FROM THE ARCHIVES: New leads in '69 slayings
Editor's note: This article originally was published June 14, 2000.
Donald E. Altland scratched three words on a white paper napkin he dug out of the glove box of his blue pickup.
“Forgive Me God.”
With the last two strokes of the pen in the morning hours of April 11, he underlined the word “God” twice.
Altland placed the note next to a pack of Marlboro reds, a green lighter and two cassette tapes. He left his keys in the ignition before walking toward the Susquehanna River with a .22-caliber pistol in his hand.
Father of two: The 51-year-old father of two ended his life with a bullet to the head. His body fell in a heap on top of a pile of dirt at a fishing area along Gut Road in East Manchester Township.
The day before he killed himself, Altland had found out his long-kept secret was secret no more.
Altland had been questioned by investigators about what happened on a summer night in 1969, when a 27-year-old South Carolina woman was killed during the fifth day of riots in York City.
Altland saw his past laid out before him as detectives showed him photos of Lillie Belle Allen’s corpse. Images of a time he tried to bury came back to life as he saw pictures of the bullet-riddled Cadillac in which Allen’s kin had cowered, screaming, as gunfire rained on the car.
There was no turning back.
As he was leaving the interview, Altland accepted a business card from York City Detective Dennis Williams. The detective’s name and phone number were scribbled on one of the tapes Altland left in his Ford F-150 truck.
Before taking his life, he described on the tapes what happened July 21, 1969 — the night Allen was shot by the railroad tracks at Newberry Street and Gay Avenue.
On a second tape, in an unsteady and cracking voice, Donnie Altland apologized for letting his family down. Speaking to Cindy, his wife of 25 years, Altland talked about how he couldn’t go to jail or handle people knowing about his past.
“He kept asking for forgiveness,” said Northeastern Regional Police Chief Darryl L. Albright, who was among the first to discover Altland’s body, dressed in blue jeans, white sneakers and a red flannel shirt.
Altland finally accepted responsibility as one of the shooters who fired at Allen’s crowded car, stalled at the tracks, according to investigators.
In his final words, Altland talked about firing from a rooftop at the car and how he thought he hit the trunk and how he thought someone else hit Allen’s body.
Even to the end, he had his doubts.
“He said, ‘I can’t say for sure if any of my bullets did any harm,’” Albright said.
A tormented man: Not knowing if he fired the fatal shot and the uncertainty of a trial and prison troubled Altland in the moments leading up to his suicide.
‘He was tormented by this. He was a man of conscience,” said Barry Bloss, a city police officer during the riots. He is now the county coroner and investigated Altland’s suicide.
Gladys Oden said she always knew the unknown men who fired on her older sister’s car would face their day of judgment.
“You don’t get away with nothing,” she said. “The truth will be revealed.”
“What’s done in the dark will come out in the light.”
Until the suicide tape, few knew of Altland’s secret.
His pastor, the Rev. Richard Stambaugh, didn’t know. Neither did members of Ambassador Bible Chapel in Manchester where he was a member.
Altland was a good father and a good husband, say those who knew him. He took pride in his work as a mechanic at the York City Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Family and co-workers saw him as a happy, easygoing man who was quick with a joke. He could have been anyone’s neighbor, brother, father or husband.
Altland lived in a quiet, countryside neighborhood on Park Street in East Manchester Township where he and his wife raised two daughters, Mandy Jo and Denise Ann.
Chief Albright said the only time he visited the Altland home was the evening of April 11 when he had to tell the family about the suicide. After nearly six hours of trying, Albright finally found a shaken Cindy Altland, who had returned from work at 4:45 p.m.
“We were scared to death about him getting arrested. When police pulled into the driveway to tell me my husband was dead, I thought they were there to arrest him,” said Cindy Altland.
“We were very happy. We had a wonderful marriage and in one day, it was gone. In one day, my life was gone.”
The past comes out: Over the years, Donnie Altland had talked about the riots, but never in detail until after he appeared for a voluntary interview April 10 with detectives, said his wife.
The two talked through that night about his past, including his days with the Newberry Street Boys, a white, teen gang that played a central role in violence against blacks during 10 days of city rioting.
Altland attended William Penn Senior High School with many of the Newberry Street Boys. He was close friends with Robert Nelson Messersmith, one of the gang’s leaders.
“He was really a good guy who got involved with something years ago that he never should have. He got mixed up with the wrong people,” Cindy Altland said.
Lives unraveling: The suicide didn’t surprise Fred Flickinger, a friend who knew Altland from their days hanging out with the gang at the North End Cigar Shop at 156 N. Newberry St.
Together, the boys drank beer, smoked, picked up girls, played pinball, hunted and fished.
The Newberry Street Boys began to splinter after they realized an innocent and unarmed woman had been shot, Flickinger said. Once glorified by some as protectors of the neighborhood during the riots, they were labeled as “the guys who killed that woman,” he said.
It took its toll.
Flickinger said he watched as his old friends began to fall victim to violence, alcohol, drugs, early fatherhood, failed relationships, joblessness, prison and guilt.
Altland seemed to be among the few to escape the wreckage.
That changed on April 11, when he became the fourth suicide among a dozen gang members who knew what happened the night Allen was killed, said Flickinger.
Richard “Dickey” Wales was the first to take the secret to the grave in 1974. Robert Downey was next in 1979. Then came Mike Messersmith, Robert Messersmith’s younger brother, in 1988. Each died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the chest.
“This is like skeletons coming out of the closet, coming back to haunt me,” said the 51-year-old Flickinger, who now lives more than 1,000 miles away from his roots in York.
Flickinger said he understands the torment Altland felt up to the end. Even today, he said he struggles with his past — the cowardice, the silence and the failure to stop the violence. He said he fights to make peace with himself and God. He has become an active Christian.
Like Altland, Flickinger said he kept his past hidden from his family.
“He (Altland) had time to reflect on what he did. I thought of suicide many times. I look back on those times and pay for forgiveness,” Flickinger said.
In the early days, Donnie Altland stood by his friends. Court records listed him as an alibi witness in 1969. He was prepared to testify that Bobby Messersmith was with him at the cigar shop when two black teens were shot a block away that July 17, four days before Allen’s slaying. Another witness saw Messersmith fire, and he was convicted of aggravated assault and battery and sentenced to 9 to 23 months in prison.
“I loved him (Altland) like a brother. He (Altland) was a good buddy,” Messersmith said recently.
But over time, Messersmith said Altland became distant. When he would call, Altland would never return messages or come to the phone.
“I can’t believe he (Altland) had something in the back of his head to do something like this. I got nothing in my head that would make me want to shoot myself,” said Messersmith, who denies any involvement in the Allen shooting.
After years of heavy drinking, Robert Messersmith said he sobered up when his brother, Mike, committed suicide. Reflecting back, he said that “everyone suffered” during the riots, including whites, blacks, the city, his family, his friends and himself.
Donnie Altland was just the latest casualty.
“It’s just a sin,” Messersmith said, “that more people are dying over this.”