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Shared Fate

Billy Wayne Sinclair has a new book, a devoted wife, and a debt that he is still paying for murdering a Baton Rouge store operator in 1965.

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Editor's note: The following is the second part of "Keys to Freedom," a three-part series on criminal rehabilitation, redemption and forgiveness.

Billy Wayne Sinclair is an uncommon killer.

He has a lot going for him -- despite having spent the last 35 years in prison for his conviction for the 1965 murder of James C. Bodden, a popular convenience store operator, during an attempted robbery in Baton Rouge.

Sinclair is up for parole again this year. Although the state Parole Board has rejected him six times since 1992, he can offer fresh evidence of his rehabilitation, while holding together strong support on the outside for his release. Sinclair, now 56, can boast a string of achievements and backing beyond his prison record for employment, conduct and participation in rehabilitation programs, all of which the board is required to consider by law.

An eighth-grade drop-out who became self-educated on death row, he is an active jailhouse lawyer who has recently co-authored a book about his life as a convicted killer and a federal informant in the state pardons-for-sales scandals at Angola state penitentiary in the mid-'80s. Co-authored with his wife, Jodie Sinclair, A Life in the Balance: The Billy Wayne Sinclair Story has been generally received as a compelling read by The New York Times Book Review, the Associated Press and Publisher's Weekly, among others. And Jodie Sinclair's 40-city book tour by live visits and via satellite will likely generate interest in Billy Wayne's parole plight.

The convict's first book has revived a prison writing career that included national journalism awards as co-editor with convicted killer Wilbert Rideau from 1976 to '86 at The Angolite, a bi-monthly news magazine published by inmates at Angola. Rideau (who has a Web site at www.wilbertrideau.com) continues as the editor to this day. Sinclair's role as a FBI informant in the pardons scandals rocked Angola and the administration of former Gov. Edwin Edwards and earned Sinclair the unusual but unwavering support of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission, a pro-law enforcement organization in New Orleans.

Originally sentenced to death in 1966, Sinclair and hundreds of inmates nationwide escaped death row in 1972, when the United States Supreme Court temporarily abolished the death penalty as unconstitutional. Sinclair was re-sentenced to life. In 1991, former Gov. Buddy Roemer gave Sinclair another "time cut," at the urging of the MCC, from life to 90 years in prison. Sinclair can get out of prison in 2011, if not sooner.

The MCC has never supported the release of any other convict since its founding in 1952. And MCC president Raphael Goyeneche says Sinclair can count on the group's support again when he applies for parole this year.

"Billy Sinclair blew the whistle on the pardons scandals in the administrations of Edwin Edwards and [Pardon Board Chairman] Howard Marsellus," Goyeneche says. "And he did it at great risk to his own personal safety. He did it because it was the right thing to do. And not only did he not receive any special consideration, he was actually penalized [by state authorities] as a result of his coming forward and doing the right thing. Yet, people with more atrocious crimes who served less time and accomplished little or nothing in prison are at home right now with their feet up on the sofa enjoying the free life.

"The message that was sent by the way Sinclair has been treated [by state authorities] and by the fact that he is still behind bars is 'Don't cooperate, don't blow the whistle' if you see wrongdoing in the system, because you will be treated the same way Sinclair has been. ... That is, you're going to sit in jail and rot."

The MCC's firm support for Sinclair provides at least a counterweight to the staunch opposition to Sinclair's parole from East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Doug Moreau, who had no comment on Goyeneche's remarks.

Meanwhile, unlike many convicts whose marriages collapse with the passage of prison time, Sinclair has a relentlessly dedicated spouse in Jodie Bell Sinclair. She first met him 20 years ago last Saturday (March 17), when she interviewed him at Angola as a Baton Rouge television reporter for WAFB-TV. She was also on special assignment for Gambit. They married a year later by proxy, an idea she says, proudly, that he got from reading about the family issues of then-Soviet Union dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Today, Jodie Sinclair maintains his Web site (www.billysinclair.com), promotes their book and keeps his various issues before state boards, corrections officials and the media. They have their difficulties, but not like those of other married couples. For example, she was concerned about his treatment by prison guards who recently transported him to the East Baton Rouge jail for a civil hearing at the courthouse. He, in turn, was concerned about her temper. He has not had a disciplinary "write-up" in 25 years and feared he would be brought up on charges if his wife told a guard to "drop dead" -- as she admits she has done in the past.

