It’s been 30 years. Their murders still have the power to shock South Mississippi
A hitman shot each of them multiple times, point-blank in the head, 30 years ago today.
But nobody knew Vincent and Margaret Sherry, both 58, lay dead in their North Biloxi home. The Circuit Court judge’s corpse was slumped in the den, while the body of Margaret Sherry, a former Biloxi councilwoman who aspired to be mayor, lay in the bedroom.
When Vincent Sherry’s law partner, Pete Halat, discovered the bodies two days later, on Sept. 16, 1987, the murders stunned the city of Biloxi and the Coast. The revelations ahead would prove even more shocking.
An investigation that lasted more than a decade exposed the connection between the Sherrys’ deaths and city’s long tolerance for wide open, illegal gambling and seedy striptease clubs where dancers offered their company in exchange for exorbitantly priced drinks.
A Dixie Mafia kingpin who once frequented Biloxi’s gambling dens and his local connection, the owner of three of those strip clubs, plotted the murders, it turned out.
The case would never have been solved but for the persistence of two individuals — the Sherry’s oldest daughter, Lynne Sposito, who lives in North Carolina, and Keith Bell, a special agent with the FBI who has since retired.
In an interview Tuesday, Sposito said she did not sleep through a single night until 10 years after her parents’ death. She finally got a good night’s sleep when Halat, who had been her parents’ neighbor and friend, was convicted in July 1997 for his role in the murder conspiracy.
“After 30 years, in hindsight, I still hope to God I never again see Pete,” she said, “unless he wants to be honest.”
Convict tells all
It took the striptease club owner, Mike Gillich Jr., to win a conviction against Halat.
Halat was elected mayor of Biloxi almost two years after the Sherrys’ deaths and served his four-year-term under a cloud of suspicion. The public learned of his role in the murder conspiracy weeks after he took office.
The murder plot started in the 1980s with an attorney-client relationship between Halat and Kirksey McCord Nix Jr., the Dixie Mafia kingpin who was by then locked away for life at the isolated Angola state prison in Louisiana.
Two trials established facts sufficient to convince two juries to return convictions against Nix, Gillich, Halat, Thomas Leslie Holcomb, a hitman out of Texas, and other conspirators.
Nix intended to bribe his way out of prison by amassing money through a scam he was running on gay men. Using outside couriers and middlemen, he placed personal ads in magazines, posing as a young man looking for love.
Once he hooked his victims, the fictitious Nix invented endless reasons he needed money so he could come live with them. He raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars. A girlfriend of Nix’s helped run the scam out of Halat’s law office after Sherry left to become a judge.
When some of Nix’s money came up missing, Halat blamed Sherry. Nix bought it. He wanted Vincent Sherry dead and knew plenty of people who could do the job.
Friends and family of the Sherrys had always felt the feisty Margaret Sherry might have been the target, but testimony indicated her death was a bonus for Gillich, who could operate his strip clubs without her political interference, and for Halat, who wound up with the mayor’s job.
At the 1991 trial, Gillich held out. He pounded his fist on the witness stand, insisting he knew nothing about the murder conspiracy. Nonetheless, he, Nix and two other conspirators were convicted in the case.
By 1993, Bell and the U.S. Attorney’s Office were able to pressure Gillich to the point that he caved.
Federal authorities were about to put him and his girlfriend, Frances Arguelles, on trial for trying to bribe a Sherry witness to change his story. Her attorney had recommended she plead guilty and accept a five-year sentence.
Gillich later recounted his next move under oath. He said that he was talking with his attorneys: “I said, ‘I’m not gonna let Frances plead guilty to something that she’s innocent of, you know. And I want to talk with the government. I want to tell them about the Sherry murders.’”
‘I’m so sorry’
And so Pete Halat and the hitman went down, but not before Special Agent Bell spent years building the case. Because Gillich’s veracity was in question, Bell had to verify every detail Gillich offered.
By 1997, Halat had joined Nix as a defendant in the second trial. Gillich told all. Right down to the details.
For example, he said, the hitman put Super Glue on his fingers so he would not leave any fingerprints on the .22-caliber pistol he used to murder the Sherrys. Gillich said he watched Holcomb apply the glue before he left for the Sherrys’ house, where the plan was for him to simply knock on the door.
Sure enough, Vincent Sherry, accustomed from his law practice to dealing with seamy characters, opened the door.
Lynne Sposito encountered Gillich in court after Halat was convicted.
“I’m so sorry,” he told her. “ I only thought of what I was doing for my family. I never thought of what I was doing to anybody else’s. I’m sorry for what I did to your family.”
She has forgiven him. “He really, honestly was as repentant as you can get,” she said. “It wasn’t an act.”
She said Halat was never able to be honest with her. She wishes he could admit, she said, that he blamed her father for taking the scam money because he was afraid he would be killed.
“I would have understood,” she said.
‘Ice cold’ crime
But Halat has always denied that he had anything to do with the murder conspiracy. He has served out his prison sentence and is living quietly in Ocean Springs with his wife, Sandra. Reached by telephone, the 75-year-old said he had no comment on the 30th anniversary of the murders.
Gillich was granted early release from prison and in 2012 died of cancer when he was 82 years old at home in Biloxi.
Nix, who is 74 years old, is serving life in federal prison. Holcomb died in prison in 2005 at age 52.
Lynne Sposito has visited Biloxi only twice since the days of the investigation, both times for funerals. Her two brothers and sister all live in states other than Mississippi.
“There’s a great many people down there that are great people,” she said. “But the ones we know that are bad are so bad. In fact, I feel bad we buried Mom and Dad there.”
She is 65 years old now, having surpassed the age at which her parents died. Had her mother and father lived, they would be 88 years old and great-grandparents.
Peter Barrett, a former assistant U.S. Attorney who served as one of the prosecutors at both trials, was busy working in his law office Wednesday. He had to stop and think a minute before he realized Thursday’s date would be Sept. 14.
“That would be the day Vincent and Margaret were murdered,” he said immediately.
“One of the things that came out in trial . . . was that Halat recognized the situation of the missing money and blaming Vince for it was cold,” Barrett said.
“Two things struck me about it. Halat not only saw a way to get himself off the hook for taking the money, but he also eliminated a political rival, and that was Margaret. I thought that was just ice cold.
“And the second thing was him giving the eulogy at Vince and Margaret’s funeral. We played that for the jury in the rebuttal case, and that was chilling.”
In the eulogy, Halat said he was so close to the couple that he considered them family.