[New Orleans Howard Johnson Hotel Jan. 7, 1973]
Mark Essex’s killing rampage in downtown New Orleans on New Year’s Eve of 1972 represented a viral black rage in the age of “Black Power.”
by Denise Noe
New Year’s Eve 1972: The horror begins
Filled with rage and racist hatred against whites, Mark James “Jimmy” Robert Essex had sworn revenge for both personal and historical wrongs. Residing in New Orleans at the time his determination to exact vengeance reached a boiling point, he chose New Year’s Eve 1972 as his moment.
On that day, Essex parked his car close to the New Orleans Police Department. He hid in a parking lot across from central lock-up. He aimed his Ruger .44 Magnum carbine and shot two men, both of them in the police force. Cadet Alfred Harrell, 19, died from his injuries. Lt. Horace Perez survived.
Ironically, in view of the racist purpose that Essex had stated in writing was the reason for his crimes, Harrell was black. Perhaps Essex viewed the young police cadet as a sell-out to the white system. It is also possible that this one murder was simply a mistake because Essex saw the blue uniform and failed to note the skin color.
If it was a mistake, Essex did not make another. All of the rest of his victims were people of fair skin, either white or, like Perez, Hispanic.
As police began to chase Essex, he set off diversionary firecrackers, jumped a chain link fence and raced across highway I-10.
Essex ran into a New Orleans area called “Gert Town,” a high-crime black area. He broke into the Burkart building, a combination warehouse and manufacturing plant. His entry triggered an alarm that alerted police to the break-in.
A K-9 unit, consisting of Officers Edwin Hosli Sr. and Harold Blappert, responded to what they considered to be a routine burglary. As Officer Hosli went to get his German Shepherd out of the back seat of the car, Essex shot him in the back. More bullets shattered the car’s windshield. Blappert ducked down and called for backup, informing dispatch that an officer was down. Blappert then fired four shots at the spot where he saw muzzle flashes from Essex’s rifle, and pulled Hosli onto the front seat of the car and waited for reinforcements. When backup arrived, they sent two dogs into the building to search for Essex, but Essex had fled. Hosli died on March 5, 1973.
On January 2 a man called police. He claimed a man with a bloody bandage on his hand had recently made a purchase at the grocery owned by Joseph Perniciaro. The caller claimed the man had paid for the purchase with a twenty-dollar bill. The police officer advised the caller to “bring all the twenties from the cash register” to the station.
Early that evening, Joseph Perniciaro, acquaintance Charles Willis, and 14-year-old stock worker Darryl Davis went to the police station. They repeated the story Willis had earlier told over the phone.
On Sunday, January 7, 1973, Essex emerged from hiding with his rifle. Somehow he had learned of Perniciaro’s going to the police about him. He entered Perniciaro’s store, pointed the rifle him and announced, “You, you’re the one I want. Come here.”
The grocer turned to flee. Essex shot him and left the grocery. Perniciaro survived.
As Perniciaro was being rushed to the hospital, a black man named Marvin Albert was warming up his car a few blocks away.
“Hi, brother,” Essex said, pointing a rifle at him. “Get out.”
“Are you crazy?” Albert exclaimed.
“I don’t want to kill black people today, just honkies,” Essex said. “I don’t want to kill you but I will kill you.”
Albert exited his car.
Essex drove to the Downtown Howard Johnson Hotel at 330 Loyola Ave., a four-lane boulevard separated by a grassy median. Constructed in the 1960s, the hotel stood seventeen stories high (there was no thirteenth floor). Its lobby, reservation, business office and a restaurant and bar were on the ground floor. The second through seventh floors served as the parking garage. There was a pool deck and patio on the back of the building at the eighth floor.
The sides of the hotel were bordered by Gravier St. and Perdido St. The street at the back of it was South Rampart.
Duncan Plaza, a grassy park with oak trees, was across from the hotel. A government office complex bordered Duncan Plaza. City Hall, the Louisiana Supreme Court, a state office building and the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library were in that complex.
After arriving at the hotel, Essex drove into the parking garage on the fourth floor and left the car there. Then he climbed a fire stairwell into the 18th floor.
“I want the whites!”
Three black hotel employees saw a man with a rifle running down the hallway. Seeing their fear, Essex tried to reassure them. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you black people. I want the whites!” The maids ran into a hotel room and locked the door behind them.
A white man named Robert Steagall, on a honeymoon with his wife Betty, opened a room door. He saw a man holding a rifle. Robert screamed and rushed at him.
Essex shot Robert Steagall in the chest.
Betty Steagall screamed, then knelt beside her wounded husband and cradled his head in her arms. Jimmy shot Betty in back of her head. Both Steagalls soon died.
