Lies alleged in probe of 1969 killing

York, Pa., court is told about new evidence in race riot shooting

November 21, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. - When police investigators talked to Joe Diaczun in 1969 to find out what he knew about the killing of a black preacher's daughter in his neighborhood, he told them he had been asleep in bed and knew nothing about it.

His mother backed up his story.

But when York County Detective Rodney V. George spoke with Diaczun last year after authorities reopened the investigation into Lillie Belle Allen's death, Diaczun confessed that he lied 31 years earlier.

He had actually stuffed pillows under his covers that night to make it look like he was in bed, sneaked out the back window and was on the street when Allen was gunned down by a throng of young, white gang members.

Diaczun is one of 18 witnesses who prosecutors now contend lied to police or withheld information when they were questioned 32 years ago about the killing, which occurred on the fifth of 10 days of racial violence.

Prosecutors say such deceptions - rather than investigators' negligence or misconduct, as defense attorneys allege - prevented authorities from prosecuting the murder sooner.

"This investigation was stonewalled from the very beginning," York County prosecutor Edward A. Paskey said in an interview after yesterday's hearing.

"Sure, there may be a certain amount of prejudice [because of the delay]. But the prosecution was not intentionally delayed to gain a tactical advantage. The fact of the matter is that people lied."

Lawyers for the nine white men accused in Allen's death, including York Mayor Charlie Robertson, are trying to convince a judge that the murder charges should be dropped.

The delay has violated the defendants' due-process rights, they say, and makes it impossible for them to get a fair trial.

Bucks County Judge Edward G. Biester Jr. wrapped up two days of testimony on the issue yesterday and scheduled lawyers' closing arguments for Dec. 18. It is possible that he could announce his decision the same day.

Biester was brought in to hear the case because several York judges are former district attorneys. Two were called Monday as witnesses to explain why they did not prosecute the case during their tenures.

No matter what Biester decides, both sides have said they will appeal the decision, likely tying the case up for several more years before a trial can be held.

During more than six hours of testimony yesterday, George, the county detective, described interviews with nearly all of the 309 people investigators have questioned since reopening the unsolved murder case in March 2000 - an exhaustive exercise that the judge compared to reading the catalog of ships in The Iliad.

"Not too many people get through it without their eyes glazing over," Biester quipped several hours into George's testimony.

But prosecutors said the detail was necessary to rebut defense claims that police had just as much information 32 years ago as authorities did when they arrested the nine men earlier this year.

"We didn't have a choice," Paskey said. "The nature of this attack was to challenge the very fiber of this investigation over the years."

The detailed account offered a glimpse into the breadth of an investigation that has taken authorities to 14 states and continues to generate new leads even now.

George and his team interviewed every living York police officer who was on the job in July 1969. If an officer had died, they contacted family members on the off chance that the officer had shared a snippet about the riots.

They tracked down potential witnesses with the scantiest of leads: One man whose name appeared on a scrap of paper in York Police Department files about the riots with an undated note that said he knew "who shot the woman in the Cadillac" was found in Florida. The man died of cancer before George could follow up on a phone conversation with him.

Facing the unexplained disappearance of physical evidence, including bullet fragments extracted from Allen's body and the bullet-riddled Cadillac in which she had been riding, investigators tried to fill in the holes with new evidence. The exhumation of Allen's body this summer yielded small lead fragments from bullets, and a new autopsy provided more detailed information about the wound track and bullet trajectory.

Allen, 27, from Aiken, S.C., was visiting relatives in York when she was killed. Three days earlier, white rookie York police officer Henry C. Schaad was fatally shot while responding to the shooting of a man on a motorcycle. Two black men were arrested last month and charged with his killing.

Sitting through most of the two days of testimony, members of Allen's family have struggled to comprehend how the defendants can even attempt their argument.

"We have been hearing the defense attorneys push the issue of the 32 years and all of us are appalled," said Michael Allen, who was in elementary school when his mother was killed.

"They're not trying to say they didn't do it. They're not saying they didn't shoot her. They're not saying they didn't excite other people to shoot her.

"But because time has gone by, they're saying, `We should be excused.' They don't have any remorse."

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