Category Archives: New Orleans
A grisly link from Emporia to New Orleans
NOTE: I realized one post would be way too unwieldy for what I’m discussing here. This is part one of two.
On the morning of 7 January 1993, I awoke and dressed for another day of school at Brother Martin High.
Splashed across the front page of The Times-Picayune was a headline and a picture commemorating the 20th anniversary of a bloody 30-hour standoff at a high-rise hotel which saw three New Orleans Police Department officers and four civilians lose their lives, with numerous others injured, including a firefighter who lost his arm.
That was the first I heard of the Howard Johnson’s sniper.
When I attended LSU in the mid to late 1990s, the basement of the library housed microfilm copies of the newspapers in New Orleans and Baton Roue dating to the 19th century, plus film of papers from New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and St. Louis, among other locales.
One of the first things I did was pull out The Times-Picayune film from the incident.
I discovered the sniper, Mark James Robert Essex, was born and raised in Emporia.
Yes, Emporia, KANSAS.
Essex grew up with two brothers and two sisters. His father was a foreman at the local meat packing plant. His mother was a strict housewife who regularly paddled her children when doing so was encouraged.
After graduation from Emporia High in 1967, Essex enrolled at Pittsburg State University, but he soon dropped out.
As a 19-year old without a college deferment, Essex knew he was a prime candidate to be drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam, where the war showed no signs of ending.
Not wanting to be transported home in a “cardboard box” (thank you, Country Joe and the Fish) from southeast Asia, Essex voluntarily joined the military, enlisting in the Navy, where the likelihood of combat duty was not zero, but far less the Army and Marines.
It turned worked out quite well for the young black man.
Instead of slogging through rice paddies and taking on enemy fire nearly every day, Essex was sent to the large naval base in San Diego, where he became a dental technician under the guidance of Lt. Dr. Richard Hatcher following basic training.
Southern California instead of the Mekong Delta? San Diego instead of Saigon? Jackpot.
By August 1970, Essex began to accuse fellow sailors of racism. He went AWOL two months later and was court-martialed in January 1971.
One month after his court-martial, Essex was discharged. It was not dishonorable, but it was certainly not honorable. This prevented him from re-enrolling in college under the GI bill, and would have hindered him in receiving healthcare from the Veterans Administration.
Essex’ hatred of white people dominated what was left of his life.
Following his discharge, Essex went to New York, where he spent three months receiving indoctrination from radical Black Panthers under the leadership of Eldridge Cleaver, whose more militant Panthers broke away from those led by Bobby Seale. Cleaver accused Seale of “selling out” because he was now living in a luxury penthouse in Oakland and toned down his rhetoric, much the same way Malcolm X before his 1965 assassination.
Cleaver’s group published a newspaper which included tips for black radicals on how to kill “pigs” (police officers) and “honkies” (white people). A mantra of the paper stated “revolution comes from the barrel of a gun”.
The Black Panthers were a shadow of themselves in early 1971. Essex became disillusioned after retaliatory killings by members of the Cleaver and Seale factions, and left New York in mid-May of that year.
Essex got out of New York just before two NYPD officers, Waverly Jones (a black) and Joseph Piganetini, were murdered by members of the Black Liberation Army, a socialist revolutionary group which was even more violent than the heyday of the Panthers.
Essex returned to Emporia. The hate-filled 22-year old was fired from job after job due to insubordination. He couldn’t even stick around at the meat packing plant where his father worked.
In his spare time, which was plenty because of his large swaths of unemployment, Essex was a voracious reader of anti-white literature. His anger was further stoked after the September riots at Attica State Prison in western New York, where 28 prisoners (mostly black) and nine corrections officers were killed.
Essex took the next step down his fateful road in April 1972 when he purchased a .44 magnum carbine from Montgomery Ward with the help of a friend. All Essex had to do to acquire the powerful weapon was fill out a one-page form.
That spring and summer, Essex spent his free time in vast open spaces around Lyon County shooting his weapon.
In August 1972, Essex packed up his .44 carbine and a sawed-off shotgun, along with a few meager possessions, and drove his 1963 Chevrolet to New Orleans, where a good friend, Rodney Frank, resided. Frank and Essex served together in the Navy, and like Essex, Frank harbored a strong hatred of whites.
