York mayor arrested on homicide charge

Accused in killing during '69 race riots

May 18, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. - Mayor Charlie Robertson was arrested and charged with murder yesterday in the ambush-style shooting of a black preacher's daughter during race riots that swept through this blue-collar town 32 years ago.

The retired police patrolman of 29 years and two-term mayor was booked, handcuffed and released on $50,000 bail.

He is charged with criminal homicide for inciting violence at a time when police and National Guard troops were dispatched throughout York to calm the tension.

He is also accused of distributing ammunition to white gang members who a day later gunned down Lillie Belle Allen as her family unknowingly drove into a hostile white neighborhood.

Wading through a throng of more than three dozen television cameramen, reporters and photographers, Robertson arrived at District Justice Barbara Nixon's office about 8:30 a.m. to surrender - less than 36 hours after he won the Democratic primary election in his bid for a third term as mayor.

After a brief preliminary arraignment hearing, the mayor ducked out a back door and climbed into an unmarked state police car to be driven to the Loganville, Pa., barracks for fingerprinting and a booking photograph.

He then was handcuffed and taken to the York County Courthouse for a bail hearing.

Accessory before the fact

A grand jury investigating the unsolved riot-era killings of Allen, 27, and a rookie white police officer who was shot three days earlier found that Robertson "acted as an accessory before the fact in the crime of first-degree murder" in Allen's death, according to court documents.

Rick L. Knouse, a former member of the Girarders white street gang, testified that Robertson gave him 30.06 ammunition and told him to "kill as many niggers as you can," according to the criminal complaint.

Knouse admitted that he used the bullets to shoot at Allen's Cadillac, which stalled on railroad tracks as her younger sister attempted to turn the car around and avoid the armed youths lining North Newberry Street.

Knouse was arrested and charged with murder last week in Allen's shooting.

Dennis McMaster, a former York city police officer who is now police chief of East Pennsboro Township, Pa., also told the grand jury that he watched Robertson give 30.06 bullets to either Arthur N. Messersmith or Robert N. Messersmith. The brothers were the first charged last month in connection with Allen's murder.

Robert N. Messersmith, former leader of the Newberry Street Boys gang, is accused of firing the first shot, sparking the torrent of gunfire that left Allen dead and her family's car riddled with bullets.

The type of bullets that witnesses say they saw Robertson distribute matches the ammunition that the mayor told grand jurors he carried on patrol during the riots. Robertson testified that after Officer Henry C. Schaad, 22, was shot in an armored police vehicle, he borrowed a neighbor's 30.06 rifle and ammunition for protection, according to court documents.

District Attorney H. Stanley Rebert said Robertson is not accused of supplying the fatal bullet. Allen was killed by a different kind of bullet - a rifled shotgun slug - but legally, that does not matter, the prosecutor said.

In the past three weeks, six other men have been charged in her killing, including Clarence Eugene Lutzinger, who was charged yesterday with criminal homicide.

Since the first arrest, actions now attributed to Robertson have been ascribed to an "unnamed police officer," whose identity was known to the 30-member investigative panel and whose conduct was strikingly similar to behavior attributed to the mayor by several former gang members quoted last year in a local newspaper.

Denies accusations

That resemblance fueled speculation that the mayor was the unnamed officer - an accusation that Robertson has adamantly denied.

Although he admits to a racist past - including shouting "white power" at a rally with Newberry Street Boys and Girarders on the eve of Allen's shooting - Robertson denies any further role in the visiting South Carolinian's death.

"Back in the early days on the job, it was what our community was about," the mayor said of racism in the 1960s, speaking to a crowd of reporters and onlookers yesterday afternoon on the steps of City Hall after he was released from police custody.

"You people don't have an idea of what it was 32 years ago when tanks were rolling up and down our streets and fires were burning. Please believe me, it was horrible.

"But it's changed," he added, flanked by his police commissioner, his lawyer and two black secretaries who work in his office. "We changed. The whole community has changed for the better."

Carrie Williams, 47, a lifelong resident of York, knows that people can change. But even if Robertson is one of them, she doesn't think he deserves to be mayor.

"The mayor was a public servant," the African-American customer service representative said after watching Robertson's bail hearing. "He took an oath to serve and protect all people, not just some people.

"He was a police officer for the city of York and black people's tax dollars were paying his salary just as much as white people's. If he was standing up there at that rally yelling `white power,' he was out of line."

Williams said she doubts anything will come of the charges against Robertson. "I don't think he'll serve any time," she said, "but I'm glad that this came out and he is truly seen for what he is."

Outside the courthouse, Gene Hines, a 64-year-old retired firefighter, surveyed the scene with apprehension.

"This thing is a damn circus," he said. "Just wait till they start arresting the people who shot the white cop. Because they have to pay, too."

A self-described Robertson supporter, Hines said the mayor has done a lot for his city and couldn't have committed the crimes of which he is accused.

"This is an unfortunate day for York today," he added. "I don't like to see a good man get smeared for something he didn't do."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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