Racial-murder inquiry rocks York mayoral race

On Tuesday, racist past may hurt incumbent

May 13, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. - On July 20, 1969, a patrolman named Charlie Robertson was among a group of police officers who attended a rally with white gang members intent on protecting their neighborhoods as racial violence swept through their city. He admits thrusting his fist in the air and shouting "white power."

On Tuesday, voters in this blue-collar, racially diverse town in southern Pennsylvania 50 miles north of Baltimore will weigh Robertson's claims that he has changed as they decide whether to re-elect him to a third term as mayor.

Working against the retired cop are witness accounts that Robertson not only shouted racial slurs at the rally but also encouraged vigilantism and distributed ammunition to young men who a day later gunned down the 27-year-old daughter of an African-American preacher just down the hill from the site of the gathering.

Questions about Robertson's racist past have come up throughout his political life, but never as doggedly - and never with such potentially serious consequences - as they do today.

Local reporters follow the mayor everywhere. National news media have descended, sticking their microphones and cameras in his face. Almost everyone wants to know about the grand jury investigation into the riot-era deaths of Lillie Belle Allen, the South Carolina minister's daughter, and Henry C. Schaad, a white officer who was shot three days before Allen died in a torrent of gunfire as her family unknowingly drove into a hostile, white neighborhood.

Fearing that he could be the next arrested as police and prosecutors act on 11 indictments recommended late last month by the grand jury, Robertson has hired a prominent criminal defense attorney in addition to the lawyer he previously retained.

"I just don't know how they got my name," Robertson said last week as he greeted passersby from the steps of City Hall. "It's like there was just one man in the police department. I'm the mayor, and I think that could have made me a target for some of this."

Before the most serious accusations and suspicions about the mayor's possible involvement in Allen's murder began piling up, many viewed Robertson as having an edge over his opponent in Tuesday's primary election, veteran City Councilman Ray Crenshaw, a retired small-business owner who is the city's first African-American mayoral candidate.

Robertson has outspent Crenshaw. He enjoys a strong base of fiercely loyal supporters. And like many who have held office during the country's longest period of economic growth, he recites a long list of benefits York has enjoyed during his seven-year tenure.

But Robertson's sense of security, which has dwindled in recent months, shattered April 26.

Police arrested two former members of the Newberry Street Boys gang and released affidavits that detail the inflammatory actions of "an unnamed police officer," whose identity is known by the grand jury and whose conduct is strikingly similar to behavior attributed to Robertson by several former gang members quoted last year in a local newspaper. That similarity has fueled speculation throughout York that the mayor is the unnamed officer, casting him in a much greater role in Allen's shooting than he has admitted.

According to court documents, this unnamed officer joined the rally on the eve of Allen's murder, where he "addressed the crowd and did, among other things, scream `white power' and tell attendants at the rally to take any weapons that they had to Newberry Street." Additional witnesses testified that this officer "was clearly not trying to calm the group; in fact, he was `doing the exact opposite.' "

Several told the panel they saw this officer provide ammunition to young men on Newberry Street, including at least one who used it to fire upon the Allen family's Cadillac as they attempted to turn the car around to escape the crowd of armed white youths on the street.

One quoted the officer as saying, "If I weren't a cop, I would be leading commando raids against niggers in the black neighborhoods," according to the affidavits.

Citing a court gag order that prohibits those involved in the grand jury investigation from commenting on its work, authorities won't divulge the officer's identity.

But in interviews last summer with the York Dispatch, former members of the Newberry Street Boys and their cross-town rival, the Girarders, described scenes from the rally that closely match those detailed in the affidavits.

One of the men interviewed by the newspaper, Rick Knouse, was one of two arrested last week, bringing the number of men charged with criminal homicide in Allen's death to four. Another, Frederick S. Flickinger Sr., first testified in late 1969 during a civil rights lawsuit that Robertson shouted "white power" at the rally but did not level the more serious accusations against the mayor until he was interviewed by the newspaper last year.

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