Criminals were in real trouble with US prosecutor Ruth Morgan on case

For 32 years, she prosecuted drug traffickers, crooked politicians, tax-evading doctors and all manner of other criminals.

An era ended in Mississippi's Southern District when Ruth Morgan retired Friday as an assistant United States attorney. She worked on some of the biggest criminal cases the federal government has prosecuted in Mississippi, including Operation Pretense, the trial of a corrupt sheriff tied to the Dixie Mafia, and a mail-fraud case that involved a defense contractor and millions of dollars.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Hollomon described her departure as "a milestone."

"Ruth has been at the forefront of every major drug case and white-collar crime case of importance in the Southern District for the past 32 years," he said. "She is a fearless prosecutor, but also wicked smart. It's easy to be fearless when you're not smart enough to know what you're up against, but Ruth was always very smart. When she came into the courtroom, she was always totally prepared, and that's why she was so successful."

Jim Letten, former U.S. Attorney for Louisiana's Eastern District, told Morgan in an email, "The (Justice) Department is indeed losing a champion."

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Morgan did not share the email. A former federal prosecutor who worked with her did. Morgan has always avoided publicity, in or out of the courtroom.

James Tucker was Morgan's mentor when she joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in Jackson back in 1984. Tucker prosecuted cases with Morgan, signed off on cases she

prosecuted and, as head of the criminal division for the Southern District, conducted her employee evaluations.

"I speak with some authority and experience in describing her service to the country as outstanding, peerless, demonstrative, and an example to all who aspire to be great prosecutors," he said in the email informing other attorneys of her pending retirement.

The federal judges in whose courtrooms Morgan appeared respected her, too.

U.S. District Judge David Bramlette said: "Outside the courtroom, she was very gracious, very polite, very much a lady, but her personality changed when she was in the courtroom. If you had Ruth Morgan as a prosecutor and you were the defendant, you had a big problem. She was relentless as a prosecutor, but very fair.

"She was dedicated to her work, absolutely."

No looking back

"It wasn't that I had a goal to become a prosecutor," Morgan said on her last day at work. "I just needed a job."

Morgan retired as supervisor and manager of the branch office in Gulfport, a position she held for almost 21 years.

She started out at the U.S. Attorney's Office under George Phillips, whom she met in Hattiesburg while attending the University of Southern Mississippi. He hired her as a law clerk during her last year of law school in Jackson.

There was no looking back. Sitting through pretrial testimony in civil cases or researching land titles seemed so dull compared with criminal law.

"This was just more fast-paced and exciting," she said. "I like putting criminals in jail."

As a young prosecutor, she played second chair to Tucker in the first trial of a county supervisor netted in Operation Pretense. The federal bribery statute -- 666 -- was relatively new at the time. Appeals followed the supervisor's conviction, establishing federal case law on the bribery statute. Tucker said he and Morgan wound up speaking across the country about using the bribery statute to prosecute corrupt local officials.

The preparation that became second nature for her started with those Operation Pretense cases.

"You can't got into a high-profile public corruption case with a popular public official unless you are completely prepared," she said. "You have to follow every lead and talk to every witness. You have to have a really strong case."

It helped, she said, that the FBI had done such a thorough investigation, which included tape-recorded conversations of supervisors accepting bribes.

Big cases

Morgan helped convict corrupt Harrison County Sheriff Leroy Hobbs in a case that involved bribery, extortion, conspiracy to commit murder, and conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine. Hobbs had become entangled with the Dixie Mafia, a loosely organized group involved in murder and mayhem throughout the Deep South.

"It was really exciting," Morgan said. "I was working with the best, James Tucker. I learned so much from him. That was one of the most significant cases in the district. It was murder, it was mafia, it was drugs, it was a corrupt sheriff. It was fun.

"That's when I fell in love with the job."

She has handled so many major cases, it's hard to run through even half of them.

There was the respected chief of pediatric endocrinology at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson who helped a marijuana dealer launder his money. "It was just bizarre," she said.

The marijuana dealer realized things weren't going his way when the jury sent out a note that indicated all but one juror found the evidence against him compelling. The dealer skipped out before the verdict and eventually made his way to his home country of Jamaica. Morgan said it took four years to get him back, but he was eventually extradited and sent to prison.

Her last trial, in 2015, involved an orthopedic doctor in Pass Christian, Timothy Jackson. He funneled his substantial income through the Church of Compassionate Service, claiming he had taken a vow of poverty and was tax-exempt as its minister. Morgan said the case included 7,000 pages of exhibits. Jackson did not get away with his tax dodge. He is serving more than six years in prison and was ordered to pay the IRS almost $807,000, according to a Forbes magazine article that featured the case.

During a trial, Morgan works days, nights and weekends. At 59, she's ready for a break.

"I just feel like I had one of the best careers anybody could have," Morgan said. "It was enjoyable, you were doing a great public service, had great people to work with. I feel fortunate that I had such a wonderful career.

"I'm going to do all the fun things that have nothing to do with work. Go boating, travel. I don't have any intention of doing anything that involves work."

She will be missed at the federal courthouse, even by defense attorneys whose clients she prosecuted.

"There was no hesitation in her objections and there was no hesitation in her argument to the court," defense attorney Joe Sam Owen said. "She never shot from the hip. Just watching her in the courtroom and the way she presented herself, just the command of her arguments, I thought, was very impressive.

"Whenever she got involved in a case, she was in it. She knew her facts and she knew the applicable law, so you'd better match the challenge."

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