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The Dixie Mafia Lonely Hearts Scam

A personal-ad scam run out of Angola led to a double murder

The Dixie Mafia Lonely Hearts Scam

Photo by John Severson, AP Images

Pete Halat leaving federal court in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with his daughter Brandyn Skeen, left, and wife Sandra Halat after a jury found him guilty of lying to federal investigators about his involvement in the Sherry murders. (The man at right is unidentified.)

During the night of April 10, 1971, three armed men forced their way into the home of Frank Corso, a successful French Quarter grocer. The resulting gunfight left Corso dead, one of the attackers badly wounded, and Mrs. Corso with a vivid memory of the killers’ faces. Blood, witness testimony, a turncoat getaway driver, and an abandoned pistol were enough to convict Kirksey Nix and his confederates—despite both of Nix’s parents joining the defense team and Nix’s refusal to have the bullet that injured him removed from his abdomen, which prevented police from matching it to Corso’s gun.

Nix and his accomplices were sentenced to life without parole at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, generally known as Angola, though first Nix had to spend a few years at Leavenworth on an unrelated charge. This sentence would have been the end of many criminal careers, but Nix had been ascending the ranks of the Dixie Mafia. A loose arrangement of criminal enterprises, the Dixie Mafia wasn’t as organized or hierarchical as organized crime families in East Coast cities—this ain’t your godfather’s mafia—but even so, Nix had been a rising star before his incarceration and retained many connections to the outside.

With parole off the table and escape from Angola unlikely, Nix’s only real hope of leaving prison alive was a gubernatorial pardon, which—not altogether unreasonably—he believed could be obtained by identifying a susceptible official and offering a hefty bribe. Cut off from bootlegging and illegal gambling as revenue sources to accumulate the bribe, Nix hit on a scheme. He and his associates would use the prison phone to call gay magazines, predominantly the Advocate, to place lonely-hearts personal ads, generally describing themselves as handsome, lonely inmates who were getting out soon and looking for a stable partner with whom they could begin their new life. The men who responded to these ads received letters describing how poorly their incarcerated would-be beaus were treated for being gay in the Louisiana prison system—a legitimate concern both then and now, though not one that applied to the scammers. They paired these sob stories with racy photos (sometimes sourced through this same scheme), a double-front assault on the heartstrings and the prurient interest.

As the correspondence proceeded, the requests for money began: fines had to be paid, the inmates explained, and moving expenses accounted for. Not everyone fell for it, but some who did fell hard, sending thousands of dollars. At least one victim remortgaged his house. If sweet talk didn’t work, sometimes blackmail did. Gay men publicly outed against their will faced the possibility of serious personal and professional damage in the 1980s, and many were willing to pay to keep the closet door shut. Money poured into the kitty—enough to keep a hand in corruption outside the prison as well as save for the bribe and Nix’s imagined life outside.

Nix’s haul from his victims couldn’t be safely kept in the prison, so he arranged to have the money sent to his girlfriend Sheri LaRa Sharpe and his attorney Pete Halat. Halat’s law office was in Biloxi, where the town and county government were then so corrupt that in 1983 federal authorities designated the entire Harrison County Sheriff’s Office a criminal enterprise. (The New York Times, in a story about this case, called Biloxi “Byzantium by the Sea,” which indicates a certain confusion about Byzantium’s reputation and placement.) Halat poached the money, apparently planning to blame the theft, when it was inevitably discovered, on his law partner Vincent Sherry.

In 1987, Nix discovered the theft—exactly how is unclear, but presumably he wanted to use the hundreds of thousands of dollars he thought he had accumulated. Halat fingered Sherry, by now a circuit court judge, and Nix’s mis-targeted vengeance began to take shape. He ordered Sherry’s murder, and a Dixie Mafia associate gave Sharpe a gun, which she delivered to hitman Thomas Holcomb. On September 16, 1987, Holcomb shot Judge Sherry and his wife Margaret, a Biloxi city councilwoman, four times each, killing both. Halat found the bodies.

After two years, the Sherrys’ murders remained unsolved, and Halat was elected mayor of Biloxi in 1989. A private detective hired by the Sherrys’ surviving family began shaking the tree, and the whole sordid story gradually tumbled out, aided by the testimony of one of the former scamsters. Nix, Sharpe, and co-conspirators in both the scam and the murders were convicted in 1991, with the convictions upheld in 1995. It took a few more years to bring down Halat, but he was convicted in 1997 of a laundry list of interrelated corruption crimes, though not the murders.

Pete Halat was released from prison in 2012; a news story on the release described him as working at a church in Hattiesburg while in a halfway house. Sheri Sharpe’s whereabouts aren’t publicly known, and Kirksey Nix remains in a federal prison, now in Oklahoma.

Chris Turner-Neal is the managing editor of 64 Parishes.