Grave injustice

Ed Cates died again in Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

This week marks 26 years since I experienced the strangest day ever in a daily newspaper newsroom.

Let me take you back to that time.

On May 14, 1983, a badly burned body was found in a charred car on a rural road in Madison County, Miss., just north of Jackson. Came the shocking news that the car and its body had been identified as belonging to prominent Jackson attorney and former city commissioner Edward L. Cates. He was buried May 17 with full military honors.

One month later, having arrived in the Jackson Daily News newsroom at 4 a.m., I was editing Associated Press world news wire stories when crime reporter Greg Kuhl ran into the newsroom shouting, “Ed Cates is alive!” Stunned, all I could think of to say was, “Send a photographer to get a shot of his tombstone!” (That photo ran accompanying the breaking story.)

Cates was found alive in Lawrenceville, Ga., after sending his “widow” a letter of condolence. Using a fake name, he told Mrs. Cates that her husband had been “the best.”

With such a sensational revelation there were bound to be rumors:

When law enforcement closed in on him in Georgia, they found Ed Cates hiding in a tree. The condolences he sent to his wife were coded to reveal to her where the money was stashed. Some said he wired her money from Lawrenceville.

And, the inevitable “gore and gallows” humor: “Is the ‘L’ for Lazarus?”

My friend Bill Sumrall, a walking Wikipedia, informs me that John Grisham based his novel “The Partner” on this bizarre case.

The New York Times began its story, “As short as life is, ‘death’ was even shorter for Edward L. Cates … “

A few days after being returned to Jackson – to a family and a community still in shock - Ed Cates was arraigned on charges of murder, arson and embezzlement. He faked his own death after embezzling $223,000 (in 1983 dollars) from a client.

But, who was buried in Ed Cates' grave?

Although Cates was denied bond on the multiple charges, reporters began to see him in local restaurants, chatting it up and shaking hands with fellow diners.

In January 1984, Cates entered a plea of guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years in the prison known simply as “Parchman,” for the small town it occupies in the fertile Mississippi Delta.

He died there before his sentence was up. Shortly before his death a local TV news anchor Bert Case (who still reports for WLBT-TV) traveled to Parchman for a final interview with the prisoner.

But, Ed Cates went to his second grave never having revealed the identity of the corpse who occupied his first.


Sources: various archived newspaper accounts. Thanks to the Mississippi attorney and the former Mississippi reporter who helped jar my memory after a quarter of a century.


Tiny said...

And people thought miracles of raising the dead didn't happen anymore! LOL

Falzone for America said...


What a colorful story and so well told.

Do you know if they got the money back from Cates' wife?

B.J. said...

Good morning, Falzone.

Cates’ wife and family were never party to his scheme. Suggestions that she had access to the money were only part of the rumor mill. I found no reports about what happened to the money.

With each decade and new technology old newpaper accounts become less accessible, bound in dusty volumes or saved on antiquated microfiche. I do hope every effort is being made to bring the oldest of archived stories to the information highway.

Although the attorney and the reporter “thought” Cates had died in prison, it took me all evening to ascertain that as FACT (thanks to the reporter who finally found a TV account via Google).

Somewhere in the morgue of the now defunct Jackson (Miss.) Daily News are photos of Cates and his first tombstone, but none are accessible online. The New York Times has a photo of Cates, but you have to buy archived material.

Tiny wondered if the victim’s remains could be identified through DNA, leaving me to ponder over what remains of the victim’s remains and their final resting place. One wonders why the judge did not force identification of the victim as part of the plea bargain.

I have a deep appreciation for historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Walter Isaacson! So much of what we have preserved came from the written word – hieroglyphics on stone or hand-written letters. Today we read an email and delete it.

You would think we were talking about a distant past, but all this occurred only 26 years ago.

Frodo of the Baskervilles said...

Jimmy Hoffa. Need Frodo say more?

B.J. said...

On a Web site called “Y’all Politics,” a commenter asked about Ed Cates “connection to Billy Sol Estes,” and the site’s author evaded the question. That would have sent me off on a whole new avenue of research and by midnight I was too tired to die. (Mr. Sumrall, write this book!)

sue said...

Hi BJ! You must have hit some button to get my posts emailed to you, I don't know much about computers so I don't know what to say about that! LOL! Sorry you can't see my pictures, but I love your spirit and love that you can see in your dreams! Take care BJ! xo

Good Southern Man said...

And they say that Mississippi is slow paced.... HA!

Bill Sumrall said...

I've sent Bert Case of WLBT-TV an e-mail note asking whether modern DNA testing and crime scene investigation could identify the body Cates used to fake his death.

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lindzmaclaren said...

Mrs. Cates became a dear friend (like a grandmother to me) while I lived in Jackson, and I can assure anyone she has a heart like no one I have ever met. She treated and continues to treat me like another daughter. Her daughter and grandchildren are amazing. She does not condone what happened, but she does try to remember the good memories of her husband whom she loved very much. I thank you for defending her regarding the money. She worked three jobs to put her daughter through the remainder of scool. She is an amazing woman, and I will be visiting her soon from my hometown of Pensacola. She has been through so much, and this still weighs heavy on her heart.

MSK said...

Hi BJ, if you get this comment, can you please e-mail me at LSBakerproject AT gmail.com? I have a question about your Cates post.