law Center posted a video of him speaking at a white nationalist League of the South meeting.
“There’s no trail that follows them even if they’re fired. It’s spreading the problem around,” said Greg Ehrie, former chief of the FBI’s New York domestic terrorism squad, who now works with the Anti-Defamation League.
Domestic terrorism experts have been calling for better screening to help identify extremists before they’re hired. Some states, such as California and Minnesota, have tried to pass new screening laws, only to be prevented by police unions, whose legal challenges argued successfully that such queries violate free speech rights.
Without screening, white supremacists who get inside can operate with impunity, targeting Black and other people of color, and recruiting others who share their views.
“Unless your name ends up in an FBI wiretap” an officer will go undetected, said Fred Burton, a former special agent with the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service. “There are loopholes in the background investigative process.”
Warren Williams got out of prison a few months after his fight with Driver, the prison guard. It was just before Christmas, and he arrived at his mother’s single-story brick house in Palatka, a small town in north Florida. It was cramped with his three little sisters.
The street dead-ended at some railroad tracks, beyond which flowed the St. Johns River. The wide, rushing waterway runs through town on its way back out to sea to the northeast, near Jacksonville.
After months in a prison cell, Williams longed to fish the St. Johns again. He looked forward to spending days outdoors in his landscaping job, and to writing poems and music in his free time.
Palatka, with a population split almost equally between Black and white, had been devastated by the 2008 Great Recession. Many of its prized murals were fading, and there were more shuttered shops in the old downtown than open ones. A coal-fired power plant on the river is Palatka’s largest employer, as well as a paper mill that fills the air with a sour stench.
Williams struggled with anxiety, and sometimes had violent outbursts. His mother called these episodes his “protective mode.” But he was home, where she could watch him. He’d been adhering to his probation requirements, and made his mandated meetings.
And in the 21st Century, the klan was not among Williams’ list of worries. Images of burning crosses and klansmen targeting Black people for violence seemed anachronistic.
But the symbols of the group’s reign in Palatka endure. Each time Williams met with his probation officer, he passed the statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the Putnam County courthouse in downtown Palatka, the county seat. The gangly live oak trees in the court square are mesmerizing to some observers, but to others they’re a painful reminder of past lynchings.
Jim Crow Florida was one of the most dangerous places in the South to be Black. In that era, a Black man in Florida was more at risk of being lynched — an execution without trial, often by gun or hanging — than in any other state, according to a University of Georgia study of lynching records.
In 1925, the KKK controlled Putnam County. A klansman named R.J. Hancock was elected sheriff and he helped unleash a reign of terror, where lynch mobs dominated civic life. To stop it, Florida’s governor threatened to declare martial law in 1926.
But the klan and its ilk have endured. Today it’s just one group in a modern, decentralized white supremacy movement.
“It’s surprising that we’re even having a conversation about something that was prevalent in the 1920s, taking place 100 years later,” said Terrill Hill, Williams’ attorney and Palatka’s mayor. “It’s frustrating. It’s angering.”
It was a chilly and overcast January day when Joseph Moore, the klan’s Grand Night Hawk, arrived at a small house tucked behind tall trees. The air smelled like pine.
It was the home of Charles Newcomb, a stone-faced, chain-smoking former prison guard who was the klan’s Exalted Cyclops, a local chief. Newcomb had left his job at the prison, but he remained close to “Sarge” Moran. He wanted to discuss the “Brother Thomas issue” with Moore.
“I look at it this way brother. That was a direct … attempted murder on him,” Newcomb said, referring to Williams’ biting Driver. “I don’t care how you look at it.”
“We just need to do our deed, and where it falls, it falls,” Newcomb said. “Because he’s a piece of trash anyway.”
Because of Moore’s professed background as an elite government assassin, Newcomb trusted him to help execute the plan.
“I’d like to see things done in a professional manner,” Moore said, with the tone of an experienced hitman. “There are skills and techniques and things that survive the test of time. If you bury somebody in, say, an open field or whatever … it is going to be dug up.”
“But if you bury somebody in a graveyard over top of somebody that’s already been buried, it’s never going to be uncovered for a septic tank.”
Both agreed they should take a trip to Palatka to scope out Williams’ neighborhood.
“One night we find him out there and I can walk right up, put him out of his misery,” Newcomb said.
Newcomb wanted to ensure Driver had an alibi.
“What we need is Brother Thomas (Driver) to be at work,” Newcomb said. “And when we do it when Thomas is at work, (he) has an alibi.”
Joseph Moore was a husband and father, a veteran and klansman. He was also a confidential informant being paid to provide information to the FBI.
It’s life-threatening work. If his klan brothers found out, Moore had no doubt how it would end.
The relationship carried considerable risk for the FBI, too. Moore had suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized following an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army in 2002, where he’d been trained as a sniper.
He’d walked into a hospital in New Jersey, drunk, wearing a tactical vest. His pockets were stuffed with a few thousand dollars in cash. He was carrying a plane ticket to Jordan, and told police he’d planned to fight with the Peshmerga in the Kurdish region of Iraq. He would spend four months under medical observation.
The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, have long relied upon informants to investigate domestic extremist groups, with mixed results. Federal investigators have on occasion been fooled and manipulated by informants. And the effort is expensive. Informants often work in secret for years, and if they’re found out, placed into protective custody.
In 2008, Moore appeared at the FBI’s Gainesville office because he wanted them to investigate the local sheriff’s office. His brother-in-law had been arrested on a drug-related charge, and Moore thought that a crooked deputy had planted the drugs. An FBI agent met with Moore, and eventually recruited him to join an investigation into a member of a different Florida klan group suspected of planning a murder.