Essex was accepted into a federal job training program. He studied vending machine repair and excelled in the course. However, he could never keep a steady address, moving from one dilapidated apartment to another.
As was the case at every job he held in Kansas, Essex found vending machine repair beneath him. He dropped out of the course and spent his days reading more radical anti-white literature.
In a two-week stretch of November, Mark Essex went from angry to deadly.
The Thursday before Thanksgiving (16 November), protests erupted at Southern University, a historically black school on the north side of Baton Rouge, 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the largely white LSU.
Those protests soon became full-fledged riots, prompting university president Dr. Leon Netterville to call from help from the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s office.
Soon, Gov. Edwin Edwards learned of what was going on at Southern, and he ordered the Louisiana State Police in. Edwards soon flew to the university by helicopter and spoke to the students, who mercilessly heckled the man who would go on to serve four terms as governor and later end up in federal prison on racketeering and bribery convictions.
Two students, Leonard Brown and Denver Smith, were killed.
This enraged Essex, who thought “pigs” were again shooting and killing innocent black people.
(On the other hand, Essex probably didn’t give a damn when four white students were shot and killed at Kent State in May 1970.)
Essex’s rage boiled into an inferno–literally.
On 29 November, a massive fire broke out on the 15th floor of the Rault Center, a high rise in the Central Buisness District.
The fire raged through the Lamplighter Club and an adjacent hair salon.
Several trapped on the 15th floor made it to the 16th, where they were rescued by helicopter, but sadly, not everyone could make it out.
Faced with the terrifying prospect of burning to death or otherwise dying from smoke inhalation, five women in the salon attempted to jump to safety.
Three died instantly. One died of her injuries several days later.
The fifth, Natalie V. Smith, lived more than 40 years after.
There were no sprinklers in the Rault Center, which angered then-Deputy Fire Chief William McCrossen. When he was promoted to the top spot in the spring of 1973, McCrossen immediately demanded all buildings be fitted with sprinklers.
Arson was immediately suspected.
Two suspicious black men were spotted on the 15th floor the morning of the fire. One of them matched the description of Mark Essex.
Unfortunately for building owner Joseph Rault, the New Orleans Fire Department and the victims’ families, they would never see Mark Essex brought to justice.
That’s because Essex wouldn’t live long enough to be brought to justice for the arson, thanks to more brazen crimes.
TO BE CONTINUED
The Superdome must be secured!
Donald Trump announced yesterday he would attend the College Football Playoff championship game in New Orleans.
Security was already going to be problematic with Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and nearly all 144 members of the Louisiana Legislature making their way down Interstate 10 from the state capitol, where Edwards, other elected officials and legislators will be inaugurated that day.
Adding a visit by POTUS is going to exacerbate the problem exponentially.
Security for the game will be as tight as it was for the two Super Bowls in the Superdome since the September 11 attacks. The Secret Service will take the lead from the Louisiana State Police and New Orleans Police Department for security, and searches will be much longer and more thorough.
The Superdome would be better off asking the Transportation Security Administration to get full body scanners and place them at each of the four main entrances.
I bring this up because 16 years ago tonight, the Sugar Bowl matched LSU and Oklahoma for the BCS national championship. Nearly 80,000 crammed into the Superdome, which was–and still is–a record for a football game in the facility. The record for all events is 87,500 for a 1981 concert by The Rolling Stones, although an estimated 95,000 attended a 1987 youth rally with Pope John Paul II.
Please forgive me as I go off the trail to tell another story about John Paul’s only visit to the Crescent City.
The pontiff hosted an outdoor mass behind the left field fence of the University of New Orleans’ baseball stadium a few hours after the youth rally. It was not the best idea. It poured before the mass, which proved to be the lesser of two meteorological evils for New Orleans in September (at least when there’s not a hurricane bearing down on the Bayou State). Better wet from rain than dripping with sweat.
If the Archdiocese of New Orleans was smart, it would have held the mass on Sunday morning in the Superdome and asked the Saints to play on the road in week one of the 1987 season. Sure, fewer people would have been able to attend, but it would have been much more comfortable for all. John Paul was frail after he was shot in May 1981 in St. Peter’s Square, but had not yet displayed symptoms of the Parkinson’s which would claim him in 2005. He made it through the nearly two-hour service, but Archbishop Philip Hannan breathed a lot easier when the pontiff got into an air-conditioned limousine after the service.