Essex walked into the room in which the Steagalls had been staying. He poured lighter fluid on telephone books and set them afire.
As he left, he dropped a Pan-African flag beside the bodies of the Steagalls.
While Essex was going through the hotel, a maid rushed into the hotel lobby. Through tears, she exclaimed, “There’s a black boy upstairs. He’s got a gun! Oh Lord, do something!”
Front office manager Frank Schneider and bell worker Donald Roberts headed upstairs to investigate. Their elevator automatically stopped on the eleventh floor and the door opened. As Schneider and Roberts stepped into the hallway, a maid ran past screaming, “He’s got a gun!”
They saw Essex. He pointed the rifle at them and the two white men raced for a stairwell. They heard shots and Schneider fell dead, half his head blown off. Roberts kept running down the stairwell. He got to an elevator. Then he ran out of the hotel, found a phone and called police.
The hotel’s general manager, Walter Collins, told other employees he was going upstairs to find out what was going on.
A maid shouted, “Don’t do it, Mr. Collins! Don’t go up there!”
Ignoring this sensible advice, Collins enlisted maintenance worker Luciano Llovett to accompany him. At the eighth floor, Collins opened the door. Fiercely hot smoke billowed out and he slammed it shut. They went to the ninth floor. It was smoky but not as bad so Llovett went down the hallway banging on doors.
Collins continued and got off at the tenth floor. He saw Essex – and the rifle.
Essex shot Collins. Then Essex left that floor.
Collins dragged himself along the floor. He got close to a hotel room door and could go no further. The couple in that room, Harold and Helen Balson, saw him. Collins said, “Call the police and shut the door.”Collins clung to life for three weeks before succumbing to his wounds in a hospital.
Sirens blaring, cop cars and fire trucks raced to the hotel. Michael Burl and Robert Childress were the first police officers on the scene. They cleared the lobby and then walked into the elevator. They stopped at every floor and looked down the hall.
At the sixteenth floor, they encountered an elderly black woman waiting for the elevator. Childress said, “This place is on fire!” The woman answered, “I know. I seen him. He’s shooting white people.”
The firefighters saw smoke seeping out of the hotel’s windows. According to Peter Hemon, author of A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, Garrett County Press. 2010, “Two or three persons were standing at the farthest edge of a balcony on the ninth floor – so far out that they were leaning over the railing. . . . They were screaming, and one of them was knotting sheets together.”
Firefighter Lt. Tim Ursin decided to attempt a rescue. Hernon reports, “He strapped on a yellow air tank and began climbing.” Two police officers, Bill Trapagnier and Jack Uhle, followed Ursin. Trapagnier and Uhle planned to enter the building by ladder, come in above Essex and ambush him.
Essex ran onto a balcony and shot Ursin. Trapagnier shot repeatedly at Essex.
After slipping down the ladder a few rungs, the wounded Ursin miraculously maintained his balance. Uhle brought the officer down.
As soon as New Orleans Superintendent of Police Clarence Giarrusso heard about the events at Howard Johnson’s over his police transmitter, he rushed to the scene. He found approximately 100 police officers at the hotel. The police were shooting up and the sniper was shooting down.
Several cops decided it was best to try to get above the sniper. They went up to the tenth floor. One of them was Officer Charles Arnold. The group went into one of the rooms. They pushed open a window. Arnold recalled, “There was a shot – one shot and I got it in the face.”
One of the other men screamed, “He blew your face off!”
The wounded officer was – ironically – reassured by this exclamation. “I guess I’m still alive,” was his reaction.
To the noise of continued shooting, Charles Arnold walked out of the hotel to seek help.
Robert Beamish, 43, was a California broadcasting executive. The TV in his hotel room went out. He heard what he recalled “sounded like explosions.” Deciding it was time to leave, he gathered his possessions into suitcases. He exited the room through the patio door with some of this luggage and saw a young black man close to the swimming pool. Thinking the man was a fellow guest, Beamish was about to say “Hi” when he saw the rifle.
The bullet caught him in the gut. He felt like he’d been rammed through with a “red-hot poker.” He made an enormous splash as fell into the pool. He stayed there for two hours before being rescued.
Onlookers surrounded the hotel, staring up, trying to see the sniper. Officers attempted to warn them away but the gawking crowds increased.
Knowing that the sniper’s targets were whites, and understanding his hatred all-too-well, some black onlookers greeted the sniper’s rifle shots with enthusiastic cries of “Right on!”
As police officer Kenneth Solis tried to disperse the crowd, a bullet went into his right shoulder and exited his rib cage. His partner carried Solis to the shade of a nearby tree.
Sergeant Emanuel Palmisano raced to Solis’s aid. The would-be rescuer was shot and fell to the ground.
