The final four hours of 1972 in New Orleans featured two time-honored traditions.
One was the debauchery in the French Quarter, as thousands of drunken slobs got ready to change a calendar.
The second was the Sugar Bowl, which saw Oklahoma defeat Penn State 14-0.
Wait, a Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Eve?
Moving the Sugar Bowl from the traditional New Year’s Day slot it had occupied since 1935 to prime time on New Year’s Eve was made at the request of the American Broadcasting Company, which took over the television rights to the Sugar Bowl in 1969.
During the first three years it televised the Sugar Bowl, ABC noted its television ratings were far behind those of the Cotton Bowl, which was also played in the early afternoon of New Year’s Day.
For two of the three years in question, the Cotton Bowl matchup was Texas vs. Notre Dame. The Sugar Bowl offered Arkansas vs. Ole Miss in January 1970 and Tennessee vs. Air Force the next season.
Let’s see here…the nation’s No. 1 team two years running against the most recognizable brand in the sport playing in Dallas, against two all-white southern teams one year, then another southern team which only had a handful of blacks going up against a service academy, one which had zero following outside the Rocky Mountain region.
Who do YOU think would win the ratings battle?
It got little better in January 1972. Texas was back in the Cotton Bowl, this time facing Penn State. The Sugar Bowl had Oklahoma facing Auburn.
The Sugar Bowl started an hour before the Cotton Bowl, but when the Sooners bolted to a 31-0 halftime lead, TV sets everywhere outside of Oklahoma City and Tulsa flipped to watch the Nittany Lions and Longhorns.
In the spring of 1972, ABC demanded the Mid-Winter Sports Carnival, the New Orleans group responsible for the Sugar Bowl, move the game or else face cuts in team payouts.
ABC ponied up the cash–$575,000 per team, which in 1972 was a heck of a lot. The Sugar Bowl relented.
Sorry I got sidetracked with football. Back to the main story.
As the Sugar Bowl wound down, Mark James Robert Essex drove from his wretched boarding house on Dryades Street to the Orleans Parish Prison, known by locals as Central Lockup.
Essex’ goal in the waning minutes of 1972 was not to free prisoners, but to kill “pigs”.
His first target was a 19-year old unarmed police cadet named Bruce Weatherford.
Weatherford was assigned to work the graveyard shift–2300 to 0700–at the prison.
Just as the cadet emerged from his car after listening to the end of the Sugar Bowl on the radio, Essex fired his .44 magnum carbine.
The bullet missed Weatherford’s head, kicking up concrete chips as he ran towards the prison entrance. Weatherford waved to Alfred Harrell, a fellow cadet and good friend, to raise the gate to entrance, known as the “sally port”.
Even though Weatherford made it inside the prison safely, Essex kept firing. He struck Lt. Horace Perez in the ankle and shot Harrell, a 19-year old black, through the chest.
Lt. Kenneth Dupauquier checked Harrell for a pulse. There was none.
Alfred Harrell left behind a wife and a nine-month old son.
Essex ran from the prison and hid in a warehouse in Gert Town, one of the most crime-ridden sectors of the city. He set off an alarm inside the warehouse, and that drew the attention of patrolmen Edwin Hosli Sr. and Harold Blappert.
Hosli sent in his K-9 to sniff out the suspect, but before the dog could act, Essex shot Hosli.
The wounds turned out to be fatal.
Hosli never regained consciousness. He spent two months hooked up to life-support machines before succumbing 5 March 1973, the day before Mardi Gras. He was 27, leaving behind a wife and four children, one of whom, Edwin Hosli Jr., reached the rank of Captain with the NOPD.
Word of Harrell’s murder, Hosli’s life-threatening injuries and the bullet wound to Perez soon reached Police Chief Clarence Giarrusso, who naturally was angry and saddened by the turn of events.
Giarrusso’s second-in-command, Deputy Chief Louis Sirgo, led the investigation into Hosli’s shooting at the warehouse.
