in Kulturkampf

Barton Hollow: the Impact of False Accusation

I have told this story before, but it bears telling again. My friend Ben A. (he’d like to be a private citizen now) was minding his own business in 1997 when an FBI tactical squad arrested him and his two roommates, tore their apartment to pieces, and hauled them off to Birmingham charged with murder. A few days before, Harold Pugh and his 11-year old son had been shot to death at the Cane Creek boat ramp in Barton Hollow. The killers used Pugh’s truck to rob a bank just across the Mississippi state line the next day.

These crimes had such a devastating impact on the small towns and communities of Northwest Alabama that fifteen years later, The Civil Wars are still singing about the tragedy:

The five conspirators were eventually caught, with all but one sentenced to death or life imprisonment. But before there could be justice, there was a terrible injustice for Ben A. and his roommates. Several months before, they had staged their own student version of the movie Heat on campus, and the FBI’s informant reported this college film as the “planning session” for the bank robbery in Mississippi. On this flimsy basis, Ben and his friends were held without bail for a whole weekend while local TV stations aired images of them shuffling along in manacles.

In fact, the informant was just getting back at Ben and his roommates, who had accidentally interrupted him having sex with another male. Embarrassed and unwilling to “come out of the closet” as Ben and his roommates encouraged him to do, the informant went to the FBI and reported them for murder.

At their arraignment the following Monday, defense counsel attacked the lead FBI agent’s credibility, and by no small miracle the federal judge saw through the transparently-absurd charges. Although the charges were dismissed, the three young men were never quite the same. All still had the arrest on their record. The black mark prevented Ben A. from landing several jobs after graduation. As his roommates fell into hard times, despair, drugs, and jail, Ben kept fighting the federal government to clear his name. It took him five long years to win a clean record.

False accusation is one of the most insidious and evil forms of fabrication. It almost always emerges from the desire to cover up another matter or embarrassment that would otherwise diminish with honesty. False accusation is one of the most common forms of abuse as well as one of the most injurious. It takes a craven, sociopathic mind to murder someone — or to assassinate their character and reputation.

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