Mark Essex
Mark Essex, pictured while enlisted in the US Navy, July 1969[1]
Born
Mark James Robert Essex

August 12, 1949
DiedJanuary 7, 1973 (aged 23)
Cause of deathMultiple gunshot wounds
Resting placeMaplewood Memorial Lawn Cemetery, Emporia, Kansas, U.S.
Other namesThe New Orleans Sniper
Mata[2]
Parent(s)Mark Henry Essex
Nellie (née Evans) Essex
MotiveRacial hatred
Rage
Details
DateDecember 31, 1972, and January 7, 1973
Location(s)New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
Target(s)New Orleans Police Department
Caucasians
Killed9
Injured12
Weapons

Mark James Robert Essex (August 12, 1949[3] – January 7, 1973) was an American serial sniper and black nationalist known as the "New Orleans Sniper" who killed a total of nine people, including five policemen, and wounded twelve others in two separate attacks in New Orleans on December 31, 1972 and January 7, 1973. Essex was killed by police in the second armed confrontation.[2]

Essex was a former member of a New York-based branch of the Black Panthers. He is strongly believed to have specifically sought to kill white people and police officers due to racism he had previously experienced while enlisted in the Navy. His increasingly extremist anti-police views are believed to have solidified following a November 1972 violent clash between Baton Rouge police officers and student civil rights demonstrators, during which two young black demonstrators were shot and killed.[4]

Early life

Mark James Robert Essex was born in Emporia, Kansas, the second of five children born to Mark Henry and Nellie (née Evans) Essex. He was raised in a close-knit and religious household. His father was a foreman in a meat-packing plant and his mother counseled preschool-age children in a program for disadvantaged children.[5]

The community in which Essex was raised consisted of 28,000 people, and prided itself in a long tradition of racial harmony. As a child and adolescent, Essex had numerous friends of all races, and seldom, if ever, encountered any form of racism.[5]

As a child, Essex developed a passion for the Cub Scouts and an aptitude for music; playing the saxophone in his high school band. He also enjoyed hunting and fishing, and developed ambitions to become a minister in his teens.

Adolescence

Essex was popular among his high school peers, and refrained from trouble as a teenager. His sole brush with Emporia police occurred in 1965, when an officer incorrectly assumed Essex—who stood just 5 ft 4 in (160 cm) tall—was too young to drive. He is known to have dated both black and white girls in high school, on one occasion telling his mother he did not "see much difference" between girls of different races. An average student who performed best in technical subjects, Essex graduated from Emporia High School in 1967.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Essex briefly enrolled at Emporia State University. He dropped out after just one semester, and briefly worked in his father's meat-packing plant as he considered his next career or educational move. Concluding his horizons were limited in Emporia, shortly after his 19th birthday, Essex decided to join the Navy and seek vocational training.[6]

Navy

Essex joined the United States Navy on January 13, 1969. Within three months, he was assigned to the Naval Air Station at Imperial Beach, California. His family would later reflect that, as he prepared to enlist, he was "happy go lucky".[7]

Initially, Essex's experiences in the Navy were positive. He was apprenticed as a dental technician, and formed a close and ongoing friendship with his white supervisor, Lieutenant Robert Hatcher. However, he soon learned that bigotry from many of the white servicemen towards blacks (both overt and discreet) was a general everyday occurrence for blacks serving within the Navy. Shortly after his enlistment, Essex obtained a job as a bartender at an enlisted men's club named the Jolly Rotor, where he discovered that certain rooms were off-limits to blacks.[8] In one letter to his mother, Essex wrote his experiences of racial relations within the Navy were "not like [he] thought [they] would be, not like Emporia. Blacks have trouble getting along here."[9][n 1]

Throughout 1969, Essex suffered these indignities quietly—apparently believing what he had been told by other black recruits he would be treated better once he achieved a higher rank.[11] Within a year, he had risen to the rank of seaman, although the harassment continued, and he began taking sedatives. He also began reading literature about individuals such as Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who had founded the Black Panther Party. Several months later, on October 19, Essex went absent without leave (AWOL) from the Navy. He phoned his mother from a bus station, informing her: "I'm coming home. I've just got to have some time to think."