Police officer Philip Coleman had no sooner left his vehicle than Essex’s bullet found him. He fell close to the tree where Solis rested.
Meanwhile, police interviewed one of the black maids whom Essex had told not to be scared because he was only “shooting whites.” The woman, Beatrice Greenhouse, added, “He kept saying, ‘It’s a revolution!’”
Officer Paul Persigo saw someone running toward the building and warned, “There’s a sniper. Get back!”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Persigo himself was hit. The bullet caught him right in the mouth and he was killed.
A firefighter was startled to see a man walking with a civil defense helmet on his head. “You’re going to get shot!” the firefighter shouted. “Get down!”
The helmeted man got down – because Essex’s bullet shattered his arm close to the shoulder.
A driver and attendant for Kagan’s Ambulance Service hurried over to the man and put him on a stretcher. The sniper shot again and hit the driver, Chris Caton, in the back.
Deputy Chief Louis Sirgo and police officer Jules Killela were going through what they could of the hotel when they encountered a black woman, Carrie Mae Clemmons, in a room. She had seen Essex. “He said, ‘You all go ahead. I ain’t killin’ you black people.’ That didn’t stop my fright. When you’re lookin’ down a gun barrel, you don’t know who he’s going to kill.”
The pair also found a male guest. Sirgo and Killela escorted Clemmons and the man downstairs. Both worker and guest left the hotel.
Deputy Chief Louis Sirgo tried to rescue officers who had become trapped. Essex shot Sirgo in the spine, killing him almost instantly.
Although Sirgo was a member of Essex’s targeted race, his killing was somewhat ironic. Only a few months previously, Sirgo had given an address to a police organization in which he called America’s treatment of its black citizens “the greatest sin of American society.” He continued, “Look closely at the area you are leaving for the police to handle. No, we can no longer hide our problems in prison cages, or in federally subsidized low-rent housing developments, or in ghetto housing. I suggest that we begin to think about doing something about the responsibilities of the office which we hold, and if we don’t, then the problem, like a contagious malady, will destroy us.”
Around 1 p.m., Lieutenant Jack Schnapp and five other officers arrived on the scene.
Schnapp and some others slowly made their way from one landing to another. They reached the door that opened to the roof. It was shut and chained. Officer Larry Arthur kicked it open. As soon as this mission was accomplished, a bullet tore into his belly.
Two men helped the wounded cop down the stairs.
Giarrusso radioed up that no one was to go on the roof.
After a silence several minutes, the sniper began shooting. Cops from the seventeenth floor returned fire.
Then the sniper’s shooting stopped and the police followed suit.
After a brief lull, Essex called from the roof, “Free Africa! Come on up, pigs!”
A while later, he shouted, “Come on up, you honky pigs! You afraid to fight like a black man?”
Frustrated and angry police officers repeatedly yelled, “Fuck you!”
“Come on out, you honky mother-fuckers!” Essex screamed. “What’s the matter? You afraid, pigs?” Essex shot.
Police shot back.
Over the noise of the shooting, Essex’s high-pitched screech could be heard, “Die, you fucking pigs!”
Again there was a lull in the shooting.
Giarrusso asked a black officer to appeal to the sniper.
The black officer climbed as far as he felt comfortable up a stairway and then spoke through a bullhorn that had a battery-powered amplifier. “You, up there, I’m a police officer,” the man said. “We don’t want to kill you. We’d like to talk to you. What do you say, brother?”
After a pause, the officer continued, “If you don’t come down, you’re going to be killed. . . . You can still save yourself. If you’re wounded, we can get you medical help!”
“Fuck you! Power to the people!”
United State Marine Corps Lieutenant General Chuck Pitman watched the carnage on TV. He offered the New Orleans Police Department the use of a CH-46 military helicopter. NOPD officials eagerly accepted.
As night fell, Essex took cover in a concrete cubicle.
In the morning, he left the protection of the cubicle and walked into the open air of the roof. He fired at the helicopters.
Police sharpshooters on the roofs of nearby buildings and shooters from the helicopter unleashed a barrage on Essex.
He fell dead. The autopsy later showed that his slender body had received more than 200 gunshots.
His morning action appeared deliberately and consciously suicidal.
Carnage counted and public reactions
Essex had murdered nine people, five of them police officers. All save Cadet Harrell were either white or Hispanic. He seriously wounded another 10 people.
Police fire had inadvertently wounded nine people. One person in the vicinity of the shootings had suffered a non-fatal heart attack as a result of the trauma.
The city of New Orleans had sustained millions of dollars in financial loss. The Howard Johnson’s Hotel had sustained damage that would require millions of dollars to repair.
In the aftermath of the shootings, then Governor of Louisiana Edwin Edwards said he would consider reinstating the death penalty for “heinous crimes.” This was an odd reaction. It seems likely Essex knew he would be killed. The threat of execution is meaningless to someone who plans to die during his or her crimes.