Sinclair tells his wife such outbursts are "unprofessional," she says with a chuckle, as she imitates his drawl.

"What I have always wanted in a man is intellect, integrity, character, a moral sense of ethics," Jodie Sinclair says. "Billy has all of those qualities in spades. He's a virtual Boy Scout [in prison]."

Others see Sinclair as a conniving killer who has had more good luck than he deserves.

Billy Sinclair "literally received the break of a lifetime" when the U.S. Supreme Court commuted his death sentence to life in prison, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau wrote in a 1999 letter to the state Parole Board, opposing any clemency for the convict.

"Sinclair executed J.C. Bodden," Moreau continued. "When Sinclair made the conscious decision to enter the Pac-A-Sac [sic] store armed, he did so for the purpose of killing his victim. He succeeded by firing four shots, one fatally wounding his victim. Why should we as a society choose to re-examine his choices and his culpability for his actions."

Moreau last week said he has seen no new facts in the case that would change his mind -- and that he is not swayed by sworn affidavits of two witnesses obtained 16 years after the crime.

Defense attorneys say the sworn statements of state Rep. Donald Ray Kennard, R-Baton Rouge, and his wife might have contradicted, or at least mitigated, prosecution claims of Bodden's "execution" -- if the statements had been admitted at trial.

On Dec. 5, 1965 -- 12 years before he became a state representative -- Donald Ray Kennard and his wife, Ramona, pulled into a Pak-a-Sak convenience store on Greenwell Springs Road. They needed matches for their heater at home.

"As we were pulling into the parking space, two men came running out the store," Ramona Kennard said in her 1984 affidavit. "The first man [Sinclair] had a gun and he was being chased by the second man, who I believe had something in his hand like a broom. They were only a few feet apart. I saw the first man fire a shot at the second man who then grabbed his chest."

She was subpoenaed by the state for trial and went to court. However, she was told she would not be needed as a witness since she could not make a positive identification of the man with the gun.

In a separate affidavit, Donald Ray Kennard recalled pulling into the store parking lot. "Just as the front wheels of the car touched the curb, I heard my wife exclaim, 'Oh!' I looked up and saw two men running out of the store. ... The second man was J.C. Bodden and he was holding a broom over his shoulder as he chased the first man. I remember hearing a gunshot and seeing smoke from the gunshot."

Moreau, responding to a summary of the Kennards' statements, says, "seems to me, the result to the victim is indistinguishable [from an execution-style slaying]."

"Homicide is a very unique crime in that the victim is never, ever, ever allowed to have any response to the defendant's plea for leniency but that is because of the defendant's conduct," Moreau continues. "There is a tendency, as time goes on, for different people to lose focus on what it must have been like at the time the [homicide] occurred. What we try and do is put ourselves back at that time and properly represent the interests [of the victim and the victim's family]."

In A Life in the Balance, Billy Wayne Sinclair recalls in remorseful detail the crime that put him behind bars.

By the time he was 20, he had served as a look-out in three armed robberies and stolen a car from the dealership where his father, John Sinclair, worked. Armed with a .22 caliber pistol, he entered the convenience store to pull his first solo hold-up. He waited until other customers left, then ordered Bodden to fill a sack with money. Bodden refused and ordered him to leave:

"A second customer walked into the store. He froze when he realized a robbery was underway.

"'Back down the aisle,' I ordered.

"'Stay where you are, everybody stay put,' Bodden shouted over my instructions.

"I pointed the gun at the floor and glanced back toward the door. Ray Neyland, the clerk outside, had stopped sweeping and was easing toward it.

"'C'mon in here!' I yelled.

"Moving toward me, Bodden gestured with his hands for everyone to stay put. I pulled the trigger. The 'click' of the hammer hitting an empty chamber was unusually loud in the quiet store.

