FROM THE ARCHIVES: Old enemies come face to face

Mike Hoover
The York Dispatch
Defendant Robert Messersmith, left, his wife Deb Messersmith, and Walt Traver, a paralegal to attorney Frank Arcuri, who is representing Robert's brother, Arthur Messersmith, walk into the courthouse in February 2002 for the joint pretrial hearing for eight of the men charged in the murder of Lillie Belle Allen.

Editor's note: This article originally was published Oct. 19, 2000.

Jimmy Spells and Bobby Messersmith sat two seats apart outside of Courtroom No. 3 yesterday, waiting to appear before a grand jury to talk about the past.

It was the first time in more than 31 years the two met face to face.

The last time was July 21, 1969, on the fifth day of rioting in York City — the night Lillie Belle Allen, a 27-year-old black woman from South Carolina, was killed in a white neighborhood.

Spells remembers the day.

Angry that a white gang had shot up the Cottage Hill Road home of his mother, Marie Meyers, Spells went to the Newberry Street home of Bobby Messersmith earlier that day.

Spells was there to deliver a message: Stop the attacks on his mother or face unspecified consequences.

Spells sought out Messersmith because Messersmith was the leader of the Newberry Street Boys, a white gang whose territory was centered a block away, and because reports had reached Spells that the NSBs were responsible for the attacks on the home of his mother. His family was the only black household on the street.

“I told him, ‘If my mom is hurt, I will hold you personally responsible,’” Spells said.

After speaking his mind, Spells drove off in his white Dodge. But his words were taken as a threat by some Newberry Street residents, witnesses have said. Some say they thought he would return after dark, so when Allen’s family’s white Cadillac appeared in the neighborhood around sunset, the car may have been mistaken for Spells’.

After more than 100 gunshots were fired, Allen lay dead on the railroad tacks at Newberry Street and Gay Avenue.

Charged with piecing together the events leading up to the murder, the recently impaneled grand jury heard from four key witnesses yesterday — Spells, Marie Meyers, her husband Frank Meyers, and Messersmith.

The grand jury has 18 months to take testimony and decide whether to recommend charges to York County District Attorney H. Stanley Rebert. In addition to the Allen killing, the jury is investigating the shooting death of white rookie patrolman Henry C. Schaad a few days earlier, and several blocks away from Allen’s murder scene, and any other crimes committed during that time.

Prior to his testimony yesterday, Spells recounted his memories from the riots, as he has during several previous interviews. But afterward, he declined to discuss what happened inside the grand jury room, saying he was instructed not to talk about it.

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.

Messersmith and his lawyer, Peter Solymos, declined comment, as did the Meyerses and Rebert.

Before testifying, as he sat in a hallway among sheriff’s deputies, Spells said he had to be told that the gray-bearded, 51-year-old man to his right was Bobby Messersmith.

That news came from Deborah Messersmith, Messersmith’s wife of 12 years, as she and Spells were having a casual conversation about the rain and parking in downtown York.

“We were talking about running the risk of getting a parking ticket. I ended up getting a ticket,” Spells said.

When Bobby Messersmith appeared, Spells said he wasn’t interested in striking up a conversation about the weather or the past.

“I got nothing to say to him,” Spells said.

After more than three decades, Spells still remembers how the gunfire at his mother’s house stopped after he confronted Messersmith.

“All I can tell you is after that my mother’s house was not shot up anymore. That’s the bottom line. My mission was accomplished. It stopped. For whatever reason, it stopped,” Spells said.

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

In a previous interview outside his home near Reading, Messersmith said he told Spells to “get the f— off” his porch.

Messersmith is the only person to have been convicted of a serious crime as a result of the 1969 racial disturbances — he was found guilty of aggravated assault for shooting two black teens on the first of seven nights of rioting.

Messersmith has criticized authorities for reopening the murder, saying many with first-hand knowledge of events have died. And he denied having anything to do with, or knowing anything about, Allen’s death.

But from Spell’s perspective, the investigation is long overdue.

For too long, people remained silent, he said, and a mistrust of the police department’s handling of the investigation has lingered in the community, particularly among blacks.

“They can bring closure to a long and bitter chapter in York City’s history. Let the chips fall where they may,” Spells said. “For some reason, they didn’t go back 30 years to find the truth. Until now.”

When the day was over, Spells left the courthouse to return to his home in York City, while his parents returned to their home in suburban Spring Garden Township.

After talking with his attorney on the courthouse steps, Bobby Messersmith put his arm around his wife and they walked across East Market Street to the parking garage.

“I have my life now. He has his,” Spells said.