Now, back to LSU and Oklahoma playing for half the 2003 college football national championship.
I say half the national championship, because the media voting in the Associated Press poll had Southern California (DO NOT EVER use Southern Cal) atop its poll following the regular season, and the Trojans figured to stay there after hammering Michigan 28-14 in the Rose Bowl three days prior. The coaches poll was contractually obligated to name the winner of the designated BCS championship game its champion.
Oklahoma stayed No. 1 in the final BCS standings despite a disgustingly ugly 35-7 loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, the Wildcats’ first conference championship since 1934. LSU moved into the No. 2 spot following a 34-13 victory over Georgia in the SEC championship game.
Two weeks prior to the Sugar Bowl, the Department of Homeland Security raised the terror alert threat from “Elevated” (Yellow) to “High” (Orange). Since September 11, 2001, DHS devised a terrorism threat chart with five color-coded levels. The highest was “Extreme” (Red), followed by High, Elevated, “Guarded” (Blue) and “Low” (Green).
For the Sugar Bowl, DHS, LSP and NOPD ordered nearly all of the parking lots attached to the Superdome closed. Only the garage at the southwest corner of the stadium would be opened, and very few permits would be issued.
I was one of the fortunate few. I assisted the media relations staff in the week leading up to the game, and I would be in the press box on game night researching information for the media to use in their stories. The media from out of town had a shuttle running from their designated hotel to the Superdome, so they did not receive parking passes. Some media were staying at the Hyatt Regency attached to the east entrance of the stadium, so all they had to do was walk.
When I arrived at the Superdome, I got out of my car to allow a search of all areas, including the trunk. I was driving the Oldsmobile 88 which I totaled running into a deer in Kansas in October 2005.
I made sure to only take what was essential to the game to make the search easier. I took it in stride. At least my car wasn’t being searched for drugs or other contraband!
The Bayou Bengals defeated the Sooners 21-14, giving LSU its first national championship since 1958. Nick Saban celebrated for all of six minutes, 13 seconds, give or take. There was no Gatorade shower for Saban, which was a good thing for LSU players, given Saban’s anger over his dousing by Alabama players six years later when the Crimson Tide defeated Texas for the first of five titles won by Saban in Tuscaloosa.
Security was a breeze for the 2005 Sugar Bowl, where Auburn completed a 13-0 season by defeating Virginia Tech, but had to settle for No. 2 behind USC.
The 2005 Sugar Bowl marked the last time I have set foot in the Superdome. What I wouldn’t give to set foot in there one more time.
I’m into my last day in Kansas City. Tomorrow morning its back to humdrum Russell. All good things must end.
The fire some want you to forget
Every 24 June, the LGBTQ community pauses to remember the horror of a Sunday night in the French Quarter.
It was 24 June 1973 when an arsonist doused the stairwell of The UpStairs Lounge with lighter fluid, then set it ablaze. By time the inferno was under control, 32 people perished.
It was New Orleans’ third massive loss of life in seven months.
The first was a 29 November 1972 fire at the Rault Center, a 16-story high rise in the city’s Central Business District. One man died when he was trapped in an elevator. Five women jumped from the 15th floor; three died instantly, one died in a hospital a month later without ever regaining consciousness, but miraculously, Natalie Smith of Metairie lived to tell her story. She passed away in 2014 at 81.
Five and a half weeks after the Rault Center came the infamous sniper incident at the Downtown Howard Johnson’s Motor Hotel across Gravier Street from the Rault Center. Two hotel guests (a honeymooning couple from Virginia), the hotel’s General Manager and Assistant General Manager, and three police officers (Phillip Coleman, Paul Persigo and Louis Sirgo, the NOPD’s Deputy Superintendent) were cut down by Emporia native Mark Essex.
Essex was later identified as the sniper who killed NOPD Cadet Alfred Harrell New Year’s Eve at Orleans Parish Prison, then wounded Edwin Hosli in a neighborhood. Hosli passed away 65 days later without regaining consciousness. He also was fingered by many as the perpetrator of the Rault Center fire.
The Howard Johnson’s incident received national coverage on all three networks. Imagine if there were CNN, MSNBC and Fox News back then.
