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The Wrong Car
The death of Lillie Belle Allen
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Dem front-runner Tom Wolf's ties provide ammo for rivals - Wolf was campaign chairman and a political supporter of former York Mayor Charles Robertson, who was charged as an accomplice to murder in the 1969 death of a young black woman (Lillie Belle Allen). Tribune Review 3-4-2014
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‘What have we got ourselves into?’
All eyes fix on the Cadillac as it glides down Philadelphia Street. Neighbors sitting on their porches and stoops along Philadelphia Street watch expectantly. They know what’s about to happen. Everyone in the neighborhood knows. They’ve been talking about it for hours.
Lillie Belle Allen
First the car must turn the corner on to Newberry Street. On Newberry Street, many more expectant eyes watch.
The city and state policemen standing at the corner of Philadelphia and Newberry streets watch the car approach too. The police stand at a barricade in front of the Otterbein United Methodist Church, a gothic, dark structure brooding over the corner.
The car stops at the light behind a few other cars, its turn signal blinking. The light changes.
The policemen let the car pass their barricade. The cops watch the car round the corner and head down Newberry Street, toward the waiting, armed mob.
The car drives past Wentz’s TV shop, at the corner opposite the church, cattycorner from the YMCA.
The car moves past the neighbors’ homes. Neighbors with names like Strine, Koch, Slick. It rolls past the Haverstocks’ house, past the Rupperts’ house. All along the block, neighbors sit on their porches this warm summer evening, watching the car come down Newberry Street. It eases past the used furniture store, where a man sits watching out front. Until it reaches the railroad tracks.
At the railroad tracks twenty or more gun-toting kids wait. They’re mostly teenagers. They’re waiting for the car. The kids have been waiting all evening. With each hour their numbers grow. Many have brought guns. Guns normally used by the country boys to go hunting for deer or groundhog. Tonight they full well expect to kill men. For hours they’ve been running around the street with guns, under the eyes of police. More kids are stationed on the roofs of houses, and in windows, and elsewhere, their rifles and shotguns ready. In expectation, they’ve been drinking and drugging all night. The gun-toting teenagers suddenly are alerted that the car is coming.
Drive down Newberry Street: 30 second drive changes lives in York, PA, for decades
What happens next is murder. Vicious, premeditated murder, committed in plain sight of at least a hundred eyes, some say hundreds of eyes. A murder committed in cold blood, in the shadow of a church, before the watching eyes of police. Down the street from the Young Men’s Christian Association and the neighborhood store where kids are sent to fetch milk and bread, a murder committed in plain sight of the watching, expectant eyes of small town America.
The policemen, like the neighbors, watch the car drive into the ambush. The cops duck behind their cruisers and watch the murder they know to expect. That all their senses tell them to expect. That they have been told to expect. Then they turn their backs and run, not helping the people in the ambushed car. They have been running ever since, to this day.
Later, to explain why the murderers were never brought to justice, the police will lie and say no one saw the murder.
The simple yet painful reality is that at least one hundred eyes will see the murder. These eyes all watch expectantly as the car rounds the corner and rides into ambush at the railroad tracks.
his is the story of some of those watching eyes, and what they saw.
It’s a very long story about a very short, ten or fifteen second car ride.
It helps to view the ten or fifteen second car ride cinematically, like a piece of film, or video tape, which can be stopped, fast forwarded, or reversed. Before the car reaches the murderous ambush at the railroad tracks, let’s hit rewind, and back it up. The car glides to a stop short of the gun-toting mob of teens at the railroad tracks, and smoothly reverses. Our film runs backward now, backward past neighbors on their porches, past the Rupperts’ house, past the used furniture store where a man sits out front, past the Slicks’ house, past the TV shop, past the watching cops at the barricade, rounding the corner backwards, stopping at the light, turn signal blinking. Then heading off backwards into the summer evening down Philadelphia Street.
Now let’s hit play again. The car resumes it forward cruise, toward the cops at the barricade.
