Remembering the Sherry murders, Lonely Hearts scam and those involved
BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Vincent and Margaret Sherry were pillars of Biloxi. Vincent, a conservative Democrat, was a circuit court judge and a criminal defense attorney.
His wife Margaret, an old-school Republican, was a former city councilwoman with ambitions to be mayor. Both were natural-born politicians gregarious and well-respected in their community.
When they were murdered in their home in September of 1987, it looked like a professional hit.
Vincent and Margaret Sherry had settled in Biloxi in 1971 after traveling the world. In 1981, he began a criminal law practice in Biloxi with his partner Pete Halat. By then, the Dixie Mafia had a hold on Biloxi and surrounding areas. Vincent and Halat actually defended many Dixie Mafia members, including Mike Gillich Jr.
Mike Gillich Jr. was known as the Godfather of Biloxi. He owned many of the motels and clubs. His strip clubs often had brothels running in the back rooms and he ran a tight ship. He was the most well-known and trusted member of the Dixie Mafia.
Halat’s big client was another member of the Dixie Mafia, Kirksey McCord Nix.
In prison for life at Louisiana State Penitentiary, Nix ran all illegal activity inside the prison and a lot on the outside. Halat defended him from 1979 to 1988.
By July of 1986 when Vincent was appointed as a circuit court judge, he and Halat had built a lucrative practice. His skills as a defense attorney really helped him as a judge.
Margaret was a force to be reckoned with as well. She was a Biloxi city councilwoman from 1981 to 1985, and she ran for mayor as a Republican in 1985 but lost to incumbent Gerald Blessey.
On Monday, Sept. 14, 1987, Vincent and Margaret had a fairly normal day. That morning, Vincent went to court for his normal docket. Later, he got a haircut and then filled up his car with gas since he and Margaret were heading to Baton Rouge the next day to visit their youngest daughter at college.
The next day, no one missed them.
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Everyone knew they were supposed to be in Baton Rouge. Their daughter assumed they had changed their plans. One of their dogs was scheduled to have a cataract removed, so maybe that had delayed them.
By Wednesday morning, Vincent was due in court. The court staff called his law partner a little before 9 a.m. when Vincent hadn’t shown up. Halat tried to call the Sherry house but he didn’t get an answer. Around 11 a.m., he went over to the house. He stepped into the house briefly and then shouted for the neighbor to call the police.
Halat said that Vince and Margaret were both dead.
Investigators would come to believe that Vincent opened the door to the killer, who put a gun in his face. Margaret probably just thought someone was at the door Vincent needed to talk to. The killer shot Vincent from two feet away, sending him flailing backward and spraying blood on the walls and ceiling. He was shot in the mouth, shattering his teeth.
Margaret had been undressing for the evening, and she had one earring in her hand as if she had been removing her jewelry. There was no blood spray. She was shot four times point blank in the head, and just one stream of blood flowed from her temple onto her body. She was slumped against the bed with her feet under the dresser as if she had just slid down. There were two bullets in the wall, so if she heard those she may have had a moment to turn and see her killer, but she may not have heard them at all.
Police found rubber foam around their wounds and the floor around their bodies. It looked as though someone had shot through a pillow or used a homemade silencer, which made sense as Margaret was clearly caught off-guard. She hadn’t heard the shots her husband had suffered and probably not the two that went into the wall near where she was standing.
With one bullet left in the gun, the killer went back to where Vincent lay. From the amount of blood around his body, detectives believed he had been alive when the killer went for Margaret. The killer then shot Vincent in the face again, hitting just below his right eye and finishing him off.
Multiple departments helped search the crime scene: the FBI, Mississippi Highway Patrol, Harrison County Sheriff’s Office, and the Biloxi Police Department, with that agency taking the lead on the investigation.
Halat’s official story was that he first looked in through the sliding glass door then tried the handle and it opened. He said he walked in far enough to see Vince’s body before coming outside and telling a neighbor to call the police.
Halat was dismissed early as a suspect. Authorities found his story credible, and they eventually learned Vincent had been turned down on a life insurance policy for the law practice due to his high blood pressure, so Halat didn’t have a financial motive.
As the investigation continued, some people told the police that Vincent had received threats since he had started practicing law in Biloxi, but Halat said Vince never told him about any threats. He said if there had been threats, “I am positive he would have told me.”
