Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Biloxi Confidential

The Angola Connection

With the passage of time and trail getting colder, the chances of the Sherry murders being solved by conventional means were getting slimmer. Lynne Sposito kept up her dogged pursuit of her parents' killers, spending more and more time in Biloxi and less with her family in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Through Greg Broussard she had learned about the lonelyhearts scam being run by Nix through her father's law office. Though a direct connection between Nix and the murders was not yet contemplated, the Biloxi Police Department saw enough reason to send Broussard and two other investigators, Buddy Wills and Ric Kirk, on a 250-mile drive to Angola Penitentiary to interview Nix.

Louisiana State Pennitentiary sign
Louisiana State Pennitentiary sign

While, of course, denying involvement, Nix did offer some theories to the investigators as to how the crime may have been committed and how the killer or killers might have made their getaway. His description of the layout of the Sherry property and its immediate environs struck the investigators as odd. How could someone who had been in prison since 1971 and who had never been to the Sherrys' house have known so much about it?

But, like most of the other possible leads in the case to that point, this one went nowhere, also. Soon afterward Broussard left the Harrison County Sheriff's Office and his involvement in the Sherry murder investigation came to an end. Lynne continued pursuing the investigation on her own, receiving death threats in the process and arming herself against the likelihood of any of them being carried out.

Having failed to get the FBI involved in what was, up to that point, considered strictly a matter for local authorities, Lynne was uncertain what to do next. A friendly FBI agent in Jackson suggested that she hire a private detective and that's what she did. Her choice for the job was a former Mississippi Highway Patrol supervisor with a reputation for getting the job done — often by whatever means were at hand. His name was Rex Armistead.

Armistead's plan to pursue the investigation was a threefold one: absolve Eric or prove conclusively that he did it, then investigate — in order — possible connections between the murder and Halat and Blessey. Lynne knew that the police were still considering Eric a suspect and she was anxious to resolve that matter one way or the other, but she was surprised to learn that Armistead considered Halat a prime suspect. When she asked why, he replied, "You always check out whoever finds the body." He also suspected that something wasn't right about all the phone calls between Angola and the Halat & Sherry law office, and he explained that he had crossed paths with Nix before.

Peter Halat & Family
Peter Halat & Family

Through her own investigation, which she was trying to keep as low-profile as possible, Lynne learned from a law office secretary who was keeping the books that Nix was making as much as $28,000 a year in just one account that the Halat & Sherry firm was managing for him. Amazed that an imprisoned, convicted murderer could be making as much while incarcerated as many people earn in the outside world, Lynne broached the subject with Halat. She was told, in so many words, that Nix was a client and friend of his, as was Mike Gillich. In her interpretation, this was a veiled warning: Halat appeared to be telling Lynne to back off.

Armistead seemed to have the same suspicions of Halat, and for good reason. Halat was a longtime friend of Gillich. Despite a significant age difference, the two of them were of Slavic descent and were both raised in poverty in Point Cadet. Like most mid-sized Southern cities, Biloxi was essentially a small town, and its ethnic urban neighborhoods were even smaller and more tightly knit. It wasn't surprising that the Gillich and Halat families knew each other. In later years, when Halat served as a judge in Biloxi, he helped thwart efforts to convict Gillich on various charges, and even had Gillich's police record expunged. But, more importantly, Gillich was the link between Halat and Nix, and Halat was the link between Nix and Sherry. Armistead, with prior dealings with both Nix and Gillich, saw something very disquieting in this scenario.

Even more seemingly amiss was why a convicted murderer serving a life sentence would need a house and car, yet Nix — thanks in large part to Gillich and Halat — had both, a house with a mortgage in the tony Gulf resort of Ocean Springs, Miss. — just across the bay from Biloxi — and a brand new Mercedes. Though he would ostensibly never live in the house or drive the car, Nix harbored dreams of doing both. He was determined to buy his way out of prison and enjoy, in person, the luxuries which the money from his clandestine enterprises could obtain.

With his first wife, Sandra Rutherford Nix dead from an auto accident, and his second marriage to Kellye Dawn Newman — conducted over the phone from prison, with Pete Halat officiating — on the rocks, Nix orchestrated his next move with a complicit woman. He arranged to have Sheri LaRa Sharpe ensconced in the Halat & Sherry law office. Though not put on salary or given an official title, LaRa managed to live quite comfortably on money Nix provided her. And, by working in the office, she could pass herself off as a paralegal, even though she lacked official certification. Apparently it was enough to get around regulations at Angola.

With attorney-client confidentiality a recognized principle of the American justice system, papers brought in and out of prisons by lawyers and their staffs are not normally subject to search and seizure policies. Under this cover, LaRa was able to smuggle papers to and from Nix in and out of Angola that were key to keeping his lucrative scams going, and this collusion appeared to be known to the firm's two namesake partners.

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