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FAMILY PERSISTENT IN QUEST FOR JUSTICE

Sarah Salter traveled from Buffalo to Alabama late last November to bury her first husband for the second time and, finally, uncover the truth about his death.

Several days before the small ceremony at a cemetery just outside Montgomery, the body of Willie Edwards Jr. was exhumed and an autopsy revealed what Ms. Salter and her family had always believed but were never able to prove:

Edwards had been murdered.

Now, the district attorney's office in Montgomery, has reopened the Edwards case and officially ruled his death a homicide. There's even a chance the investigation could lead to charges against Edwards' suspected killers -- members of the Ku Klux Klan.

There's one more twist.

Edwards was killed 41 years ago.

"Yes, the case was reopened. Yes, the body was exhumed. Yes, the cause of death was changed on the death certificate. Yes, the matter is being looked into," said Bill Mayer, Montgomery's chief deputy district attorney. "Other than that, there really isn't much I can tell you."

Edwards' case file still might be gathering dust on some shelf but for the persistence of a widow searching for answers, a son looking for the truth and two daughters seeking justice.

Ms. Salter, now 64, lives on Northland Avenue. Her daughter, Mildred Betts, 2 years old when Edwards died, and son, Garry Edwards, who never saw his father, live in Buffalo, too. Malinda Edwards, the oldest of Edwards' children lives in Columbus, Ohio.

They are the ones who pushed Montgomery District Attorney Ellen Brooks to reopen the case.

But they believe Edwards' spirit is leading them.

"Every day I look at his picture and say to him, 'Dad, point me in the right direction,' and every time doors have been opened," Malinda Edwards said.

"We want justice," Ms. Betts said. "We don't feel we should fail him now."

Edwards was a 24-year-old truck driver for Winn-Dixie when he was called into work on the afternoon of Jan. 23, 1957. He never returned home. His truck was found later that day with the door open, the keys in the ignition and some cheese and crackers on the front seat.

Three months later, his body was dragged from the Alabama River by a fisherman.

The family had suspected the Klan was involved. Fearing she and her family would suffer the same fate, Ms. Salter stopped pressing for answers. She remarried, moved to Buffalo in 1961 and had three more children.

"It was hard growing up, not having a father," Garry Edwards said. "I think about him all the time and what it would have been like to know him. I wonder what my life would be like if he was living."

Edwards' death haunted the family.

In 1976, Alabama's attorney general's office implicated four Klansmen in Edwards' death and formally charged three. The men abducted Edwards that day because he made advances at a white woman, according to testimony. They took him to a bridge, pointed a gun at his head and forced him to jump.

The case was thrown out. The judge ruled a cause of death was needed for the indictments to stand. Edwards' cause of death was listed as unknown.

Flash forward to 1993. Ms. Salter received a call from the wife of one Edwards' suspected killers. The man, Henry Alexander, had confessed on his death bed to being one of the men who forced Edwards to jump off the bridge, the wife said. Alexander also confessed to starting the rumor that Edwards had whistled at a white woman and said he was sorry about his death, she said.

Still, the case was never ruled a homicide, and no one was punished for the crime.

The call, however, renewed the family's efforts to find some closure once and for all -- for themselves and for Edwards.

"We said we're going to go forward with this no matter what it takes," Ms. Salter said. "It's been 41 years. It's time now."

Malinda Edwards started writing and calling anyone who may be able to help in the family's case. Finally, last July, she and her mother met with Ms. Brooks, who agreed to reopen the investigation.

The body was exhumed, and an autopsy was performed. Medical examiners wouldn't talk about specifics of the autopsy, only saying it was a homicide. A Montgomery judge two weeks ago ordered Edwards' death certificate changed to list his cause of death as a drowning -- a homicide.

Two of the four men originally implicated in Edwards' death apparently are still alive.

"I'd like the grand jury indictment and I'd like to see a fair jury," Ms. Edwards said in a telephone interview. "I'd like to see the two men left serve time. I really would. I know they're old, but they've had their lives."

Whether there's still evidence to produce charges is uncertain.

The family only hopes.

"We've gotten further now than we ever dreamed we would. We now know the cause of death," Ms. Edwards said. "If they get to the point where they won't have evidence for indictments, then I told my mom this would be it for me, because I would have taken it as far as I can.

"We've done the very best we can," she said.

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