FROM THE ARCHIVES: Witnesses: Cops provoked violence
Editor's note: This article originally was published Oct. 22, 2000.
After they left the courtroom last week, those called to testify weren’t talking about what they told a grand jury investigating two killings during York’s 1969 race riots.
But long before the grand jury convened, witnesses to the violence were saying that York City police not only failed to solve these crimes, some officers — including current York Mayor Charles Robertson — aggravated an already hostile environment.
Interviews with witnesses and examination of court and law enforcement records over the last seven months by The York Dispatch/Sunday News reveal allegations that some officers incited whites to racial violence and failed to protect blacks against it.
The accusations include:
- The day before Lille Belle Allen, a 27-year-old black visitor from Aiken, S.C., was shot to death on North Newberry Street, witnesses say, uniformed police were heard telling an angry crowd to shoot any black who ventured into their neighborhood.
- The day Allen was killed, witnesses say, police shouted racial slurs and handed out ammunition to frightened white neighborhood residents and gang members.
- Moments before the Allen shooting, law enforcement officials were seen moving a barricade at Philadelphia and Newberry streets, allowing Allen and four black relatives to drive into a hostile neighborhood — where a mob would fire more than 100 shots.
- A black woman hit by flying glass when her home was attacked by a white gang said city police told her on the way to the hospital that four blacks would die for every white killed, according to a state police report.
Many of these recent claims bolster allegations lodged against police in an unsuccessful federal civil-rights lawsuit filed against the city after the riots. U.S. Middle District Court Judge William Nealon was critical of police conduct, but ruled that police excesses were understandable during a time of massive civil unrest.
Trial records and FBI and state police reports also contain allegations of police abuses. A state police report written in the aftermath of the riots also indicates that city police initially refused state help to quell the violence, lending credence to the perception in the black community that officers were openly siding with whites.
The latest accounts surfaced as part of the renewed probe into the riots last fall, and began in conjunction with more than 100 interviews with those involved by city, county and state investigators.
The investigative grand jury, approved in June by York County President Judge John Uhler, has begun hearing testimony and will decide if criminal indictments should be handed down by the York County District Attorney’s Office.
While the investigation focuses on two unsolved homicides — the July 21, 1969, killing of Allen and the July 18, 1969, mortal shooting of city police Officer Henry C. Schaad — York County District Attorney H. Stanley Rebert said the new investigation will examine “other offenses occurring during this period of time.”
In a city where some people still question police behavior enough to call for an independent citizen police review board, the investigation has also taken on political overtones as it concerns Robertson, the city’s mayor of seven years. He was a city patrolman in 1969 and was first on the scene in the Allen shooting.
A well-known beat cop in the Newberry Street neighborhood, Robertson was the only police officer witnesses say they recognized shouting racial slurs and encouraging attacks on blacks.
“He (Robertson) was the lighter fluid who flamed the fire during the riots. He was stoking the flames,” said Sterling “Fred” Flickinger, who was a member of a white gang known as the Newberry Street Boys, or the NSBs.
Former city patrolman Dennis McMaster, who along with Robertson was one of the first officers to respond to the Allen shooting, acknowledges people did “some nasty things” during the riots. While declining to discuss specifics, he described Robertson as “emotional” and the mood as “frenzied.”
“Did we do things wrong? Absolutely. Did we learn from our mistakes? I hope we did. But I am not going to be the guy to criticize fellow officers,” said McMaster, a former chief of detectives who retired from the city police force after 28 years. He is now police chief in East Pennsboro Township, Cumberland County.
“Our view was jaundiced based on what we were going through,” McMaster said.
Looking back, Robertson admits he was once a “racist” who used the word “nigger.” But he said he changed his views during post-riot sensitivity training at York College. He declined to say if he or any other officer did anything improper during the riots, but he denied advocating violence against blacks or seeing anyone hand out ammunition.
“People can take pot shots at the mayor. If they want to say it to my face, I’d lock them up,” said Robertson, who described his accusers as “liars,” “drunks” or “nuts.”
White fear, white power: One of the first allegations of police misconduct stems from a rally of white residents in Farquhar Park two days after Schaad, a white rookie officer, was shot while patrolling a black city neighborhood. At the rally, uniformed police were heard angrily talking about the attack on Schaad, who was fighting for life on a respirator at York Hospital.
Among those in the crowd were members of the Newberry Street Boys and their crosstown white gang rivals, the Girarders, who agreed to put their differences aside to deal with the perceived threat of attacks by blacks.
