FROM THE ARCHIVES: Six get prison in riots case
Editor's note: This article originally was published Nov. 14, 2002.
Lillie Belle Allen’s daughter has little sympathy for the men who would like to do what she has never been able to — put the past behind.
Debra Taylor is angry the men who participated in her mother’s killing got to watch their children grow, got to marry the women they loved — got to survive the hard times.
She is angry the men asked the court for mercy when, she believes, they have so little remorse for what they did 33 years ago.
But she says she is especially angry the court granted them the mercy they requested — likely less than a year in the county jail for all but one of the six who pleaded guilty in exchange for their testimony against others.
“I think I’ve given a lot,” she said. “But they keep asking for more.” Yesterday, during victim-impact statements, Taylor and other members of her family vented their anger on the men.
One by one, they question them, asked them if they were sorry, asked them why they didn’t come forward in more than three decades until the York riot investigation was reopened, and the men’s lives were on the line.
“You wanted to go on with your life?” Taylor asked Chauncey Gladfelter after he requested probation from Judge John C. Uhler, so he could put the past behind him.
Taylor went on to describe how she has never been able to escape the night of her mother’s death. She still hears the sound of the gunshots in her sleep.
As an 11-year-old girl left behind at her aunt’s house blocks away when her mother and other family members drove to the store for groceries, Taylor thought the shots being fired were firecrackers.
But they were not. They came from an armed mob gathered in the darkened North Newberry Street neighborhood the night of July 21,1969.
When Hattie Dickson stalled the family car on the railroad tracks and Allen jumped out of the vehicle to take over the wheel, Arthur Messersmith, William “Sam” Ritter, Clarence “Sonny” Lutzinger and Rick Knouse all opened fire.
Prosecutors say the two other defendants, Tom Smith and Gladfelter, lowered their guns without firing. All six were initially charged with murder but pleaded guilty to lesser charges in deals worked out with the District Attorney’s Office.
While they did not receive the maximum sentences allowable by law, some had hoped for probation or house arrest. Instead, they will all spend time in prison, as will two other men convicted of second-degree murder in the case last month.
Robert Messersmith, who investigators believe fired the single slug that killed Allen, and co-defendant Gregory Neff will face up to 20 years in prison when sentenced. The third defendant who stood trial, former York Mayor Charles Robertson, was acquitted.
An apology: Ritter, looking grizzled with shaggy beard and hair, his hands shaking, was grilled by Allen’s sister, Jennie Settles.
“I don’t hate you, but I don’t like you,” she told him.
“Are you sorry?” she asked.
“Very sorry,” he told her.
“Have you asked God to forgive you?” she wanted to know.
“I don’t believe in God,” he said.
Moments later, as Smith stood a few feet from Taylor, she asked him why he never came to her and her family directly to tell them he was sorry.
His eyes never straying from her face, Smith said, “I was ashamed.”
Mark Wilson, a Dickinson School of Law professor who teaches criminal procedure, said turning the victim-impact portion of sentencing into a question-and-answer session was “really unusual.”
Victims and their families, Wilson said, “don’t have the right to get up and say whatever they want for however long they want. Do courts have the discretion to allow an interrogation of the defendants? I don’t know, because it is extremely rare.”
Fran Chardo, a Dauphin Country prosecutor who assisted in the case, also said he had never heard of this type of questioning before, but called it “entirely appropriate.”
“I’m sure it was pretty therapeutic for survivors.”
Changed men: Just as Taylor is no longer a young girl, but a 44-year-old woman with a teenage son of her own, the men in the courtroom yesterday were no longer the brash, teenage boys who years ago pointed their guns at a car full of out-of-town visitors.
Most appeared broken. The decades that Knouse, Lutzinger, Ritter and Messersmith have spent battling problems with drug and alcohol show in their stooped shoulders and the weariness in their faces.
Only two of the men, Smith, in a dark blazer, tie and slacks, and Gladfelter, in a taupe suit, appeared reasonably fit and healthy. While the other men sat slumped, Smith’s and Gladfelter’s backs were straight.
