Memories, evidence lost since York killing

Court hearing examines likely fairness of trial in 1969 race riots death

November 20, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. - In more than seven hours of witness testimony, attorneys representing six of the nine white men charged in the 1969 race riot killing of Lillie Belle Allen offered a stunning display yesterday of the effect of time on the unsolved murder case.

The lead state police investigator has Alzheimer's disease and can't remember anything about the months he spent trying to determine who killed the 27-year-old daughter of a black preacher as race riots swept through this blue-collar southern Pennsylvania city.

Bullet fragments have been lost, seized weapons were returned, and the bullet-riddled Cadillac in which Allen had been riding was sold for scrap parts within months of the July 21, 1969, shooting.

Scores of potential witnesses - who might or might not have been able to provide information about the killing - have died, and the memories of those still around have dulled with time.

"Thirty-two years have come and gone before there were any arrests made," defense attorney William C. Costopoulos said in opening the first of two days of testimony in the hearing. "The issue is whether the 32-year delay has been prejudicial to the defendants and if it has been ... whether the delay is excusable."

Costopoulos - one of three attorneys representing Mayor Charlie Robertson, who was a police officer at the time of the riots - and lawyers for five of Robertson's codefendants are trying to convince a judge that the murder charges should be dropped.

The decades-long delay, they argued, has violated the men's due-process rights and makes it impossible for them to get a fair trial.

Robertson is charged with murder for allegedly distributing ammunition to the young white gang members now accused of shooting Allen and encouraging them to kill as many blacks as they could.

Prosecutors present their side of the case today and are expected to lay out a detailed timeline of what investigators knew about the case and when they knew it, rebutting defense claims that police had just as much information 32 years ago as authorities did when they arrested the nine men earlier this year.

During yesterday's testimony, retired York Police Detective Thomas V. Chatman Jr. described how authorities in 1969 "felt we were up against a brick wall" with the Allen case.

"The state police pulled out when it became apparent that we couldn't get everything we needed and at that point, the city police went back to investigating regular crimes," he said.

Although police had heard rumors of who was involved in the shooting and even considered several of the current defendants to be suspects, they did not have the physical evidence or witness testimony to corroborate their suspicions, Chatman testified.

"People told you things they would not testify to" in court, he said. "They'd tell you things just confidentially."

A string of former York County district attorneys testified that they could not prosecute anyone in the case because they had neither leads nor investigative authority. Many of the elected prosecutors never heard of the unsolved Allen case before or during their tenure.

"It's not that we weren't concerned about it; we didn't know about it," said Donald L. Reihart, who was elected to one four-year term as district attorney in 1974. "The case had not been brought to my attention by police, by a private citizen, by anybody."

For many witnesses, it was a struggle to recall exact details of the night Allen was gunned down as her family unknowingly drove through a hostile white neighborhood at the height of the race riots.

"In the 32 years since [Allen's death], I've thought about these events," said Dennis McMaster, a retired York police officer who responded to the scene of Allen's shooting in 1969 with Robertson and two or three other officers.

"My problem is that I'm not sure - and I can't be sure, in all honesty - what I remember and what someone told me," McMaster said.

McMaster, now a police chief in Cumberland County, Pa., also testified that he saw Robertson hand a box of bullets to the brother of two defendants although he was not exactly sure when it happened.

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