Huffpost Politics

Frank Melton, Indicted Mississippi Mayor, Dies After Losing Primary

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JACKSON, Miss. — Right or wrong, Frank Melton did things his way.

The flamboyant mayor of Mississippi's largest city refused to back down, whether he was posting pictures of drug dealers on billboards or leading a sledgehammer attack on a duplex he considered a crack house. If nothing else, he was passionate, maybe too passionate, especially in his unorthodox fight against crime.

Melton died early Thursday, two days after he was whisked from his home in an ambulance just as the polls closed in his unsuccessful re-election bid.

Melton was 60. Funeral arrangements are incomplete and his family has not released a cause of death. He had a history of heart problems and reportedly refused to be considered for a transplant.

His death denied federal prosecutors another chance to try to put him behind bars. He was to stand trial Monday for leading a 2006 vigilante-style raid on the duplex, which he said was a haven for drug dealing and prostitution. A judge indicated Thursday the case would be dismissed.

Melton's death was the final chapter in a fascinating and sometimes bizarre life.

He came to Mississippi from Tyler, Texas, in the 1980s to take over Jackson NBC affiliate WLBT-TV. His wife, Ellen, a pediatrician, and two children stayed behind, prompting vicious rumors about his personal life.

He brushed aside the criticism and quickly made a name for himself with a commentary piece called "The Bottom Line" in which he called out criminals and city officials he considered ineffective. "And that, my friends, is the bottom line," became his catch phrase.

He didn't want to be called Mayor Melton or Mr. Melton.

"It's just Frank," he would say.

He considered himself a crime fighter, working to eliminate gang violence and posting pictures of suspected drug dealers on billboards.

When an attorney wanted the pictures taken down, Melton warned him that he could end up on a sign, too, next to a message that said, "I defend drug dealers," WLBT news director Dennis Smith recalled.

Melton was appointed to head the Mississippi narcotics agency in 2002 and elected mayor by a landslide in 2005. When he was sworn in, he whipped out a badge and told an excited crowd: "Batman returns."

He passed out cowboy hats to city council members, saying it was time to run the "thugs" out of town. He cruised the inner city in the police department's mobile command center, sporting black fatigues and a bulletproof vest and carrying guns.

But those who knew him say he'll be remembered as much for his less public acts.

He took dozens of troubled youngsters into his home in an upscale, gated community. And when impoverished families couldn't afford to pay for a funeral or school, he often picked up the tab. His favorite place was an inner city YMCA where he taught swimming and mentored children.

"He was a complete anomaly and paradox, but he had a heart of gold," Smith said.

His legacy is in the smiles of hundreds of children he worked with rather than the "Wyatt Earp" persona he developed as mayor, said Jara Miller, a vice president at the YMCA.

"He always came here with a smile and he always stayed here longer than he planned," Miller said.

Melton, who died with his wife by his side, had been running a subdued re-election campaign as he prepared for his second federal trial for the duplex raid. Unofficial results show he came in third of nine candidates in the Democratic primary. He was rushed to the hospital minutes after polls closed Tuesday.

He looked gaunt and tired through much of his first federal trial, which ended in a mistrial in late February. His doctor testified at the time that he was in "end stage cardiomyopathy."

He had been acquitted in April 2007 on state charges related to the raid.

His lawyer, longtime friend and former three-term Mayor Dale Danks, said Melton scaled back his unorthodox crime fighting after that, but the pressure of the federal charges took a major toll.

"He had been a successful businessman and was accustomed to getting things done quickly," Danks said, "and when he got into politics it was difficult for him to accept the fact that he couldn't run government the same way."

Danks called Melton "one of the most dynamic, enthusiastic, unique and charismatic individuals I ever met."

Prosecutors say Melton was drunk the night he ordered a group of young men to use sticks and sledgehammers to destroy the ramshackle duplex in a poor neighborhood. Melton said he was just keeping a campaign promise to clean up the city.

"People tell you they want to get something done and when you get it done, they criticize the way you do it," Melton said in December. "It's human nature."

Melton put his heart into being mayor, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said Thursday.

"I give him credit for trying very hard to do the right thing for the City of Jackson, and helping Jackson," Barbour said. "And he had a very big, good heart, and I feel he deserves more credit than he is often given."

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