Among the first eyes that see the car coming are those of Helen Diaczun. She’s sitting on her front steps on 249 W. Philadelphia Street, half a block away from Newberry. When the car passes her porch she sees “several colored people” inside. She watches the car stop at the light. She watches it pass the police barricade. She watches it turn right up Newberry Street.
The car approaches the stoplight at the corner of Philadelphia and Newberry streets, watched by the police stationed at the barricade. The barricade is made of yellow sawhorses. One city policeman and four Pennsylvania state police troopers stand by the sawhorses. Police have been stationed at the barricade for the past several days. More police officers are in the immediate area, walking the neighborhood of Newberry Street in roving patrols. There’s been trouble in the neighborhood. There have been riots in the city.
The previous summer, police learned they could successfully head-off violence by sealing troubled neighborhoods. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? The cops have become good at setting up and manning their barricades. That’s why they’ve manned the barricade at Newberry and Philadelphia streets. The job of these officers is to stop cars from going down Newberry Street, where a large gang of troubled white teenagers for days has been fomenting a race riot.
In the last few days, this neighborhood of Newberry and Philadelphia streets has seen several shootings of blacks and repeated mob attacks. It is a white neighborhood, whose residents feel they are at war with the city’s blacks. The police too are at war with the city’s blacks.
The policemen themselves are being shot at, and they are being hit. Several nights before, their fellow officer, Henry Schaad, was shot while riding through a black neighborhood in a poorly armored car. Schaad was a young rookie. He’s the twenty-two year old son of a York city police detective. Shot through the lungs, young Schaad lies dying in the hospital, on a respirator. Already the police have received the names of five young black men who they suspect of shooting Officer Schaad. They call these blacks the “militants.” Sherman Spells is suspected of being at the scene of Schaad’s shooting. Now here was Sherman and his brother, maybe more of the militants, riding into a trap. To say that the cops are mad is an understatement. They are out for blood.
Tonight the cops standing at the barricade wear bulletproof vests and riot helmets. Since the mortal shooting of the rookie cop, they have even been instructed to carry high-powered rifles.
Later, the police officers stationed at the corner will say they had no idea they were supposed to stop traffic at the barricade. They’d have us believe that they were there perhaps to collect dry cleaning, or perhaps to file their nails. They’d say they can’t remember any instructions from supervisors about what to do at the barricade.
They have certainly received instructions from the white gang.
Manning the police barricade this evening are Pennsylvania State Trooper Gerald Roberts, Trooper Steve Rendish, Trooper Bill Linker, and rookie Trooper Michael Marchowski. With them is York city policeman Ronald Zeager. Trooper Roberts remembers a few more city and state cops coming in and out of the intersection from time to time, on roving patrol.
Suppertime on Newberry Street bleeds into evening. The smells of summer suppers and burning charcoal run into the smell of expectant death.
The cops watch as trouble foments before their eyes. They watch the growing mob of white teenagers running in the street with guns. It’s pandemonium down there, and they do nothing. They’ve even received a phone call from a concerned neighbor who complains about the young snipers waiting in ambush on the roofs. Still the police do nothing. A few of the neighbors can’t understand why the police don’t seem to care that someone is about to get killed.
Before supper, Annabel Mae Kline, living on adjacent North Street, witnessed the Spells brothers confront Bobby Messersmith.
“At about 4:30pm I went out to get the garbage can in the alley to the rear of my house,” she remembers later. “I saw a white boy, a teenager, standing in the doorway at 229 N. Newberry St. He was talking to two young Negro men. The white boy had a rifle in his hand. They seemed to be arguing about something. I went back into the house.”
The hours pass and her concern grows. Annabel Kline sees the police turn a blind eye to another night of rioting on her block.
“After supper, I went out to North and Newberry streets,” Annabel Kline remembers. “The gang of kids were congregating. They usually got together every evening at this time. I went back to my yard and sat down. I saw three fellows with guns on the roof at 231 N. Newberry. One of them was hanging on the chimney. This was about 8 to 8:30pm. I went into the house and called the city police. I told them there were snipers on the roof.” In a short while, sitting in her back yard, Kline will hear the shooting start.