“We came to the conclusion to keep the s— on that end of town and away from our neighborhood and our families,” said former Girarder Rick Knouse, now a 48-year-old line worker at Harley-Davidson Inc. in Springettsbury Township.
During the rally, Robertson raised his fist in the air, shouted “white power,” and later advocated attacks against blacks, according to witnesses. Other officers were there, too, but witnesses say they remembered only Robertson, whom they recognized because his beat included the section of town near Farquhar Park and York YMCA.
Joe Deveney, a former Smith Street resident who was 19 at the time, said Robertson showed those at the rally where a bullet had ripped through an armored car and hit Schaad, a William Penn Senior High School graduate who had grown up in the Farquhar Park neighborhood.
Deveney said Robertson yelled “white power” only to get the attention of a dispersing crowd.
“I don’t think he (Robertson) said it to be a racist but to show us it was a serious matter, and this was no game,” Deveney said.
Whatever his motive, the image of the white policeman, his clenched fist in the air, had an impact.
“I still wake up at night remembering this guy in uniform screaming ‘white power’ and he was a cop,” said the 51-year-old Flickinger, who now lives out of state. “I keep asking myself, ‘Who are we going to believe? Who are we going to trust?” … “How do you take that as a 17-year-old?”
Protecting their turf: After police spoke at Farquhar Park, Flickinger and Knouse said, the crowd debated what to do about Schaad’s shooting. They considered terrorizing black neighborhoods, but decided to stay on their own turf.
“They (the cops) were telling us to protect our neighborhood and to shoot anything black that comes down the street. If the car didn’t have a white hankie, open fire,” Knouse said.
“They were pumping us up … They were saying, ‘Don’t let the blacks come in and invade our area.’”
The night of the rally, several NSBs allegedly shot up the home of the Meyers family, the only black family on Cottage Hill Road. Marie Meyers was hit by flying glass during the shooting and was later taken by police to York Hospital and treated for minor injuries.
Marie Meyers made repeated calls to police as she crawled on the floor while gunfire hit the house and shattered windows. Next door, Nancy Kohler used a garden hose to put out the flames in back of her home, set ablaze by a firebomb as her calls for police and firefighters were also ignored.
The calls for help went unanswered until one last attempt in which Meyers’ husband, Frank Meyers, reported she was injured, according to recent interviews and testimony from the 1969 civil-rights lawsuit.
En route to York Hospital, city police allegedly told Marie Meyers that four blacks would be killed for every white killed. Her account was given to local media but was never published, according to an Aug. 4, 1969 report filed by state police Lt. Michael Donahoe.
Interviewed several times over the years by state police and the FBI, including recently, the Meyers family identified several NSBs as being among the shooters. No charges were ever filed.
“To the day I die, I say the cops were hooked into this. The moment I was (hit), the cops were right there,” Marie Meyers said recently. She and her husband testified before the grand jury this week.
Knouse said he arrived on Newberry Street, unarmed the day of the Farquhar Park rally and went to the home of NSB leader Bobby Messersmith. He remembers the basement looked like a command post, with ammunition, “a lot of guns,” a police scanner and a tub full of beer.
Knouse said Bobby Messersmith’s father, John, who died in 1985, handed him a rifle.
“He (John Messersmith) was acting like a captain. He was assigning kids out on patrol,” Knouse said.
Steven Rinehart, who lived on Gay Avenue, remembers that the NSBs made the younger kids pile rocks at every corner to pelt passing cars. At night, police on patrol would yell “white, white, white” so they weren’t mistaken for blacks, he said.
“I remember guys walking with rifles over their shoulders like they were in the military. It was like a platoon marching up and down the street,” said Rinehart, who was 11 during the riots.
Bob Stoner, an outreach worker at the YMCA who dealt with teenagers, said he anticipated trouble and called police the day before Allen was shot, but officers didn’t respond.
“I didn’t like the thought of 14-, 15-year-old’s with guns,” Stoner said.
Three days after Allen’s killing, with National Guard units patrolling York streets in armored vehicles, city police raided the Messersmith home and confiscated 11 guns and 893 rounds of ammunition.
Bobby Messersmith recently denied he had anything to do with, or know anything about Allen’s death. He declined further comment, other than to say the confiscated guns were returned in 1971 and he has been contacted recently as part of the reopened investigation. He testified before the grand jury Wednesday.
Former patrolman, such as Chester A. “Gabby” Guyer, questioned whether a quicker police response would have reduced the damages and mayhem. By the riots’ end, 38 people had been injured, including 26 from gunshots.
