'It was always something that had to come out'

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Attorneys Bill Graff, left, and Tom Kelley discuss their roles as prosecutors in the York riots trials at the office of Tom Kelley in York City, Monday, June 24, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

When a community gripped by fear, inequity and rage turns on itself — divided by color and by neighborhood — and violence spills blood and steals people’s lives, wounds remain.

In the decades that followed two summers of race rioting in 1968 and 1969, York City’s leaders, residents and police moved forward, as if the city would heal without justice being meted out.

Policing and housing abuses were addressed at various levels, reports were submitted, and community meetings gave residents a platform to vent their frustrations.

But the unsolved murders of white York City Police Officer Henry Schaad and black preacher’s daughter Lillie Belle Allen strained at the scar tissue. The nagging pull of those loose ends did not ease, even three decades later.

To this day, the York City Police Department displays a painted portrait of Schaad in its lobby. The 22-year-old was mortally wounded when a bullet ripped through his shoulder on July 19, 1969, as a black mob fired on the supposedly armored vehicle he and other officers were riding in. The officers were en route to a riot-related shooting but rushed Schaad to York Hospital, where he died two weeks later.

Former chief deputy prosecutor Bill Graff, who prosecuted Schaad’s killers, said the armored vehicle known as Big Al was nothing more than a glorified bread truck that offered Schaad no real protection from the bullet that ripped through his lungs.

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Allen, 27, of Aiken, South Carolina, was shot and killed by a rifled shotgun slug on July 21, 1969, after she and relatives she was visiting in York City drove into the territory of an armed gang of white teens on North Newberry Street — youths who had been given ammunition by police and encouraged by some officers, including future Mayor Charlie Robertson, to shoot any "n—s" who ventured into their neighborhood.

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Former first assistant district attorney Tom Kelley, who prosecuted Allen’s killers, said North Newberry Street "was populated by scores of young men armed to the teeth with firearms" and that the only reason other Allen family members escaped uninjured was because they were in a Cadillac constructed when cars were still made of steel. It was riddled with bullets, he said.

In 1999 — the 30th anniversary of those hate crimes — a reckoning was upon York.

*** The reckoning ***

The murders "had been haunting York County over the last 30 years," former York County District Attorney Stan Rebert told The York Dispatch in 2009. "It was always on people’s minds — it was always something that had to come out. … People were brought to justice who weren’t even bothered (by investigators) before."

The prosecutions of Schaad’s and Allen’s murderers began two decades ago and took years of investigation, interviews and effort by a team of prosecutors and police led by Kelley and Graff and overseen by Rebert. The team won multiple trial convictions and also secured guilty pleas in both cases. The gunmen and their co-conspirators served time for murder and related charges.

"We did something that nobody thought would happen," Graff said. "Just initially, it looked like a mountain: 'How the hell are we going to prove this case?'"

And now?

"It’s just history," Graff said.

He and Kelley spoke with The York Dispatch about the most daunting case of their careers. Both say they haven’t thought much about it for many years now, and both say the convictions have freed the community to largely forget. York City kids might hear about the riots from their grandparents, but it’s like learning about the Civil War, Kelley said — ancient history.

Attorney Bill Graff is shown at the office of Tom Kelley in York City, Monday, June 24, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Graff said he believes the prosecutions had an impact on older people because of the closure it provided for them.

"But beyond that, I don’t think anyone else thinks about it," he said.

The 50th anniversary of the murders has brought the cases to the forefront of the former prosecutors' minds again. Both were interviewed for a "People Magazine Investigates" episode about the riots that aired in January.

The two, now defense attorneys, make an unlikely team. But get them talking about the riots murder prosecutions and they finish each other's sentences.

They recalled searching for witnesses all over the country, seizing upon moments of insight and discovery, how exhausted they were afterward and the Herculean effort required to bring the cases to trial. Kelley recalled being emotionally, physically and intellectually spent.

*** Nearly 700 witnesses tracked down *** 

Nearly 700 witnesses were tracked down and interviewed, Rebert has estimated. Of them, 497 were called to testify before an investigating grand jury impaneled for two years to review the riots murders, according to Graff.

York County DA Stan Rebert speaks to reporters before he enters the Montgomery County Courthouse courtroom on Monday, May 5, 2003.

"I look at it as being our best work … marshaling all those witnesses together," Graff said, adding he made 16 trips all over the United States with team members to find them. "We found every witness we were looking for except one guy in Florida who was dead. Died about two weeks beforehand."

Graff’s "Perry Mason" moment in the Schaad case came when he called Michael "Picklenose" Wright to the stand, expecting the former Yorker to implicate Stephen D. Freeland as Schaad’s killer.

But when Graff asked Wright who fired, Wright replied, "Well, we all did," Graff recalled, meaning Freeland, Wright and Wright’s brother and murder defendant Leon "Smickel" Wright. The testimony of Michael Wright — who at that time wasn't charged as a defendant — helped seal the trial convictions of his brother and Freeland, and shocked Graff.

And when Graff and three then-York County detectives, including John Daryman, subsequently drove to New Orleans to arrest Michael Wright — who was staying at various homeless shelters there — they needed to visit just two shelters, according to Graff.

Michael Edward Wright, the brother of Leon Wright, who is on trial for the 1969 murder of York City Police Officer Henry Schaad, leaves the York County Courthouse in York on  Thursday, March 6, 2003. Michael Wright surprised even the prosecutors, who called him to the stand, when he implicated both himself and his brother, as well as three other men, in the officer's murder. (AP Photo/The York Dispatch, Jason Plotkin)

"I remember sitting inside, looking at the (guest) log. I hear Daryman out on the street saying, 'Hey Picklenose! How you doing?'" Graff said. "He just walked right into us. He said, 'Huh?' and (Daryman) said, 'You’re under arrest for murder.'" 