AWOL

Essex returned to Emporia, and remained AWOL until November 16, 1970. His family observed his overt bitterness, and Essex explained his experiences of discrimination and his growing hatred towards the white race. Although his family attempted to reason with Essex against this viewpoint, Essex exclaimed: "What else is there? They take everything from you. Your dignity, your pride. What can you do but hate them?"[12]

Two months after his desertion from the Navy, Essex's family persuaded him to return to Imperial Beach. Prior to doing so, Essex ensured he spoke to Lieutenant Hatcher, to whom he explained his reasons for his desertion. Hatcher's official notes state Essex informed him: "I don't want to have anything more to do with the Navy. It wouldn't be fair, not to you or the (dental) patients. The bad atmosphere would affect my work. The work is the only thing on this base I like." He then agreed to plead guilty to the charge of desertion.[13]

At the subsequent hearing, Hatcher provided a vigorous defense of his protégé; stating the decision for his desertion had been influenced solely by ongoing racial discrimination. The judge conceded these factors were the cause and sentenced Essex to a lenient punishment of thirty days' restriction to base and forfeiture of $90 of his pay for two months.[13]

Military discharge

The Black Panthers. Essex joined this Black Power political organization at age 21, shortly after his discharge from the Navy.

Black Panthers

Essex was given a general discharge from the Navy for general unsuitability on February 11, 1971, at the age of 21. This experience embittered Essex as he felt he had been unfairly stigmatized by the Navy, who had known only too well the discrimination he had endured. He initially traveled to Upper Manhattan, where he joined the New York branch of the Black Panthers.[14] Via his association with the New York Black Panthers, Essex became increasingly radicalized, and familiarized himself with the tactics of guerilla warfare.[15] He soon began referring to himself as "Mata",[n 2] and embraced the extremist content of the 1968 book Black Rage.[2][16]

Emporia

Sometime around late-April 1971, Essex returned to his family in Emporia. Two months later, he purchased a Ruger .44-caliber semi-automatic carbine via mail-order from an Emporia Montgomery Ward outlet. Upon receiving the weapon several weeks later, he began incessantly target shooting in the countryside around Emporia in efforts to improve his marksmanship. That August, he abruptly left his family home without even informing his parents and drove to Louisiana. The precise reason for his relocation is unknown, although he may have chosen to relocate to this city to become reacquainted with a friend from his Navy days named Rodney Frank.[17][n 3]

New Orleans

During his period of residence in New Orleans, Essex did not join a local chapter of the Panthers. He moved home four times, and saw first-hand the poverty of those living in the city's housing projects. On August 22, 1972, he applied for admittance into the Total Community Action (TCA) federally funded program. He was accepted into the program, and chose to enroll in classes specializing in vending machine repair. Essex quickly rose to the top of his class.[19] He also began a course of African studies in 1972, and would memorize African terms and dialects as he sat alone in his apartment sipping bottled orange juice.[20] Many of the words, phrases and hate slogans he familiarized himself with—in English, Swahili, and Zulu—would be daubed across the walls and ceilings of his apartment.[21]

By the summer of 1972, Essex had acquired a further firearm: a Colt .38-caliber revolver. He was also living and increasingly solitary existence,[22] and battling severe depression.[23]

In September 1972, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) announced the formation of the Felony Action Squad, aimed at reducing the number of violent crimes in the city. In a press statement, Superintendent Clarence Giarrusso stated that, if threatened in any way, members of this action squad were authorized to shoot to kill.[24] [n 4]

Southern University civil rights shootings

On November 16, Essex learned that two African American students had been shot to death during a campus demonstration at Southern University (a historically black university). The two students had been shot to death by Baton Rouge police officers. Essex was disturbed and outraged by the harsh response of police to this student civil rights demonstration. This incident is believed to be that which fueled his decision to act against police oppression.