The Rault Center fire led the national newscasts hours after it occurred, although outside of New Orleans, it wasn’t mentioned after 29 November 1972.
The UpStairs Lounge fire rated less than two minutes on the next night’s CBS Evening News and barely a minute on the NBC Nightly News. Harry Reasoner and Howard K. Smith (a Louisiana native) didn’t mention one word about it on ABC.
The patrons in The UpStairs Lounge were nearly all homosexual males. One woman died, and it’s unclear if she was lesbian or a relative of one of the men.
In 1973, homosexuality in New Orleans, which was more progressive than the rest of Louisiana and most of the rest of the Deep South, was frowned upon.
The coward who committed the dastardly deed at The UpStairs Lounge was never caught. He took the sissy way out and committed suicide a little more than a year after the fire.
The College World Series championship series started an hour ago. I had Vanderbilt right. Arkansas, however, was a big disappointment, losing to Florida State and Texas Tech.
Michigan is the first Big Ten (B1G) team to reach a CWS final since 1966, when Ohio State won the championship. One of the Buckeyes’ best players was Bo Rein, who sadly perished in a January 1980 plane crash only 42 days after being named LSU’s football coach.
Had Rein lived, there’s no way LSU suffers 10 losing seasons between 1980 and 1999. Would he have won a national championship at LSU? Hard to tell. There were so many superpowers in that era. On the other hand, LSU would never have hired such duds as Mike Archer, Curley Hallman and Gerry DiNardo.
If Rein lived and coached a long time at LSU, do the Bayou Bengals entice Nick Saban, and later Les Miles, to Baton Rogue? Who knows.
The Big Ten has long complained about college baseball being slanted heavily towards teams in warmer climates, and in particular, the other Power Five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC).
I understand the weather is a problem. But Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and other Big Ten schools, save Northwestern, have no room to complain. They are raking in millions upon millions of dollars through the Big Ten’s television contracts and their partnerships with Nike or another apparel company, meaning they have plenty to build indoor baseball facilities, whether it be through capital outlay or donors.
Michigan has an athletic budget which dwarfs some COUNTRIES. Why can’t it build a dedicated indoor baseball facility in Ann Arbor, one with a full-sized diamond? If the Maize and Blue can afford separate hockey facilities for its men’s and women’s teams, it certainly has the money to build something more in baseball (and softball).
And why does Wisconsin not play baseball anymore? It’s inexcusable the flagship university of the Badger State does not play the sport when there is a Major League franchise in Milwaukee. It’s the same for Colorado.
That’s all from Salina. I need to get home pronto.
Mardi Gras: why did I bother?
It’s just another Tuesday in most of the United States. Most high school basketball teams in Kansas are in action tonight, although Russell High is not one of them. Norton is back on the court tonight vs. Hoxie, and I’m making the 120-mile trek to see Peggy. It means a late night, but I don’t have much work to get done tomorrow morning, so it won’t really put me behind.
In south Louisiana and the Gulf Coast all the way to the Florida panhandle, it is Mardi Gras, the day where people dress in silly costumes and celebrate the last day before Lent, the 40-day period where Christians are supposed to repent for their sins and make sacrifices. It also means no meat tomorrow, nor for the next eight Fridays. It used to be Catholics had to abastain from meat EVERY Friday, but starting in 1967, meat was supposedly okay on most Fridays, especially in the United States and Canada. Some more traditionalist countries still require abstience from meat every Friday, including Ireland and Great Britain.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is two big attractions in the same city.
One is the French Quarter, where hundreds of thousands of strangers from across the world rub elbows–and many more body parts–getting drunk and having a good time. Pretty much anything goes in the Quater during Carnvial, except complete nudity, sexual acts, and violent crime. The police know they’re not going to get anywhere by arresting every woman who flashes her bare breasts, becuase they would make enough arrests to fill every jail in Louisiana, not just New Orleans. I have never understood why women would show their breasts for plastic beads which cost four cents per pair at the Mardi Gras supply store.
The other main attraction are the parades, where the laws apply and are strictly enforce. Don’t try flashing on St. Charles Avenue; if you do, you’ll have free accomodations in the New Orleans lockup. Parades are supposed to be family friendly, with ornate floats decorated around a central theme, marching bands and other groups which are common sights to those who have been to the pagents more than a few times.