An article published in the Los Angeles Times reported that the Essex family called a news conference in the aftermath of the crimes. Nellie Essex said her son “wasn’t himself when he did this.” She recalled how Essex had become embittered after encountering racial prejudice in the Navy. She concluded that the tragedy was a “clear signal for white America to get off the seat of its pants and do something. If this terrible thing will awaken white America to the injustices that blacks suffer then some good will come of it.”
Many black leaders were interviewed. Louisiana State Representative Louis Charbonnet complained that it seemed that “people wanted to hear the black community of New Orleans apologize for Jimmy Essex.” Charbonnet was understandably exasperated by this attitude. “What did we have to apologize for?” he asked. “Here was a boy from Kansas who came here and vented his frustration in a suicide mission. What could I say about him? The black community in New Orleans did not invite him here nor did we send him up to that rooftop. If he had been white, I would not have called upon Mayor Landrieu to apologize for him.”
Unfortunately, some black leaders issued statements appearing to condone the horror.
The Cleaver branch of the New York Black Panther Party sent a telegram to the Essexes. It said, “We the Black Panther Party take this opportunity to extend our profound condolences. The loss of your son was a loss to the revolutionary ranks and the black revolutionary struggle as a whole.”
Stokely Carmichael, who rose to fame as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), served for a period as the Honorary Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party, and popularized the slogan “Black Power,” stated, “We should study and learn from the actions of Brother Jimmy Essex. We should understand that Brother Essex carried our struggle to its next quantitative level, the level of science.”
Echo of the Texas tower sniper?
The 1972 crimes of the New Orleans sniper were bound to remind observers of Texas sniper Charles Whitman in 1966. On August 1 of that year, former Marine Charles Whitman shot his mother in her apartment and then his wife at their home.
Equipped with six guns, ammunition and a supply of food and water, Whitman then went to the tower of the University of Texas at Austin. He clubbed the receptionist who later died, killed two people on the 28th floor and wounded two others walking up the stairs from the 27th floor.
On the observation deck of the tower, 231 feet up from the ground, Whitman opened fire on people below, killing 10 people and wounded 31 more. One of the wounded died a week later.
Arriving police returned fire. Two police officers, Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez, worked their way up the tower where they shot and killed Whitman.
In all, Whitman had murdered 16 people.
An autopsy revealed that Whitman had a brain tumor. Doctors could not be sure but many believed the tumor could have played a major role in Whitman’s crimes.
While Charles Whitman’s crimes may have been medically based, those of Essex were rooted in the profound social deformities of his time period.
The Cub Scout and Cheerful Youth
Born in 1945 in Emporia, Kansas, Essex was the second of the five children of Nellie and Mark Essex. As a boy he was a cub scout and enjoyed fishing.
The small town of Emporia consisted of approximately 28,000 persons of whom roughly 450, about 2 percent, were black. A little over 2 percent of the population is Hispanic. Most of the rest are white.
Virtually no open racist hostility existed in Emporia during Essex’s youth. He easily made friends with both blacks and whites.
But in Emporia, as in towns across the United States, discrimination against blacks lurked right beneath the surface. Rev. Chambers, past president of the local NAACP chapter, asserts that there was bigotry beneath the surface: “Most young blacks leave as soon as they can. They go to Kansas City, Topeka or Colorado to find work. You can’t blame them. There are few jobs for them in Emporia and those that are available don’t pay much. There is a lot of unspoken prejudice here, and if you look you can see it in jobs, in housing, in education. The discrimination may be quiet but it’s very real.”
As Essex approached adulthood, he believed he would be drafted and sent to Vietnam. He thought he might as well enlist.
His father suggested the Navy rather than the Army, thinking the Navy might have less racial prejudice. The senior Mark Essex had served in the Army during WWII and encountered racial prejudice. He said, “In World War II they would send us down to Mississippi to train with wooden sticks. Now why would they send a black man from Kansas or anywhere in the Midwest to Mississippi without any way to protect himself? Some of us decided we needed the guns and ammo more than when we got to Europe.”
Rev. Chambers had also served in the army. He remembered, “Negroes were forced to lock their weapons up at night while the whites were allowed to keep theirs in the barracks.”
He enlisted in the U. S. Navy for a four-year hitch. The Navy sent Essex to San Diego, California.
White racist harassment
Navy teachers advised Essex to enroll in a specialty. He enrolled in the Navy Dental Center, where he earned an “outstanding” performance rating. He was placed in the Naval Air Station Dental Clinic. He worked under Navy dentist Lieutenant Robert Hatcher. Hatcher was impressed by Essex’s dedication to his work. “He was concerned about everybody around him, concerned about learning his job,” Hatcher recalled. “I’m very demanding, especially when it concerns dentistry. I demanded a lot out of him and he delivered.”