Michael Wright was later given a time-served sentence of less than three months for telling the truth on the witness stand. He was murdered in Baltimore in 2005; the case has never been solved.

Kelley said his most memorable trial moment in the Schaad case happened as he cross-examined a character witness of murder defendant and sitting York City Mayor Charlie Robertson — Arthur J. Glatfelter, founder and then chairman of the board of Glatfelter Insurance Group.

*** Community leaders downplay riots ***

Kelley said he was questioning Glatfelter, who has since died, about why he and dozens of York’s leading citizens signed and sent a letter to the editor to The York Dispatch in 2001 citing "grave concern" and urging the newspaper to stop reporting on the unsolved race-riots murders. It read, in part, "This newspaper obsession with the 1969 events has a long and infamous history. Every summer the community has been subjected to the annual pot-stirring with the resultant fertilization of the seeds of social unrest."

Attorney Tom Kelley is shown at his office in York City, Monday, June 24, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The letter chided the newspaper for "gratuitous use of the word 'riots.'"

It was signed by York City Council members, York County commissioners, numerous business and community leaders, the then-York City School District superintendent, pastors and ministers of both black and white congregations, retired U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling and others, including York businessman and now Gov. Tom Wolf. Signers were Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative.

Kelley asked Glatfelter on the witness stand why they wrote the letter, "and he said, 'Well, we thought they were going to riot again,'" Kelley recalled.

"And I said, 'Who’s they?' And he stopped dead in his tracks," Kelley said. "I think he realized, 'Oops.'"

If there's a legacy to the riots prosecutions, the attorneys said, it’s that police and prosecutors in York County showed the black community they were serious about solving a black woman’s murder, even a very old one. Because, they said, every murder victim deserves the same treatment. Kelley said members of York’s black community began cooperating with both investigations once they were convinced prosecutors cared about Allen’s death, too.

"(T)here was so little trust in the system and so little trust we were trying to solve both cases," he said.

After the convictions, some critics told Kelley the cases were a waste of money: "I remember thinking, 'If you saw your daughter being put in the ground and someone said … it’s probably going to be a little too expensive to investigate the case?'"

"It doesn’t matter how much it costs," Graff agreed, because all murders deserve a thorough investigation.

"(Otherwise) you as a prosecutor would have to be willing to tell the (victim’s) family member, 'You know what? She’s just not worth it,'" Kelley finished.

*** Going after a sitting mayor ***

One common public misconception about the cases, according to Graff and Kelley, is that the public thinks prosecutors were gunning for Robertson.

"We didn’t want Charlie so much as we wanted (Allen’s) shooters," said Kelley, who for several years served as a member of York City Council during Robertson’s tenure. "Charlie added an incredibly difficult wrench into the machine. … It would’ve been a far more streamlined trial and easier for us to prosecute had he not been involved. Everyone thought, 'Oh these guys are just out to get Charlie.' (But) Charlie mucked up the works."

Mayor Charlie Robertson stands on the York County Courthouse steps as his attorney Richard Oare, left, speaks with the press in December 2001.

Jurors in the Allen trial later told Kelley they would have convicted Robertson, who died in 2017, had there been a separate charge of conspiracy to commit murder against him, Kelley said.

Robertson’s acquittal could be the direct result of efforts by his attorney, Bill Costopoulos, who was able to get the defense attorneys of Robertson’s co-defendants to agree to stick together, even if that meant they all went down together, Kelley said.

"That was huge for Charlie Robertson, because a lot of those (co-defendants) had very damning information on Charlie," he said.

Kelley said the Allen shooter he most focused on was Robert N. Messersmith, called Bobby, who investigators believe fired the bullet that cut down Allen. Messersmith, for Allen’s murder, and Freeland, for Schaad’s murder, served the longest sentences of all the defendants.

"We wanted Bobby Messersmith more than anything," Kelley said. "We wanted the shooters, and we knew based upon our evidence that Bobby was likely the shooter. And he bragged about it, and it was sickening. And he didn’t learn his lesson."

Kelley is referring to the fact that he believes the flashpoint for York’s 1969 race riots started with Messersmith shooting two black 17-year-olds — Taka Nii Sweeney in the abdomen and John Washington in the elbow. Messersmith was 23 years old at the time and the leader of a gang of white youths called the Newberry Street Boys. Both teens survived their wounds.

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.

A city officer had pulled over to talk with Sweeney on July 17, 1969, when Messersmith fired on the two teens from across a railroad bridge that spans the Codorus Creek. Messersmith struck both boys with rifled shotgun slugs, called "pumpkin balls" — the same kind of round that killed Allen.

But because an officer was there, rumors quickly spread that Sweeney was shot by a cop, according to Kelley.

"(T)hat was a huge conflagration, and that’s what kind of spiraled out of control," he said.

Messersmith, 70, of Montgomery County, spoke with a York Dispatch reporter about the possibility of giving an interview, but he apparently changed his mind and stopped returning messages. He maintains he is innocent of Allen's murder.

Neither Graff nor Kelley thinks race riots could happen again in York as they did a half-century ago. Graff said he doesn’t believe citizens are that volatile now, and both think social unrest going forward will lead to a new reckoning based more on socioeconomic lines than race.

Kelley noted that certain freedoms are promised in the United States and must be equally available to all.

"We don’t always execute on those freedoms — I mean, we saw what happened in '68, '69. But the idea is there," he said. "And … once you take that idea away, the idea that somehow we should all have freedoms … (that) we should all be entitled to justice? Well, then there’s no reason for the existence of the United States then. No reason whatsoever."

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.