Revisiting killings renews city's pain


YORK, Pa. - Coroner Barry L. Bloss was in his car when the call went out over the police radio for a possible shooting on the banks of the Susquehanna River.

He didn't recognize the man whose body was crumpled on a mound of dirt, his finger still looped around the trigger of a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol, a trickle of blood draining from the gunshot wound to his right temple.

Nor did he know what he might find on two cassette tapes left with a white paper napkin - the words "Forgive me God" scrawled across it - on the front seat of the blue pickup truck beside the body of Donald E. Altland.

"I knew right away, as soon as I heard the tape, what it was about," Bloss said. "It just clicked."

What clicked took Bloss back to the summer of 1969, when he was a rookie on the York police force, when the streets he patrolled echoed with gunfire. Before the National Guard rolled its tanks out of town, a white police officer and a black woman visiting from South Carolina were fatally shot and about 60 others injured.

Altland's death and the subsequent rehashing of those events have reawakened long-dormant feelings and touched off political sniping in this southern Pennsylvania town 50 miles north of Baltimore.

Investigators returned to these unsolved killings last year after a series of stories marking the 30th anniversary of the riots ran in a local newspaper and triggered a wave of new calls to police. Altland, 51, a longtime employee of the York wastewater treatment plant, was one of about 100 people questioned by investigators as a special task force pursued new leads in the two slayings.

In the hours after his police interrogation April 10, Altland spent a sleepless night telling his wife of 25 years, Cindy, about his past and his days with a gang of white teen-agers called the Newberry Street Boys. The next morning, he recorded two tapes, apologizing to his family and explaining that he couldn't go to jail or handle people knowing about his past, police told the York Dispatch.

In a quavering voice, he described how he was overcome by years of guilt from the night that he and fellow gang members fired a barrage of bullets that left a preacher's 27-year-old daughter dead.

Then, he drove down to the river. Leaving the keys in the ignition, he walked to the water's edge, where he shot and killed himself.

The suicide shocked local investigators in tiny East Manchester Township, where Altland lived on a quiet street that winds through the woods and where police knew only tangentially of the renewed homicide investigations.

"I wouldn't say it was an odd feeling, but I was in school with one of the principals of the riots, and here 31 years later, I am investigating a suicide that ties back to that," said Northeastern Regional Police Chief Darryl L. Albright, a white high school classmate of the first black youth to be shot during the riots. "It's like history in the making - the past, present and future. It only makes more questions."

Summers of violence

Every summer in the late 1960s, in cities across the country, people braced for violence. Whether experienced close by in one's town or seen from the living room couch on nightly newscasts, urban race riots were a fixture of the summer months. Protest, confrontation and violence had become, in the words of black activist H. Rap Brown, "as American as apple pie."

In August 1965, Watts erupted, leaving 34 dead, more than 1,000 injured and $200 million in property damage during six days and nights of rioting in south-central Los Angeles. Two summers later, first Newark, N.J., then Detroit and about 160 other cities raged.

In 1968, the National Guard was again called in to bring calm after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and a national commission on civil disorders identified the cause of the disturbances as the existence of two separate societies in America, "one black, one white, separate and unequal."

Like so many other cities, York was not spared.

"York was a bad, bad town, but let me tell you something - it wasn't any different from any place else in the country," said Art Geiselman, a white York native and retired newspaperman who spent 15 years covering his hometown for the now-defunct York Gazette and Daily. The newspaper took a liberal stance toward civil rights and equal treatment for African-Americans.

"That town is just north of the Mason-Dixon line," said Geiselman, 75, "but it might as well have been in the South for all the terrible, terrible hatred of blacks that existed at the time."

Racial tension had been slowly building since 1947, when the city of 55,000 closed its big municipal pool rather than permit African-Americans to swim there. Black residents complained of police brutality and insensitivity, charging in the early 1960s that the 12 German shepherds of the York Police Department's canine unit were unfairly being used against them. And then-Mayor John Snyder openly referred to the city's 5,000 black residents as "darkies" and "our dark people."

The summer of 1969 was not the first time racial tensions had boiled over in York. Shortly after a disturbance at the York Fair a year earlier, a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission study had warned that the city was in danger of race-related rioting.

The commission's study proved prophetic.