Shortly after this incident, Essex penned a letter to his mother in which he wrote: "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."[26] On Christmas Day, he ate dinner with the family of a fellow student from the TCA program.[27] That evening, Essex phoned his family. He made a specific point of talking to each family member in succession, and conveyed no sense of distress. Over the following days, Essex gave away most of his possessions.[28]

Sniper attacks

New Year's Eve, 1972

At the age of 23 and living in New Orleans, Essex began targeting policemen for death, as he intended to retaliate for police brutality against African Americans and the discrimination he encountered in the Navy.

On New Year's Eve 1972, Essex parked his car and walked along Perdido Street, a block from the NOPD. He hid behind parked cars in a poorly illuminated parking lot across from the busy central lockup and fatally shot 19-year-old Cadet Alfred Harrell through the chest as he (Harrell) attempted to run from a gatehouse. He also wounded Lt. Horace Pérez in the attack; Pérez was wounded in the ankle by the same bullet which struck Harrell and ricocheted off a wall.[29] Harrell was black; before beginning his attacks, Essex had earlier claimed he was going to kill "just honkies."[30][n 5] He used the Ruger .44-caliber semi-automatic carbine he had purchased the previous year in this attack.[30]

Having fired six rounds in this initial stage of his attack, Essex evaded capture by climbing a chain link fence and running across I-10, while setting off firecrackers as a diversion. He ran into an industrial area of Gert Town, an area known for high crime and hostility towards police. There he broke into the Burkart Building; a warehouse and manufacturing plant on the corner of Euphrosine and South Gayoso. Intentionally or otherwise, this action activated an alarm that alerted police to this break-in. A K-9 unit, led by Officers Edwin Hosli Sr. and Harold Blappert, responded to the call. Neither realized this incident was connected to the earlier attack on central lockup.[32]

As Officer Hosli exited his vehicle to retrieve his German shepherd from the car's back seat, Essex shot him in the back. Essex started shooting the car, shattering the windshield. Officer Blappert reached the radio from the front seat and called for back-up. Blappert fired four shots at the spot where he saw muzzle flashes from Essex's rifle, then he pulled his partner onto the front seat and waited for back-up. When the back-up arrived, they sent two dogs into the building to search for Essex, but he had already escaped. Spots of blood on the ground beside a discarded Colt .38 revolver and a bloody hand print found upon a window sill within the Burkart Building indicate Essex had received a wound—likely not a serious one—in his exchange with Blappert.[33]

The search for the attacker(s) ended shortly after 9 a.m. on January 1, 1973.[34] Officer Hosli would die of his injuries on March 5.[32]

January 1-3, 1973

At 9 p.m. on January 1, the pastor of a Gert Town church entered his place of worship to find a young, armed black male inside. The pastor fled to a neighbors house and called police, although by the time police arrived, the individual had fled. A subsequent police investigation would later determine Essex later returned to the church and remained at this site until January 3. He was observed by a 33-year-old local grocer named Joe Perniciaro entering his premises with a bloodstained bandage on his left hand on the evening of January 2. Convinced Essex was involved in nefarious behavior, Perniciaro served Essex, then ordered his stock boy to follow him. The stock boy reported Essex had walked across the street and into the local church.

Perniciaro reported this information to police. When police arrived to search the premises early on January 3, Essex had fled, although bloodstains and food wrappings indicated a wounded individual had been living in the premises for a short period of time.[35]

The former New Orleans Howard Johnson's downtown hotel, seen here in 2008.

