FROM THE ARCHIVES: FBI: Allen passed police; witness told feds cops let car pass onto Newberry

Mark Scolforo
The York Dispatch
Police warn volunteer firefighters not to respond to a fire because of a sniper during the riots of 1969.

Editor's note: This article originally was published Sept. 26, 2000.

At the time of the July 1969 shooting of Lillie Belle Allen, witnesses described a participant who wore police-type clothing and a helmet — and federal agents actively investigated whether police took part in her killing, according to FBI documents.

The same witnesses described how a group of 15 to 20 city and state police officers stood on the corner of Philadelphia and Newberry streets and let the car containing Allen and four family members proceed toward the railroad tracks and into an armed, hostile group defending their neighborhood during a time of heightened racial tension.

A few moments later, gunfire erupted and Allen, a 27-year-old mother of two from Aiken, S.C., was shot dead. Her death and the killing three days earlier of rookie police officer Henry Schaad have never been solved. An investigative grand jury is being impaneled to examine new leads, working in secrecy at an undisclosed location.

The FBI’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts section on Friday mailed 48 pages from its file on the Allen murder to The York Dispatch/Sunday News, in response to an information request made by the paper in May. A similar request from the paper concerning Schaad’s death is still pending, said Bonnie Weber, an FBI paralegal.

FBI records indicate witnesses — probably Allen’s family — first approached the bureau about her case a week after the shooting by walking into the FBI field office in Columbia, S.C.

Didn’t stop her: The group of police officers on the corner, supposedly there to prevent traffic from heading into the volatile North Newberry Street area, did not attempt to stop Allen and her family from going through bench-type obstructions there to block vehicles, a witness told the FBI.

The driver, Allen’s sister Hattie Dickson, was a relative newcomer to York and did not realize how dangerous the North Newberry Street area had become for black motorists. Dickson’s gray Cadillac became stalled on the railroad tracks, and when Allen volunteered to drive and got out of the car, she was gunned down. The FBI documents say gunmen fired for a long time before the shooting subsided.

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

One witness — names are generally removed from the documents — said the shooting lasted 20 to 30 minutes before “a red armored type car stopped near their car and two officers approached their car. They ordered whoever was shooting to stop shooting and called for an ambulance.” Elsewhere, the duration of the shooting is described as 15 minutes.

Robertson alone?: York Mayor Charlie Robertson, a city patrolman in 1969, has said he alone approached the vehicle, and was on foot, far from the armored car. Others have given versions that contradict his, and now Robertson won’t comment, citing the gag order in place for police and prosecutors working with the grand jury.

The FBI was particularly interested in a witness reports that “one or more” of the people who were waiting along the Western Maryland Railroad tracks may have been police officers. One suspect was described as a motorcyclist wearing a grayish shirt and a white helmet. But less than a month later, an FBI agent in Philadelphia discounted the connection to police because they were wearing blue — not white — helmets and bulletproof vests.

“Police apparently took no part in the shooting of the victim,” the Philadelphia agent wrote.

York Riots 1969

An Allen family member told the FBI that they talked to two detectives in York — one the night of Allen’s death, the other the following morning. In recent interviews, family members have said police did not contact them while they were in York. Allen’s parents left for South Carolina the day after she was shot.

Police concluded the shooting was in retaliation for an incident in the same spot just one day earlier, when a group of black men opened fire on homes along North Newberry Street from the trunk of a car. There were reportedly injuries, but police could not find the purported victims. It was that shooting that created conditions ripe for Allen’s killing, according to an FBI analysis.

“(An FBI source) believes that this incident had the residents of the North Newberry Street area rather jumpy, and when another vehicle occupied by Negroes turned around at the tracks and a Negro woman got out of the vehicle, the gang in the area believed they would be shot at from the trunk of this vehicle. (The source) bases this part on the fact that the majority of the shots hitting the vehicle hit it in the right rear, particularly in the trunk,” according to an FBI document.

Residents fearful: White residents along Newberry Street have said in recent interviews they feared reports that armed groups of black men planned a violent offensive in their neighborhood.

Police officers stand guard on Market Street in downtown York one night in the summer of 1969.

After a week of gunfire, arson and property damage that left about 50 people injured, the rioting subsided. Allen and Schaad were the only fatalities, although several others suffered severe injuries.

Among other new information contained in the FBI release is the fact that the bullet that killed Allen was taken to the Pennsylvania State Police lab. Experts concluded that it had broken apart before hitting her, leading to the conclusion it had ricocheted before striking her in the right side of her chest.

The final documents in the recently released packet are memos to and from civil rights lawyers in the Justice Department from the Philadelphia field office, promising to keep the lawyers informed if there were developments.

The FBI said most of what it did not release was kept private for one of two reasons: either third-party privacy issues or promises made to sources about confidentiality.

As the riots in the summer of  1969 intensified, Gov. Raymond P. Shafer called in 400 members of the National Guard and 150 state police officers for assistance.