I went to many parades during my formative years. Now that I’ve been gone from Louisiana for 12 1/2 years, I look back and wonder what the fuss was all about.
There used to be several parades in St. Bernard Parish (county), the suburban area east of New Orleans where I grew up. I marched in a few of those parades when I was with the Arabi Park Middle School band in the sixth and seventh grades. The worst was marching in one on a Tuesday night, not getting home until after midnight, then having to go to school in the morning. There were also a couple of parades where the temperatures were below freezing, and that was pure misery. In warmer weather, the band uniforms were tortuously hot. I’m glad I got out of marching band in high school, because I would have hated to have to sit in the bleachers at football games in those hot things.
My parents, brother and I used to go to all of the parades in St. Bernard. There was a parade on Mardi Gras, the Krewe of Arabi, named after the westernmost community in the parish, the one where I grew up. Every Fat Tuesday, the four of us would park in an open lot at the corner of Judge Perez Drive and Rowley Boulevard, and we could wait in the car until the parade passed by. When the parade was ready to come by, we walked to the median (called the neutral ground in New Orleans0 and watched the floats and bands passed. We always ate Popeye’s fried chicken, fitting since the first Popeye’s opened in 1972 at the corner of Judge Perez and Rowley.
The last Krewe of Arabi parade was in 1987. In 1988, we started going to the Krewe of Argus parade in Metairie, the largest community in Jefferson Parish, west of the city. Finally, in 1991, we went to the big kahuna, the Krewe of Rex, who is known in the city as the King of Carnival.
My parents were not keen on us going to parades in New Orleans proper. There was much crime on the parade routes, especially at night, and they had seen it first hand in their early days of marriage. We went to Mid-City from 1986 through ’91, but that was a daytime parade in an area of the city which was nowhere near as dangerous as some areas of St. Charles.
We went to the Krewe of Ednymion, one of the so-called “Super Krewes”, for three years in the early 1990s. The first two years, we stood on Canal Street in the same place we held for Mid-City, then shifted to Orleans Avenue near the start of the parade in 1992. In 1993, my dad and I alone went to Poydras and St. Charles to see Endymion, but we left before the first float arrived.
In 1994, Endymion was the first parade I went to alone. I saw a few of my adult friends at a tavern near the start of the parade route, and that is where I had my first taste of alchol, not counting communion wine.
Ray Maher had the bartender at the Parkway Tavern slip bourbon into my Coca-Cola. I tasted something funny right away, and I immediately washed it out. Ray and the older guys hooted and hollered about that one and reminded me of it for the next 11 years. I am grinning about it right now, but 24 years ago, it had me a little concerned.
Ray and several of my adult friends in New Orleans are members of the Krewe of Thoth, which has the longest route of any Mardi Gras parade.
Thoth starts much farther west than most parades that roll along St. Charles Avenue. It starts at the corner of Tchoupitoulas (CHOP-i-TOO-las) and State Streets by the Missisippi River and goes north on Henry Clay to Magazine, and then to Napoleon, where it follows the route taken by Bacchus and most other Uptown parades (not Rex, which starts at the corner of South Claiborne and Napoleon to head south towards St. Charles). The Thoth route takes in numerous hostpitals for people with special needs, and Children’s Hospital, one of the nation’s elite pediatric faciltiies.
I atteneded Thoth in ’92 and ’93 with my dad, then ’94 alone. The good thing about Thoth’s starting potnt was there was plenty of parking at the Audubon Zoo, which was not that far of a walk to Henry Clay Avenue. In those days, the parade started at the corner of Henry Clay and Magazine and headed south towards Tchoupitoulas, so I would go down Henry Clay and see eveyrone I knew before the parade started.
Every time I was at Thoth, I was bombarded with beads, doubloons and cups. There was a scramble among other parade goers for the trinkets. Looking back, I should have let them have most of it.
The 1994 Thoth parade is the last one I ever attended. Two days later, Mardi Gras came and went with me sitting at home. By Mardi Gras 1995, my life was in total turmoil, and I was seriously considering the end. I had a terrible go of it at LSU that year, and I wondered if life was worth living. However, most of it was self-inflicted.
