Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found is Gilbert King's second book about true crime in Lake County, Florida. The first was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.
In Beneath a Ruthless Sun, King tells the shocking story of what happened after a woman was sexually assaulted in December 1957 in the tiny town of Okahumpka. This excerpt describes the immediate response to the crime from Lake County's notoriously racist and violent sheriff, Willis McCall.
- Colette Bancroft, Times book editor
"Late in the evening of the 17th, in a ranch house east of Eustis, Noel Griffin Jr. was lying asleep in bed with his wife, June, when the telephone rang, startling them both. It was Sheriff Willis McCall, with an urgent ten-eight that put his twenty-nine-year-old deputy into immediate service. A woman had been raped in Okahumpka - a woman 'from an important family.' Still groggy, Griffin was thinking he should ask the street address when the sheriff spluttered the victim's name. Griffin no longer needed to ask the address.
"The deputy jumped into his uniform and holstered his revolver. Okahumpka lay twenty-five miles south of Griffin's ranch, but at this late hour, with Griffin's much-reputed lead foot applied to the accelerator of his 1956 Plymouth Belvedere, it wouldn't take long to get there. Cherry top flashing, he ran the red light past the courthouse in Tavares, then raced west on U.S. Route 441 toward Leesburg, where so many of the state's citrus barons lived. On the outskirts of town, he sped by the vibrant neon sign announcing the BIG ASS MOTEL. Local kids with air rifles had so unfailingly shot out the sign's second neon-tubed B that the motel's owner had finally given up on fixing it. Few people in Lake County knew it as the Big Bass, anyway.
"Minutes away from Okahumpka, Griffin picked up the radio cackle of McCall's voice. All deputies converging on the scene were receiving the sheriff's command: 'Round up every n----- you see.' Griffin followed the flashing red lights of the other cruisers into North Quarters, a pocket of small unpainted shacks. His high beams cut into the dazed eyes of black women roused from bed in the middle of the night, standing silent outside their homes or bouncing sleepy babies in their arms as they paced. Griffin stepped out of his Plymouth. Up and down the road, harried deputies were shuttling shirtless young black men away in handcuffs. Barking hounds were pulling their white handlers into homes yet to be searched.
"Griffin turned at the sound of his nickname, a relic of his childhood inability to pronounce a shortened version of his middle name, Edward. It was Doug Sewell, tugging a cuffed Negro by the arm. 'Take in every swinging d---,' Sewell told him.
"The cacophony continued through daybreak. Griffin thrust three young black men into the back of his Plymouth and hauled them off to the jail in Tavares, where two other deputies were interrogating suspects. Curious white neighbors from South Quarters ventured onto the scene and stood in the gray light, speculating, nodding and gossiping as the last of the deputies' cars packed with the black boys of Okahumpka lurched into gear and sped north through boundless acres of rotting citrus."