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Jury Acquits Ex-York, Pa., Mayor in '69 Killing of Black Woman

Two others convicted in incident that ripped apart community during race riots.

October 20, 2002|From Associated Press

YORK, Pa. — The former mayor was acquitted and two other men were convicted Saturday in the shotgun slaying of a young black woman during race riots that tore apart York in 1969, the verdicts all but closing the books on a crime that has haunted the city for more than three decades.

Charlie Robertson, 68, cried after the all-white jury's verdict was read, saying later the tears were "from prayers."

The former mayor and two other men were tried in the death of Lillie Belle Allen, a preacher's daughter from Aiken, S.C., who was gunned down by a white mob on July 21, 1969. Robert Messersmith and Greg Neff were convicted of second-degree murder and face sentences of 10 to 20 years in prison; jurors had the option of convicting them of manslaughter.

The long-unsolved case is nearly finished: Of the 10 white men charged in Allen's slaying, six pleaded guilty earlier and await sentencing. The final suspect faces trial later.

The case was dormant for years before prosecutors, saying they had new information, opened it again in 1999. Many in this faded manufacturing city of 40,000 worried openly that the investigation and trial would reopen old wounds.

The riots, touched off by simmering violence between white and black youths, left Allen dead, white patrolman Henry Schaad mortally wounded, more than 60 people injured and whole blocks burned. It took 400 National Guardsmen and state police troopers to quell the violence.

Robertson, a police officer during the riots, went on to become a popular two-term mayor. Prosecutors said Messersmith and Neff were members of the white gangs that ambushed the car carrying Allen, 27, and four relatives.

Prosecutors said Robertson handed out ammunition to at least one of the gunmen in an effort to even the score for the shooting of the patrolman three days before Allen was slain.

One of the men who pleaded guilty, Rick Knouse, testified that Robertson gave him .30-06 caliber rifle ammunition and told him to "kill as many" blacks as he could.

Robertson admitted shouting "white power" at a gang rally the day before Allen's killing, but he denied the other accusations. He has apologized for those views, saying the mugging of his father by three black men when he was a youth affected him deeply.

Messersmith, 53, was accused of firing the shot that killed Allen, while Neff, 54, was accused of shooting at the white Cadillac carrying Allen and her sister, brother-in-law and parents.

The family was on its way to the grocery store when the car turned into a predominantly white neighborhood where armed youths had girded for war with blacks. The car stalled, and Allen was shot when she climbed out to take the wheel.

Robertson was the first officer to arrive at the murder scene. Though he credited himself with saving the lives of Allen's relatives, he and three other officers did not disarm gang members, take witness statements or file a report.

"Everyone knew who was involved," Robertson told Time magazine last year.

"But everyone just thought it was even. One black had been killed and one white -- even."

None of the three defendants testified at trial.

The jury had deliberated for about 10 hours over three days before reaching the verdict, appearing at times to struggle to come to a conclusion.

At one point Saturday, they asked the judge if it was too early to declare a hung jury; the judge said yes and sent them back to deliberate.

"It's been two years," Robertson said after the verdict. "I'm a little tired and I'm going home."

Defense attorneys said there was no definitive proof that any of the three killed Allen.

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