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.