Trouble started July 17, 1969, when a 12-year-old African-American boy falsely claimed that a white gang had doused him with lighter fluid and set him afire. A group of black youths responded by throwing rocks at the North End Cigar Shop, a small grocery at 156 N. Newberry St. where members of the Newberry Street Boys hung out.

In retaliation, one of the gang's leaders, Robert "Bobby" Messersmith, fired into a crowd of young black men, wounding two.

York 'just went crazy'

"After that, the city just went crazy for 12 or 14 days," recalled Bloss, who is white. "The year before, people had gotten upset and threw bricks and bottles. We thought it was tough with bricks and bottles, but when they brought the guns out, you couldn't see where they were shooting from with these high-powered rifles. You'd hear shots ring out and they could be blocks away and you'd never see them. We used to say, 'Bring back the bricks and bottles.'"

Alexander Jones was 13 years old when his family moved to York from South Carolina to find better jobs. The African-American man remembers the riots as "a living hell." Firebombs were thrown twice at his family's home, he said.

"We lived in a mixed neighborhood, and everyone got along pretty well," said Jones, 48. "But when the riots broke out, everything just erupted. And we lived right in the heart of it."

Working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, police patrolled the city. They responded to calls for help. They struggled to enforce a 9 p.m. curfew. And they barricaded the most tense sections of town, where blacks and whites lived in mixed neighborhoods that were almost always predominantly one race or the other.

On the second day of fighting, Henry C. Schaad, a white rookie officer, was shot when a sniper bullet sliced through the one-eighth-inch-thick plating of the armored vehicle he was riding in, striking him in the back, thighs and foot. The 22-year-old patrol officer would die after 14 days in intensive care.

Residents set fire to sofas and chairs and trash in the middle of intersections. Police let them burn.

Police and firefighters were lured into ambushes by false calls, only to be shot at by snipers. Police commanders excused their officers from responding to the most dangerous neighborhoods, comparing the riots to "guerrilla warfare."

"Blacks are firing at whites and anything that looks like white and whites are firing at blacks and anything that looks like black," detective Sgt. Thomas V. Chatman, an African-American city police officer, told a newspaper reporter on the fifth day of the riots.

On that day, the Newberry Street Boys, including Donnie Altland, were looking for one black man in particular, someone who had fought with their leader and had threatened to return. Instead, they opened fire on a gray Cadillac that was caught on railroad tracks - a car that only resembled the one they were awaiting. Lillie Belle Allen, who was in the Cadillac with her family, was killed.

News of the black woman's death was stripped across the top of the front page of the next day's Baltimore Evening Sun with a banner headline about the shooting, appearing above news of Apollo 11's return trip to Earth after mankind's first walk on the moon.

National Guard troops were ordered into York and the violence subsided. City officials could not say then whether the week of occupation by tanks and troops or several days of downpours had done more to quiet the disturbances.

"The killing of that woman was absolutely outrageous," said Geiselman, the retired newspaperman who covered the riots for The Evening Sun. "They killed her in cold, cold blood. I knew that town and I talked to people who I knew knew what happened. And they said, 'No dice,' that nobody knew anything. But in truth, everybody just covered it up."

Investigators speculated for years that members of the Newberry Street Boys were involved in killing Allen and that a loosely knit group of black young men had fired on Schaad and his fellow officers in the armored vehicle. But they never could put a case together.

The racial element - a white police officer shot in a mostly black neighborhood and a black woman shot in a predominantly white neighborhood - made things more difficult.

"People were reluctant to talk," Bloss recalled. "If you take the turmoil of the '60s and you have a witness to something like this, they probably would have been very reluctant to talk. You have to remember that when '69 ended, no one knew whether '70 would be a year just like it."

Reaction to investigation

When the county prosecutor announced this summer that he planned to take new evidence in the two unsolved homicide cases to a grand jury, the news set off such political sniping that a judge issued a gag order to keep everyone quiet. In back-and-forth stories in the two York newspapers, Mayor Charles H. Robertson and District Attorney Stan Rebert traded barbs about whether history should be left alone.

Robertson, who was a police officer during the riots and the first officer on the scene of Allen's shooting, contended that the renewed investigation "is destroying the city."

In the next day's news, Rebert shot back, saying the mayor should be more concerned for the victims' families and suggesting that only people with something to hide should be concerned about the new inquiry.

