Fifty years ago, "Sin City U.S.A." was not a sexy slogan for Las Vegas. It was an accurate description of Phenix City, Ala. -- a place so wicked that Gen. George Patton threatened to smash it flat with his tanks.
This river town on the border with Georgia and its Fort Benning Army base offered every imaginable vice: gambling, prostitution, bootleg liquor, drugs, illegal lotteries, back-room abortions, baby selling -- even a school for safe crackers.
All that began to change on June 18, 1954, when the Democratic primary winner in the state attorney general's race -- elected on a platform of cleaning up Sin City -- was assassinated outside his law office.
The murder of Albert Patterson and the cleanup that followed turned Phenix City into a normal town. Today, a sign proudly proclaims it as the home of the 1999 U.S. Little League champions.
Phenix City is showing off its transformation by organizing a two-month celebration called "50 Years of Progress." Between July 10 and Aug. 28, the city will have concerts, fireworks and 1950s-themed events to acknowledge its past and celebrate its transformation into a family-friendly town of 28,500.
"We are going to do this in a way that makes the people of Phenix City feel good about themselves," Mayor Sonny Coulter said in announcing the plans.
Today, visitors to Phenix City see a new development along the river where some of the town's illegal attractions once stood. Virtually all signs of Phenix City's past are gone, except for the building where Patterson practiced law. But it has no historical marker to explain the dramatic event that happened there.
"There used to be a marker, but it's been gone a long time. Maybe 15 years. Vandalism, probably. There ought to be one there," said Thelma Taylor, who operates a beauty shop two doors down.
For much of its history, even when it was nothing more than a village across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Ga., Phenix City was a haven for illegal activity.
Ray Jenkins, a retired newspaper editor who shared a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Phenix City, said the town was a bedroom community for low-income families who worked in the Columbus cotton mills and textile factories.
Phenix City did not have an industrial base of its own. "The vice industry," Jenkins said, "was Phenix City's only industry."
Criminal figures soon infiltrated local government, paying off some officials and making sure others knew they owed their offices to rigged elections.
The crime figures were meticulous about paying their taxes, which kept taxes for others in Phenix City low. And they made regular donations to churches and civic causes -- money that made them part of the fabric of the community.
Albert Patterson's son, John Patterson, recalls that his father lost his seat on his church's board when he objected to the church taking a donation from someone involved in criminal activity.
That activity grew rapidly during the buildup to World War II because of the flood of troops through Fort Benning. The toughest soldiers in the world became suckers at Phenix City's illegal attractions, where their drinks were spiked and their pay stolen. Those who resisted were sometimes beaten or killed.
While stationed at Fort Benning in 1940, Patton threatened to level the town, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson called Phenix City "the wickedest city in America."
More than soldiers gave in to the temptations.
Retired Birmingham minister Roger Lovette grew up in a mill family in Columbus. He remembers his father coming home from playing the slot machines in Phenix City and dumping a paper sack full of silver dollars on the bed.
"They let him win enough to get hooked. Then they took him for all they could," Lovette said.
"We didn't have much and part of that was taken away. He was paying the debt a long time. The poor people got ripped off more than anybody."
Despite the wide-open crime, both state and federal officials always took a hands-off approach, calling it a local matter for the residents of Russell County.
Hugh Bentley, a longtime crime opponent, organized the Russell Betterment Association to try to reform his town. Albert Patterson helped him after earlier defending a gambling kingpin against a murder charge.
They immediately met opposition. Members of the Russell Betterment Association and Jenkins, then a young reporter for the Columbus Ledger, were beaten by thugs while watching for voter fraud in the 1952 municipal election.
In 1954, Patterson ran for attorney general on a platform of cleaning up Phenix City. He narrowly beat Lee Porter in the Democratic primary runoff despite voter fraud in Birmingham that was designed to help Porter.
In those days, the Republican Party in Alabama was nearly nonexistent, and the winner of the Democratic primary in May always won the general election in November. Patterson knew he would become attorney general and could pursue his campaign pledge.
He never got the chance. On Friday, June 18, Patterson went to Montgomery and told several people that he would be going to Birmingham on Monday to testify to a grand jury investigating voter fraud.
He returned to Phenix City and worked late at his downtown law office. As he left around 9 p.m., he was gunned down as he stood beside his car.
John Patterson, who was a law partner of his father, was afraid the killing would be covered up by local officials connected to the crime bosses. He went to Washington to try to see FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
"He wouldn't even see me," Patterson recalled.
At home, political pressure grew. A month after the slaying, Gov. Gordon Persons sent in the Alabama National Guard to replace local law enforcement and start raiding gambling halls.
"It was only the murder of Patterson that created the statewide indignation so that the establishment in Montgomery felt they had to act," Jenkins said.
In the ensuing investigation, more than 80 people were convicted or pleaded guilty to being part of Phenix City's entrenched criminal activity, including gambling kingpin Hoyt Shepherd.
A grand jury also indicted state Attorney General Si Garrett, Russell County Circuit Solicitor Arch Ferrell and Chief Deputy Sheriff Albert Fuller in the murder of Patterson. Ferrell and Fuller were accused of carrying out the murder to keep Patterson from testifying to the Birmingham grand jury, while Garrett was accused of planning the crime.
Fuller was convicted of murder. Ferrell was acquitted. And Garrett avoided trial by checking himself into a Texas mental hospital. The charge against him was eventually dropped.
Conrad "Bulley" Fowler, one of the prosecutors in the cases, said the difference was that investigators found Fuller's fingerprint on Patterson's car, but they did not find Ferrell's.
John Patterson, meanwhile, was tapped by the state Democratic Party to fill his father's spot on the ballot. He became attorney general and the subject of a B-grade movie called "The Phenix City Story."
Riding a wave of popularity, he was elected governor in 1958.
Looking back, Patterson says he is confident his father could have cleaned up Phenix City if he had not been killed.
"He had the nerve to do it, and the attorney general would have had the ability to do it," Patterson said.
Others say Patterson would have had an extremely tough time.
"If nothing else, a cleanup would have taken a lot longer and not have been as complete without the death of Albert Patterson," said Alan Grady, author of the 2003 book on the assassination.
Today, some of the people running Phenix City are the children and grandchildren of people who were on both sides of the cleanup.
Probate Judge Albert Howard is the son of a bootlegger. He credits his late father with moving the family out of Phenix City into the rural countryside and making sure he studied hard so he could attend Auburn University.
"He didn't want me running the streets," Howard said.
Patterson, now 82, says there is an important lesson to be learned from Phenix City that should not be diminished by the passage of time: Citizens must never tolerate crime, even when it is pumping lots of money into the community.
"It's easy to turn your back and reap some of the benefits from it. But they are not satisfied with a little operation," Patterson said. "They want to get bigger, and they will. They want insurance that they won't be bothered, so they proceed to try to buy the local officials."