Revisiting killings renews city's pain

York: New investigations into the deaths of two people in the riots of 1969 have brought political battles, an outpouring of racial bitterness and a man's suicide.

August 20, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

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."

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