When Coast residents were getting frustrated that the murders weren’t solved within a few days the Biloxi public safety director said it would take time due to the professional nature of the crime. Only a few days after the murders, Gulf Coast businessmen put their money together to make a $50,000 reward for information.
Police believed the murders were the work of a professional because there was nothing missing from the house and there was no sign of forced entry. Police wondered if maybe a criminal that Vincent had sentenced was getting revenge on the judge. Police took Vincent’s files from his time as a defense attorney and also from when he was a judge. They wanted to look through them to see if they could find anyone who had a motive to kill Vincent and Margaret.
Later in September of 1988, police held a press conference to give an update. They said they had “no concrete motive, no concrete suspects, and no plan to drop the investigation.”
By mid-1989, there were rumors that Vince had been involved in a money scam involving Angola prison inmates. There were also rumors that Halat met with two inmates to plan the Sherry murders.
Halat said he wasn’t involved, asserting: “Let me once again state that any suggestion I was involved in the planning of the murder of Vincent and Margaret Sherry is an outright lie.”
The local police investigated the murders for two years but didn’t get anywhere, so the FBI came back in 1989. Special agent Keith Bell started investigating the murders alongside the new Biloxi Police Capt. Randy Cook. They found 345 phone calls between Halat’s office and the Angola prison in Louisiana. The calls ranged from December 1986 until Sept. 15, 1987, the day after the Sherry murders.
When authorities asked Halat who the calls were with, he said they were between a law office aide and his client Nix.
Nix was a former leader in the Dixie Mafia, now imprisoned for life in Angola for murdering a grocer in New Orleans in 1972. In Angola, business hadn’t stopped for Nix. Authorities also found prison records that showed Halat had been meeting with Nix in prison around the same time the phone calls began.
Also in 1989, the Sherry family hired private investigator Rex Armistead to investigate their parents’ murders. Armistead had been investigating the Dixie Mafia since 1976. Agent Bell and Capt. Cook told Armistead that Nix was in charge of a cash scam from inside prison, which would come to be known as the Lonely Hearts Scam.
At the direction of Nix, the scammers paid off guards in order to use the prison telephones. They would place ads in gay publications saying they were looking for love or just some summer fun and asking for a phone number. Men would reply to the P.O. box provided in the ad, then the scammers would start one of their many ploys to get money out of the gay men. In all the ploys, the scammers would send racy photographs to keep the gay men interested. The photos weren’t of themselves, but usually of beefcake pinups. They would blackmail closeted gay men by threatening to out them. Dozens of men wired money to nix through western union. Some did report the scams only to be dismissed by police. The scam lasted from 1986 to 1989.
Nix planned to pay for a pardon, either from the parole board or from then-Gov. Edwin Edwards.
After finding out about the Lonely Hearts scam, Armistead went to Angola prison and met with Dixie Mafia member Bobby Joe Fabian. He knew him well after investigating the Dixie Mafia for so long. Fabian was also a lifer serving time for murder and kidnapping. He revealed that Nix had planted a full-time associate at the Halat and Sherry law firm to help run the scam.
She was his girlfriend, Sheri LaRa Sharpe.
Sharpe had been born in an Arkansas brothel. Her mother was a madam and she was exploited, turned out hooking for her mother by the time she was a teen. She claimed to have fallen in love with him at the age of 10 when he visited her mother’s bordello. She would go to the P.O. boxes for Nix to collect the scam cash and deposit it into the law firm’s trust account.
In December of 1986, Nix found out that a large sum of money was missing from the account. He called Halat for a face-to-face meeting at Angola. When Nix confronted Halat about the missing money, he blamed it on his law partner Vincent Sherry.
Gillich was not in jail and also called for a meeting with Halat. He also profited from the Lonely Hearts scam and wanted answers. Halat again blamed Vincent Sherry.
Fabian also told Armistead that Nix and Gillich had hired an assassin in the Dixie Mafia named John Ransom. He had been arrested numerous times since the 1970s for burglary, assault, rape and bootlegging. He was suspected in many murders, usually men or women set to testify against someone in the Dixie Mafia.
In 1989, Halat ran for mayor of Biloxi and he won.
