York mayor faces murder arrest

Robertson plans to surrender 2 days after he won primary

May 17, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. - Less than 24 hours after celebrating victory in a close Democratic primary election, York Mayor Charlie Robertson tearfully announced that he will surrender today on murder charges in connection with the shooting death in 1969 of a black minister's daughter.

"I will be volunteering myself to the district attorney's office to be arrested," he said yesterday afternoon at a news conference on the steps of City Hall.

Struggling to collect himself as his voice broke with emotion, Robertson said, "I'm being advised by the district attorney's office that as your mayor, I will be handcuffed. The D.A.'s office will inform you as to where I'll be handcuffed for your photo session."

He continued: "Murder is the charge. I'm standing here in disbelief as to the charge, which they must prove. And to this I maintain my innocence."

For months, the retired police officer and two-term mayor has been beleaguered by speculation that he played a greater role than he has admitted in the riot-era killing of Lillie Belle Allen. The 27-year-old woman, who was visiting form South Carolina, was killed in a torrent of gunfire as she and her family unknowingly drove into hostile white gang territory as racial violence swept the blue-collar southern Pennsylvania city 50 miles north of Baltimore.

Robertson, 67, admits he attended a white gang rally on July 20, 1969 - the eve of Allen's shooting death - pumped his fist in the air and shouted "white power."

He denies, however, that he is the "unnamed police officer," whose inflammatory actions are detailed in affidavits filed as part of the grand jury investigation into the unsolved murders of Allen and Henry C. Schaad, a white officer who was shot three days earlier.

One of Robertson's attorneys, Richard Oare, said in a telephone interview last evening that he had "reason to believe" that charges were coming.

"Not these exact charges," he said of the criminal homicide charges that are expected to be filed today against the mayor, "but we had discussed that the district attorney's office was interested but had not formally advised us whether they were intending to arrest him and charge him."

He said prosecutors haven't specifically told him that Robertson is the unnamed officer mentioned in grand jury documents but that "clearly is the understanding that I have."

Prosecutor Tom Kelley, who is under a court gag order that prohibits him from discussing the grand jury's investigation, declined to comment on the mayor's announcement.

Meeting with prosecutors

Oare, a civil lawyer in York, and William Costopoulos, a prominent Harrisburg criminal defense attorney recently hired by Robertson, met with prosecutors yesterday morning, where they learned Robertson would be charged with murder.

Asked about the timing of the charges so soon after the primary election, Oare said he had written to the district attorney asking him to delay charges - if they were imminent - until after the primary election.

"There is some precedent - it's true on the federal level - for government officials to withhold the arrest of a public official while that public official is engaged in an electoral process so as to not affect the electoral process," Oare said.

The stunning turn of events followed Tuesday's primary election in which Robertson narrowly hung on to his political future, beating veteran city Councilman Ray Crenshaw by only 48 votes, according to unofficial results from the York County Office of Elections and Voter Registration.

The margin of victory was narrower than either campaign had thought at about 10 p.m. Tuesday when the mayor's supporters started celebrating at a local bar and cafM-i and Crenshaw conceded defeat from his campaign headquarters.

Howard Clarke with the Elections Office said that there is no provision that automatically triggers a recount in close elections but that vote tallies would be "verified" before official results are reported to the state in two weeks.

He compared the procedure to an audit that makes sure the lever-activated voting machines worked properly.

Although Crenshaw said Tuesday night that he would not seek a recount, the retired businessman said yesterday that he would speak with his advisers and campaign workers before making a final decision.

Call for resignation

Informed of the mayor's announcement, Crenshaw renewed his call for Robertson to step down if he is indicted.

"That leaves a real cloud over the position," he said on his way back to York from a funeral in Washington, D.C. "I think it's difficult - if not impossible - to run the city and try to defend yourself on an indictment charge for murder. The lack of confidence that would exist among the people of the city would certainly be heightened."

But Robertson's attorney said the mayor has no plans to resign.

"He has every intention of running for re-election and winning," Oare said. "It is my belief that at the end of the day, he will be exonerated of all criminal charges and, hopefully, he and the city can go on with its business."

Five men already have been arrested and charged with criminal homicide in connection with Allen's death. They are Rick L. Knouse and Gregory H. Neff, former members of a white gang called the Girarders; brothers Arthur N. Messersmith and Robert N. Messersmith, former members of a cross-town rival gang of whites called the Newberry Street Boys; and William C. Ritter, who was arrested and arraigned yesterday.

Court documents indicate that the grand jury has recommended 11 indictments.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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