Hatcher said that Essex had a genuinely engaging personality. “In those days he was just the nicest person in the world,” Hatcher maintains. “He was the kind of person I liked to have around, a happy-go-lucky kid who was very hard to get rattled.”
However, Essex began to be troubled. White sailors often made comments reflecting racist stereotypes. In a letter to his parents, Essex complained that the Navy “is not like I thought it would be, not like in Emporia. Blacks have trouble getting along here.” He discussed his experience with several Navy blacks and they said, “That’s just the way it is.” They advised Essex to ignore it, work hard, and try to get promoted. They told him whites would treat him better if he had “some rank.”
Essex was understandably disappointed by this advice. Why should people have to put up with offensive and bigoted comments? Why should black men have to “earn” the equitable and respectful treatment that should be theirs by right?
Disturbed, Essex began reading obsessively about the Black Power movement. He also became close friends with a fellow sailor named Rodney Frank, who had an extensive arrest record for crimes ranging from vagrancy to armed robbery and rape. It is believed that Frank, who later joined what was then known as the “Black Muslims,” was strongly antagonistic to whites. It is likely that by sharing experiences, observations, and conclusions drawn from them, each man helped intensify the other’s views.
Essex applied for a job tending bar at an enlisted men’s club. He got it but later said he was treated differently due to race. A white man he worked with went into the next room to get ice. Essex recalled being always required to ask permission to get the ice from a white sailor.
The mess on the way to the mess hall
On a day in August 1970, an incident occurred that profoundly hardened Essex’s feelings – and led to even more harassment against him. Three white petty officers had finished eating and stood outside the mess hall chatting.
Essex and another black Navy man approached the mess hall. One of the whites remarked, “You know, I’ll never understand how they can always smile like that. I’ll bet they even smile in their sleep.” A companion chimed in with his own stereotypes. “What about that shuffle?” he asked. “Sliding along like they were on a surfboard. Smiling and shuffling. It’s all those cats can do, that and jump through the roof with a basketball in their hands.”
Then the whites started griping about what they perceived as preferential treatment toward Navy blacks. One of them complained, “I bet there aren’t but a handful of officers in this whole goddamn Navy who would approve of all the crap that’s being dished out lately. God, it must have been beautiful 20 or 30 years ago. When a nigger went to sea then it was below decks, in the galley.”
Essex’s companion said, “We’re in for some shit from those turkeys over there. They have been staring daggers.”
Essex intended to follow the advice he had been given to ignore prejudiced remarks. “Fuck them,” he said. “Fuck them and forget them. That bastard in the middle . . . He’s been writing me up every chance he gets.”
Essex and his companion stared straight ahead in silence as they walked the steps to the mess hall. Just as the two were about to enter it, a black sailor carrying books yelled up at them from the grass below.
“Hey, Essex!” he shouted. “How about picking up some of that chicken for me? I got to get back to the barracks and study.”
“You want white or black meat?” Essex called back.
“Hell, son,” the man answered. “You know I want it black.” Then the sailor went out of sight around a corner.
“What’s wrong with white chicken?” one of the trio of white petty officers shouted.
“Come on,” another said. “Haven’t you heard that black is beautiful these days?”
Essex and his companion froze but said nothing.
“For Christ’s sake, that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” a white said. “Black chicken!” he turned directly to Essex and said, “Don’t you think that’s dumb, sailor?”
“Screw yourself,” Essex said. He walked passed the whites toward the mess hall door.
As Essex reached for the handle, one of the whites stepped in front of him. The man was much taller than Essex and his heavily muscled bulk contrasted sharply with Essex’s slight build.
“Don’t you hear well, man?” Essex asked. “I told you to get screwed.”
The man did not leave. Fists flying, Essex attacked. Taken by surprise, the larger man fell back and banged his head against the wall.
The other two white petty officers pulled Essex off the man who got to his feet and landed a blow on Essex.
Then a junior grade lieutenant saw the commotion and shouted, “Hey there! Stop that at once!”
The man who had struck Essex lowered his hands and said, “OK, Essex, let’s cool it, otherwise we’re both on report. This time I slipped. The next time, watch your ass, black boy.”
After the lieutenant questioned the group, he told them that he would make sure any future fighting left someone in the brig.
Essex and his companion finally entered the mess hall where they filled trays and went to a table in a corner. Essex told his companion that he wished he had “let them put me on report” so the man he fought with would be “wrote up, too.” His companion told him that would have been counterproductive. “It don’t matter to [higher-ups] what the bastards were saying,” he said. “It’ll just come out that you swung first.”