The next day, a group of officers prepared to storm the warehouse in an attempt to flush out Essex. Just before the raid was to commence, word came from headquarters to stand down. Many officers thought about defying a direct order and going after the sniper, but did as they were told.
With the city on edge as 1973 commenced, Essex went into hiding. His only known appearance in public during the first six days of the year came when he walked into a small grocery store at the corner of Gayoso and Erato Streets.
On the afternoon of 3 January, Cadet Alfred Harrell was laid to rest. Many of the NOPD’s top brass, including Giarrusso, Sirgo and Chief of Detectives Henry Morris, attended, as did Mayor Moon Landrieu.
The next day, a memorial service was held at St. Louis Cathedral for U.S. Representative Hale Boggs, who was flying in a plane over Alaska with that state’s Representative, Nick Begich, when it was lost in a snowstorm. Boggs, who was House Majority Leader for the 92nd Congress under Speaker Carl Albert, was declared dead the day the 93rd Congress convened.
A few hours after Boggs’ service ended in the French Quarter, grocery store Joe Perniciaro and his stock boy came to police headquarters with a tip about a customer who resembled the shooter at parish prison.
Apparently, the blacks who lived in the area knew Perniciaro went to the police. They tipped off Essex.
On the first Sunday morning of 1973, Mark James Robert Essex went to Perniciaro’s grocery store with his .44 carbine. As the grocer turned to run, Essex shot Perniciaro in the shoulder.
Essex left the grocery store and soon happened upon Marvin Albert, a black man sitting outside his South White Street reisdence in his 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle.
Albert soon looked up to find the double barrel of a .44 magnum in his face.
Essex demanded, “Hi brother. Get out of the car!”
Albert replied “Are you crazy?”
Essex then said “I’m only killing honkies today, but I will kill you, too.”
Not wanting to give his life for something as trivial as a car, White got out. Essex sped off in the stolen vehicle and headed straight for the Downtown Howard Johnson’s Hotel at 330 Loyola Avenue, across the street from the Louisiana Supreme Court and City Hall.
White flagged down officer Peter Dominick, who let White ride shotgun as they searched for Essex and the car.
Essex nearly t-boned another driver in the parking garage, then left the car on the fourth floor of the seven-floor garage. He attempted to gain access to floors on one end of the hallway, but each door was locked.
Then he got to the 18th floor, the top floor of the hotel.
A piece of linen placed there by a maid held the door ajar. Essex was inside the hotel, and his reign of terror was about to commence.
As he rushed by startled maids, all of whom were black, Essex said “Don’t you worry. I want the whites”.
The maids did not care Essex wasn’t going to harm them. They were far more concerned with the huge bulge in his shirt which concealed his .44 magnum.
The first person Essex encountered in the 18th floor hallway was Dr. Robert Stegall. He and his wife, Betty, resided in Martinsville, Virginia, and were on a belated honeymoon throughout the southern United States. The Stegalls were scheduled to check out of the Howard Johnson’s by noon and head east to Panama City, Florida.
Dr. Stegall saw Essex running and attempted to dislodge the rifle from the sniper. Essex recovered, hit the doctor with the butt, then shot him twice through the chest.
Mrs. Stegall pleaded frantically with Essex to spare her husband, but he shoved her aside. Once the doctor was bleeding out, Mrs. Stegall was shot through the back of the skull. He lay the bodies next to each other, then set the room on fire. He set fire to every 18th floor room he found open by squirting the phone directory with lighter fluid, lighting it, then setting it under the drapes.
In short order, Essex blew out the brains of the hotel’s assistant manager, Frank Schneider, then shot the general manager, Walter Collins, who died 19 days later.
With fires raging throughout the hotel, the NOFD quickly arrived on the scene. The first fire to climb a ladder, Lt. Tim Ursin, was shot in the shoulder by Essex from a balcony on the 18th floor. Ursin eventually lost that arm.