Investigators hope that witnesses will be more willing to talk about the killings, their anger dulled over three decades.

But on street corners and in shops around York, black and white residents alike remain hesitant to discuss the cases. Many would not reveal their names for publication. Others nearly came to fisticuffs while debating the mistreatment African-Americans incurred in the years before the riots. And some hinted at growing concern that all the talk about the riots would cause new riots.

"Now that it's been brought up, I almost wish that it hadn't been," said Harold C. Sweeney Sr., 64, an African-American native of York who works for the city's public services division. "Opening up them cases might stir some old fire up, put a little kindle under the fire. But now that it's up, they should finish it."

Like many others, Sweeney was reluctant to talk about the riots, explaining that his past was his past, something he was trying to put behind him. Sweeney's nephew, Taka Nii Sweeney, then 17, was the first black to be shot during the '69 riots when Bobby Messersmith fired into a crowd.

And although Harold Sweeney didn't shoot anyone, he was ready. "We were loaded for bear," he said, "and if I could have taken out someone in one of those tanks, I would've."

He's raised 18 children, ages 21 to 45, in York and says the only thing keeping him in town is his family. "This place is nice for raising kids and that's about it," Sweeney said over a doughnut and coffee. "Now, I make my own. My happiness, I create. If I could, I'd just walk away because this is not a town for blacks."

Race still an issue

Like many African-Americans interviewed, Sweeney said racism is often subtle in York. White women clutch their pocketbooks a little tighter when black men pass on the sidewalk. Suburban residents say they're afraid to come downtown because of a fear of crime - a reasib that blacks say is a euphemism for not wanting to mingle with nonwhites.

"I can walk the streets and be called a nigger, and I have lived downtown for 20 years and I can feel the heat of oppression," said Jones, whose house was firebombed during the riots. "But I have learned to pray about it and accept it because the people saying it are less fortunate not to know someone beyond their own skin tone.

"As I've gotten older and being a Christian person, I learn to accept people for their ignorance," he said. "When I was younger, it was a black issue. But now, it's a human issue."

Jones said he's in favor of reopening the investigations if it might help the victims' families. "It happened and you can't change what happened," he said, "but if it means they'll bring closure, then I think they should find whoever's responsible."

Others aren't so sure.

"I have no qualms with the colored people, but I do think they're trying to irritate this thing a little bit," said Robert Ilyes Sr., 68, a white York native who owns a produce stand at the Central Market House downtown. "I told the district attorney's helper that the best thing to do is to keep everything a little quiet."

Ilyes said he doesn't understand all the huff about the riots. Nor does he understand African-Americans' complaints that they're not treated equally.

"Our colored people in York get really good jobs," he said. "They work sanitation jobs, and they get paid really well. I don't consider black people any different."

Yet in talking about Christmas deliveries he made a few years back, Ilyes expressed surprise at the cleanliness of the home of an African-American family that ordered a turkey from him.

Gladys Markey came to the Central Market for the first time 57 years ago with her grandmother. Today, at age 66, she sells ham ends for $1.59 a pound and ham hocks for $1.09 a pound at the market's J. L. Miller Sons butcher stand. She can't comprehend why authorities would want to reopen an investigation into killings that caused so much pain so long ago.

"It just stirs people up," said Markey, who is white. "Once something's over, it should be left alone. It's not going to bring anybody back who was killed. And when they do things like that, it gets those people stirred up and makes them want to be a little defiant."

"It gives kids ideas," chimed in Doris Miller, who is also white and works four days a week at the Miller meat counter.

"It's like when people say, 'We were slaves,'" Markey continued. "We people weren't the ones who had the slaves, but they still bring that up today. I don't feel I'm above them. If I was on a bus and a black person wanted to sit with me, I wouldn't mind."

For Bloss, the county coroner and former police officer, the intensified investigations mean a chance to bring to justice those responsible for killing an innocent visitor and the first and only York police officer killed in the line of duty.

"There are loved ones in both of these cases and you never really have closure in cases like that," he said. "On every anniversary of their deaths, it pops right back at them. So it's the right thing to do for both of those families and for the community at large.

"It will be interesting to see at the end of all this whether the people they arrest are the ones we had suspicions on."

After a long pause, he added, "My gut feeling is, probably. But going to get convictions on something from 31 years ago is going to be tough."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad