Ex-York officer denies seeing bullets distributed to gang

He testifies for defense in former mayor's trial

October 12, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YORK, Pa. - In statements aimed at countering a string of prosecution witnesses, a former York police officer who was on patrol with Charlie Robertson the night a black woman was shot to death testified yesterday that he did not see Robertson hand out ammunition to white gang members before the shooting.

"Had I, I would have told him `Give that back or you've got a problem,'" James V. Vangreen told jurors hearing the murder trial of Robertson, York's former mayor, and two other white men charged in the 1969 race-riot killing.

Vangreen, however, testified that he was not with Robertson during the times that others claimed to have seen him passing out ammunition.

And in a withering cross-examination by prosecutor Thomas H. Kelley, Vangreen acknowledged that after the shooting, he did not question anyone, attempt to arrest anyone, call for backup, request detectives to investigate the killing or file a report about what he saw at the scene. He said he was not asked to do so.

"So it's your position that as a police officer ... you don't provide information about your observations of armed people within 40 feet of a dead body unless someone asks?" said Kelley. "Is that your position?"

Vangreen sat for a moment in silence. "That's a good question," he said. "But no one asked me."

Attorneys for Robertson called Vangreen and two other former police officers yesterday, as defense testimony continued for the second day. A parade of 16 character witnesses, including a former congressman, a state legislator and the former fire chief and police commissioner of York, also took the stand to attest to Robertson's reputation as law-abiding.

"It is excellent and above reproach," testified the Rev. Robert H. Stone, pastor of York Church of God and an elementary school classmate of Robertson.

During an hour of testimony, Vangreen said that he, Robertson and two other officers were first on the scene at the railroad crossing where Lillie Belle Allen was gunned down at dusk after her family strayed into a volatile white neighborhood.

Fearful for their own lives and within sight of men with guns running up and down the street, the four patrolmen felt their "primary job" was "to cover ourselves and just hope we don't get hurt - not to go chasing casings," Vangreen testified yesterday, the ninth day of the murder trial of Robertson and former gang leaders Robert N. Messersmith and Gregory H. Neff.

"Our job was to save four lives," he added, an apparent reference to himself and his fellow officers. Although four people were with Allen in her family's white Cadillac when she was shot to death, Vangreen repeatedly recalled there being only three other people.

"We shouldn't have went down there," Vangreen said of Robertson and the patrolmen who drove to the scene of Allen's shooting in an armored police vehicle. "We should have done what most police officers would have done, and that is waited."

Defense attorney William C. Costopoulos said in an interview that he called the policemen to counter witnesses' claims that Robertson offered ammunition and encouragement to white gang members who shot Allen.

"Charlie was one of the boys in blue," Costopoulos said. "I wanted to bring the truth to the jury about Charlie Robertson. He did not hand out ammunition to anybody."

The officers also were called, he said, "to bring to the jury's attention the courage and honor of the York City police and fire departments in 1969. They have been unfairly maligned. ... They were young men who put their lives on the line to restore order to this community."

Vangreen testified repeatedly how brave and heroic police and firefighters were for going into neighborhoods where their appearance in patrol cars and fire trucks typically drew gunfire rather than quieted it.

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