After shooting Ursin, Essex moved to the roof, where he began to fire at will every time a police officer came into view. A group of young blacks stood across Loyola from the hotel and loudly cheered “RIGHT ON!” every time Essex fired. The blacks also hurled epithets and threw objects at the police attempting to keep order.
When officer Phillip Coleman drove his squad car onto a grassy area across the street from the hotel, Essex shot Coleman in the head from a distance of more than 95 meters (315 feet). The 26-year old died instantly. Coleman’s partner, Ken Solis, was wounded, as was Sgt. Emanuel Palmisano. It took Times-Picayune photographer Gerry Arnold to take the radio from Coleman’s car and call for help.
Not long after Coleman was murdered, motorcycle officer Paul Persigo was also shot fatally in the head by Essex. The 33-year old Persigo was wearing a white helmet, making him a sitting duck.
By this time, Giarrusso had arrived on scene at the hotel. He had been headed to New Orleans International Airport to catch a flight to Washington for a law enforcement conference, but turned back when his radio crackled with news of the shooting. He actually was in the line of fire as he made his way down Loyola from the Bank of Louisiana building to the hotel. He set up his command post in the hotel’s lobby, a move which Giarrusso admitted in hindsight was not the best idea.
Word soon reached Giarrusso that two officers, Michael Burl and Paul Childress, were trapped in the elevator shaft. Electricity in the hotel had gone out, leaving the elevator cars stuck on the top floor. Burl and Childress were about to asphyxiate from smoke inhalation if they did not get out of the shaft soon.
Giarrusso ordered Sirgo to lead a group of officers up the stairwell where the elevators were located in order to free Burl and Childress.
As Sirgo led the group up the stairs between the 16th and 17th floors, Essex fired in the dark.
Louis Sirgo, hand-picked by Giarrusso to be deputy superintendent in 1970, six years after Sirgo retired from the forced while Clarence’s older brother, Joe, was police chief, had been fatally wounded at the age of 48.
Sirgo’s loss left Giarrusso and every other officer on the scene despondent. Essex had taken out three officers and four civilians in only a few hours, and Lord only knew how many more could die if this madman was not contained.
At the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station approximately 24 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of the Central Business District, Lt. Col. Chuck Pitman watched with horror as the sniping continued unabated throughout the afternoon. WWL, the CBS affiliate in New Orleans, cut into regular programming to provide frequent updates on the happenings at 330 Loyola. The reporting by Phil Johnson, Bill Elder and others cemented WWL’s reputation as one of the best local news affiliates in the country.
Pitman called Giarrusso and Landrieu to offer his services. After going through several ideas, Pittman suggested he would be able to take a load of officers up in a CH53 Black Hawk helicopter and allow them to shoot through the portholes which normally housed machine guns.
To Pittman, trying to take out one sniper had to be a hell of a lot easier than what he experienced in Vietnam, where his helicopter was shot down seven times. Pitman also made nearly 1,200 successful missions and had enough medals to make MacArthur and Eisenhower jealous.
Pitman landed his helicopter near the construction site of the Superdome. Three officers–Frank Buras, Thomas Casey and Antoine Saacks–volunteered to go up in the helicopter with Pittman in order to root out Essex.
Meanwhile, civilians were showing up at the hotel with rifles, elephant guns and all sorts of weapons, volunteering their services to find the elusive sniper. Giarrusso found out these false reports were being on radio stations across New Orleans, and those on WWL AM could be heard in places like Kansas City, Denver, Omaha, Louisville and Atlanta.
Giarrusso angrily told the civilians to leave or face arrest.
Rooting out Essex was easier said than done.
Pittman made two passes over the roof, attempting to flush Essex out of his concrete bunker on the east side of the hotel. The sniper returned fire, hitting the helicopter and forcing it to land.
On the third pass, the officers were able to hit the drainpipe which Essex clung to in the bunker, forcing him out into the open.
Once Essex became visible, a day’s worth of frustration was unleashed by Buras, Casey, Saacks and other officers, including Detective Gus Krinkie and NOPD Ballistics Chief Anthony Vega, who were perched atop the burned-out Rault Center, where Essex’s dastardly deeds began 39 days earlier.