January 7, 1973

At 10:15 a.m. on January 7, 1973, Essex returned to the grocery and shot and severely wounded Joe Perniciaro with his .44 Magnum carbine. He then carjacked a motorist named Marvin Albert as he sat in his 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle outside his house on South White Street. Essex drove Albert's stolen vehicle to the Downtown Howard Johnson's Hotel at 330 Loyola Avenue in New Orleans' Central Business District, across the street from City Hall and Orleans Parish Civil District Court. He parked and climbed the fire escape stairs directly across from the garage in an effort to gain illegal entry, but found several successive doors locked.[31]

Gaining entry from a fire stairwell on the 18th and top floor, Essex startled three African-American employees of the hotel. Essex said to one of them, a chambermaid, "Don't worry, sister. We're only shooting whites today."[36] The employees quickly notified authorities. In the hallway by room 1829, Essex encountered Dr. Robert Steagall and his wife Betty, a couple from Virginia on a honeymoon, and forced them into their room. After a struggle with Dr. Steagall, Essex fatally shot him in the chest and shot Betty in the back of the head.[32] The Steagalls both died of their injuries. In their room, he soaked telephone books with lighter fluid and set them ablaze under the curtains. Essex dropped a Pan-African flag onto the floor beside the bodies of the couple as he left. On the 11th floor, Essex shot his way into several rooms and set more fires. There he also shot and killed Frank Schneider, the hotel's assistant manager, and fatally shot Walter Collins, the hotel's general manager. Collins died in the hospital three weeks later as a result of his gunshot wounds.

Officer David McCann provides first aid to wounded colleague Kenneth Solis after he was shot in the right shoulder.

The police and fire department quickly arrived. Two officers tried to use a fire truck's ladder to enter the building, but were shot at by Essex, who had returned to the 18th floor. A few minutes later, Essex shot and killed NOPD Officers Phillip Coleman and Paul Persigo on the ground. Times-Picayune photographer G.E. Arnold took an iconic photo as Coleman died of a head wound in Duncan Plaza. Arnold also captured a shot of a wounded Eighth District NOPD officer, Kenneth Solis—shot in the shoulder and with an exit wound beneath his rib cage—leaning against a tree as another officer, Dave McCann, was trying to stop the bleeding, all while other police and bystanders took cover. Essex fatally shot Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo in the spine as he tried to rescue trapped officers.[32]

Seeing TV coverage, Lt. Colonel (later Lt. General) Charles H. Pitman, a pilot in the United States Marine Corps, without obtaining prior clearance, took off in a CH-46 military helicopter to assist the police officers. Pitman landed the helicopter near the hotel, taking on armed officers and performoing several strafe runs over the hotel roof, where officers knew Essex had fled shortly after shooting Deputy Superintendent Sirgo. He and personnel in the helicopter exchanged many rounds over the following hours.[n 6]

Final standoff

At approximately 2 p.m., Essex took cover in a concrete cubicle on the southeast side of the hotel roof. In a last-ditch effort to persuade Essex to surrender, Superintendent Giarrusso ordered a black police officer to communicate with Essex via a battery-operated bullhorn. This officer attempted to persuade Essex to surrender for several minutes, ending his efforts by saying: "What do you say, brother? Why not save yourself? Give up before it's too late!" In response, Essex screamed, "Power to the people!" He refused to speak any other words.[37]

The Downtown Howard Johnson's Hotel, pictured after Essex is believed to have retreated to the roof.

Shortly before 9 p.m., after almost seven hours crouched in the cubicle,[37] Essex charged into the open with his right first aloft, firing and shouting, "Come and get me!" Essex was almost immediately shot by police sharpshooters positioned on the roofs of adjacent buildings, as well as the automatic weapons aboard the nearby police helicopter. He fell on his back approximately twenty feet from the cubicle, having failed to kill or wound any further officers in this final act. An autopsy later revealed he had received more than 200 gunshot wounds.[32]

In part due to conflicting reports as to the possibility of a further sniper or snipers,[38] twenty-eight hours would elapse between the beginning of Essex's siege at the hotel and police determining no further assailants remained at the scene.[39]

Victims

In both incidents, Essex shot a total of 21 people, nine of whom died. Two patrolmen were also hospitalized due to smoke inhalation received when climbing down an elevator shaft to escape from a smoke-filled elevator on the 18th floor of the hotel. Seven other officers were slightly injured in crossfire in the final standoff with Essex.[40]

In total, ten of those shot in both incidents were policemen, five of whom died. All but one of those shot were Caucasian or Hispanic.

