AUTHOR: SALTER

This week's revelations in the 1987 murder case of Circuit Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife, Margaret, once again establishes a bizarre link to the grisly Gulf Coast murders and another murder 20 years earlier in rural McNairy County, Tennessee - a murder that gave rise to four movies, more than a dozen books and folklore that still draws visitors to tiny Adamsville, TN.

Federal prosecutors this week unveiled murder conspiracy indictments against Kirksey McCord Nix, Jr., and three others in connection with the execution-style murders of the judge and his wife in their Biloxi home on Sept. 14, 1987. Also charged was former Biloxi Mayor Pete Halat and two other alleged crime figures on indictments that allege that Nix and Halat engaged in a contract killing of the Sherrys.

An Oklahoma native and the son of an Oklahoma appellate court judge, Nix was serving life without parole in Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary at the time of the Sherry murders. He was convicted of the murder of a New Orleans grocer as an habitual offender.

Nix, Biloxi strip joint operator Mike Gillich, Jr., Georgia crime figure John Elbert Ransom and former Nix associate Sheri LaRa Sharpe were convicted in 1991 on federal conspiracy charges involving a prison scam to bilk homosexual patron on the outside through a "lonely hearts" personal advertising scam. Federal prosecutors said the prison scam led to the murder conspiracy against the Sherrys.

Halat has not been convicted of a crime in the Sherry case. But it was Nix's alleged connection to Halat that prosecutors believe triggered the murder of the Sherrys. Halat allegedly managed a bank account for Nix, one that contained proceeds from the prison scam. Halat and Sherry were law partners, and prosecutors argued that when money was shown to be missing from the account, Nix ordered a "hit" on Sherry.

Nix was believed to have masterminded the 1986-89 prison scam and the alleged 1991 murder contract on the Sherrys from his prison cell with help from his associates - including Halat - on the outside. Halat has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing in the case.

But the Sherry murder aren't Nix's first connection to a high profile murder case.

On August 12, 1967, while responding to an early morning drunk-and-disorderly call, a rural Tennessee sheriff and his wife were gunned down in an ambush by four men with automatic weapons. The sheriff's wife was pronounced dead at the scene.

But the sheriff lived - and so began the legends surrounding McNairy County Sheriff Buford Pusser.

The "Walking Tall" series of movies, plus another television movie, chronicled the real and imagined exploits of the famous sheriff - who was portrayed in the movies as a corruption-busting lawman who used a big stick to clean out the illegal liquor operations, gambling and prostitution that existed on Hwy. 45 between Corinth, Mississippi and Selmer, Tennessee between a group of criminals known as "The State Line Mob" - at least that's what Pusserphile author W.R. Morris called the group.

According to Morris, Pusser fingered "Dixie Mafia" crime figure Carl "Towhead" White as the instigator of a contract "hit" against him that resulted in his wife's death. Morris wrote that Pusser believed White sealed the murder-for-hire deal with fellow Dixie Mafia figure Kirksey Nix.

Pusser believed Nix, Boston area mobster Carmine Raymond Gagliardi and two other Dixie Mafia figures were the triggermen in the ambush that killed his wife and left Pusser's face a bloody pulp.

Gagliardi and the other two Dixie Mafia figures Pusser believed had a hand in his wife's murder were themselves murdered during Pusser's lifetime. Only Nix survives. Gagliardi's bullet-riddled body was found in the Boston Harbor. Towhead White was shot to death in Corinth. The other two suspects were found shot to death in Texas.

Pusser himself later died violently in a 1974 car accident in McNairy County - but controversy swirls about that accident, too. Some in law enforcement who knew Pusser, the "State Line" crowd and the "Dixie Mafia" believe Pusser's image as a clean, corruption-busting sheriff was Hollywood fiction and that the real Pusser was perhaps as violent and corrupt himself as the men credited with trying to murder him.

Nix never faced charges in connection with the Pusser ambush. The crime remains unsolved.

But the bottom line to Nix's current indictment is that federal prosecutors aren't going too far out on a limb to suggest that a life-without-parole prison inmate may have been involved in slaying a circuit judge and his wife on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1987.

20 years earlier, he was linked to the murder of a Tennessee sheriff's wife and the wounding of the sheriff. And when you go to the video store to rent those now-ancient action movies made by Bing Crosby Productions in the early 1970's, it might chill you a bit to realize that truth in the Pusser legend and the reality of the Sherry murders may be far stranger than fiction.

For other than the rash of civil rights murders in Mississippi, no single murder case has been the source of more speculation, rumor and gossip than the murders of Vince and Margaret Sherry. No Tennessee murder, other than that of Martin Luther King, ever got more attention than the slaying of Pauline Pusser.

The one name that links the two killings - whether in truth or in legend - is Kirksey McCord Nix, Jr., convicted murderer and conspirator and reputed Dixie Mafia kingpin. Sitting pretty in Angola, he may hold the answers to both mysteries.

At least in the Sherry murders, federal prosecutors think he does.

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