About the same time, seventy-year-old plumber Bill Boyer stands in the doorway of his shop, watching the mounting trouble and confusion.
“There were about seventy-five kids over there on the corner, kids seventeen or eighteen years old, running around with guns in broad daylight,” Boyer remembers. “I don’t know why the police didn’t chase them kids off the street.”
While the kids down the street prepare to kill the Spells brothers in ambush, police horse around at the corner barricade.
The officers notice someone’s left a package at the corner of Newberry and Philadelphia streets. A little too close for comfort. City policeman Zeager cautiously goes to the package, looking it over. State Trooper Bill Linker playfully slams the door to his cruiser. Zeager thought he jumped two feet in the air. It turns out not to be a bomb.
It’s almost 9pm, and the mob and the confusion grow by the moment. State troopers Gerald Roberts and Steve Rendish stand together on the corner, ensconced in riot gear. One of the young men waiting in ambush walks up from the railroad tracks, approaching the two troopers. He’s white, in his early twenties, Roberts recollects.
“Turn your backs and everything will be okay,” the young man winks at the state troopers. Turn your backs, he reassures the policemen, and the boys won’t shoot you, just the Spells brothers. The young man hurries back to the railroad tracks.
Troopers Roberts and Rendish turn to each other.
“What have we gotten ourselves into?” Roberts remembers them both saying at once.
The policemen on duty this night at the corner are slow to pick up several crucial facts. They are slow to pick up on the fact that they are policemen, and the fact that the public expects to be protected in their presence. They are slow to pick up on the fact that the boys running around with guns in front of their faces mean to kill someone. They are slow to pick on the fact that when they are told about a planned shooting, they should do something to stop it. They are not so slow to pick up on something else. They will notice the color of the skin of the people in the approaching Cadillac.
Not long after the young man came up and told the officers to turn their backs, Trooper Roberts sees the light-colored Cadillac approaching the barricade at the intersection. A couple of other cars sit in front of it at the intersection, waiting for the light to change. City officer Ron Zeager notices the Cadillac too. Zeager looks at the driver. He thinks he sees that the driver is a black man. He also notices passengers in the car. Later, he would curiously say he only saw they were black from behind.
The police, like the neighbors, expectantly watch the Cadillac waiting at the light. The light changes to green. The cars in front of the Cadillac go straight. The Cadillac reaches the corner and begins to turn at the barricade. The police make no effort to stop the Cadillac. Some would later remember that the cops actually move the barricade and wave the car through. One thing is certain: the officers make no effort to warn the blacks in the car of the ambush awaiting them. The ambush the police know to expect.
Years later, an occupant in the car would remember that one of the cops was smiling as he waved the car through the barricade.
At that moment, another York city police officer, Patrolman Charles Robertson, is listening to his radio several blocks away at Farquar Park. Robertson recalls receiving a police radio transmission from an unknown officer at the corner, advising that the Cadillac has passed the barricade. One of the boys waiting in ambush would later say that Bobby Messersmith’s father, directing the mob of boys from his house on Newberry Street, is also listening to police transmissions, over a police scanner. Not only are the police at the barricade aiding in the ambush, turning their backs to the expected murder, witnesses say they broadcast a heads-up to the waiting mob that the Spells brothers are on their way down the street in the Cadillac.
All is set. In less than ten seconds, the car is halfway down the block to the waiting mob. In less time than it takes you to read this paragraph, the car ride is over. At the railroad tracks, trying to avoid the gun-toting mob, the car makes a sudden left turn. The police, and the neighbors look on as the shooting starts. The police take cover behind their cruisers, waiting for the shooting to stop.
Gunsmoke still lingers in the air while they learn the Spells brothers aren’t killed. The Spells brothers aren’t even in that Cadillac. The damn cops let the wrong car through the barricade. The fucking morons at the tracks opened fire on a preacher’s family, on their way to the store to buy groceries.
They have all participated in murder. They have shot to death a young mother of two. A preacher’s daughter. Later still they will learn her name. It is a name none of them will ever forget.
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