FROM THE ARCHIVES: Story finally heard: Decades after gunfire, victim's sister recounts story for authorities

Mike Hoover
The York Dispatch
Lillie Belle Allen was shot while standing outside of this car on North Newberry Street in York City, Monday, July 1, 1969.

Editor's note: This article originally was published Oct. 20, 2000.

Hattie Dickson waited 31 years to tell her story in court.

A few more hours wouldn’t matter.

Sitting with family and friends yesterday outside Courtroom No. 3, Dickson waited for her turn to talk to a recently impaneled grand jury looking into the riots of 1969 and the death of her sister, Lillie Belle Allen.

She finally got her chance to speak in the late afternoon.

Drove the car: While she did not discuss what she told the grand jury yesterday, in previous interviews, Dickson, who is black, said she was the driver of a white Cadillac that ventured into a white neighborhood July 21, 1969, the fifth day of rioting in the city. Accompanying her in the car were four black family members, including her sister.

Dixon saw people walking with guns on North Newberry Street — but when she tried to turn back to avoid the danger, her car became hung up on the railroad tracks at Newberry Street and Gay Avenue.

Her older sister, Lillie Belle Allen, jumped out of the back seat and tried to take the wheel of the car from Hattie. Allen was shot in the street as Dickson, her husband, Murray, and her parents, the Rev. and Mrs. James Mosley, ducked inside the car under a barrage of gunfire estimated by witnesses as more than 100 shots.

Sisters Gladys Oden, left, and Hattie Dickson. Bill Kalina photo

Police officers at the scene told the family to drive the crippled car home, and the family has long felt that their story was ignored by local investigators. Today, Dickson is the only person in the car that day still alive.

As she left the courthouse for the day, she had little to say.

Earlier in the day, her brother, Ben Mosley, who came to York to be by his sister’s side, said that the family has long awaited justice. After all this time, he said, they didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the reopened murder investigation into the death of Allen, his older sister.

Dickson was one of five witnesses to testify yesterday as the grand jury yesterday began piecing together what happened the night Allen was shot in the chest.

On Wednesday, the grand jurors heard testimony from people who witnessed events leading up to the shooting.

Yesterday’s witnesses included Jimmy Spells, who said in earlier interviews that on the day of the shooting, he had confronted Bobby Messersmith, the leader of a white gang known as the Newberry Street Boys. Spells was upset that gang members had been shooting at the Cottage Hill Road home of his mother, whose family was the only black family living in the neighborhood.

Spells said he told Messersmith that he held him personally responsible for his mother’s safety.

Witnesses say that the Allen’s white Cadillac could have been mistaken for the return of Spells’ white Dodge or another car involved in a shooting incident that night before Allen was killed.

FBI report: A 1969 FBI report refers to Newberry Street residents being “rather jumpy” from a July 20, 1969, incident when an automobile containing “Negroes” drove down North Newberry Street, opened fire at the railroad tracks and sped off.

The next night when another vehicle occupied by “Negroes” turned around at the railroad tracks and a black woman, identified as Allen, got out, the gang believed they would be shot again and opened fire, according to the FBI report.

In two previous interviews, Barry Bloss, a former city police officer who was stationed in the neighborhood, believed the events of July 20, 1969, precipitated the Allen shooting.

Bloss who is now county coroner, testified before the grand jury yesterday.

Lillie Belle Allen, 27, a mother of two, was shot and killed while visiting family in York during the York Riots on July 21, 1969.  Submitted photo

Since police reopened the investigation, one key witness has committed suicide. After he was questioned by detectives about Allen’s death, former NSB Donald Altland took his life in April.

Before killing himself, he left behind a tape describing what happened the night Allen was killed.

Altland said he was among a group of people who fired on the car, but he thought his bullets hit the trunk.

In his last words, he said he couldn’t be sure if he did any harm. In its finding, an August 1969 FBI report says that State Police in Harrisburg examined the bullet, and it was “evident” that it had “ricocheted” from another object into Allen’s body.

The FBI later concluded, in a Dec. 31, 1969, letter to the U.S. Justice Department that there were so many people in the area that it was not possible to determine who might have shot Allen, and unless a witness comes forward, it is going to be “nearly impossible to determine just who did.”

In reopening the case, the district attorney’s office hopes to finally find answers.

Yesterday, investigators carried an assortment of boxes of evidence into Courtroom No. 3 to present to the grand jury.

York County Detective Rodney George carried a dozen poster-sized photographs depicting the Newberry Street neighborhood, including overhead aerial shots.

Last month, the grand jurors took a personal tour of the neighborhood.

Like Dickson, others testifying before the grand jury had little to say.

Three people declined to identify themselves or say what they had to offer to the grand jury.

Bloss, who also lived in the Newberry Street neighborhood during the riots, testified for one hour yesterday.

He also declined comment.

Recommendation: The grand jury is expected to make a recommendation on charges to the district attorney’s office for the Allen death and the riot-related shooting death of Henry C. Schaad, a white city police officer killed while patrolling in a black neighborhood on July 29, 1969.

Witnesses leaving the courthouse said they are under specific instructions by the District Attorney’s Office not to comment on the grand jury proceedings.

In approving the grand jury, York County Common Pleas Court President Judge John C. Uhler has issued a gag order to investigators and courthouse staff involved in the case.

Speaking from a procedural standpoint, York County District Attorney H. Stanley Rebert said that once witnesses testify before the grand jury, they are legally sworn to secrecy.

He declined further comment.