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