Gang leader bragged of killing, two testify

Defense attorneys question credibility of convicted thief, forger

October 10, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. - Two acquaintances of Robert N. Messersmith testified in court yesterday that they overheard the white gang leader bragging about killing Lillie Belle Allen less than a month after the black woman died in a barrage of bullets when her family's car strayed into a hostile white neighborhood during race riots in 1969.

A group of Newberry Street Boys gang members was partying at Charles L. Fidler's apartment in August 1969 when conversation turned to the riots. When several gang members started talking about Allen's death - "We killed that nigger, we got her," Fidler quoted them as saying - Messersmith erupted.

"Mr. Messersmith admonished them for saying that" and punched a hole in the wall, Fidler testified yesterday. "He said, `I blew that [expletive] nigger in half. I blew that nigger in half.' ... What makes it stand out in my mind is that he was saying to these guys, `Don't say we shot her. I shot her.'"

Fidler's testimony came in the seventh day of the murder trial of Messersmith, 53, former Mayor Charlie Robertson, 68, a police officer in 1969 who is accused of supplying ammunition to the gang, and Gregory H. Neff, 54, who admitted to a grand jury in November 2000 that he fired three shots at Allen's car.

Yesterday's testimony was the first time prosecutors offered evidence that Messersmith actually killed Allen.

Defense attorneys questioned the credibility of Fidler - a 52-year-old convicted thief and forger - and a second witness, Ellis W. Stough, 67, who told jurors that he overheard Messersmith a week after the shooting telling friends that he was sure he fired the fatal bullet.

"It wasn't something I wanted to hear," lawyer Thomas B. Sponaugle said in an interview. "But I think you can judge the credibility of Mr. Fidler by his professional activities as a thief and forger. Are you going to believe somebody like that?"

During a sometimes-sarcastic cross examination, Sponaugle established that Fidler was facing 24 charges of theft, forgery, receiving stolen property and writing bad checks in two Pennsylvania counties when he first met with detectives investigating the Allen case in July 2001.

Fifteen minutes after his second interview with investigators, Fidler pleaded guilty to forgery and theft and was sentenced to two years of probation.

Two other cases were resolved through plea agreements for which Fidler was sentenced to six months of house arrest and 2 1/2 years of probation.

Fidler dismissed Sponaugle's suggestion that he received lenient sentences in return for offering incriminating testimony.

"The purpose of that meeting [with detectives] was not to make a deal or get a lighter sentence," he told jurors. "I flat out pleaded guilty and admitted to everything I did at the moment of my arrest."

Prosecutors could finish their case as early as today. Then, lawyers for Robertson will begin their case, followed by attorneys for Messersmith and Neff.

William C. Costopoulos, one of Robertson's three attorneys, said yesterday that he intends to mount a "very aggressive defense" of the former mayor.

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