He attended Haverford High School, in a Philadelphia suburb, where despite being small and spindly he was a decent athlete, and then attended Bucknell, where he eked by with a dream of becoming a successful business executive, the same dream harbored by just about all his friends and frat brothers. What his best friend in college, Joe Elliott, remembers is that McCloskey was always the class jester. McCloskey admits, “I wanted to be the center of attention. I wanted to be liked. I would do anything to get a laugh.”
But even as he was amusing his classmates, McCloskey was suffering an internal crisis. He realized he had wanted so badly to be accepted, to conform to the group, that he had lost his identity. He had become, as he now puts it, “inauthentic.” So he made a resolution—a lifelong resolution. He determined that henceforth he was going to be “my own man.” That’s why he gave up his business aspirations and did something that baffled his friends. He joined the Navy at the very time the war in Vietnam was raging. That was his first departure from the settled path. It wouldn’t be his last.
After McCloskey decided to take the Savannah Three case in 2009, he and Paul Henderson, his chief investigator, spent months over the next three and a half years talking to 125 people in 17 states to accumulate new evidence. Henderson is a crusty, idiosyncratic, chain-smoking former newspaper crime reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at the Seattle Times for a three-part series that exculpated an innocent man convicted of rape. (Henderson also found the actual perpetrator.) That made him the go-to guy for the wrongly accused in the Northwest. But he suffered from ADD, got itchy at the paper and wound up opening his own private-investigation office. He was recommended to McCloskey in 1987 to work a California case, the first of many, and then joined the Centurion staff in 1996 and worked there until his retirement in 2011. Henderson and McCloskey often took to the field together, tracking down witnesses and knocking on doors, and they did so again in the Savannah case.
Of course many of those witnesses had no desire to talk with McCloskey, so he had to use subterfuge. He befriended a former Savannah policeman who had served time for protecting drug dealers and got permission from him to use his name when he approached other policemen. That’s how McCloskey gained access to the original investigating officer of the Savannah Three, Harvey Middleton, whom McCloskey tracked down in Miami Beach, where Middleton was working as a cop. McCloskey found the woman who had testified about Jones’s desire to kill a black man, in a small town in North Carolina. He found a cabdriver who had seen the three arrive at Tops, the club’s bouncer, fellow soldiers from their outfit, even a waitress from the Golden Corral. In one two-week period alone he drove 2,100 miles, crisscrossing Georgia, North Carolina and Florida.
In many ways McCloskey is an anomaly—an old-fashioned investigator in a newfangled age. He never uses a computer. When he finishes an interview, he drives a block away, pulls his car to the side of the road and writes meticulous notes. He is studiously organized. “Deliberate and organized to the teeth” is how Paul Henderson describes him, so that even his toiletries are neatly laid out in his hotel bathroom. He is notoriously fearless, usually showing up at a witness’s house unannounced. Nothing stops him, not even when a witness’s husband greeted him at the door with a German shepherd and a revolver. (McCloskey had had the temerity to ask the man’s permission to ask his wife one last question.) And perhaps above all, he is relentless. “When they take a case,” attorney Peter Camiel says, “the case doesn’t end until the client is out or the client passes away.”
For the Savannah Three, McCloskey and Henderson had done their due diligence, whittling their list of interviewees to 22 witnesses they intended to call at the evidentiary hearing, should they get one. But there was one witness they had yet to find: the Reverend James White. In December 2009, McCloskey flew to Georgia and talked to White’s friends, his relatives, his former neighbors, even his fellow preachers, leaving his card behind when they said they didn’t know where White was but never telling them why he wanted to find him. Several weeks passed. Then, on December 23, McCloskey got a call. “Do I know you?” White asked, thinking McCloskey might be a bill collector. McCloskey explained that he was researching the Savannah Three case. White told him to call back after the holidays. McCloskey did White one better. That January he again flew down to Georgia, where a former pastor of White’s told him White and his wife were homeless and living in a Super 8 motel in White’s old hometown of Newnan. McCloskey spotted them in the motel parking lot, was told by White to come back in an hour (McCloskey staked out the hotel from the McDonald’s next door), then sat down with White and his wife, Suzette, who “sagged” when McCloskey introduced himself and mentioned the crime. They talked mainly about Scripture, not the Savannah Three. “He was so kind,” White later said. “I felt free to talk to him.”
What McCloskey did not know is that James White had been, in White’s words, a “haunted” man ever since the Savannah Three trial. He had seen the perpetrators for only five seconds at most, at a distance of more than 70 feet, at an intersection in the dark of night lit only by a single streetlamp. He had initially identified neither the car nor the men—saying only that their car looked like the murderers’ car and that their clothes were like the murderers’ clothes. Still, over the years, he thought about his testimony a lot. Suzette, the only one who knew about his doubts, pressured him to recant, even threatening to divorce him if he didn’t. Instead, he quit his job and moved from Savannah back to Newnan. He suffered a series of strokes and a heart attack that confined him to a wheelchair. “I’m sick because I done worry myself to death,” he says. And what he worried about was having given false testimony.
But it wasn’t easy for him to make that admission, especially since he felt the real murderers were still at large. McCloskey returned to Newnan in March to continue their conversation in his hotel room, but White failed to show. Suzette said he had just undergone surgery, which he had, but McCloskey now insisted that the soldiers would be “crucified” if White didn’t speak to him. So White and Suzette agreed to lunch the next day at an Olive Garden, and it was then that White finally uttered the words McCloskey had longed to hear: He had lied. Then McCloskey left, but before he did, he asked if White and Suzette would pose with him for a photograph, which they did.
There was a method to that. By May, he had tracked White to a new address, in Hogansville, Georgia, where White, McCloskey and attorney Peter Camiel discussed White’s giving them a signed affidavit recanting his testimony. Time passed. White disappeared again, and he wasn’t answering his cell phone. So McCloskey and Camiel returned to Georgia in January 2011 and began yet another search for James White. No one seemed to know where he had gone. As a last resort, they got an address for one of White’s sons, Dante, in LaGrange, Georgia, just south of Newnan. When they arrived, a young man answered the door and told them Dante was out, which is when McCloskey pulled out the photograph from the Olive Garden and said he was a friend of the Whites’. At that, Dante suddenly appeared from behind the door and gave them his parents’ new address, in McDonough, Georgia, which is where McCloskey finally got the notarized affidavit that would provide the spark for the evidentiary hearing, still more than two years away. “See, I told you Jim would find us,” Suzette said when she opened the door.
Once McCloskey got White’s affidavit, he filed a request for public records and received 600 pages of documents about the case from the Savannah police. In those records, McCloskey found something startling. On February 1, 1992, many hours after the murder, Officer Ben Herron of the Savannah police department had filed a report of an interview with a witness at a housing project just minutes from the crime scene. The witness claimed to have seen two white men in a car at one A.M. with semi-automatic weapons who said they were looking for black people to kill. By that time, the defendants were long in jail. But no one from the police or the prosecution had bothered to give this report to the defense attorneys before the trial, so it remained buried in the file until McCloskey unburied it. In short, apparently other men were roaming Savannah’s streets that night, and these men had ill intent.