2nd gang member testifies against ex-mayor of York

Robinson, 68, is charged in death of black woman during city's 1969 race riot

October 05, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. - When a onetime gang member testified last year that former Mayor Charlie Robertson had tossed him a box of bullets and told him to kill black people during a deadly race riot in 1969, Robertson's attorneys dismissed the story as the testimony of a heavy-drinking, drug-abusing witness who struck a deal.

Yesterday, another former gang member backed him up.

"Charlie asked us if we were OK with our ammunition," former Newberry Street Boys member Arthur N. "Artie" Messersmith testified, adding that Robertson gave bullets to Girarder Rick L. Knouse and maybe another friend. Messersmith, 49, was unsure whether he accepted any.

His testimony came on the fourth day of the murder trial of Robertson, 68, and two other white men in the race-riot killing of 27-year-old Lillie Belle Allen, the daughter of a South Carolina Baptist preacher.

But defense attorneys seemed unconcerned with the testimony of Messersmith, the younger brother of defendant Robert N. Messersmith and one of six men who have pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for their testimony.

Under sometimes hostile questioning by defense attorneys, Arthur Messersmith admitted that he had been drinking and was high on "any given variety" of drugs in the days before and after the shooting of Allen. Heavy substance abuse in the 1960s could have affected his memory, he testified, despite 24 years of sobriety.

William C. Costopoulos, an attorney for Robertson, asked whether he knew what hallucinogenic drugs were.

"I sure do," Messersmith said. Asked whether he was using any the night Allen was killed, he responded, "I can't say for sure, but it is possible." Drugs known as Purple Haze, Window Paint and other forms of LSD were popular and accessible when he was a 16-year-old junior member of the Newberry Street Boys gang in 1969, he said.

"If you take enough of them, they can make you delusional?" Costopoulos asked.

Messersmith responded,"If you take just part of one, they make you hallucinate."

Outside the courthouse, defense attorneys belittled Messersmith's assertions.

Harry Ness, representing Gregory H. Neff, called the testimony "worthless."

Costopoulos said the account fits a pattern among witnesses testifying against Robertson. "What you'll see play out is that any time you see anything about the mayor," he said, "there will be a plea bargain on the table."

One notable exception is Dennis W. McMaster, police chief of East Pennsboro Township, Pa. The veteran law enforcement officer patrolled the riot-swept streets of York with Robertson. He testified Thursday that he was present when Robertson gave bullets to a gang member who asked for them, but that he did not think then that Robertson had committed a crime.

Despite prosecutors' hints to the contrary, Arthur Messersmith barely mentioned his brother's name, let alone offered incriminating evidence against him. Robert Messersmith is accused of firing the fatal shot.

Arthur Messersmith remembers seeing his brother with a "long-barreled gun" before and after the shooting. There were about 100 men on Newberry Street that night, he said, and so much gunfire as Allen attempted to turn her family's car around to leave the white neighborhood that the "flashes of light all over" reminded him of "a car flipping over with its headlights on."

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