During that investigation, Moore’s wife had grown suspicious of his activities. She demanded answers. Eventually, he told her — and her family — about his FBI work. It was a basic violation of the rules and the FBI fired him.
A few years later, Moore’s cellphone lit up with an unknown number. The voice, however, was familiar. It was an agent who’d known him from his previous work with the FBI, asking to meet about a new investigation into another violent klan cell. Because of Moore’s success infiltrating the klan before, the agency recruited him again.
The FBI bought him a computer and phone so he could make contact online with the new klan group. Within a few weeks, Moore had scheduled a meeting with the Grand Dragon and second-in-command at a Dollar General parking lot in Bronson, Florida.
The klansmen checked Moore’s drivers license and tested him in an exchange of klan jargon.
Moore told them that he’d killed people before, including a hit in China in 2005. He was lying. He’d never seen a battlefield and the medals he wore were fakes.
But the leaders were impressed. They invited Moore to be “naturalized.” He filled out an application, paid a $20 fee along with $35 in annual dues.
Williams lay on the floor of his mother’s house, pretending to be dead. The prior day he’d received a strange phone call from his probation officer, asking him to come to the office the next day.
Williams was confused. He’d met with the officer that very day, and hadn’t been in any trouble in the hours since.
He told his mother about the call, and she told him to go.
“If you didn’t do anything wrong, just head on down there and talk to him,” she said.
When he’d arrived at the mystery meeting there were unfamiliar faces in the room. They were federal domestic terrorism investigators.
They told him his life was in danger. He’d need to go into protective custody.
But first, they wanted to go to his house and take a photograph.
On the way, Williams saw his mother, Latonya Crowley, in a car at a stoplight on her way out of town for the weekend. The agents waved her down and she turned around and tailed their dark blue van back to her home.
Inside, the agents poured water on Williams’ pants. They’d torn his shirt to appear as if he’d been shot.
When they were done, the FBI placed Williams in a safe house. Not even his mother knew where he was. They would only speak by phone until the men who wanted to kill Williams were in custody.
A few weeks later, Moore waited for Driver outside a Starbucks in a strip mall parking lot.
He’d already shown Moran the staged murder photo of Williams lying on the floor, video recording his gleeful response. The day before, he’d done the same with Newcomb, who told Moore “good job” and hugged him.
Driver was his last assignment. In their last discussion about Williams, Driver had said he’d stomp Williams’ “larynx closed” if he had the chance. Moore had said either he or someone he contracted with would finish the job.
They greeted each other, and Moore told Driver to sit in his car.
“We remembered how emotional this was for you and wanted — thought you might want some closure.”
Moore handed Driver the phone with the photo of Williams’ supposedly lifeless body.
“Let us know what you think,” Moore said.
“That works,” Driver said curtly.
“That what you wanted?”
“Oh, yes,” Driver said, relaxing into a chuckle.
Sarge Moran was at home when a prison colleague called: Could he come in on his day off to get fitted for new uniforms? Authorities arrested him when he arrived, and held him in the prison where he’d spent decades as a guard.
Driver and Newcomb were arrested at their homes.
In August, 2017, Newcomb and Moran stood trial at the Columbia County Courthouse in Lake City. Joseph Moore was the state’s star witness, testifying against the men he’d spent years befriending. For a time, the government protected Moore’s family; his current whereabouts are unknown.
In the end, a jury convicted Moran and Newcomb of conspiracy to commit murder. They were each sentenced to 12 years. Driver received four years after pleading guilty, and is due out this year.
Because of threats in Florida prisons, Driver was moved secretly to another state to serve his time, according to a source with knowledge of the case. Even though they are in prison, neither Newcomb nor Moran were in Florida’s inmate locator system and could not be reached for comment.
Even though three current and former Florida prison guards were exposed as klansmen, the state’s Department of Corrections says it found no reason to investigate whether other white supremacists were employed in its prisons.
There were no other “investigative leads,” Michelle Glady, the department’s director of public relations, said in a statement to The AP. “However, any allegation of a staff member belonging to a group such as those mentioned, would be investigated on an individual basis.”
Those in violation of a “willful breach” of the department’s core values can be fired or face arrest.
On a recent visit to the prison where the three klansmen worked, numerous cars and trucks in the employee and volunteer parking lots were decorated with symbols associated with white supremacy: Confederate flags, QAnon symbols and Thin Blue Line flag decals.
Williams and his family live today with uncertainty and paranoia.
“My fears? That maybe some of the other klan members could come around, and try to find us and harm us,” his mother, Latonya Crowley, told The AP in her first interview about the ordeal.
Looking back, Crowley remembers weird occurrences around the house before the FBI got involved.
In one instance, a neighbor said they saw two white men — they looked like police — in Crowley’s yard at daybreak. “No police came to my house,” Crowley remembered replying to the news, dismissively.
A bag of her trash full of her empty insulin containers — she’s diabetic – also disappeared. She wonders if that’s why Newcomb thought to use insulin.
But Williams and Crowley are thankful, too. The FBI saved his life, and the state of Florida prosecuted the men who threatened him.
Williams has filed a lawsuit against the klansmen and the Florida Department of Corrections.
Williams’ attorney is frustrated that Florida hasn’t investigated more thoroughly to see if there are more white supremacists working for the state prisons, and wants them to take responsibility. Florida, for its part, has sought to have the case dismissed and declined further comment on it.
Williams is haunted by Driver’s imminent release and the specter of other klansmen have made it impossible for him to move on.
“In the state of mind that he’s in today, I don’t see him getting better,” Crowley said.
Eric Tucker in Washington and Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this story.
Follow Jason Dearen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/@JHDearen