Deceased

December 31, 1972 shootings:

January 7, 1973 shootings:

Wounded

December 31, 1972 shootings:

January 7, 1973 shootings:

Funeral

Days after Essex's death, his body was returned to his family in Kansas. His funeral was held at the St. James Church in Emporia on 13 January. His family authorized two wreaths to be placed upon his coffin. One wreath simply bore his childhood name: "Jimmy". The second wreath bore the slogan "Power to the People".[41]

Shortly before Essex's funeral, Essex's family granted an interview to the media in which they stated the seeds of Essex's rage lay in the discrimination he had endured while serving in the Navy, whom they accused of ultimately causing the radicalization in their son and brother.[42] Furthermore, his mother stated that, although the family had been aware of extreme radical changes in Essex's attitude towards white people following his experiences in the Navy, they had not been aware of his plans, although his actions revealed he had viewed himself as something of a martyr for his cause. According to his younger sister, Penny Fox: "He didn't want to see kids grow up to be oppressed by the white man. He really believed in the Black Power Revolution. He wanted to change it himself now, not wait another five hundred years."[43]

Aftermath

One of the police officers killed in Essex's attack at the Downtown Howard Johnson's Hotel, Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo, had previously—and publicly—proclaimed that the most effective way to eliminate extremism within New Orleans was to end the social conditions that nourished social discontent within the black community. Just months prior to his death, Sirgo had described the mistreatment of blacks in the city and nationwide as "the greatest sin of American society."[44]

For decades after her husband's death, Sirgo's wife, Joyce, annually presented the Louis Sirgo Memorial Award to the most promising recruit of the NOPD academy, selected by his or her fellow recruits.[31][45]

The Downtown Howard Johnson's Hotel is now a Holiday Inn hotel.[31]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ An eminent sociologist would later state Essex's idyllic upbringing in Emporia—a community which had prided itself in a long history of racial harmony—had left Esssex ill-prepared to encounter intolerance and continuous racial discrimination as a young adult as he had not been "vaccinated" against the harsh realities of bigotry as a youngster.[10]
  2. ^ The name Mata originates from the Swahili word for a hunter's bow.[2]
  3. ^ Although Essex did not inform his parents of his intentions to actually relocate to New Orleans, he had once informed them of his belief he could live "like a black man" in this city.[18]
  4. ^ The decision to form the Felony Action Squad sourced from a wave of homicides in New Orleans. In the eight months prior to September 1972, the city had seen 142 homicides—many involving wealthy businessmen killed in the course of robberies.[25]
  5. ^ Harrel's wife, Angie, later committed suicide due to the loss of her husband.[31]
  6. ^ As several sections of the hotel were ablaze at this point, the view of all parties firing in these exchanges was somewhat obscured.

