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Inside a KKK murder plot: ‘Do you want him six feet under?’

Spanish moss hangs from a tree along the St. Johns River in Palatka, Fla., Thursday, April 15,...
Spanish moss hangs from a tree along the St. Johns River in Palatka, Fla., Thursday, April 15, 2021. After months in a prison cell, Warren 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.(AP Photo/David Goldman)
Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 11:54 AM EDT
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PALATKA, Fl. (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.

“KIGY, my brother,” Moore said to another man who drove up in a blue sedan. It was shorthand for “Klansman, I greet you.”

Moore showed the photo to David “Sarge” Moran, who wore a camouflage-print baseball hat emblazoned with a Confederate flag patch and a metal cross.

“Oh, s--t. I love it,” Moran said. “Mother------ pi---d on himself. Good job.”

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. The Associated Press has reconstructed the story of the failed murder plot.

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.

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Thomas Driver, a white prison guard, and Warren Williams, a Black inmate, faced each other in a sweltering prison dorm room in rural north Florida’s Reception and Medical Center.

Williams was serving a year, records show, for striking a police officer. He pleaded 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 in August 2013 after he lost his identification badge, a prison infraction.

Williams was angry because the guard kept blowing smoke in his face. The two got into a fight, and, as they struggled, Williams bit Driver, according to both men’s accounts.

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 after the bite. They would all be negative, but the ordeal enraged him.

He wanted revenge.

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More than a year later, in December 2014, dozens of hooded klansmen gathered around a flaming wooden cross for a “klonklave,” a meeting of the Florida Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Driver, known by his fellow klansmen as “Brother Thomas,” was there with Sarge Moran, who had worked for the Florida Department of Corrections for decades. The men gave a picture of Williams to Joseph Moore, an Army veteran and the group’s “Grand Night Hawk,” in charge of security. Driver described the fight.

“Do you want him six feet under?” Moore asked.

Driver and Moran looked at each other, then said yes.

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.

When Williams got out of prison a few months after his fight with Driver, the klan was not among his worries. Images of burning crosses and klansmen targeting Black people for violence seemed anachronistic.

But the symbols of the group’s reign in his hometown of Palatka, Florida, 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 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 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.”

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In January 2015, Moore arrived at the the home of Charles Newcomb, the klan’s Exalted Cyclops, a local chief, who had also been a prison guard.

“I look at it this way brother. That was a direct ... attempted murder on him,” Newcomb said, referring to Williams’ biting Driver. Newcomb wanted Moore to kill the Black man.

He didn’t know that Moore was a confidential FBI informant. The FBI had hired him to infiltrate the klan cell and 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.

He filled out an application, paid a $20 fee along with $35 in annual dues, and signed a “blood oath.” Less than two years later, he was at the center of a murder plot.

Moore’s tires crunched as he pulled into Newcomb’s driveway, marked by a sign featuring a pistol barrel: WARNING: There is Nothing Here Worth Dying For.

Newcomb was excited about a new idea he’d had for how to kill Williams.

“I have several bottles of insulin in here if you wanted to do it that way,” Newcomb said.

“Do we do it fast and get the hell out? Or do we want to grab him up and take him somewhere and shoot him with insulin?” Newcomb asked.

The FBI had outfitted Moore’s SUV with recording devices that broadcast live to agents as they drove to Palatka.

By then the agency had moved Williams to a safe house and placed police vehicles around his neighborhood.

When the klansmen drove into Williams’ neighborhood, the sight of police patrol cars unnerved them. “Can’t make too many rounds with him sitting there,” Newcomb said, eyeing a squad car.

“We’ll catch that fish,” Moran reassured him.

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The FBI had other ideas. They contacted Williams through his parole officer, and staged a murder scene. Williams lay on the floor of his mother’s house, pretending to be dead. The agents poured water on his pants and tore his shirt to appear as if he’d been shot.

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, and recorded his gleeful response. The day before, he’d done the same with Newcomb, who’d told Moore “good job” and hugged him.

Now it was time to show Driver, who had said he’d stomp Williams’ “larynx closed” if he had the chance.

Moore handed Driver the phone. “That what you wanted?”

“Oh, yes,” Driver said, relaxing into a chuckle.

Soon afterward, Moran, Driver and Newcomb were arrested and held in the prison where they had worked as guards.

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.

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.

Florida state Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said she is not surprised by klansmen working as prison guards in her state, and called on the FBI to conduct a wider investigation.

“I have heard from correctional officers, inmates, and families about how deep this problem goes,” Hart said in a statement, noting that there are officers who are “part of gangs and white supremacy groups that have positions of leadership within prisons around the state.”

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.