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Federal Trial Tells A Story Of Cold-Blooded Death, Prison Scam With Gay Men

October 20, 1991

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) _ Vincent Sherry and his wife were shot in cold blood after prisoners heard the state judge skimmed money from a scheme in which inmates bilked their homosexual pen pals, federal prosecutors say.

That’s only part of the sordid story unfolding in a trial of a woman and three men, including the owner of Gulf Coast strip joints and a judge’s son turned career criminal, accused in an alleged murder plot and a scam that also implicates the mayor of Biloxi.

For three weeks, spectators have packed the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering Sr. They have come to see the trial of Kirksey McCord Nix Jr., a convicted killer; his former girlfriend Sheri LaRa Sharpe of St. Francisville, La.; lounge owner Mike Gillich Jr.; and John Ransom, an aging Georgia prison inmate.

The four are charged with conspiring to cheat homosexual men of up to $1 million and plotting to kill Harrison County Circuit Judge Vincent Sherry over missing profits in the pen pal scheme. The indictments don’t deal with the death of Sherry’s wife, former Biloxi Council member Margaret Sherry.

If convicted, the four defendants could face up to 30 years in prison and fines exceeding $1 million.

The Sherrys were shot to death on Sept. 14, 1987, in their North Biloxi home. The judge was shot three times in the face. Mrs. Sherry was shot four times in the head by the same .22-caliber pistol, authorities said.

Biloxi Mayor Pete Halat, at onetime Sherry’s law partner, has been linked to all the defendants, mainly through telephone records, and has been mentioned throughout the trial. But he isn’t named in the indictments. He has been called for questioning by the prosecution and defense.

Halat represented Nix for about 10 years, and gave Sharpe paralegal credentials so she could visit Nix in prison. The visits were halted when she was caught with a photograph of a young man, a tool prosecutors said was used to lure homosexuals into the scam.

Halat denies any criminal involvement and says the case is flimsy, based on the lies of a convicted killer.

″Neither the federal government or the state government or any court in this land will be able to prove the premise upon which the prosecution is based in Hattiesburg,″ Halat has said.

Nix, 48, whose father and namesake was a chief judge of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, is serving life without parole for the 1971 murder of a New Orleans grocer. A career criminal arrested 20 times by age 40, the younger Nix is a reputed leader of the Southern underworld known as the Dixie Mafia.

Ransom, 64, also a reputed Dixie Mafia member, is serving a 12-year sentence for manslaughter at a Hardwick, Ga., prison. He appears frail and often dozes during testimony.

Sharpe, 36, who once worked in Sherry’s law office, pleaded guilty last year to theft in connection with the scam. She’s on parole.

Gillich, 61, is the well-connected owner of striptease joints on the Gulf Coast and a longtime friend of Halat’s.

Gillich, Ransom and Nix are charged with interstate commerce, murder for hire, conspiracy, wire fraud and aiding and abetting. Sharpe is charged with conspiracy and wire fraud.

The case had frustrated investigators until two years ago. That’s when a state prison inmate, Bobby Joe Fabian, testified before a federal grand jury that he and fellow inmates bilked homosexuals by advertising for pen pals in gay magazines.

Men who replied to the ads, thinking they were contacting potential lovers, were sent photos of attractive men. Once relationships developed through the mail and by telephone, they were asked to send money.

Fabian also claimed Sherry was killed because inmates believed he skimmed $400,000 from the enterprise.

Defense attorneys, who begin calling witnesses this week, say prosecutors desperate to solve the slayings charged the wrong people.

″The government’s been on a wild goose chase,″ attorney Jim Rose, who represents Nix, said in his opening statement. ″The government’s indictment is not worth the paper it’s written on.″

Prosecutors say events leading to the Sherrys’ deaths began at the Angola prison, which sits on 18,000 acres of farmland surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River.

Officials said Nix took over the scam when it was unsuccessful and turned it into a huge moneymaker in hopes of somehow buying his freedom.

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