The Dixie Maria On Trial

From the minute the news of the double murder broke, people said it was a Dixie Mafia hit. In 1987, an assailant wielding a .22-caliber pistol killed Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife, Margaret, in their home in Biloxi, Miss. The case became the Gulf Coast's most infamous unsolved murder. This fall, three men--a convicted murderer, an alleged Georgia hit man with a peg leg and a Biloxi strip-club owner-went to trial on charges of fraud and intent to commit murder for hire in the judge's death. But an unindicted figure also seemed on trial: Biloxi Mayor Peter Halat, who was Judge Sherry's law partner.

When his name didn't turn up in the indictment, Halat circulated an "I told you so" statement to the press. He has been saying so ever since, but rumors still dog him. Federal prosecutors claim the murders were an act of revenge by conspirators in a prison-house scam to defraud gay men. Operating from his cell in Louisiana's Angola Prison, reputed Dixie Mafia veteran Kirksey Nix Jr., 48, placed lonely-hearts ads with headlines like DESPERATELY SEEKING DANNY in gay publications. Once a correspondent on the outside was hooked, Nix encouraged him in phone calls or letters to send money. Nix's former girlfriend, Sheri La Ra Sharpe, who has been charged with conspiracy and wire fraud, allegedly patched through phone calls from the prison to gay victims and picked up the cash they wired back. Johnny Koler, 67, of Grand Junction, Colo., testified that he lost his life savings of $100,000; a California writer sent $17,200 to the boyfriend he knew as "Eddie." Nix admitted on the stand that when the scam was going strong between 1986 and 1989, it raked in an average $600 a day. In all, prosecutors claim Nix grossed more than $800,000.

Nix couldn't stash that kind of money at Angola, so he needed "bankers" on the outside. Witnesses have testified that scam money was sometimes delivered to codefendant Mike Gillich (who denies any involvement) at his Golden Nugget nightclub in Biloxi. Eventually, the prosecution says, the money made its way to the Halat-Sherry law office; Halat, who had been Nix's lawyer, allegedly deposited the proceeds in a trust fund. When a payload of $200,000 came up missing, the conspirators blamed Judge Sherry. A convicted bank robber, William Rhodes, testified last week that Halat tried to hire him to hit the Sherrys in 1987. When Rhodes asked if the judge's wife could be spared, Halat allegedly replied, "She knows his business. She's got to die."

On the stand last week, Halat insisted he was innocent--and Nix's testimony backed him up. The son of an Oklahoma judge, Nix says he never told his lawyer about the scam. "I wasn't proud to tell people I got on the phone and acted like I was gay as a three-dollar bill." Halat, who calls the case "a fairy tale," believes he has already been exonerated by the grand jury's failure to indict him. He claims he never met Rhodes. Prosecutors indicate that if Nix and the others are convicted, Halat is all the more likely to come to trial. But even if he doesn't, the residents of Biloxi may get the chance to hand down their own punitive verdict in the next mayoral race.