That led Essex to a startling realization. As Hernon writes, “For the first time in his life he had struck a white man, a fact so unbelievably startling that its significance was only now beginning to ring in his brain.” Hernon further writes that Essex concluded, “What he had done was more than justifiable, it was heroic.”
After a long pause, Essex said, “I say if a black sailor can’t get a fair shake when he’s in the right, then to hell with the whole United States Navy.”
Word went around the base about the recently enlisted black sailor who had dared to strike a white petty officer. To those steeped in white racism, a black striking a white violated a cardinal rule. Several whites took on a grudge against Essex. As Hernon writes, Essex became “the butt of almost daily harassment. Wisecracks, gibes, whispered curses, and a stream of petty orders often dropped on the spur of the moment by ranking enlisted men were Essex’s lot in the mess halls, barracks, everywhere.”
In the midst of this harassment, Essex’s one place of refuge was the dental office. There he remained on excellent terms with Hatcher, his only white friend in the Navy.
Essex’s three bunkmates were also black. One day the four of them were accused of playing their stereo very loudly into the night. The report of “excessive noise in the barracks” meant they would answer to a disciplinary hearing entitled a “Captain’s Mast.” All four men said whites often played music just as loudly and that they were being singled out because of racism. The group of four asked that they be permitted to skip the Captain’s Mast and go directly to a court-martial. Hernon explains, “The move would permit them to argue their case at the highest level and would require a face-to-face confrontation with their accusers.”
The four blacks were not the only people who believed racial prejudice lay behind the charges they faced. Dr. Hatcher thought so too. He began looking into the situation and found that the sailor who first filed a complaint was known as a bigot. Hatcher said, “He was a guy who was obviously just a prejudiced individual.” Hatcher also learned that the man often used racial slurs to describe blacks.
Hatcher went to the commanding officer with these observations.
The court-martial stopped.
However, Essex and his bunkmates were then assigned to different barracks.
Two black Navy men who knew Essex during this period recalled the bigoted environment. Fred Allen was Essex’s bunkmate and had also been friends with him. In an interview published in The New York Times, Allen commented, “Essex came into the Navy expecting to be treated in the same decent way he had back in Emporia and he found out it wasn’t like that at all. It wasn’t long before he wanted out of the Navy as most of us blacks did.”
At the time the NYTinterviewed him in 1973, C. B. Wilson was a third-class petty officer. He had long been working as a bartender at an enlisted men’s club. Wilson recalled that he had spent “quite a bit of time” with Essex. Wilson recalled that seaman Essex had no racial “hang-ups” when they first met. Wilson added, “But the racism, the discrimination and the hassling finally got to him and before he left here after his court-martial he was a really torn-up young guy.”
Fred Allen and C. B. Wilson both said white sailors often made racially derogatory remarks to Essex whom they seemed to regard as a “cocky nigger.” Wilson recalled the tension in the enlisted men’s club, “They would sit, a group of Negroes at one table, Filipinos or Chicanos at another, and whites by themselves. Then before you knew it some white boy would call a black a ‘spade’ and like a firecracker it would touch off an explosion. But what really burned Essex up was the riding he got from petty officers and other officers. They would write him up for the smallest infraction and usually he would get a Captain’s Mast while the white got off scot-free. We all had that sort of experience.”
Essex left the Navy on October 18, 1970 and was recorded as AWOL the next day. He headed home to Emporia.
“They’re treating me like a nigger!”
Essex’s parents were shocked by the change in him. He was filled with a smoldering racially based hostility. Nellie and the elder Mark well understood resentment against anti-black discrimination but were alarmed by their son’s expressions of unbridled rage against an entire race. They warned him against the danger of hating white people just because they are white.
“What else is there?” he retorted. “They take everything from you . . . Your dignity, your pride. What can you do but hate them?” He said he had to be treated “like a man.”
His mother urged moderation.
“They’re not treating me with moderation!” Essex shouted. “They’re treating me like a nigger!”
His parents urged him to return to the Navy to try to avoid the permanent stigma of a dishonorable discharge. To their relief, he agreed.
After an unauthorized absence of twenty-eight days, Essex returned to Imperial Beach to face court-martial.
Essex’s court-martial began two months later on January 15. Essex pled guilty to the charge of being AWOL. His military attorney, Reid Ervin, pled mitigating circumstances.
Ervin put on evidence supporting Essex’s contention that whites in the Navy discriminated against blacks. He also put on evidence that Essex had been singled out for harassment after standing up to that discrimination.
Essex testified in his own defense. His voice quivered as he talked about the racial prejudice and harassment he had encountered. He said, “I went UA because I just needed time to think.” Later he stated, “I had to talk to some black people because I had begun to hate all white people. I was tired of going to white people and telling them my problems and not getting anything done about it.”