"'He's shooting paper wads,' Bodden yelled. 'He's firing blanks.' ...

"He moved toward me, as though he were ready to make a tackle. I pointed the pistol at his leg and fired, hoping to stop his advance. I just wanted to get away. The muted explosion stunned everyone. Bodden froze. ...

"Then he charged, screaming something I couldn't understand. I turned and ran from the store. He picked up a broom as he chased me, lifting it over his head. I fired a shot as I ran out of the store across the parking lot. The errant bullet struck Bodden under the left armpit, traveled across his chest cavity, and nicked his aorta. He sat down on the pavement and bled to death in a matter of minutes."

Sinclair sped away. That night, as Baton Rouge police combed the city for Bodden's killer, Sinclair briefly contemplated suicide, but admits he "didn't have the guts." He escaped the police and headed for the West Coast.

The FBI arrested Sinclair when he showed up in his father's dealership. "As the FBI led me away, I heard the last words John would ever speak to me: 'I hope they put you in the electric chair.'"

He was extradited to Baton Rouge, but escaped from the local jail. He robbed another store and was recaptured, then sent to Angola. It was later on Death Row, Sinclair writes, that he began to realize the depths of his crime -- but not because he was facing the electric chair. While he was in jail, his little brother Pat had been killed in action while serving with the Marines in Vietnam.

"I was in agony as I thought of his final moments, the raging stream sucking him under, filling his lungs with water, choking out his life," Sinclair recalls. "And then I saw J.C., sitting on the concrete in front of the convenience grocery, choking to death on his blood. I thought of his family trying to comprehend its loss. And, for the first time, I understood the human dimensions of my crime."

"Keep him until 2011," Florence Babin, Bodden's sister said at the 1999 parole board hearing for Sinclair. "He should be dead."

Luke Bodden, the victim's half-brother, told the Baton Rouge Advocate: "I don't think he should be paroled. He deprived me of my kid brother since 1965."

Bodden played tackle on a celebrated 1953 Istrouma High School football team. Many of his friends over the years either attend Sinclair's parole board hearings or write letters of opposition to his release. Among them is Carroll DiBenedetto, a retired social worker who worked in the state Department of Corrections and retired from the Family Court Center in Baton Rouge.

"I am opposed to Sinclair's parole because he killed my friend," DiBenedetto says. "Not only that, he's been involved in a lot of other crimes. He committed armed robberies and escape. He is not a first offender.

"Everybody says he's rehabilitated. So what? He was sent there to do hard labor, not to be rehabilitated. He'll get out in 10 more years. J.C. Bodden will be nothing but a rotting corpse."

Bodden graduated from high school in 1954, then served in the U.S. Air Force. "He wasn't any politician's son or anything," DiBenedetto says. "Nothing distinguishes him from a million other guys. He was just a young man getting started." Bodden and his wife, Sadie DeLee Ferguson, had not been married long. "They did not have a chance to have kids," DiBenedetto says.

In a 1980 interview with The New York Times Magazine, Bodden's widow said Sinclair "earned" his incarceration. "I think that the press focuses too much on the poor person that's in prison and not on the poor person who has been the victim of this prisoner," she said.

Ferguson later remarried. She died last year at age 66.

Asked to respond to opposition from Bodden's friends and family, Goyeneche of the Crime Commission says: "Nothing can be said. A victim and a family of loved ones has every right to oppose someone's parole. They are completely within their rights in objecting."

However, he adds, victim objections should not be the only consideration by the parole board.

"Billy's only means of [early] release is for the Parole Board to recognize that he is no longer a threat to society," says New York-based attorney Richard Hand, who says he will apply for a parole board hearing sometime this year.

The parole board, appointed by the governor, has rejected Sinclair clemency bids six times since 1992. Each time, the board has cited as reasons the "serious nature" of his offense and opposition from law enforcement and criminal justice system officials.

Sinclair lost his last hearing two years ago, 3-0. Two of the three opposing votes came from members nominated by victims' rights organizations.

