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Mark James “Jimmy” Robert Essex, a 23-year-old African-American who served as a dental technician in the US Navy (and was stationed in California while many of his fellow soldiers were serving in Vietnam), launches a killing spree in New Orleans that results in nine dead and 13 wounded.
History of Racial Complaints, Membership of Extremist Group - Essex is apparently driven by racism and anger over what he considers to be personal and historical slights; while stationed in San Diego, he filed numerous complaints about being treated unfairly due to his race, and was disciplined several times for engaging in fights with white sailors. While in the Navy, Essex became interested in the Black Panthers, and befriended a fellow recruit, a Black Muslim who had a record of violent crime before entering the service. A friend of Essex’s in the Navy later recalls Essex changing drastically, “in a matter of weeks,” after meeting his new friend. Essex was court-martialed for going AWOL (absent without leave), and told the court during the proceedings, “I had begun to hate all white people.” He was discharged with a diagnosis of “character and behavior disorders,” and went to New York City for a time, where he immersed himself in a chapter of the Black Panthers and the members’ revolutionary, violent rhetoric. He rejoined his Navy friend in New Orleans in August 1972, where he has lived until now.
Spree Begins - In preparation for the spree, Essex carries a .38 revolver with the serial number removed, a Ruger .44 Magnum carbine rifle, a gas mask, firecrackers, lighter fluid, and ammunition. Essex begins his spree by hiding in a parking lot close to the New Orleans Police Department, and with the Ruger shoots two police officers, Cadet Alfred Harrell and Lieutenant Horace Perez. Harrell, an African-American, dies, while Perez survives his wounds. Essex misses his intended target, Cadet Bruce Weatherford. Harrell is the only African-American Essex shoots. It is impossible to know if Essex deliberately fires on a fellow African-American or simply does not recognize Harrell’s race. As the police respond to the shooting, Essex sets off diversionary firecrackers, jumps a chain-link fence, and flees, accidentally dropping the revolver, the gas mask, and some ammunition. He then breaks into a warehouse, setting off a silent alarm. Essex waits quietly for the police to respond to the break-in. Two officers respond. One, Edwin Hosli, receives a Ruger bullet in the back as he steps out of his car. His partner returns fire and calls for backup. The police swarm over the warehouse, but Essex has already fled. Hosli will die of his wounds two months later. Evidence shows that Essex may have been wounded by gunfire, or had cut himself on broken glass. The police discover clothing, a filter canister for a gas mask, 50 .38-caliber shells, and three unfired .44 magnum cartridges. The hunt for Essex leads into a poor, predominantly African-American area of the city known as Gert Town. Some of the officers theorize that the shooter deliberately dropped the three .44 cartridges to lead them into Gert Town, a theory bolstered by their subsequent discovery of a “trail” of cartridges. They follow the trail to the deserted Saint Mark Baptist Church. Detective Emmett Dupas later tells a writer: “It was clear that it was a trap, that we were being set up. The bullets were always in pairs and always pointed in the same direction.” (Noe 7/11/2011; New Orleans Times-Picayune 12/16/2011; Hustmyre 2012)
Dodging the Police - While planning how best to enter the church without exposing themselves to the shooter’s fire, the officers learn that Chief of Police Clarence Giarrusso has called off the search. Throughout the night and the early morning, Giarrusso’s office has received numerous complaints from residents about the heavy police presence in Gert Town, and the sometimes-harsh search methods being used, with officers kicking in doors and searching homes without warrants. That evening the church pastor spots Essex inside the church and runs to a neighbor’s house to call the police. By the time police arrive, Essex is gone. On January 2, about 6 p.m., Essex enters a grocery store near the church, wearing a bloodied bandage on his left hand. He buys lipstick and makeup and departs; the store owner, suspicious because of the number of news reports about the escaped shooter, alerts the police. The police are unable to find Essex. During the evening of January 3, the police respond to a tip that the shooter is hiding inside another church in Gert Town. The police fail to find Essex, but they do find a bag of .38-caliber cartridges and a note, later proven to have been written by Essex, apologizing to the pastor for breaking into the church. On the morning of January 7, Essex returns to the store, shoots the owner, and flees in a stolen car.
Howard Johnson's - Essex hides in a parking garage adjacent to a Howard Johnson’s Hotel near City Hall and other government buildings, and gains access to the hotel’s 18th floor through a door that has been propped open. He frightens three black housekeepers, but tells them not to worry, that he is only hunting whites. He runs across Dr. Robert Steagall and Steagall’s wife Betty; Steagall attempts to stop Essex, but after a brief struggle for the weapon, Essex shoots Dr. Steagall in the chest and then Mrs. Steagall in the back of the head, killing them both. He uses his lighter fluid to set the Steagalls’ room on fire, and drops a black, green, and red African flag on the floor beside the two. He then breaks into the 11th floor via the stairwell, and sets fires in empty rooms all along the corridor. Essex kills assistant manager Frank Schneider on the 11th floor. As smoke billows out of the hotel window and the switchboard lights up with calls about an armed man in the hallway, Essex goes to the 10th floor, where he shoots and kills hotel general manager Walter Collins. As police and firemen respond to the reports, Essex, now on the 8th floor, shoots hotel guest Robert Beamish while Beamish is standing next to the pool far below. Beamish survives the gunshot. Essex, setting more fires on the 8th floor, spots fireman Tim Ursin climbing a ladder to the 11th floor, and shoots him in the forearm. Policeman Bill Trapagnier, climbing behind Ursin, returns fire. New Orleans police surround the hotel, many of them carrying personal weaponry. (TruTV writer Chuck Hustmyre will later explain that the New Orleans Police Department, like most urban police departments, has not yet implemented what will come to be known as SWAT teams, so the police lack high-powered weaponry and body armor.) Essex fires at the officers from his perch on the 8th floor, earning cheers from some of the onlookers when he shoots. Essex wounds Officer Ken Solis in the shoulder and Sergeant Emanuel Palmisano in the arm and back while Palmisano tries to help Solis. He kills Officer Philip Coleman with another head shot while Coleman is also attempting to help Palmisano and Solis. And, after climbing to the 16th floor, he shoots Officer Paul Persigo in the head, killing him instantly. He also wounds an ambulance driver and a fire chief.