Guyer, now a retired city police officer, said politics prevented city leaders from effectively dealing with the riots. He said he and many officers felt they had enough manpower to “clean up” the problems in both the white and black neighborhoods before the riots, but were never allowed to, angering some officers and demoralizing others.
When Guyer criticized his police superiors and Mayor John Snyder for not addressing the problem areas, he was told those causing the trouble were “only hurting themselves” with their lawlessness and “to keep his mouth shut.”
“Your hands were tied. We couldn’t perform our duties,” Guyer said.
Witnesses saw police handing out ammo: Standing on the railroad tracks at Newberry Street and Gay Avenue, where Allen would die a few hours later, Flickinger said, he saw an enraged Robertson advocating violence to about 15 people, as he had done earlier in Farquhar Park.
“He (Robertson) was saying if he wasn’t a cop, he would be leading ‘commando raids against those niggers.’ I remember it like it was yesterday,” Flickinger said recently.
Under oath, Flickinger identified Robertson 31 years ago in federal court. Because Robertson — who was not called to testify — did not deny the accusation, Judge Nealon accepted Flickinger’s testimony as true.
This conduct by a police officer, considering the frenzied state of emotions prevailing at the time, was outrageous and reprehensible,” Nealon wrote in his opinion.
Nealon’s statement came at the conclusion of the trial in a class-action suit Philadelphia attorney Peter Hearn had filed in the weeks after the riots. The suit, filed on behalf of York’s minority community, alleged police misconduct. Hearn accused police of racism, supplying the NSBs with weapons and subverting a directive to account for all ammunition.
During the trial, Hearn called Charles Harris, a 22-year-old black man, who said he saw a police officer give an NSB a rifle on July 19, 1969, at North Newberry and Market streets. But Nealon dismissed Harris’ testimony as unsubstantiated.
Recent accounts by witnesses, however, bolster Harris’ allegations.
The day Allen was killed, Knouse said, he saw police on Newberry Street talking about “the whites having to take care of themselves” and “throwing” ammunition from an armored car or truck to the crowd.
Robertson was the only cop in the crowd Knouse said he recognized. However, Knouse said he didn’t see Robertson hand out ammunition.
“The cops were giving” ammunition to the kids. I saw them hold it and walk away with it,” said Knouse, who recently gave a statement to York City Detective Dennis Williams and agreed to testify before the grand jury.
Like others involved in the investigation, Williams is under a gag order issued by Judge Uhler not to discuss the cases. He declined comment. But York City Councilman Wm. Lee Smallwood said he and other leaders in the black community are aware that the district attorney’s office has information alleging police handed out ammunition during the riots.
Although former city Police Chief Wayne Ruppert says he doubts cops supplied the NSBs with ammunition, he said it was “possible” that people could have armed friends.
“People could have brought a gun into the neighborhood to give to a family member for protection. I don’t see anything wrong with that,” said Ruppert, who grew up on North Newberry Street and who had family living there during the riots, including his mother and sister.
“They (NSBs) were just trying to protect the neighborhood.”
Bad time to be black on Newberry Street: The Allen family didn’t know Newberry Street had turned into a war zone.
Visiting from Aiken, S.C., they were taking a shortcut to Route 30 when they made a wrong turn onto Newberry Street. Allen was a back-seat passenger; also in the car were her sister and sister’s husband, Hattie and Murray Dickson of York, and her parents, the Rev. and Mrs. James Mosley.
At first, Hattie Dickson, the driver of the car that night, couldn’t put her finger on what was wrong. She said she remembers two officers wearing white helmets standing on the corner as she made a right turn from Philadelphia Street onto Newberry Street.
In the days after the riots, the family told FBI agents that a group of 15 to 20 city and state police let them pass into the hostile neighborhood.
“They (the police) seen us. They were talking and laughing. Jesus as my witness, I didn’t give it a second thought,” said Hattie Dickson.
Frank Reynolds immediately sensed danger. He said he watched from his porch at 120 N. Newberry St. as either state troopers or city police moved the barricade at Philadelphia and Newberry streets to let the car with South Carolina license plates pass. Because the street was illuminated only by street lights, he says he couldn’t make out the uniforms but is “sure” they were law enforcement officials.
As gunfire erupted, Reynolds ran inside his home and hit the floor.
Moments later, he said, he looked out to see the bullet-riddled car, its windows shattered, driving by “real fast” on its rims. He learned afterward that someone in the car had been killed at the railroad tracks.
“When they moved the barricade, I knew there was going to be trouble. Cars weren’t supposed to go through to the railroad tracks. I thought at the time, ‘Why did they let the car go through?’” said Reynolds, now 61.
