Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Does the Mayor's Killer Still Walk among Us?

Originally published in Shoalanda Speaks February 17-19, 2010
Dead Bay...did anyone call the small Northwest Franklin County town Dead Bay before former Mayor L. N. Flippo and his wife Ruth were brutally murdered early that Saturday morning July 11, 1981? The blast that shook Red Bay, Alabama, at approximately 3:00 a.m changed the community forever. No one has ever been held responsible for the slayings, and after 28 years, no one may ever be.

When first awakened by the blast, neighbors assumed a natural gas line had exploded. Investigators who appeared within minutes of the blast quickly ruled out that possibility. Some were quick to mention plastic explosives since no fire was present--a ball of the highly combustible material could easily have been tossed through the picture window of the Flippo home. Others had a more practical idea.

Large amounts of explosives had been stolen from a Colbert County construction site the month before, never to be accounted for. A loose grate under the Flippos' bedroom and pieces of a shovel handle found nearby indicated to investigators that explosive material had been shoveled under the couple's bedroom and then ignited. Did the Flippos have enemies close enough to know in which bedroom they slept, or was it all a horrible coincidence? Red Bay Police, Franklin County officials, and the ABI all chose to issue a gag order on any outgoing information, yet citizens of the small town were bound to talk among themselves.

Who or what had made the Flippo family the target of a lethal bombing? Whoever he was (and most bombers are male), he's never been caught.
J. N. Flippo Jr. was born in Hodges, Alabama, not far from the town in which he was murdered. He married his sweetheart Ruth and moved to Red Bay in the 1940s. The family raised three daughters who attended Red Bay Schools, while J. N. worked at a local bank, eventually becoming president.

Seeking to give back to his adopted hometown, J. N. ran for mayor and won the office easily, but decided to leave public service three years into his term. If anyone outside J. N.'s family knew why Flippo had become disenchanted with public office, they kept his secret as their own. Too young for retirement, J. N. opened an insurance office in the small town, and it prospered as had his other business endeavors. Except for the hour each morning J. N. visited with cronies at the local coffee shop, he was never far from the side of Ruth who helped with the insurance agency.

While all three of the Flippo's daughters had done well in school, those who knew the family called them shy. That combined with their relative affluence caused a few to term them snobbish, but those who knew them well said that was far from the truth. By 1981, the older two were married, and the youngest was away at college.

The weekend of Saturday July 11, 1981, one of the Flippos' cars was in the shop. Did someone think the couple was away for the night? A hidden grate behind the house appeared to be undisturbed, while someone had obviously loosened the more visible grate under the couple's bedroom, possibly indicating intimate knowledge of the home's floor plan.

A thundering blast rang through the town at 3:00 a.m. Responders were on the scene within minutes finding the 68 year-old J. N. Flippo, sleeping nearer the wall, already dead. Ruth, also 68, with splinters from the floorboard embedded in the calves of her legs was alive, but died twenty minutes later at Red Bay Hospital.

The entire town of Red Bay was in shock. As word spread that the blast was intentional, neighbors gathered to talk and grieve. Who would have killed the mayor and his family. Almost three decades later, the same town continues to ask the same question.

Four months after the explosion that both emotionally and literally rocked the small Franklin County town of Red Bay, three combined teams of investigators were no closer to finding their bomber than they had been on July 11, 1981. The three Flippo daughters had offered a ten thousand dollar reward for any information, with then-Alabama Gov. Fob James matching the amount. That amount of the reward in today's dollars would be roughly $45,000.00--yet, there were no takers.

After four years of no valid clues, then-Gov. George Wallace added still another ten thousand dollars to the available rewards. Investigators decided to release small amounts of information. An ex-boyfriend of the youngest daughter had been cleared, as had a band of Marion County bootleggers who lived near the home of one of the Flippos' older daughters. While never completely authenticated, investigators by now believed that Flippo, the former president of Red Bay National Bank, left the mayor's office in 1975 because of a temporary health problem. They also believe that Ruth, a retired school teacher, heard the bomber as he placed the explosive under the bedroom, causing her to attempt to stand and resulting in her unusual injuries. Those at the scene said her last words were, "Oh, somebody please help me."

By January 1993, Franklin County Sheriff Larry Plott declared the case at a dead end. Without new information, there was nothing left to investigate. The TimesDaily lists the 1985 murder of Florence teacher Tommy Morris as one of the area's oldest unsolved cases. Perhaps Red Bay sits too closely to Mississippi for many in the Shoals to remember the tragic deaths of J. N. and Ruth Flippo.

Their daughters and friends still remember. There's still a $30.000.00 reward offered for any information leading to the murderer(s). Surely someone knows something...