When the bodies of Vince and Margaret Sherry were found two days after their murders, suspicion immediately centered on incumbent mayor, Gerald Blessey, for good reasonon the surface at least. He and Margaret had been bitter political enemies.
Elected in 1981, Blessey was one of the most liberal elected officials in Mississippi, a notoriously conservative state. Representative of a new and burgeoning generation of post-segregation-era politicians who recognized and accepted the growing power of previously disenfranchised African Americans, Blessey was popular with Biloxi's large black community. He was instrumental in, among other things, getting the city to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a holiday. He was a Democrat and a self-described reformer who came across as someone determined to bring Biloxi belatedly into the 20th century.
Margaret Sherry was Blessey's political and ideological polar opposite, and his nemesis. A Goldwater-style conservative Republican, she was elected to the Biloxi City Council the same year Blessey was elected mayor. As the only Republican on the Democratic-dominated, seven-member city council, she was very often a minority voting bloc of one. Stubbornly maintaining her bedrock conservative principles, she frequently found herself on the losing end of 6-1 votes. Her arguments with Blessey and other council members often took up much of the council's time, and their vitriolic exchanges made great copy for the city's main newspaper, The Sun-Herald and for TV stations covering the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
According to Edward Humes, whose 1994 book, Mississippi Mud, detailed the Sherry murders and their subsequent investigation, the exchanges between Margaret and Blessey were not the requisite give-and-take of a well-functioning democratic system of government. They were more like winner-take-all, take-no-prisoners pitched battles. "Margaret accused Blessey of everything from misspending government funds, to forcing council members to adhere to scripted meetings, to having the police department investigate her, to complicity with underworld crime figures and the city's most notorious vice merchants," Humes wrote. However, he added, "None of her allegations were ever proved."
Blessey, a Vietnam combat veteran, fought back. He accused Margaret of being a racist and a throwback to the oppressive policies of the Jim Crow era. He attacked her for opposing the establishment of King's birthday as a holiday. And, since her husband was a criminal defense lawyer, Blessey countered that it was the Sherrys who profited from crime, not he.
In 1985 Margaret gave up her seat on the City Council to run for mayor against Blessey. As expected, the contest was as bitter as their public spats at council meetings and in the media. The fighting between them never let up throughout the entire campaign, and Blessey won reelection by about 500 votes. That could have ended the matter, but it didn't.
As a private citizen, Margaret became even more of a thorn in Blessey's side than she had been when on the city council. She took on, in Humes' words, "the role of Biloxi's most prominent gadfly." She regularly showed up at council meetings to voice opposition to the mayor's policies, and organized voter referenda to block his proposals and bond issues. She had even announced that she planned to run again for mayor in 1989 and, with Vince's recent elevation to the Circuit Court a move opposed by Blessey she was thought to have enough clout to give her a chance of winning.
Increasing the volatility of the scenario was Margaret's strong belief that Blessey was involved with the city's criminal element the illegal and clandestine gambling and prostitution that went on in the seedy strip joints along the aptly-named "Strip." However, lacking hard evidence of such a connection, Margaret relied on the FBI to help her expose what she felt to be corruption at City Hall. And she was very open about what she called her "undercover work" with the feds, telling as many as a dozen people in Biloxi about it, according the Humes. Word of this undoubtedly reached the ears of Blessey, who could not have been pleased to hear it.
With all of the bitterness between Blessey and Margaret, and the very real possibility that she might unseat him two years hence, it certainly seemed there was plausible motive for Blessey to want Margaret permanently removed. But was Margaret really the target of the double slaying? The truth would unfold slowly, a layer at a time, revealing a scenario more complicated, intricate, and shocking than anyone initially imagined.