Neither of the two had an adult prison record. They have held steady jobs, and both were described as productive members of society. They also received the most lenient sentences and could be released from prison in as little as three months.
Messersmith, who received the harshest sentence of 1½ to 3 years in state prison, stood before Uhler in a beige suit that hung from his thin shoulders. His deeply lined face belied the fact that, at 49, he was the youngest of this group of men.
His attorney, Frank Arcuri, painted a picture of the dysfunctional household in which Messersmith was raised. Of a boy who would hide from his alcoholic father and how his father, John, handed out weapons to his son and told him to shoot.
Sins of the father: “The sins of the father were visited on the children,” Arcuri said.
Debra Taylor stared at Messersmith for a few moments and asked him, “Was it worth it?”
She wanted to know why he had never apologized to her personally. When he accepted his plea bargain in August, he told Dickson he was sorry and he has apologized to the family in court.
But Taylor has never heard the words directed at her.
“It would have meant so much to me. ... That would have meant more to me than you getting life,” she said.
Messersmith pleaded guilty to the more serious charge of criminal attempt with intent to kill and was the only defendant ordered to report directly to prison.
When his turn came to stand for sentencing, Lutzinger struggled to lift himself from his wheelchair until Uhler told him he could sit down. In the past several months, Lutzinger has suffered a collapsed lung, a heart attack, and undergone two hip replacement surgeries.
He was in the hospital during last month’s trial, and prosecutors deposed him from his hospital bed. However, the deposition was discontinued when Lutzinger could not physically continue, Uhler said yesterday.
A victim’s anger: As she addressed the men, there was anger in Taylor’s voice, but her anger was not just directed at them.
Taylor also referred to remarks made by Robert Messersmith’s wife the night of her husband’s conviction. Outside the courtroom, Deb Messersmith told Allen’s family, “I hope you f— burn in hell.”
“Turn around and say I ought to go to hell? It still burns my gut,” Taylor told the court without mentioning anyone by name.
Messersmith, who was at yesterday’s hearing, kept her gaze on the floor in front of her and did not look at Taylor.
Later, Messersmith said she had spoken to Taylor about the remark, but declined to elaborate.
“I explained it to them,” she said. They know the truth.
Community response: After yesterday’s sentencing hearing, the family gathered in the lobby of the Yorktowne Hotel to reflect on the events of the last 2½ years.
They said they’re angry with the letters that have run in local newspapers in the past few weeks questioning what a black family was doing driving through a white neighborhood — as if they were responsible for the shooting.
And they’re angry at the statements by community leaders who said bringing Allen’s murder case to trail would only tear open old wounds and ruin all the strides in race relations made in the past three decades.
Bigotry, as they see it, is still alive and well in York.
While most of the people they have met have been warm and supportive, they say they have had moments where people have shown them that they are not welcome.
They believe they carry their color into stores and black is sometimes more important to people than green.
“In Aiken, they don’t care what color you are. You got a greenback, they’re gonna take it,” Settles said of their South Carolina hometown.
Hatred lingers: Gladys Oden, who moved to York after her sister’s death, says she has never witnessed the big, collective healing touted by community leaders.
“It still lingers, it’s still here,” Oden said of racism.
She said yesterday’s sentences amounted to a “slap on the wrist” for the killing of her sister. They thought only Knouse and Lutzinger showed any true remorse. In a flat voice, Dickson said, “We put our trust in the judge.”
As they talked, Judge Uhler passed through the lobby. He stopped briefly and shook Taylor’s hand.
“Long day,” he said. “Very long,” she said.
Taylor said the entire ordeal was hard, “so very hard.”
As a Christian woman, she knows God would want her to turn the other cheek.
“I only got two cheeks,” she said.
By the end of the day, she had a headache. She wanted to relax, and for one night, put the past behind her.
She wasn’t sure if she could do it.
But she wanted to try.