Mayor Frank Melton came into office like a Wild West marshal sworn to clean up the town. But somewhere along the line, the crime-fighting mayor crossed over from lawman to vigilante, prosecutors say.
The 57-year-old Melton was indicted last week on malicious mischief and burglary charges, accused of leading a group of teenagers with sledgehammers in smashing up a house that he claimed was a drug den. He was also charged with carrying a gun on school property.
The indictment was the culmination of a furor that had been building for months around Melton, only the city's second black mayor in modern times, over his penchant for picking up a gun, putting on police gear and taking part in sweeps and raids.
The arrest has led many people in this crime-ridden city to rally to Melton's side. Days after his indictment, the mayor promised a throng of supporters outside City Hall that he would stay the course, despite some calls for his resignation.
"I'm going through very tough times ... but I've been through them before," said the former TV executive and director of the state narcotics agency. "Will I continue to take down houses? Absolutely. I'm going to make sure they're legally taken down, but we're going to continue to aggressively take down the crack houses in Jackson, Mississippi."
Melton and police detectives Marcus Wright and Michael Recio pleaded not guilty to the charges on Thursday. A trial date was set for Nov. 7. If found guilty, Melton could get up to 50 years in prison.
Melton, a native of Texas, made his mark in Jackson in the early 1980s when he became a major shareholder in Civic Communications Inc, a minority-owned broadcast company. He oversaw day-to-day operations at WLBT-TV in Jackson, establishing himself as a tough talker who would name suspected criminals on air.
Dan Modisett, a longtime friend who worked for Melton for 17 years, said the company was sold in 2000 for US$204 million. The millionaire Melton then began to devote much of his time to inner-city youngsters.
Melton was elected mayor with 88 percent of the vote and took office 14 months ago with a promise to bring down crime in the city of 184,000, which is 71 percent black and has a crime rate nearly twice the US average. Some say he took a myopic view of city leadership.
"Fundamentally, I don't think he has any interest in governing the city of Jackson," said City Councilman Leslie McLemore, a political scientist at Jackson State University. "Every aspect of city government activity he has neglected, from housing to infrastructure."
The mayor told reporters in July that he was driven by "passion and guilt."
Melton grew up in Houston's notoriously crime-ridden Fifth Ward.
"We were poor," Melton said. "And now I've done well and I feel guilty."
On the night of Aug. 26, the mayor and a group of boys nearly destroyed a duplex where a man named Evans Welch lived, according to investigators. A spokesman for the mayor acknowledged no drugs were found in the raid. Welch was arrested on charges of possession of drug paraphernalia.
Melton's attorney Dale Danks suggested the charges against the mayor were politically motivated by prosecutors, and insisted the smashed-up home was a "drug house."