From the moment he ran up to Allen, bleeding in the street, McMaster said, he always wondered how the car got into an openly armed, white neighborhood. He said he only recently learned from Detective Williams that police moved the barricade.
To this day, McMaster — who rode that night in an armored car called Big Al with Robertson — said he is amazed that Allen was the only one killed.
“If someone allowed a carload of African-Americans to go north on Newberry Street, they put them in tremendous danger,” said McMaster.
Extra ammunition, shots fired by police: Allegations also surfaced during and after the riots that police themselves were responsible for much of the gunfire heard across town, but blamed it on rioting blacks.
State police Lt. Donahoe’s 1969 post-riot state police report includes allegations by witnesses who said they saw city police firing into an empty Penn Park one night then radioing that they were under fire.
During the civil-rights trial, Hearn also tried to show a lack of supervision and control of patrol officers by citing a July 19, 1969, directive by Public Safety Director Jacob W. Hose.
Hose wanted all ammunition checked because he wanted to know “some semblance” of what was used, where and by whom. Hearn alleged police brought their own ammunition to subvert the directive, but he couldn’t prove it in court.
Interviewed recently about the allegations of police misconduct, Hearn said he still believes police were not interested in the truth. “I thought at the time police officers were lying.”
With the new investigation, other details are coming to light.
Several police officers interviewed recently said they brought their own weapons to balance the firepower on the street, particularly since Schaad was shot with armor-piercing bullets fired from a high-powered .30-40 Krag military rifle.
City police were equipped with only six-shot .38-caliber revolvers and the police armory contained outdated World War I-era Springfield bolt-action rifles and 1897 Winchester shotguns, McMaster said.
“We had no training in these weapons. One officer discharged the weapon through the roof of his car,” he said.
Police superiors were aware that officers brought their own supplies because there weren’t enough weapons to go around, said Robertson and McMaster. Robertson said he brought a .30-06 rifle and ammunition he borrowed from a neighbor to supplement his revolver.
“It was for self-protection,” Robertson said.
Police mentality: Police and neighborhood residents say it is unfair to judge the events of three decades ago without having lived through the experience.
Residents along Newberry Street thought they were going to be invaded by marauding blacks who had already fired on whites and thrown bricks through windows, Deveney said.
“It was a war. You don’t go back and investigate every nook and cranny in a war,” said Deveney, a machinist who now lives in Spring Garden Township.
There have already been enough casualties, Deveney said. He pointed to the case of Donald Altland, his friend and former NSB member who committed suicide in April after being questioned by police after Allen’s death. Before taking his life, Altland left a tape recording, reportedly detailing what happened.
Lt. H. Steven Gibbs, who ran the police canine unit, hated in the black community, said it was hard not to take sides. He, like many in the white community, thought blacks were out of control.
During an interview in May, Robertson said that blacks caused “90 percent of the problems” that led to the riots.
“Any white was a bad person as far as the blacks were concerned. The whites were scared to death,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs, who claimed he was No. 1 on a black militant hit list, said he could see the “hate” in the eyes of openly disrespectful and lawless blacks. Police fought back at the source of their anger and stuck together “like family,” he said.
“You are a human being. We were not robots. If someone took a swing at me, I’m going to swing back. We all did,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs recalled that concerned clergy rode along with police. He said a white preacher was in his squad car when blacks opened fire at King and Penn streets, hitting the cruiser once.
“The preacher got so shook up that he started yelling, ‘Kill them! Kill them!’” Gibbs said. “I thought, ‘Ain’t this a bitch.’”
“When bullets are whizzing by your ear, it changes your outlook,” said McMaster, who said he came under fire in black neighborhoods, but not in the white sections of town, like Newberry Street.
Force seen as white establishment: Even before the riots, city police conduct had been an issue that helped spark the violence.
The city’s police force was seen by many as defenders of a racist order and the white establishment. Of 98 officers, only six were black.
Setting the tone for law enforcement and the community was Mayor John Snyder — a World War I veteran who strutted the streets in tall boots while walking his German shepherd. Snyder openly called blacks “darkies” who “loved to dance.” He ignored calls for a citizen police review board and refused to dismantle the canine unit.
“He (Snyder) treated blacks as second-class citizens. His attitude didn’t help calm the racial tension. His attitude reflected the attitude of many in town,” said E. Nelson Read, a retired attorney and former York City councilman who now lives in Key West, Fla.
While the streets were filling with sniper fire and sporadic fire bombings, then-police-Chief Leonard Landis repeatedly refused initial state police offers for assistance.
