Bombing suspect's bragging replayed

Jurors hear more of tape recordings

prosecution rests case

`Couldn't see my handiwork'

April 29, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Sometimes chortling, sometimes spewing racial hate, the 25-year-old Thomas E. Blanton Jr. was caught on a secret tape recording bragging about his "handiwork" - a bomb that blasted through the 16th Street Baptist Church here on Sept. 15, 1963, killing four black girls.

"I wish you stuck around to see what you blew up," said Mitchell Burns, a Klansman turned FBI informant who taped conversations he had with Blanton in the two years after the bombing, on the tape - excerpts of which were played yesterday at Blanton's trial.

"They wouldn't let me," Blanton is heard to respond. "They had everything blocked off. I couldn't see my handiwork."

The tapes are the most damaging evidence to be introduced in Blanton's trial on charges of murdering the four girls who were primping in the basement before Sunday services that morning.

The prosecution rested its case yesterday after calling its last witness, Sarah Collins Rudolph, who lost an eye but survived the blast that killed her little sister, Addie Mae Collins, and three other girls.

Rudolph testified that she heard a loud blast as her sister was tying the sash on the dress of another girl.

"I called out to my sister, `Addie, Addie, Addie,'" Rudolph said. "I didn't see her again."

Rudolph's turn on the witness stand brought the trial back to the subject of the victims after a day in which the focus was on Blanton and his often profane remarks about bombs, blacks and Jews.

Although Blanton's defense lawyer sought to characterize the tapes' contents as "two good ol' boys joshin'," hearing the men whooping it up as they talked about one of the most heinous crimes in civil rights history proved chilling.

Blanton, now 62, is heard laughing about the bomb and threatening other violence against Jews and the FBI, which he believes has been harassing him since the bombing.

"They ain't gonna catch me when I bomb my next church," Blanton is heard to say during one conversation.

Burns seems to laugh and repeats the phrase about bombing the next church. Then he asks, "How did you do that?"

"It wasn't easy, boy, I tell you," Blanton says.

Burns, himself a one-time Klansman, said on the witness stand that Blanton never outright admitted bombing the 16th Street church, which had been a gathering place for civil rights activists in the 1950s.

"He certainly did not," he responded when Blanton's lawyer, John C. Robbins, asked him if the defendant ever confessed to the bombing.

"We was having a little fun," Burns said after Robbins noted the jocular tone of some of the tapes, when the men are occasionally heard to exhale a "woo hoo."

`Sick, sick, sick'

"I was acting. I don't know what he was on," Burns said. "We laughed a lot. Sick, sick, sick."

Burns testified that at first he had refused to talk to the FBI, but was persuaded to after an agent approached him in November 1963. The agent offered a ride home, and told Burns he wanted to show him something.

"He showed me the picture of the four little girls" after the bombing, Burns said. "Well, they was the most horrible sight I have ever seen."

"Were they dead?" prosecutor Jeff Wallace asked.

"Very dead," Burns said somberly.

The FBI paid Burns $200 a month for his assistance in their investigation against Blanton, who emerged as one of the prime suspects after the bombing because a car matching his was seen outside the church about eight hours before the bomb blast.

Additionally, an eyewitness picked out his photo as that of a man seen in the car at that time.

As part of a plan, the FBI staged a scene outside the home of a woman with whom Burns was friendly. They approached him and asked questions. Then the woman, a cafe waitress, let Blanton know that the FBI was harassing Burns the way Blanton believed he too was being harassed.

The two men became acquainted and began driving around town together, drinking vodka and stopping in "beer joints," Burns said.

FBI agents installed a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the trunk of Burns' 1956 Chevrolet, underneath the spare tire. The tapes sound scratchy, filled with car horns and other traffic noise. Still, they were much clearer than the tapes from wiretaps of Blanton's apartment, which were played during proceedings Friday.

Blanton appears to be unaware that he is being taped, although he and Burns joke at one point about such a prospect, after one of them apparently uses a racial slur for blacks.

"Uh, I got a confession out of you," Burns says.

"Turn the tape recorder on," Blanton responds.

As with the tapes from Blanton's apartment, government transcripts of the Burns tapes were given to the jurors for reading along as they listened to the sometimes muddled excerpts.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge James Garrett warned the jurors that they needed to make up their minds about what was being said rather than rely on the transcript.

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