If I ever returned to New Orleans, Thoth would be the ONLY parade I would consider attending. And even then, it would be only 50/50.
Bacchus and Endymion, the parades which feature celebrity guests, are too big for my taste. I can only remmeber John Goodman and Chicago appearing in Endymion one year. I can’t tell you who was there in the other years. This year, Rod Stewart rode in Endymion with former Saints player Steve Gleason and current player Alvin Kamara. J.K. Simmons was King of Bacchus.
Sorry, I don’t need to see celebrities in person to feel my life has meaning. I got my fill in July 1992 when I happened to see Bill Clinton and Al Gore jogging in downtown St. Louis during their campaign.
During the rest of my years in Louisiana, I often had sporting events to keep my mind away from Mardi Gras, whether it be LSU baseball games or high school events. When Mardi Gras fell late in the calendar (late February or early March), it happened to be on a day when the Louisiana High School Athletic Association scheduled basketball playoff games. The LHSAA would grant south Louisiana schools the option to play the game Monday or Wednesday of that week, but in north Louisiana, the games went on as scheduled, and many south Louisiana schools had to give up Mardi Gras to drive four to five hours for a game, then make the long return trip. Fortunately, the players and coaches could sleep in because there was no school on Ash Wednesday.
Sadly, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, traditionally the last parade of Mardi Gras, has not held a parade since 1991, due to a boneheaded ordinance by the late Dorothy Mae Taylor, who insisted all krewes must prove to the city that they do not discriminate based upon race or religious orientation.
Comus and two-other old-line krewes, Momus and Proteus, quit parading, although Proteus returned in 2000 after a seven-year hiatus.
Most of Comus’ members–all male, all white, all Protestant–are also members of the Pickwick Club, one of the world’s most exclusive private clubs. How exclusive? Drew Brees can’t get in after winning a Super Bowl, simply because he’s a native of Texas. Warren Buffett? Nope. Bill Gates? Nope. Donald Trump? Nada.
Rex’s members are members of the secretive Boston Club. Until the ordinance, Rex was also all WASP, but now the krewe admits blacks, Catholics and Jewish men. The original ordinance would have forced krewes who wanted to parade to be coed, but that was removed to allow the all-male and all-female krewes, which are most, to parade as long as their racial barriers came down.
Not that I care. I wouldn’t want to waste my time and money with it anyway.
Zulu has been rolling for over two hours now, and Rex for over an hour. Yippee. It’s just another day for me.
Mardi Gras 1973: wrong time, wrong place
March 6 is a potential date for Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras always depends on the date of Easter, which is a moveable feast on the Roman Catholic Church calendar, unlike Christmas.
Mardi Gras hasn’t occurred on March 6 since 1984. I remember going to the parades in St. Bernard Parish with my parents and younger brother at the corner of Judge Perez Drive and Rowley Boulevard, a little over a mile from our house. Stacie Dauterive (Seube) and her family were only four blocks from that location, so they could walk. Stacie, Jeff and their children live at 905 Badger Drive now.
Prior to 1984, the previous time Mardi Gras fell on March 6 was 1973. If there ever was a year where Mardi Gras felt inappropriate, other than in the wake of Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina, or during hte middle of World Wars, it had to be 1973.
Mardi Gras 1973 marked the first time parades were not allowed to travel the streets of the French Quarter. The streets of the Quarter are very narrow, and the floats were a hazard should there be a fire or other emergency.
Instead of the big parades going into the Quarter, they were diverted south on Poydras Street to the Rivergate Convention Center, or south on Canal Street to North Rampart, where the parades would disband at the Municipal Auditorium. The Superdome was under construction at tha time, and the Morial Convention Center was still years away.
Following Super Bowl VI on January 16, 1972, it seemed one grim episode after the other followed.
New Orleans icon Mahalia Jackson, widely regarded as the queen of Gospel music, died only a few days after Super Bowl VI. Although she lived the final years of her life in Chicago, she always considered New Orleans home, and in fact, made an impromptu visit to the very first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970 at Congo Square.
Speaking of JazzFest, it moved to the Fairgrounds horse racing track in 1972, and it has remained there ever since.
