Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Biloxi Confidential

The Angola Lonely Hearts Club

During his interactions with the FBI, Broussard learned that the agency was investigating a strange — and lucrative — scam that was operating out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. Bogus want ads were being placed in U.S. and Canadian publications appealing to lonely men and women seeking partners. Most of the ads, however, were for men seeking other men. Thousands of dollars were being bilked from straight women and gay men in a scheme that tied together an intricate network of convicts, complicit prison guards, runners ("road dogs" in the prison lexicon), and other individuals on the outside of the prison — including the receivers of the money who were laundering it through rapidly swelling bank accounts.

Louisiana State Penitentiary gate
Louisiana State Penitentiary gate

The scam worked roughly like this: ads would be placed in the "personals" sections of widely read newspapers, purportedly by individuals seeking companionship — most often men seeking other men. When responses came in, letters would be sent to the respondents requesting money. The letters would usually include a photo of an attractive man which the letter claimed to be of the sender, and the presence of the photo seemed to entice the respondent to establish a correspondence. The letter would paint a sympathetic portrait of the purported sender and cite some pressing need to get money so the two of them could get together. Money would be sent to the senders, the operators of the scam, later to be couriered outside of the prison and deposited in various banks.

And, once an initial "gift" or "loan" was received, those perpetrating the scheme would invent other crises to bilk still more money from correspondents, and these bogus appeals often worked. Tens, then hundreds of thousands of dollars were eventually realized by this artfully embroidered scheme preying on the vulnerabilities of lonely individuals.

Two major discoveries emerged as the investigation proceeded: The mastermind behind this con game was a convicted murderer at Angola named Kirksey McCord Nix Jr., and the primary receiver of the ill-gotten monies was the Biloxi law firm of Halat & Sherry.

The FBI, working closely with several anonymous informants who had been involved in the lonelyhearts scam, learned that much of the money was being funneled through a woman named Sheri LaRa Sharpe. The phone number they obtained for her turned out to be the number of the Halat & Sherry firm. She worked there, supposedly as a paralegal, even though she had no official certification as such, as required by law.

Examining a stack of phone bills from the Halat & Sherry law office, Broussard was amazed to discover how many calls had originated from or connected to the Tunica, La., telephone exchange. 345 of them between December 1986 and September 15, 1987, the day after the Sherrys' murder. Many of the calls from Tunica were collect, meaning charges had been accepted on the firm's end of the line. When Broussard asked Halat about the calls, Halat explained that Tunica was the exchange for Angola and the Louisiana state prison there, and that Kirksey McCord Nix Jr. was a client of the law firm.

Broussard's suspicion was aroused. What was a law firm doing having so many "attorney-client" conversations with a convicted murderer serving a life sentence; one who had fully exhausted all of his appeals and had little or no chance of getting out? This led Broussard to further investigate both the scam and Nix himself. What turned up was shocking, even for a seasoned investigator of violent crimes.

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