Testimony this week in York killing

Attorneys likely to outline cases tomorrow in death of black woman in '69 riots

September 30, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. - She was gunned down at dusk at a railroad crossing. The street teemed with more than 100 armed white young men as this blue-collar town throbbed with racial hatred and violence. Lillie Belle Allen and her family were driving to buy groceries when the mob on the street opened fire at 9 p.m. on July 21, 1969.

Whispered theories about who shot her circulated for years, but police were never able to find witnesses willing to back up investigators' suspicions that members of the Newberry Street Boys gang were involved.

For three decades, no one was arrested, and no one went to trial in the death of the 27-year-old black woman, the daughter of a Baptist minister from Aiken, S.C., who was visiting relatives.

That could change as early as tomorrow.

Twelve white men and women have been picked to weigh murder charges against former Mayor Charlie Robertson, 68, Robert N. Messersmith, 53, and Gregory H. Neff, 54. Opening statements will begin after the last alternate juror is selected and pretrial legal arguments are resolved. Five alternates were chosen last week.

Messersmith, former leader of the Newberry Street Boys, is accused of firing the shotgun slug that knocked Allen out of her sneakers and killed her. Robertson, a police officer at the time, is accused of supplying ammunition to gang members and egging them on.

"The fear and the trauma, you can't re-create that for someone who didn't live through it," said Peter Solymos, an attorney for Messersmith. "The town was gripped in terror, blacks and whites alike. The local police were outmanned and outgunned. The Pennsylvania State Police were brought in, and that wasn't enough."

By the time the National Guard rolled its tanks out of town after 10 days of rioting, Allen and a white rookie police officer had been fatally shot, entire blocks had burned, police had barricaded black neighborhoods and enforced curfews, 60 people had been injured and 100 had been arrested. Authorities charged two black men last year in the killing of Officer Henry C. Schaad.

Reopening the long-dormant cases in York came on the heels of the successful prosecutions in Mississippi and Alabama of other revisited crimes from the tumultuous 1960s. Within the past 18 months, two former Ku Klux Klansmen were sentenced to life in prison for the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four black girls.

Historical significance

The consequence and historical significance of bringing such a case to trial in York - and north of the Mason-Dixon Line, at that - is not lost on county prosecutors, who have buried themselves in thousands of pages of dusty documents and spent the past two years coaxing fading memories from dozens of unwilling witnesses to make their case.

"Without a doubt, historically for Pennsylvania, this would be a significant trial. It is following along the lines of the civil rights prosecutions that have been resurrected 20 or 30 years after the fact," said Ed Paskey, who left the York County district attorney's office and the Allen case in November and works in civil and commercial litigation for a private firm in York.

"But this is even more significant for York County than on a national level because it may give the community the opportunity to heal that it's been looking for for many years," he said.

Of calling Allen's sister, Hattie Mosley Dickson, to testify during a preliminary hearing in June 2001, Paskey said, "There were ghosts and spirits in that courtroom not speaking, yet everyone felt their presence."

Dickson is again expected to provide some of the most emotional testimony in the trial, recounting how her family had just returned from an afternoon of fishing when they decided to go out for groceries. Unaware that the city was in the midst of its second summer of race riots, Dickson chose a route that took her husband, parents and older sister through a hostile white neighborhood.

There, members of the all-white Newberry Street Boys were on the lookout for a group of black men who had threatened gang leader Messersmith. They feared the men would return to cause trouble and were on alert for the big white car they drove - a vehicle similar to Dickson's white Cadillac.

As Dickson drove through a gully and crossed a set of railroad tracks just inside the Newberry Street Boys' neighborhood, the Cadillac's headlights raked a house in front of her. There, she saw a man leaning out a window with a long-barreled gun getting ready to shoot and brought the car to a halt.

As Allen opened the back-seat door and prepared to take the wheel to turn the Cadillac around and help her sister get out of a bad situation, the young men lining the street opened fire. Witnesses said the blast that struck Allen in the chest was forceful enough to knock her out of her sneakers.

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