Ransom seemed to be a good witness. By then, he was a sick old man in a Mississippi prison missing his family. He swore he hadn’t killed Vincent or Margaret but had knowledge of the murders and would give details with the condition of immunity. He told investigators that he had refused to kill a woman, so he passed it off to another hitman, but he did provide the murder weapon with a homemade silencer. When the District Attorney was ready to move on indictments, Ransom had been moved to a Georgia prison closer to his family and he refused to cooperate any longer.
When the prosecution took the case before a grand jury, the indictments they asked for were for the Lonely Hearts scam, murder conspiracy, wire fraud and two counts of traveling in interstate commerce for murder to hire. The grand jury agreed, and in May 1991, Nix, Gillich, Ransom and Sharpe were all indicted on 15 collective counts. All four were indicted with conspiracy murder and wire fraud. Nix, Gillich and Ransom were indicted for murder for hire, including aiding and abetting by traveling from Louisiana to Mississippi to arrange the murder, and murder for hire for traveling between Georgia and Mississippi.
The trial started in Hattiesburg on Sept. 30, 1991, four years after the Sherry murders and right before the statute of limitations would have run out on the conspiracy charges.
The jury was allowed to rule on the conspiracy charge without specifying whether a defendant conspired to murder or defraud or both. After six weeks of trial testimony, everyone but Sharpe was found guilty of conspiracy murder and wire fraud.
Nix, Gillich and Ransom were all found guilty of murder for hire for traveling between Georgia and Mississippi.
Nix was sentenced to 15 years in prison, added to the life sentence he was already serving.
Gillich also got 15 years in prison. When he was eligible for release, he’d have to spend three years on probation.
Ransom was sentenced to 10 years. When he was eligible for release, he’d also have to spend three years on probation.
Sharpe was sentenced to one year and one week in prison for her part in the Lonely Hearts scam and wire fraud. When she was eligible for release, she’d have to spend three years on probation
Then in 1994, Gillich agreed to talk to the FBI in exchange for a shorter sentence. He said Halat told Nix that Vincent Sherry stole the money in order to save his own life. That’s when Nix and Gillich ordered a hit on Vincent. Nix and Gillich said they would split the cost of the hitman. They were going to hire Ransom but decided on a man named Thomas Holcomb. Later, they said Halat did offer to help pay, but Gillich supposedly told him it was taken care of. Margaret Sherry’s murder was just a bonus and a precaution.
In 1996, the government indicted Nix, Sharpe, Hallat, and Holcomb on dozens of charges, including racketeering, fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Sharpe was charged with obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice for the false testimony that she gave in the 1991 trial.
Halat was charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice based on false statements he made during the 1991 investigation and trial testimony. He was also charged with obstruction of justice, conspiracy to violate the racketeering statute, racketeering, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud
Holcomb was charged with conspiracy to violate the racketeering statute and conspiracy to obstruct justice, but not for murder.
No one was charged with conspiracy to murder in this indictment
On July 16, the jury found Nix, Sharpe and Holcomb guilty of all charges. They initially found Halat only guilty of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The judge asked the jury to try and deliberate again on the remaining charges against Halat. On July 17, the jury found Halat also guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to violate the racketeering statute
On Sept. 22, 1997, Halat was sentenced for obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and conspiracy to commit mail fraud for his part in the Loney Hearts scam. The sentences were to be served concurrently for a total of 18 years in prison. While sentencing Halat, the judge said if he had been truthful about the missing money in the beginning, Vincent and Margaret would not be dead.
Nix got another life sentence in prison.
Holcomb also got life in prison. He died in custody in 2005.
Sharpe was sentenced to five years after Halat was found guilty.
Nix is currently incarcerated in the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.
Holcomb died in prison on April 8, 2005. He was 52 years old
Ransom was released from federal prison in 2003 and died Feb 4. 2006.
Gillich was released from prison in July 2000 after serving nine years of his 20-year sentence. He died in 2012.
Halat was released from a Montgomery, Alabama federal prison in 2012. Then he went to a halfway house in Hattiesburg and worked as a handyman at an area church. Seventy-year-old Halat was released from the halfway house in April 2013.
No one knows what really happened to the money.
The Sherry murders are technically still open cases as no one was ever charged with their murders.
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