The Saints regressed in 1972, going from 4-8-2 to 2-11-1. Archie Manning took every snap during his second season after alternating with Edd Hargett as a rookie. Coach J.D. Roberts completed his second full season after taking over midway through the 1970 campaign. He would be fired after four exhibition games in 1973. New Orleans earned the No. 2 overall draft pick for its pitifulness, but traded it to Baltimore for mediocre defensive lineman Billy Newsome. The Colts accepted the gift and turned into Bert Jones, the All-America quaterback from LSU who took Baltimore to three AFC East division titles in 1975, 1976 and 1977.
The real catastrophies began Nov. 29, 1972. All of them can be traced to a Kansas native who turned from quiet boy to hate monger during a stint in the Navy.
The first was a fire at the Rault Center, a high rise building on Loyola Aveneue in the city’s Central Business District. Numerous people were trapped in a private club and a hair salon on the 15th floor. Several climbed to the roof and were rescued by helicopter, but tragically, five women were faced with a horrific choice: get burned to death or jump to death. All of the women chose the latter. Four died instantly. A fifth somehow survived. A man also died of burns.
There were no sprinklers in the high rise buidling, since the city of New Orleans did not require them. Also, the New Orleans Fire Department lacked rescue equipemnt for buildings that tall.
Arson was suspected in the Rault Center fire. Nobody was charged, but less than two months later, the primary culprit emerged, a culprit who would cause the city much more suffering.
Less than one hour before the arrival of 1973, 23-year old Mark James Robert Essex, who was born and raised in Emporia, opened fire on the Orleans Parish Prison. He was seeking to kill as many cops (“pigs) as possible, and felt a shift change at the prison would be the perfect opportunity.
Essex’s first victim was 19-year old police cadet Alfred Harrell, who took a bullet in the heart. He was dead before an ambulance could arrive.
The irony was Harrell was black. Essex was looking to kill whites (“honkies”), feeling they had conspired to keep him down.
Essex wounded Lt. Horace Perez at the prison before moving to warehouse on the opposite side of Interstate 10 from the prison. There, he ambushed two officers, shooting Edwin Hosli, who would die of his wounds March 5.
Essex went into hiding for the next week before emerging the morning of January 7, 1973. He began the day by shooting grocery store owner Joe Perniciaro, feeling Perniciaro had gone to the police and ratted Essex out. Next Essex carjacked Marvin Albert, a black Vietnam War veteran, as he sat in his car. Essex told Albert “I”m only killing honkies today, but I will kill you, too.”
Essex drove Albert’s stolen car to the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge at 330 Loyola Aveneue, across the street from the Rault Center. There, he went on a killing spree, murdering a couple from Virginia on a belated honeymoon; the hotel’s assitant general manager and general manager; and three police offers, including Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo.
Following the Sirgo murder, Essex hid in a cubicle on the roof and fired down at the street. Hundreds of blacks had massed across Loyola near City Hall, and they cheered “Right On!” every time Essex fired his .44 Ruger Deerslayer carbine.
It took a Marine helicopter flown by Lt. Col. Chuck PItman to root out Essex. From the helicopter, three officers shot and killed Essex.
Later that week, the owner of the Rault Center, Joseph Rault, told the media he believed Essex was in the building Nov. 29, the day of the fire. It made sense that Essex would burn out the Rault Center, in order to prevent the police from using it as a nest to pick him off at the Howard Johnson’s.
Following Mardi Gras, there was still more bad times to come in the Big Easy.
The Misssissippi River was in complete flood by early May. The Old River Control Structure north of Vidalia was in imminent danger of failure, which would have changed the course of the Misssissippi right then and there. Instead of meandering past Baton Rouge and New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, Old Man River would have flowed down the path of the Atchafayla River, exiting into the Gulf at Morgan City. New Orleans would have been left high and dry with a massive salt water intrusion into its drinking supply.
It took repairs to the ORCS and the opening of the Morganza Spillway near New Roads to prevent catastrophe. Morgan City was inundated and angry, but Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana’s two largest cities, had to be spared, or the state’s economy might have collapsed immediately.
The came June 24.
That Sunday night, an arsonist started an inferno at The Upstairs lounge, a noted hangout for homosexuals. Thirty-two people perished in the city’s worst hate crime. Nobody was ever charged.
It would get better in New Orleans. But the events of 1972 and 1973 were a dark stain, one which I didn’t witness, but I’ve heard more than enough about.