Three current and former prison guards arrested in Florida on Thursday were also members of the Ku Klux Klan and allegedly used Klan meetings to plan the murder of a black inmate after his release.
Thomas Jordan Driver, 25, and David Elliot Moran, 47, were working as corrections officers when they were arrested. The third suspect brought in, Charles Thomas Newcomb, 42, had been fired as a prison guard in 2013. All three are members of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (TAKKKK), according to court documents.
Thursday’s arrest came after an investigation that appears, judging from redacted affidavits signed by FBI agents involved in the case, to have been built on testimony from a mole inside the Florida KKK. The FBI’s informant is never named.
A statement from the Florida Attorney General’s office lists multiple law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation, including the Florida Highway Patrol and Florida Fish and Wildlife. A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Jacksonville Division confirmed that her office initiated and spearheaded the investigation but added, “there were a lot of agencies that participated.”
The murder plot came to the attention of law enforcement started at a Klan meeting in late 2014. That’s where Moran and Newcomb introduced Driver to an FBI confidential informant posing as a KKK member, according to court documents. The purpose of that meeting, judging by the conversation that follows in the affidavit, was to arrange a killing.
“The defendants plotted the murder as retaliation for a fight between the inmate, who is African American, and Driver,” according to a press release from the state’s Attorney General’s office. Conversations between the men involved and the FBI informant shed more light on the motivations involved. Driver appeared to be carrying a vendetta since getting into a fight with the inmate, who he said bit him during the altercation with the intent of giving him a fatal disease.
According to the FBI’s account of that initial meeting, Driver and Moran both “told the [informant] that they wanted [redacted] to end up “six feet under.” Another man present at that initial meeting was TAKKKK Grand Dragon Jamie Vincent Ward. After hearing the plans Ward tells the informant, “they would have a sit down to discuss the [redacted] situation.” No charges have been filed against Ward.
The plot progresses in subsequent conversations recorded by the FBI to discussions of what kind of weapon to use, and where and when to do the killing. Driver vents more about his anger over the initial fight and the need to get revenge as he and his partners lace their plans with Klan salutations and racial epithets.
No killing ever takes place, but the FBI stages a murder scene after informing the target of the conspiracy against him. “Immediately upon notification,” the affidavit notes, the intended victim “spontaneously stated that it must have been ‘those police’ and that they must not be satisfied yet.” With his cooperation the FBI staged a photo and manipulated it to make it look as if he’d been shot to death. That photo was then taken around by the informant on a burner phone and shown to the guards and ex-guard moonlighting as Klansmen, who gave their approval for a job well done. Then they all got arrested.
Newcomb was fired from the corrections department in 2013, less than a year after he was hired as a trainee, for “failure to meet correctional officer’s minimum training requirements,” according to Florida Department of Corrections spokesman McKinley Lewis. He was arrested in February and released on bail after impersonating a police officer while acting as an unlicensed debt collector. Those setbacks didn’t seem to impact his stature in the KKK where, at the time he arranged the meeting between Driver and the informant, he was heading the group as its “Exalted Cyclops.”
Driver and Moran, meanwhile, were still working for the prison system when they first met with the informant and allegedly asked him to kill someone. Moran began working in corrections in 1996. Driver was hired in 2010. The two were fired Thursday after being arrested at work.
Documents provided by the Florida Department of Corrections show that both men received written reprimands for their job performance. Neither was punished in writing for anything related to racism or prisoner abuse.
Calls to the TAKKK were not returned, but an excerpt of the material posted on the group’s website lays out its mission.
The “Why Join?” section of the TAKKKK’s website opens with this: “Today, many people have experienced the blacks firsthand. They have seen the savagery and animalism in many of these people.”
It continues: “Once people understand that the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is simply a movement of White people for the highest standards of Western Christian Civilization, and that the KKK did WIN its first struggle for our people in the post Civil War period, they will naturally turn to us for an answer to today's crisis.”
The TAKKKK is headquartered in Missouri, according to Mark Potok, an expert on extremist groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Potek dismisses the TAKKKK’s “absolutely outlandish claims about having thousands of members. That is false, it’s a lie.”
White supremacist groups were once deeply ingrained in law enforcement in the deep South, according to Potok, but that’s no longer the case. The truth, Potok said, is the KKK’s membership has declined in recent years. “Add all the Klan groups together and there are fewer than 4,000 across the country.”
Despite the national decline, Florida still ranks second in the country behind California for number of hate groups. Of the 50 hate groups that the SLPC monitors in Florida, the majority are white supremacists.
An FBI investigation in July 2014 linked officers in the Fruitland Park police department to the KKK. The ex-wife of an officer fired in the aftermath of the allegation claimed that they had been assigned by the department to work undercover investigating the KKK. Those claims were never substantiated and the allegations, which came after an officer from the same department was fired in 2009 for KKK affiliation, led the chief of police to resign despite denying any connection to the hate group.