As a federal prosecutor in Mississippi for over thirty years, John Hailman worked with federal agents, lawyers, judges, and criminals of every stripe. In From Midnight to Guntown, he recounts amazing trials and bad guy antics from the darkly humorous to the needlessly tragic.
In addition to bank robbers–generally the dumbest criminals–Hailman describes scam artists, hit men, protected witnesses, colorful informants, corrupt officials, bad guys with funny nicknames, over-the-top investigators, and those defendants who had a certain roguish charm. Several of his defendants and victims have since had whole books written about them: Dickie Scruggs, Emmett Till, Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort, and Paddy Mitchell, leader of the most successful bank robbery gang of the twentieth century. But Hailman delivers the inside story no one else can. He also recounts his scary experiences after 9/11 when he prosecuted terrorism cases.
John Hailman was a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Oxford for thirty-three years, was an inaugural Overby Fellow in journalism, and is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Thomas Jefferson on Wine from University Press of Mississippi.
Here is the eighth installment of Midnight to Guntown by John Hailman: Full-Service Bankers6
One day the high sheriff of Tippah County came to visit Buck Tatum, Jr., president of the Bank of Falkner. The sheriff told Tatum that trusties in his jail were saying an inmate had been bragging about how easy it would be to rob the bank at Falkner. The bank was a competitor of the bank founded by William Faulkner’s grandfather. Buck Tatum did not take kindly to people robbing his bank. Accompanied by the sheriff, he went straight to the jail and confronted the inmate, Dewayne Porterfield: “I hear you’ve been running your mouth about robbing my bank. If you do, I’ll track you down and catch you myself and have you put away in Parchman prison forever.” Experienced criminals like Porterfield dreaded Parchman, a hellish place on a 50,000 acre plantation deep in the Delta, where you worked every day often in 100 degree heat in the summer and spent every night in open, unair-conditioned, unheated barracks with dozens of violent and dangerous inmates. Tatum figured his threat would protect the bank’s customers and employees from potential harm.
A couple of weeks later Tatum received a phone call from the manager of a branch of his bank located several miles away in the tiny town of Walnut. Tatum immediately said “It’s that damn, stupid Dee-Wayne (as everyone pronounced it). I guess I should have told him to stay away from Walnut, too.” Tatum called the sheriff who verified that Dewayne Porterfield had slipped out of the jail that morning with another inmate named Ross. The inmates had been seen walking toward Walnut. The sheriff said his deputies were looking for the two and would probably catch them that same day. But Buck Tatum was not waiting. He called his brother-in-law Woody Childers, Board Chariman of the Bank of Falkner and said “Woody, that damn Dee-Wayne has robbed our bank after I specifically told him not to. We need to get him.” Childers was equally outraged. “Wait there, Buck Junior, I’ll be right over.” Childers picked up Buck Jr. in his yellow Cadillac and they drove madly around Tippah County looking for the robbers without success. After an hour or so Childers’ Cadillac overheated and started to smoke, so they switched to Buck Jr.’s pickup, which gave them a moment to stop and think. Buck Jr. asked Woody “If you were that damn, stupid Dee-Wayne and had robbed a bank, what would you do?” Childers, who knew Dee-Wayne, thought for a moment. “Head for the nearest beer joint?” Buck Jr. thought some more. “And if those fellows were right who said they were on foot, which way would you go?” Childers wondered: “Try to hitch a ride to Memphis?” Buck Jr. agreed.
The brothers-in-law remembered a little beer joint on the shortest route to Memphis and took off for it at high speed like something out of the Dukes of Hazzard. As their pickup topped a rise, they saw two men walking slowly along. One was tall and skinny like Dee-Wayne, the other shorter and stockier. “Surely it’s not them,” Buck Jr. said. But it was. Buck Jr. and Woody pulled up alongside walkers. Tatum pointed his pistol at them and told them to stop. The shorter man, who was carrying a shotgun, laid it carefully on the ground. Buck Jr. said “Put your hands up.” They did. While Childers kept his own pistol pointed at them, Tatum patted down both men down for other weapons, finding none, but discovered the loot from his bank on Porterfield .
The bankers quite know what to do next. It was before the days of cell phones and Buck Jr. cursed himself for not having a CB radio in his pickup. He also wished he had some handcuffs. Finally he said “You drive, Woody. I’ll keep them in the back.” Tatum lowered the tailgate and ordered the tired, dusty robbers into the back of his pickup. Then he stopped. Later Tatum told me what he was thinking at the time “I don’t want to screw this up. These citizen arrest deals can be tricky.” So he proceeded to advise Porterfield and Ross of their rights, reciting them as best he could from TV crime shows he’d watched over the years. Both robbers pled guilty and to their relief were not sent to Parchman but to federal prisons. Although the federal joints were air-conditioned and had better guards, the companionship was probably not much better. As noted in Careers In Crime, “prison wife” is the worst of all criminal careers, ranking #50.
After the sentencing of Porterfield and Ross, I figured I’d seen the last of Buck Tatum, but several years later I found myself confronting him in my office during a plea bargaining session with his lawyers. We had some good laughs about Dee-Wayne and how the bankers had given the robbers a citizen’s advice of rights. Then we got down to business. Through a series of bad business deals, Buck Jr. had gotten himself in a deep financial hole. His only way out was to embezzle from his own bank, which he did. His family members caught him with the help of the FDIC. The stress of the investigation caused him to have a major heart attack and it was a much thinner and older Buck Jr. I faced in my office. We reached a plea agreement under which he would testify in other unrelated cases he had knowledge of. One interested me especially because a bank bag with $50,000 had been found just sitting on the floor of the vault of the Bank of Falkner. It was not in a safety deposit box and not listed on the books of the bank. Pinned to it with a simple safety pin was a piece of cardboard that said “Property of Thurston Little,” a colorful figure discussed in other cases in this book. “Buck,” I asked him, “What was that $50,000 for?” He replied “Well, I don’t know for sure. I just let Thurston keep it there in the vault as a favor. I didn’t charge him for keeping it and didn’t pay him any interest on it either. He would just go in now and then and put some in or take some out. I never asked him about it and didn’t really want to know. But you know Thurston, he just had to tell me about it. I don’t know if it’s true, but he said it was to buy votes and pay off public officials, but that’s just what he said. You know Thurston.” Another prosecutor handled Buck’s embezzlement case after that and I haven’t seen him since.