MONROE, Ga. — Federal and state agents swarmed the backyard of a modest white house along a windy stretch in rural northeast Georgia this week in search of clues that could be linked to living suspects involved in the 1946 unsolved lynchings of four people.
Agents from the FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation finished two days of searching Tuesday the property in Walton County this week after they received "recent information" about the decades-old killings at the Moore's Ford Bridge. The deaths are some of the nation's most notorious unsolved lynchings.
"It was information that could not be ignored," said GBI spokesman John Bankhead. "We had to follow it."
Activists in the area have long said that some of the culprits in the lynchings of Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey still are alive. For them, the public investigation was an encouraging sign that authorities were making good on a promise to follow each and every lead in the decades-old case.
"Over the years we've had so many highs and lows, so I'm trying to stay calm," said Bobby Howard, a resident of nearby Social Circle who has roamed the neighborhoods for 41 years in search of possible witnesses. "But you've got to get excited when you think their could be some type of finality."
An angry white mob of as many as 30 people dragged the two black couples from a car and tied them to trees on July 25, 1946. The mob fired three volleys of bullets at the couples, leaving their dead bodies slumped behind in the dirt. One of the victims, Dorothy Malcom, was seven months pregnant.
An outraged President Harry Truman dispatched the FBI to the town of Monroe, about 45 miles east of Atlanta, but the feds were met with a wall of silence. The FBI identified 55 possible suspects after the killings, but no one was ever arrested, partly due to a lack of witnesses.
The case grew colder for years, until 1991 when Clinton Adams came forward claiming he saw the lynching unfold when he was a 10-year-old while hiding in the bushes near the bridge.
Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes reopened the case about eight years ago, and the Justice Department followed suit last year. But any police work focused on the killings since then had remained under wraps until this week, when investigators made public their search of the plot of land.
The FBI said the current residents of the property are not suspects, and authorities would not say what type of evidence was seized or what led them there. Howard, though, is not surprised. He said the area was a known haven for the Ku Klux Klan decades ago.
Activists say the search is linked to a recent spike in interest about the case. In recent years, a group of residents formed a committee to drum up more attention to the lynching by staging a gruesome re-enactment each year, an exercise they say often yields tips from aging witnesses who had been reluctant to come forward.
"We're encouraged and optimistic that we're getting closer to seeing justice done and the rule of law upheld and respected," said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat who helps stage the reenactments. "That's what this is really about - upholding the rule of law."
Each passing year, though, makes a successful prosecution less likely. Most of the suspects and possible witnesses have died, and many of those that are still alive are at least 80. Some residents say it will be nearly impossible to try the case unless compelling new evidence is found.
"It's going to be awfully hard," said Charley Brooks, a 65-year-old resident of nearby Bishop, Ga. who has followed the case for decades. "It takes a lot of evidence to get these people, and I just don't think they'll get it."
Others are more optimistic. Hattie Lawson, a former Madison resident who now lives in nearby Athens, said she's confident that the search will lead to a round of indictments.
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"I really think this will give people more faith in the justice system," she said. "I really do."