May 16, 2002
Witnesses Say Ex-Klansman Boasted of Church Bombing
By RICK BRAGG
BIRMINGHAM, Ala., May 16 — Willadean Brogdon, who once left her then husband in a cloud of dust on the side of the road in Mount Olive, Ala., and could never be called an impartial witness, said she heard him say on several occasions that he planted the bomb that killed four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Bobby Frank Cherry, who was married to her from 1970 until their divorce in 1973, often bragged that he "was the one" who placed that bomb underneath a church stairwell the night before the fatal explosion on Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963, Ms. Brogdon testified here today in an Alabama Circuit Court.
Mr. Cherry, who is accused of murder in the 38-year-old slayings of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, would sometimes weep over the murders of the girls even as he boasted that "at least they wouldn't grow up to have more" black children, Ms. Brogdon testified.
It was the most damning testimony so far against Mr. Cherry, a 71-year-old former Klansman, who has repeatedly, officially denied that he had anything to do with the bombing, even as some family members have said under oath that he took credit for what has become known as the most horrendous violence of the civil rights movement.
Ms. Brogdon was not the only witness today to link Mr. Cherry — or his reported boasting — to the crime. Michael Wayne Goings, a house painter who worked with Mr. Cherry in Dallas in 1982, said he also heard him boast about the crime. "You know, I bombed that church," Cherry told him, Mr. Goings testified.
But it was Ms. Brogdon who gave the most withering — if disputed — testimony. Ms. Brogdon, a former truck driver who said she quit her job after Mr. Cherry told her that "only whores drove trucks," did not try to conceal an obvious, long-running contempt for her ex-husband. Once, on a trip through Alabama in the early 1970's with Mr. Cherry and her five children from a previous marriage, she decided that her marriage to him was not working. They made a brief stop in Mount Olive.
"When Bobby stepped out of the car, I laid my foot on the gas and drove," said Ms. Brogdon, a confident-sounding, gray-haired woman who came forward to testify against Mr. Cherry when she read in a newspaper about his trial.
Mickey Johnson, Mr. Cherry's lawyer, hammered at her credibility by pointing out small discrepancies between her testimony to a grand jury and her trial testimony, such as her uncertainty over dates of events she remembered. At one point, tired of repeating things over and over for Mr. Johnson, she snapped at the defense lawyer: "You should write some of this down."
But while that drew laughter in the courtroom and even smiles from some of the relatives of the slain girls, much of her testimony was chilling.
Mr. Cherry, who was a truck driver himself, met her at a truck stop in Indiana in the fall of 1969, six years after the bombing.
She described a man who was proud of his association in one of the most violent klaverns of the Ku Klux Klan in a city that rocked from racial violence, who liked to model his white robe for her and her children.
"He'd put it on and danced all around, to show what he looked like as a Klan person," she testified.
Once, when their car broke down near the 16th Street Baptist Church in the early 1970's, he pointed to concrete steps at the church and said that was where he put the bomb the night before the blast, she testified.
Forensic experts have said that the bomb was placed under the stairwell.
"He said he lit the fuse," Ms. Brogdon said.
Mr. Johnson attacked her testimony then, saying that it was impossible for Mr. Cherry to have planted the bomb hours before the blast and light its fuse.
But Ms. Brogdon said he placed the bomb the night before and came back later to light the fuse.
That would explain, bomb experts have said, why they never found pieces of a timing device — such as a clock or egg timer — in the wreckage of the church.
Later, when he would talk about the bombing, his eyes would fill with tears, she said. But he would often follow up his bout of emotion with a racial slur, she said.
Her testimony also linked Mr. Cherry to two other bombing suspects — Robert Chambliss, who was convicted in the murders in 1977 and died in prison, and Thomas E. Blanton Jr., who was convicted in the bombing last year.
"Bobby said Robert was the best bomb maker in that part of the country," said Ms. Brogdon, referring to Mr. Chambliss.
She testified that Mr. Chambliss, Mr. Blanton and her husband "were all together the night the bomb was built."
She said she even had a tape recording of Mr. Cherry talking about his role in the bombing. She said she recorded it by accident, after a disagreement she had in the early 1970's with her then-husband about whether or not he snored.
She taped him sleeping, and he talked in his sleep about the bombing, Ms. Brogdon said.
She remembered it, in part, because when she was playing it back, it frightened the cat.
"The cat jumped straight up in the air and run off," she said. "The cat couldn't take snoring on both sides of the bed."
That tape was later consumed in a house fire, she said.
In cross examination, Mr. Johnson attacked her credibility through her own past. He asked her about a custody incident in Virginia in which Ms. Brogdon was charged with kidnapping her own children, whom she had left with her sister. After hearing that a judge there had given custody of the children to her sister, Ms. Brogdon said she loaded them in her car and took them back to Alabama. Ms. Brogdon said she had been ill during that time.
One reason she married Mr. Cherry, she said, was because a judge had instructed her to get married and build a stable life if she wanted her children back. "And I cared for him," she said.
Other relatives told the jury that Mr. Cherry boasted of the bombing. Ms. Brogdon's brother, Charles Wayne Brogdon, said Mr. Cherry once told him that he helped make a bomb that was used on "four kids and a church house." He said Mr. Cherry told him that the bomb was not supposed to kill anyone.
After Mr. Cherry left Birmingham for Texas, he continued to brag, one witness said. "He said he had to get out of Birmingham because blacks were taking over," said Mr. Goings, the house painter.
He said Mr. Cherry was a carpet cleaner in apartments where he was painting, and he heard him admit to the bombing one day when Mr. Goings's mother was in the room.
Everyone in the room "got real quiet," Mr. Goings said.
After a while, he said, his mother broke the awkward silence this way, "Well."