The military judge ruled that Essex would forfeit $90 per month pay for two months and be restricted to the Naval Air Station for 30 days.” He also ruled that Essex be reduced to the pay grade of E-2. The judge added, “Airman Essex, I am further going to recommend to the convening authority that the reduction that I have just awarded you from E-3 o E-2 be suspended for a period of time that he deems appropriate. I feel that the prejudice issues that were raised by the defense, while not excusing your offense, do materially explain your actions.”
A few weeks later, Essex received a general discharge from the Navy on January 25, 1971. The grounds cited in the document discharging him were “a character behavior disorder.”
Blacks in U.S. Navy History and the Tangled Transition
“Essex was a casualty of history,” Hernon wrote. Contrary to what the elder Essex and Rev. Chambers had hoped, the history of racism in the U.S. Navy was no better than that in the Army.
Over 100,000 blacks were in the Navy in WWI but most of them could only work as stewards or mess attendants. That tradition continued in WWII with exceptions for a few all-black crews.
It was not until 1944 that the Navy commissioned black officers.
At the time Essex enlisted, the Navy was integrating. Blacks constituted 5 percent of Navy personnel. Their representation as officers was less that ½ of 1 percent.
Also at the time Essex served, many blacks in the Navy were increasingly outraged by their second-class treatment. One of those was Lieutenant Commander William Norman. In 1970, he had decided to leave the Navy. However, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, chief of Naval Operations, talked Norman into staying on – and into accepting an appointment as Zumwalt’s Special Assistant for Minority Affairs. Norman observed, “The Navy has had a reputation in the black community of being discriminatory. This, in fact, goes back to the racial inequities in the Navy, starting around the Spanish-American War in 1898 and including World War II.”
Admiral Zumwalt became famous for his insistence that the Navy must throw all racial discrimination overboard. He stated, “Ours must be a Navy family that recognizes no artificial barriers of race, color or religion. There is no black Navy – no white Navy – just one Navy, the U.S. Navy.” Those were fine sentiments. Inevitably, there were problems turning them from ideals into reality. Many white seamen had been raised in racist environments and resented the idea that men of different races should be treated equally. That resentment inevitably showed up in prejudiced remarks, slights, and everyday discrimination against blacks.
In February 1971, Zumwalt issued the following directive: “Every base, station and aircraft squadron commander and ship commanding officer shall appoint an aware minority officer or senior petty officer as his assistant for minority affairs.” The directive later elaborated that it was vital “to open up new avenues of communications with not only our black personnel but also with all minority groups in the Navy so that we may learn what and where the areas of friction are. Second, all of us in the Navy must develop far greater sensitivity to the problems of all our minority groups so that we may more effectively go about solving them.”
Unfortunately, that directive was made the month after Essex was discharged. Perhaps if it had been in place before he entered the Navy, his experience would have been far different.
Essex and the Black Panthers
Essex returned briefly to Emporia. Rev. Chambers ran into him on the street one day and asked him why he had not been to church. Essex replied that he was no longer believed in Christianity because he said, “It’s a white man’s religion.”
In February, Essex traveled to New York City. There he contacted a wing of the Black Panthers. One of those contacted was Harlem Chapter Secretary Bernice Jones.
Essex returned to Emporia in May. He drifted from job to job.
That April, Essex bought a .44-caliber-magnum Ruger Deerslayer carbine. Later that summer, Essex moved to New Orleans. The reasons for this decision are unknown. It is possible he wanted to be in an area with more black people. One of the black people he might have wanted to get close to was his former Navy friend Rodney Frank who lived there.
In New Orleans, he arranged to meet Frank. The two looked for accommodations for Essex and soon found an inexpensive apartment. Often delinquent on his rent, Essex drifted from apartment to apartment.
The Felony Action Squad controversy and the Southern University killings
Essex was extremely upset by two developments.
The first was the formation by the New Orleans Police Department of its “Felony Action Squad.” This was a special squad formed to operate in high-crime areas. Members often used disguises. They also often operated in what were dubbed “salt-and-pepper” teams consisting of pairs made up of one white and one black officer. On September 19, Superintendent Clarence Giarrusso announced the formation of the Felony Action Squad. He made a point of saying that FAS members had been told that if their lives were threatened they were to “shoot to kill.”
The phrase outraged much of New Orleans’ black community. They interpreted this as meaning “shoot to kill black people.”
A month later, Mayor Mitchell Landrieu commented that Giarusso’s statement had been taken out of context. By that time, Sergeant Warren Woodfork, who was black, headed the FAS. It had made thirty arrests without firing a shot and the uproar had faded away.
The second incident occurred on November 16.