Command Post - Giarrusso, now on site, sets up his command post in the Howard Johnson’s lobby, forcing his officers to run a “gauntlet” of police and sniper gunfire to enter and exit the post. Deputy Police Chief Louis Sirgo assembles a team of five volunteers to rescue two officers trapped in an elevator near the top of the hotel. Essex is waiting on the 16th floor for them. When they arrive, Essex kills Sirgo with a shot to the spine and flees to the hallway. He mounts the roof. Police in the command post are beside themselves, and many think they are facing a team of assailants, not a single lone gunman. Erroneous reports flood the police airwaves, some claiming that as many as three shooters are in the hotel and that they have hostages. Giarrusso orders another group of officers up the stairwells, to locate and isolate the shooter(s) and, if possible, to force him or them onto the roof. One group of officers reaches the rooftop, and smashes its way through the locked door. Essex is waiting. He shoots Officer Larry Arthur in the stomach; Arthur manages to return fire before collapsing, though his shotgun blast misses Essex. More officers rush the roof. Giarrusso wants to secure the roof before nightfall if possible, but twilight is already coming.
Helicopter - Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Chuck Pitman volunteers to fly a Coast Guard helicopter into the area. Pitman, a Vietnam veteran recuperating from a leg wound suffered in combat, takes two Marine sergeants armed with M-14 rifles with him for protection. By the time they are airborne, it is entirely dark and the hotel shrouded in fog. Giarrusso sends a group of armed volunteers with Pitman into the helicopter. By this time, Essex is somewhat pinned down by Officer Antoine Saacks, an ex-Marine who has brought an M-16 with a thousand rounds of ammunition and has trapped Essex behind the protection of a cinderblock cubicle wall. Saacks asks permission to go up with Pitman and drop onto the roof, but Giarrusso refuses to allow him to drop out of the copter. Instead, Pitman and the heavily-armed police officers, including Saacks, ascend beside the roof. Pitman uses a spotlight to search the roof, while Saacks and the other sharpshooters rake the roof with gunfire. They lay down so much fire that Saacks actually expends all one thousand rounds of ammunition, and they are forced to return for more ammunition before going up a second time and them a third time. Meanwhile, Essex is returning fire, accurately; the helicopter takes several hits. Finally Saacks determines that the sniper is using a metal water pipe to move back and forth from the protection of the cinderblock alcove to another spot on the roof where he can shoot. Saacks and the other police officers pour fire into the water pipe, causing it to split open.
Killed by a Hail of Gunfire - The gunfire flushes Essex onto the roof, where the searchlight spots him as he snaps off return fire at the helicopter. “I saw him come out of the dark,” Pitman later recalls. Essex fires a bullet directly at Pitman, but strikes the transmission housing instead. The helicopter hovers 10 feet off the roof and less than 50 feet from Essex as Saacks reloads for the final exchange. “I just walked the bullets right into him,” Saacks later recalls. Saacks’s gunfire is joined by fire from other officers, including a group that has reached the roof. Essex is killed by the onslaught of gunfire; over 200 bullet wounds are later counted. One sniper later recalls that the medical team had to use “a scooper” to remove Essex’s remains.
'Shrine' of Racial Hatred - Police continue to hunt into the next day for Essex’s presumed cohorts, but find nothing. Police eventually identify Essex, and break into his apartment, to find what Hustmyre later terms “a shrine dedicated to his hatred.” Racist graffiti covers his wall space, with the words “hate” and “kill” repeated over and over again. Police find Muslim and Black Panthers newsletters, a copy of the book Black Rage, and a map with the locations of the police department and the Howard Johnson’s Hotel circled. Trapagnier will be one of a number of officers still unsure that Essex operated on his own. He later tells a Times-Picayune reporter, “My gut feeling is, I shot at two different people.”
Warning Letter - The New Orleans television station WWL turns over a handwritten note Essex had sent it sometime in late December. Station personnel had not opened the letter until January 6, the day before Essex’s spree, and had not realized the note was connected with the shootings until afterwards. The police crime lab later proves the note was written by Essex. It reads in its entirety: “Africa greets you. On Dec. 31, 1972, aprx. 11 p.m., the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason—many, but the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged. And many others. P.S. Tell pig Giarrusso the felony action squad ain’t sh_t.” He signed the note “Mata’.” The 900-page police report later concludes with the following statement concerning Essex’s motive: “What he intended to achieve will probably remain in the grave with him.” The New York office of the Black Panther Party will send a note of condolence to Essex’s parents, calling Essex a “warrior and revolutionary.” The New Orleans Times-Picayune will state that Essex harbored “an insane hatred of the police.” (New Orleans Times-Picayune 12/16/2011; Hustmyre 2012)
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