Mark James Robert Essex was dead at the age of 23. An autopsy performed by New Orleans coroner Dr. Carl Rabin revealed Essex had been hit by more than 200 bullets.
Essex was dead, but Giarrusso and the others believed there were one or two more snipers somewhere in the hotel. The next morning, Pitman flew more sorties over the roof, but nobody else was there.
By early afternoon Monday, Giarrusso did what he had avoided doing for so long: he ordered an assault on the roof by numerous officers.
There was gunfire aplenty, but the only people wounded were NOPD officers, victims of friendly fire.
By sunset on 8 January, one of New Orleans’ greatest tragedies was over.
Giarrusso believed Essex was part of a larger conspiracy to kill police officers. Gov. Edwin Edwards encouraged the Louisiana Legislature to pass a new death penalty bill for such heinous crimes. Black leaders attempted to cool the temperature by pointing out Essex was not from Louisiana, but rather came uninvited from Kansas.
On the morning of 9 January, Essex was identified as the sniper. His boyhood in Emporia, his service in the Navy, his time in New Orleans all became public knowledge.
Nellie Essex, the sniper’s mother, blamed “white society” for killing “her Jimmy” and that it was time for “white America” to get off its “(butts) and do something”. This interview was broadcast on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite to millions of American homes three days after Essex’s rampage.
Persigo, Coleman and Sirgo were buried later that week, with Giarrusso and Landrieu leading the eulogies at all three funerals. Essex was buried in Emporia that Saturday, with many black militants in attendance.
The day after Essex was buried, the Dolphins defeated the Redskins in Super Bowl VII to complete their 17-0 season. It was good to be back to normal.
The Super Bowl, Nixon’s second inauguration, Roe v. Wade, Lyndon Johnson’s death, George Foreman’s stunning knockout of Joe Frazier and the Paris Peace Accords all buried Essex’s sniping to the back burner rather quickly. However, to those who were living in New Orleans at that time, and those who grew up in the city, it cannot be forgotten.
Through the years, I have regarded Mark James Robert Essex as as dastardly criminal, one who does not deserve any respect. My stomach turns when I see internet postings about how Essex is a “hero” and a “martyr” for black Americans.
People have prejudices. I have them.
However, it does not give anyone the right to use violence to correct those wrongs. Essex chose to shoot police officers and civilians in a show of raw hatred. He set that fire at the Rault Center, knowing most of the clients of the salon and Lamplighter Club were white, although a black lady was one of the ones who jumped to her death.
Giarrusso was subject to numerous death threats in the weeks following the carnage. There were threats made against his family that they would be kidnapped during Mardi Gras and held for ransom.
Mardi Gras 1973 was held under a very dark cloud. That year’s Mardi Gras already figured to be discordant, since the City Council banned parades from rolling int the French Quarter in August 1972. The racial tension exacerbated it.
Hatred reared its ugly head in New Orleans later in 1973.
On the evening of 24 June, fire raged at The Upstairs, a lounge at the edge of the French Quarter which was a known hangout for gay men.
The fire was blamed on an angry patron who had been denied entrance. He bought a bottle of lighter fluid at a nearby Walgreens, doused the stairwell upon his return, then lit a match to spark the inferno.
The fire killed 32, making it the deadliest in Louisiana’s history.
Two months before my birth, Wichita was the location of a sniper atop a hotel.
On 11 August 1976, 19-year old Michael Soles went to the top of the Holiday Inn on Douglas Street downtown and fired at will, killing three and injuring eight. Unlike Essex, who forced the police to blow him to bits, Soles surrendered and was sentenced to three life terms. He has been denied parole on numerous occasions over the last 31 years.
Essex and Soles are largely forgotten in the wake of Columbine, 9/11, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Stoneman Douglas, Uvalde and many others. Time may heal most wounds, but these still run deep.
Thank you for reading this two-part tragedy. I hope I didn’t depress you. Take care.