Woman says her family also shot at in York in '69

Shooting was day before gunfire during riots killed a black woman

October 04, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. - Alexis Joy Key and her family were returning from their usual Sunday night trip for ice cream when they noticed a mob of young white men lining North Newberry Street. It was July 20, 1969 - the fourth day of racial violence - and the area, she testified in court yesterday, "seemed to be full of anticipation."

As Key's mother steered her purplish-blue Cadillac Eldorado across a set of railroad tracks, "someone yelled out, `Niggers. Shoot the niggers.'" Bullets flew, striking the car, whizzing through its open windows and ricocheting into the face of her 3-year-old niece, Key said.

"It was unreal," she said. "We thought we were going to die."

They didn't. But the next day, in a nearly identical shooting at the same place, 27-year-old Lillie Belle Allen, the daughter of a Baptist preacher from South Carolina, was killed as she and her family drove across the same railroad tracks and into the same white neighborhood.

Key's testimony yesterday in the trial of former Mayor Charlie Robertson and two others charged in Allen's death countered an important defense claim, prosecutors said.

That Allen and Key's families suffered similar attacks contradicts the defendants' claims that they shot Allen in self-defense, prosecutor Fran Chardo said in an interview yesterday.

Defense attorneys argue that the white men feared Allen had a gun or mistook her family's white Cadillac for one driven by black men who had shot at and threatened white gang members.

"The shootings are almost identical," Chardo said. "They did nothing at all ... and they got shot."

Key's testimony came in the third day of the trial of Robertson, 68, Robert N. Messersmith, 53, and Gregory H. Neff, 54 - all of whom were arrested last year after investigators reopened the long-dormant case when witnesses came forward with new information.

Messersmith, then-leader of the Newberry Street Boys gang, is accused of firing the shot that killed Allen. Neff allegedly shot at the car. Robertson, then a police officer, is accused of handing out bullets and encouraging the gang members.

Dennis W. McMaster, who left the York police force in 1993 after 29 years, testified that he was with Robertson when he gave a box of .30-06 bullets to a young gang member who requested them the day before Allen was shot.

McMaster, now police chief in East Pennsboro Township, Pa., said he did not think in 1969 that Robertson had done anything for which he should have been charged with a crime.

"It wasn't against the law," McMaster added.

Former gang member Sterling Frederick Flickinger Sr. took the stand Wednesday and yesterday morning, telling jurors that he saw Robertson lead a "white power" cheer at a rally and that Robertson told him he would have been "leading commando raids against those niggers" if he weren't a cop.

Defense lawyer William C. Costopoulos questioned why Flickinger had not offered the same testimony in 1969 when he was subpoenaed in a civil rights lawsuit. Flickinger said he was asked only about the rally.

Costopoulos suggested that Flickinger concocted the story during interviews with a York Dispatch reporter.

"You got your picture in the paper?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," Flickinger said. "Next to yours, I might add."

The day ended with the much-anticipated testimony of Arthur N. "Artie" Messersmith, the younger brother of defendant Robert Messersmith and one of six men who pleaded guilty to lesser charges in return for their testimony.

Describing an occasion when he and some friends were discussing the violence with Robertson and another police officer, Messersmith said haltingly, "I can't say specifically that he handed me shells, but I recall him having some shells and saying something about shells."

When prosecutor Thomas H. Kelley tried to show him a statement he signed for police, Costopoulos objected, saying it was clear Messersmith did not remember whatever prosecutors were trying to draw out.

Judge John C. Uhler will rule this morning whether prosecutors can show Messersmith the written statement and remind him of his earlier claims - apparently that he, too, saw Robertson hand out bullets.

In an interview, prosecutor Chardo attributed Messersmith's hesitation to nervousness.

"It's probably pretty hard [to testify] with your brother sitting at the defendants' table," he said.

Acknowledging that Messersmith was not testifying about his brother, Chardo said, "That's true. That's coming."

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