Although Snyder wanted to call in state police, Hose and Landis openly disagreed, believing the city’s officers could handle the rioting without outside interference, according to an Aug. 26, 1969, state police report, titled “Operations of the York Disorder.”
As one example of the confusion, York City Police Capt. Russell Koontz, who was in charge of controlling civil disturbances, was pleading with state police Capt. Robert Rice to activate the National Guard while Landis was still saying everything was under control.
On the second day of rioting, after eight people were shot in less than a two-hour span, Landis asked for state police help, a gesture he said was only to “placate” the mayor, according to the state police report. State police also were baffled as to why Landis “spurned” their offer to help investigate the killing of Officer Schaad, according to the report.
State police brought an arsenal of equipment that they shared with city police, including gas masks, batons, steel helmets, bulletproof vests along with shields, shotguns and nearly 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
In his report, Donahoe said people in the black community wanted state and National Guard involvement, feeling they would receive more equitable treatment from them than from city police.
In an impromptu meeting with state police and National Guard commanders July 25, 1969, at Penn Café, 254 Penn St., a group of 50 blacks complained about getting no protection from city police and of being barricaded in during the riots, and alleging a portion of the shooting was done by city police. As a good-faith gesture for peace, the black group gave state police six sticks of dynamite they said they had been going to use to blow up armored vehicles patrolling the streets.
In the aftermath of the riots, Donahoe said state police were convinced that the “most urgent immediate need” was promoting understanding and dialogue between city police and the community, particularly blacks.
Black officers, too, felt the pressure to take sides.
After two years on the force, black city police officer Elmer Woodyard Jr. quit on the sixth day of rioting, citing racism among fellow officers. Woodyard told Donahoe he “got the impression” white officers were subjecting black citizens to brutality and indignity but couldn’t relate a single incident of which he had personal knowledge.
Woodyard did say that he didn’t like how a few of his fellow officers used derogatory terms to describe blacks.
Tom Chatman, a black detective sergeant who later became police chief and now serves on Judge Uhler’s staff, acknowledged he sensed the prejudice of some fellow officers and remembers confronting Snyder for referring to blacks as “darkies.”
But, he added, “I didn’t let my emotions interfere with my duty. I told a lot of them (blacks) you can’t break the law to change things. That’s wrong.
Days of violence leave lasting legacy: Some members of the black community want allegations of police misconduct brought out into the open, said Smallwood, a city councilman for 18 years. There has long been a feeling that the investigations into riot-related crimes were not pursued so that police would not be embarrassed or exposed, he said.
“If that (the investigation) leads to the mayor’s door, so be it,” Smallwood said.
Renowned Special Olympics athlete Loretta Claiborne, for example, remembers how Robertson would run the black children home at night.
“Niggers, it’s 8 o’clock. You got 15 minutes to get home,” Claiborne remembers Robertson saying.
Earlier this year, Robertson said he supported the reopened investigation, saying it would be “an honor” to find justice under his administration. He has since changed his position, saying it will divide people along racial lines and potentially destroy the city.
But the city still lives with many of the scars that divided it 31 years ago.
Over protests of the local NAACP and two black city councilmen, the city council earlier this year repealed a 1970 law that created a police review board designed to investigate allegations of police misconduct.
Robertson — who, like Snyder, fought a police review board and still supports the return of the canine unit — acknowledges the lasting impact of the riots. He estimates that 40 percent of white residents left the city after the riots, leading to the city’s decline as homeowners were replaced with absentee landlords.
Still, Robertson asks why the York County District Attorney’s Office didn’t reopen the unsolved murders years ago and questions the political agenda of Republicans, District Attorney Rebert, and his top assistant, Tom Kelley, a former city councilman who often criticized Robertson’s Democratic administration.
Robertson is expected to be called before the grand jury because he was the first police officer on the scene of the Allen shooting. He was recently interviewed by investigators.
After consulting with his personal attorney, whom he declined to name, Robertson said he will no longer talk about the riots. The Robertson administration has also blocked public access to riot-era administrative and police records, a decision The York Dispatch/Sunday News has appealed to county court.
Even some city police officers say they are confused by Robertson’s opposition to convening the grand jury.
McMaster said he wonders why anyone would resist the investigations — particularly one involving the death of a fellow police officer. He said Robertson and other former officers may be reluctant to examine an embarrassing time for the city or feel that the investigation has turned into a “witch hunt” that is “kicking the cops,”
Other former officers believe the renewed investigation may finally bring closure.
“You have some reputable people, because of their own stupidity, were involved in this stuff,” said Dennis Smith, a former city police officer who was stationed in the Newberry Street neighborhood during the riots.
“There will be cost to the truth.”