References

  1. ^ Mass Murderers, ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 87
  2. ^ a b c d Mass Murderers, ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 88
  3. ^ Moore, Leonard Nathaniel: Black rage in New Orleans - Police brutality and African American Activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge), 2010; ISBN 9780807135907.
  4. ^ "'73 Shootings Still Haunt New Orleans". The Chicago Tribune. January 5, 2003. Retrieved September 4, 2021.
  5. ^ a b Mass Murderers: True Crime ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 84
  6. ^ Mass Murderers, ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 pp. 84-85
  7. ^ "Lessons from Mark Essex and Christopher Dorner". Seattle Medium. March 2, 2013. Retrieved September 4, 2021.
  8. ^ A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, ISBN 1-891053-48-5 p. 26
  9. ^ Cawthorne, Nigel & Geoff Tibballs. Killers: Contract Killers, Spree Killers, Sex Killers, the Ruthless Exponents of Murder, the Most Evil Crime of All. London: Boxtree, 1994, pp. 238-40; retrieved May 9, 2017; ISBN 0-7522-0850-0.
  10. ^ Mass Murderers, ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 84
  11. ^ A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, ISBN 1-891053-48-5 p. 15
  12. ^ "Crime Magazine: Mark Essex". Crime Magazine. July 11, 2011. Retrieved September 2, 2021.
  13. ^ a b Mass Murderers, ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 86
  14. ^ "1973: Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson's Sniper". The Times-Picayune. December 16, 2011. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
  15. ^ Street Soldier: One Man's Struggle to Save a Generation, One Life at a Time, ISBN 978-0-970-35130-2 p. 284
  16. ^ A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, ISBN 1-891053-48-5 p. 70
  17. ^ A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, ISBN 1-891053-48-5 p. 71
  18. ^ A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, ISBN 1-891053-48-5 p. 82
  19. ^ "Dallas police shootings revive memory of sniper Mark Essex, who killed nine New Orleanians, Including Five Cops, in 1973". The Advocate. July 8, 2016. Retrieved September 5, 2021.
  20. ^ Vargas, Ramon Antonio (July 8, 2016). "Dallas Police Shootings Revive Memory of Sniper Mark Essex, who Killed Nine New Orleanians, Including Five Cops, in 1973". nola.com. Retrieved November 8, 2019.
  21. ^ A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, ISBN 1-891053-48-5 p. 262
  22. ^ Significant Tactical Police Cases: Learning from Past Events to Improve Upon Future Responses, ISBN 978-0-398-08126-3 p. 63
  23. ^ Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers: Why They Kill, ISBN 978-0-275-98475-5 p. 106
  24. ^ "Police Will 'Shoot to Kill'". The New York Times. September 19, 1972. Retrieved September 12, 2021.
  25. ^ Mass Murderers, ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 88
  26. ^ Mass Murderers, ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 88
  27. ^ A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, ISBN 1-891053-48-5 p. 76
  28. ^ Mass Murderers: True Crime ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 88
  29. ^ A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, ISBN 1-891053-48-5 p. 11
  30. ^ a b "New Orleans 1973: Textbook Example of How Not to Stop a Serial Sniper". Arizona Daily Sun. January 4, 2003. Retrieved September 1, 2021.
  31. ^ a b c d "Remember Howard Johnson's". myneworleans.com. March 10, 2008. Retrieved September 10, 2021.
  32. ^ a b c d e Mass Murderers. ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 pp. 89-102
  33. ^ Mass Murderers. ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 91
  34. ^ Significant Tactical Police Cases: Learning from Past Events to Improve Upon Future Responses, ISBN 978-0-398-08126-3 p. 64
  35. ^ Significant Tactical Police Cases: Learning from Past Events to Improve Upon Future Responses, ISBN 978-0-398-08126-3 p. 65
  36. ^ "Details of New Orleans Shootout Emerge, but Two Crucial Questions Remain". The New York Times. January 15, 1973. Retrieved October 20, 2020.
  37. ^ a b Mass Murderers, ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 101
  38. ^ "Sniper's Rifle Used in Other Attacks on Police". The Canberra Times. January 11, 1973. Retrieved September 10, 2021.
  39. ^ "Sniper Named". Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. January 11, 1973. Retrieved September 10, 2021.
  40. ^ Mass Murderers, ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 98
  41. ^ Mass Murderers, ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 110
  42. ^ "Sniper Chase Still On". Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. January 12, 1973. Retrieved September 10, 2021.
  43. ^ Jet: Volume 43. Johnson Publishing Company. February 2, 1973. Retrieved September 3, 2021.
  44. ^ Mass Murderers. ISBN 0-7835-0004-1 p. 98
  45. ^ "New Orleans Police Department: Recruit Class #169 to Graduate NOPD Academy". nola.gov. November 21, 2013. Retrieved September 10, 2021.

Cited works and further reading