People still come to this spot at the end of Lock Three Road, in the swamps along the Louisiana-Mississippi border, where Cynthia Lynch's bloodied body was found beneath shrubs. Her death was an unlikely culmination to a weekend-long Ku Klux Klan initiation ceremony, coming just days after Barack Obama's victory. She had applied to join online and traveled hundred of miles to attend the ceremony. Her death has left this region shocked, fearful of resurgent white supremacist groups, and dreading becoming a symbol of racial hatred in America.
The story begins early last fall, when Lynch, 43, scoured the Internet. Lean and almost six foot tall, with hair cut nearly to her skull, Lynch lived alone in Tulsa, Oklahoma, sustained by Social Security benefits granted early due to a mental illness. She landed on the website of the Sons of Dixie, a group that had been founded by Raymond "Chuck" Foster. (See pictures of the Civil Rights movement from Emmett Till to Barack Obama.)
Foster, 44, was well known to authorities in St. Tammany Parish, a relatively prosperous suburb just to the north of New Orleans, and in neighboring Washington Parish, where he lived in the working-class town of Bogalusa (population roughly 13,000). Earlier this decade, he pleaded guilty to monetary instrument abuse charges essentially forgery and selling counterfeit money. In 2001, he became founding Imperial Wizard of the Southern White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. It launched chapters in Florida, Georgia and Ohio. Then, in 2005, it disbanded. His next act was the Sons of Dixie, and he drew a cast of mostly twentysomething disciples, including his 20-year-old son, Shane Foster. They set up a website to attract new recruits like Lynch, who could return to their hometowns and grow the operations.
Lynch took a bus down from Tulsa to Slidell, Louisiana, in St. Tammany Parish. She apparently told relatives she was going to join a church. According to Sons of Dixie papers seized by Louisiana law enforcement authorities, Lynch was assessed on categories such as "Honesty," "Klannish Practices" and "Ambishous." Lynch's criminal record was so appealing to Foster, authorities say, that he waived the Sons of Dixie's $25 application fee. (In 2005, she had pleaded guilty to charges of possession of a controlled drug methamphetamine that police found on her living room coffee table. Friends say Lynch never married nor had children, and kept drugs around mainly to attract friends in order to alleviate her loneliness.) "I don't think she had any idea what she was getting into," says Fred H. DeMier, a Tulsa attorney who handled Lynch's previous criminal cases.
She arrived in Slidell on Fri., Nov. 7. It was precisely three days after Barack Obama's election as America's first black President. There had been some nervousness in parts of the country in the months leading up to that milestone. In October, two men had been arrested in Tennessee for allegedly plotting to kill Obama. His victory seemed to incite a violent revulsion among a few whites already dismayed by the economic crisis and surging immigration. White supremacist groups and Internet forums like Stormfront.org reported a surge in interest. "I think there's a perfect storm coming together, and we're at a very worrying moment," says Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, which tracks hate crimes in America.
Shortly after arriving in Louisiana, Lynch was brought to Foster's rented, ranch-style compound in Bogalusa. It sits behind a rusting fence, along a two-lane road, across from a cemetery and a sign that greets visitors: "BOGALUSA Welcome to Our City." Jack Strain Jr., the sheriff of St. Tammany Parish, says the initiation ceremony began swiftly, and included the shaving of Lynch's head, the white hooded suits, the pledging of loyalty to the Klan, the burning of torches. It extended into Saturday. Then, on Sunday, Strain says, Foster led his group of disciples including his son, and Lynch to an isolated campsite in the town of Sun (population barely 500), in St. Tammany Parish. About 5 p.m., as the ceremony ended, Lynch apparently asked Foster to take her back to town, so she could return to Tulsa. She was reportedly homesick. Foster reportedly refused. She asked again. But, Strain says, Foster pushed her to the ground. She reportedly got up, and approached him. Just then, Strain says, Foster drew a gun, raised it to her chin, and pulled the trigger.
"To give you a glimpse into the shooter's mindset," Strain tells TIME, "after he shoots the young lady, he rolls her over, pulls the pocketknife out, and begins opening her back to extract the round. He realized that once he shot her, the bullet didn't leave her body. So he cut her open to find the bullet to destroy the evidence. Right where she fell." According to Strain, Foster then ordered his disciples to destroy the evidence, burning Lynch's clothes, then bringing her body to the end of the boat launch, just steps away from the police station in the town of Sun. Two of Foster's disciples allegedly walked into a nearby convenience store and asked a clerk: How do you remove blood from clothing? The clerk called the authorities. Lynch's body was soon found. Investigators soon reached five of Foster's disciples on their cell phones. They were still wandering the woods, but soon agreed to surrender. Two other disciples were found by the authorities, already back in Bogalusa. Then, investigators reached Foster on his cell phone. He agreed to surrender.
He was arrested on a second-degree murder charge and has yet to issue a public statement. Seven other disciples, including Shane Foster, were arrested on obstruction of justice charges mainly because, Strain says, their role was limited to trying to sanitize the crime scene. "I firmly believe, and my investigators believe, that no one else in the group knew he was going to kill the girl," Strain says. Hearings aren't expected until February.
Lance Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University, in New Orleans, has studied hate group activity for years. He was struck not only by the groups' resurgence, but by its members' youth and apparent embrace of hooded robes symbols that in recent years had become passe for many white racists. Particularly given the presidential election's outcome, Hill says, "In the rural white south, there's a sense that they've become marginalized, and are politically irrelevant to national politics. Taking up those robes and rituals of the Klan can be seen as an act of defiance," he says, adding, "That's a dangerous turn, because that kind of hopelessness can lead to more extremist and violent acts of desperation."
Folks in Bogalusa remain in shock. The episode is an embarrassing, chilling reminder of the 1960s, when the town endured tumultuous Civil Rights protests, and was even known as the "Klan Capital" of the U.S. In recent weeks, national television cameras have swooped into town. One front-page Times-Picayune headline blared: "Change of heart doomed woman." Joe Culpepper, captain of Bogalusa's 39-member police force, says the whole ordeal "took us by surprise. We have our share of white trash up here. But the community has evolved past Klan-type behavior. Nobody is on that page anymore." Andre Johnson, one of two blacks on the seven-member governing board of Washington Parish, says, "although we have a history of racial divisiveness, it was an isolated incident. But as a whole, as a parish, we've come a long way, and we're trying to move toward the future."