The 2001 hearing will be conducted by a three-member panel of the parole board, which must review the case where Sinclair is incarcerated. The parole board's decision is final, though convicts who are not serving life sentences may re-apply every two years.

The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled (like other states) that the parole board's decisions are insulated from review by the courts. Testimony of state parole board hearings are not recorded due to the time and expense that would be involved in transcribing nearly 300 hearings conducted statewide each month, parole officials say.

A Gambit Weekly check of Sinclair's voluminous parole board files yielded little in the way of letters either for or against his release -- at least not after a Parole Board lawyer had removed all materials that would either violate victim or inmate confidentiality laws.

If Sinclair loses again this year, he faces one more parole board under conservative Gov. Mike Foster, before a new governor and perhaps a new Baton Rouge district attorney take office.

District Attorney Moreau is not up for re-election until January 2003. He says he has "no personal animosity" toward Sinclair. And if the convict truly has found redemption, "he can be an extremely positive influence within the population in which he now resides."

That's not likely. Sinclair has already burned a lot of bridges to his criminal past, even while still in prison.

Unlike the professed rehabilitation of convicted killer Wilbert Rideau ("Unforgiven," March 13, 2001), Sinclair's self-proclaimed "redemption" carries a deadly distinction.

Sinclair is a "whistle-blower" to some, and a "snitch" to others. Either way, it's a virtual death sentence in prison.

He was the only inmate among some two dozen convicts at Angola to voluntarily cooperate with the federal probe of the pardons-for-sale scandals, according to then-U.S. Attorney Ray Lamonica.

The feds' probe fell short of its target -- Edwin Edwards -- but a parallel state investigation resulted in the bribery conviction of Edwards' pardon board chair Howard Marsellus, who is now out of prison and living in Texas, a source says.

The memories of convicts and prison personnel are like those of cops and prosecutors -- long. Those who came under investigation at Angola are unlikely to forget or forgive any inmate-informant.

"Being snitched on is like being sexually raped -- people don't never forget," says New Orleans community activist Albert "Chui" "Panther Al" Clark, who served 18 consecutive years at Angola for armed robbery and attempted murder before his own release seven years ago.

"And in the eyes of the convicts, once you have that label, it's a permanent thing. Nobody is going to trust him outside or inside prison. He can never go back to that community; he's got to go forward ... somewhere else."

Sinclair was transferred out of Angola by federal marshals in 1987. He is now housed at Louisiana's super-protective custody unit at the David Wade Correctional Institute at Homer near the Arkansas border. He is one of only 50 inmates on the N-5 Special Management Unit cell block, which houses convicted ex-cops from New Orleans, former corrections officers, very young "lifers," contract killers, pedophiles, and an 80-year-old former warden of Angola who tried to kill his wife.

Like Sinclair, all N-5 inmates are banned from giving personal interviews to the media. It's the policy of both prison Warden Kelly D. Ward and state Department of Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder, a WCI-Homer spokesperson says.

It was not always that way. The last time Sinclair had access to the media, it proved embarrassing for authorities. In 1997, WWL-TV investigative reporter Bill Elder interviewed Sinclair about the inmate's allegations of convicted pedophile priest Gilbert Gauthe, who also served time on the N-5 cell block.

Sinclair specifically alleged that Gauthe's personal jailhouse visits from Henry Politz, then-chief judge of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, conferred "tremendous power" upon the ex-priest and "created a climate of fear" among other inmates and prison officials alike.

Stalder scoffed at the prisoner allegation, saying that Judge Henry Politz "gave great service" to the Catholic Church through his prison ministry to Cuban detainees and other inmates. "Even though others may throw them away, I guess the Church doesn't throw them away," Stalder added.

Elder's report also disclosed that when Stalder was warden of WCI, his administration had failed to administer court-ordered chemical castration drugs to Gauthe, who later re-offended in Texas following his release from prison in Louisiana. Stalder retorted in the interview that he could not be expected to recall all of the medical regimens given by treatment officers for every inmate.