For over three weeks, turmoil had raged at the Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana because of the forced resignation of a psychology professor and arrests of two student leaders. Hernon reports, “When students gathered at the office of University President G. Leon Nettterville to protest, police were summoned. By 10 o’clock over 80 deputies and state troopers had arrived on campus. Sheriff Al Amiss ordered the students to disband within five minutes.” The students stood their ground. The confrontation ended with two blacks, Leonard Brown and Denver Smith, shot and killed by police.
Inside the mind of a man driven mad
Late in December, Essex sent a letter to WWL-TV. That letter lay unopened until after the horrors its author said he would commit had been committed. The letter stated, “Africa greets you . . . on Dec. 31, 1972 appt 11 the Downtown New Orleans Police Dept. will be attack [sic] . . . Reason – many. But the deaths of two innocent brothers will be avenged. And many others . . . P.S. Tell Pig Gurrusso the felony action squad ain’t shit.” It was signed “Mata.” In Swahili, “mata” as a noun means “bow” and as a verb means “dead.”
A few days later, Essex mailed another letter. This one was to his mother. It read, “Africa, this is it mom. It’s even bigger than you and I, even bigger than god. I have now decided that the white man is my enemy. I will fight to gain my manhood or die trying.”
After the shooting spree, police and, later, reporters and neighbors visited Essex’s last apartment dwelling. The walls in the tiny apartment spoke powerfully of the tormented and tortured in his mind. They were painted with words scattered at random. The words expressed solidarity with African-ness and hatred of the Caucasian race. Among the phrases: “Shoot the devil like you shoot a dog pig pig,” “”Hate white people beast of the earth,” “Revolutionary justice is black justice, shoot to kill” and “My destiny lies in the bloody death of racist pigs.” In the last sentence, “destiny” and “death” were underlined. He wrote “AFRICA” in huge capital letters. Inside the “C,” he penciled, “The quest for freedom is death – then by death I shall escape to freedom.” He wrote “KKK,” “blonde hair, blue eyes,” and “white man.” The words “kill black pig devil” may explain the murder of Cadet Harrell as it suggests that a black who acts as a “pig” for the (presumably white) “devil” should be murdered. He also wrote, “The Third World – Kill Pig Nixon and all his running dogs.”
Apparently Essex anticipated that the police would see the apartment. Within his madness, he retained a grisly sense of humor. When the officers looked up, they saw this message: “Only a pig would read shit on the ceiling.”
The funeral of Essex epitomized the multi-layered hurt and confusion so many felt. Rev. Chambers advised those in attendance to reject the teachings of “violence and hatred.”
Whites were among the mourners at the funeral of the man who had targeted their race in his murder spree. Perhaps they grieved the kind and friendly youth they knew from the years before his mind was warped by racist harassment.
The pallbearers were black. According to a New York Times article, “One pallbearer raised his arm in the black power salute into the clear sunny sky and said: ‘Up goes my arm, for today we have freedom from our bonds.’”
Several other black people raised their fists in the same salute. One person draped a red, green and black scarf – colors symbolizing black nationalism – through the handles of the coffin. Another who wore a sash of those colors around his chest took it off himself and lay it near the coffin. Several floral wreaths flanked the coffin. One was made of black carnations inscribed with gold letters reading, “Power To The People.”
Trying to find the reasons why
Why did Essex embark on this horrible murder spree? Perhaps he thought he could ignite a racial conflagration.
One commentator believes that Essex may have imitated a previous black-on-white sniper. Reviewing Hernon’s book on kintespace.com, this writer noted the case of Robert Charles. Charles was a black man who shot 27 white people in New Orleans in 1900. The kintespace.com writer observes, “These events precipitated a ‘race riot’ in the city of New Orleans. It is fascinating that not only did the author fall victim to this oversight but not one of the officials of New Orleans that Hernon interviewed recalled what happened in their home town just seven decades ago.” He concludes, “Many of us are ambivalent about being unaware of so-called ‘black history’ but to not know that your home was almost burned down just over 70 years ago is just plain ignorant.”
It seems at least possible that, unlike Hernon and the officials with whom he spoke, Essex did know of this previous incident and hoped that his murders would set off a similar riot.
Essex may well have given up on life, believing that systemic white racism in America made it impossible for blacks to live with dignity. He may have wanted to take as many of the white enemy as he could with him before he died.
Without in any way excusing Essex for his heinous actions, it is impossible to study his case without recognizing that society failed him and seeing that failure as a crucial contributing factor to his crimes.
Essex lies buried in his hometown of Emporia, Kansas. His family does not want his grave desecrated nor do they want it to serve as a rallying point for misguided sympathizers. Thus, his grave is unmarked.
The horrors he perpetrated have not been forgotten and they should not be. They should be remembered as emblematic of how bigotry breeds bigotry.