`Proud of those other days'

For ex-York mayor, murder charge fouls decades of service

February 18, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. - After 29 years on the city police force, more than three decades coaching and officiating youth sports and two terms as the town's popular mayor, Charlie Robertson's place in life has been reduced to one unsavory label.

Murder defendant.

The 67-year-old York native's mouth twists into a scowl as he says the words. His jowls quiver and tears appear when he describes the feeling of being handcuffed and led away like the criminals he took pride in taking off the streets for so many years.

The hurt seems as fresh as the day last May when he summoned news media to the steps of City Hall to announce that he would surrender to the district attorney's office on murder charges in the 1969 shooting of a black minister's daughter.

"I'm proud of those other days," Robertson says, his eyes wet with tears, "and I'm not proud of the title that has been bestowed upon me by unremarkable people."

York County prosecutors - those "unremarkable" individuals to whom the former mayor refers - have accused Robertson of offering encouragement and ammunition when he was a police officer to white gang members now charged with gunning down Lillie Belle Allen after she and her family unknowingly drove into a hostile white neighborhood at the height of 10 days of racial violence.

These are unfamiliar times for a man who has spent the past 50 years in public service, from sweeping halls as a school custodian to working the streets as a foot, car and motorcycle patrolman and unabashedly promoting York as mayor and chief cheerleader.

Charlie, as he is known around town, is as blue collar as the only city he has ever called home - a manufacturing town of 41,000 known for producing peppermint patties and snack foods, barbells and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

He remains beloved at places such as Normas Restaurant Home Cooking, the folksy cafe where Robertson has started each morning since 1965 with nearly the same breakfast - three eggs up with whole wheat toast and a cup of black coffee - varying only the meat and amount of home fries with mustard. His poster-size photograph hangs on a side wall, and regulars still pal around with Robertson at the counter. For years, the cafe was known around town as the place where residents could go to bend the mayor's ear about potholes and missed garbage pickups and abandoned cars.

Beyond such places, he is sometimes less comfortable. People on the street have taunted him, calling him a killer. He removed a custom mayoral license plate from his city-issued car last spring so as not to draw added attention. And he remains concerned that for the first time in his adult life, he does not have a gun with which to protect himself, having been stripped of his permit.

Free on $50,000 bail since his arrest May 17, Robertson is awaiting a trial date on murder charges in the Allen case. He is unemployed, living off Social Security and pension checks.

Bullied last spring by political advisers he once considered friends, Robertson dropped out of his campaign for a third term as mayor only 10 days after winning the Democratic primary. He spent his last day in office, Jan. 6, riding snowplows with work crews clearing the streets. A day later, he joined onlookers at City Hall and watched with a mix of sadness and relief as John S. Brenner was sworn in as mayor.

"I had the opportunity to be on the podium with him, but it was his day," Robertson said in a recent interview - his first since his arrest - conducted over two days in the York offices of Richard Oare, one of his attorneys. "But the changeover," he added with a deep sigh and a shrug, "what could I do? I mean, what could I do?"

`York is my home'

Robertson was 59 when he was elected mayor in 1993.

By then, he had worked as a school janitor, served two years in the Army as a medic, and 29 years on the police force as a patrolman, drug investigator and night patrol sergeant. He was elected twice to the school board and spent more than 30 years coaching, sponsoring or officiating baseball, basketball, volleyball, bowling and football. He adopted a teen-age Cambodian boy - now 31 - but never married, breaking off a 13-year relationship with a woman who wanted him to move with her to Manchester, Md.

"No way, York is my home," he told her, echoing his response anytime someone asks why he's remained in York all these years.

Because of this "matchless affection," as he puts it, for his hometown, mayor was one job Robertson had coveted for 30 years.

"Like I always told my baseball teams back in the early '60s, someday I'd be the mayor of York," he said. "By getting out and getting around the kids, you get to be known. It was my idea to meet as many people and as many kids as possible, because I always felt that if you just take my 20 years of [coaching] American Legion baseball and get 18 kids on each team whose mother, father, grandma, grandpa and girlfriend came to every game, that was enough to win an election."

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