Gambit Weekly placed calls to Stalder asking if Billy Wayne Sinclair's allegations in 1997 had anything to do with the N-5 media ban now in effect at WCI-Homer. Stalder had not responded by late last week.

Billy Wayne Sinclair once credited Wilbert Rideau with saving his life from abusive authorities. That was in 1965, when both were locked up in a Baton Rouge jail.

The famed Angola news team split in 1986, after Sinclair revealed his dual role as a prison journalist and a FBI "snitch." Rideau recently won a new trial for his 1961 murder-bank robbery conviction in Lake Charles. Yet published remarks suggest that neither Sinclair nor Rideau are extending hopes for society's forgiveness to each other.

Rideau said in a 1987 interview with The Columbia Journalism Review that he felt "betrayed" by his former partner and that the Angolite's credibility suffered dangerously, particularly among its violence-prone readers.

Sinclair retorted that a newsroom in a criminal environment couldn't operate like one in the "free world." And his book paints an unflattering picture of Rideau as a self-promoter and master manipulator of the "outside" media.

It was Sinclair's future wife, Jodie Bell, who captured some of the most dramatic quotes from both Rideau and Sinclair about their crimes. The year was 1981. She was on assignment for WAFB-TV and Gambit, and the two convicts were already award-winning pioneers of prison journalism. An execution was imminent. The co-editors of The Angolite were covering the TV reporters covering the electric chair.

Both Sinclair and Rideau had already escaped Death Row. Both then said to Bell that they thought they deserved to be executed for their crimes.

"I should have been executed for what I did," Sinclair told his future wife. "Society didn't have the moral courage to do it." He said then that he favored the death penalty and would have preferred a firing squad to electrocution.

At the time of the interview, Sinclair suggested he had not been in prison long enough for the murder of J.C. Bodden: "I've been locked up 16 years and I don't think you can take that and use that as a fair barometer that I've paid my dues. If you say that 16 years satisfies murder, then you're telling a person you can go out and kill and 16 years is what you've got to pay. If we put a specific price tag on human life, we are cheapening life, we are destroying public confidence in the workings of our criminal justice system."

Rideau told Bell he found remorse while on death row for killing bank teller Julia Ferguson in 1961. "When I lived on that death row for 11 years, you know, wanting to live and my pleas for mercy falling on deaf ears, it made me realize what my victim must have felt like because I did the same thing to her.

"I ignored her pleas. You know, it was sort of like a role reversal, and somehow in that came an appreciation for life and the thin line that separates the living from the dead."

Rideau continued: "You have to understand; like Billy, I was a criminal. I needed to be locked up even before I committed the crime, because I was dangerous. I was 19 years old. The fact that I hated white people added an extra dimension to the whole affair. I mean, you are not that concerned about the people you hate, which is why it is so easy for people to execute people."

Today, 20 years later, the convicts who were once hailed as the Woodward and Bernstein of prison journalism are both back in the public eye. Rideau's fate will be in the hands of a jury; Sinclair's future will be decided by the parole board.

If Sinclair is not paroled, he must wait until his release date of April 17, 2011. By then, he will be 66; his wife, 72.

"I have paid a heavy price for 20 years for believing in redemption and forgiveness," Jodie Sinclair says. "I don't think that torturing the living honors the dead. I just think it shows some life is cheap."

Whether or not Billy Wayne Sinclair ever gets out of prison, the memory of J.C. Bodden will likely not be soon forgotten, by his many friends and family -- or by Sinclair. For if any of Sinclair's writings have an ominous ring, it is the way he described the moment he first shot J.C. Bodden at the convenience store 35 years ago:

"He looked down at his thigh. A patch of red blood was forming on his green pants. ... He looked up at me. Our eyes locked forever."

CORRECTIONS: In the first part of our series Keys to Freedom (March 13), the source of remarks by Chaplain Ray Anderson, who started the Restorative Justice Project for crime victims and prisoners at the Wade Correctional Institute at Homer, was not given; they were excerpted from an interview with Becky Beane of Prison Fellowship Ministries and published online by Christianity.com. We also erred in saying convicted killer Billy Wayne Sinclair is 55. He is 56. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.

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