Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson Sniper

The Police Arrive

Fires set by Essex in hotel.
Fires set by Essex in hotel.
The first two police officers on the scene walked into the lobby a few minutes before 11 o'clock. They soon heard about a man running loose inside the hotel with a gun. He was shooting people and setting fires. The officers piled into an elevator. As they rode up, they stopped on each of the guest floors and scanned the hallway looking for the gunman. On the 18th floor, the elevator shut down. The lights went off and the doors wouldn't open. Smoke started filling the elevator car. The emergency telephone didn't work. The power had gone out at the Howard Johnson's.

Essex took the stairs down to the eighth-floor pool and patio area. He saw hotel guest Robert Beamish standing near the pool and shot him in the stomach. Beamish fell into the pool, where he floated for more than two hours before being rescued. Beamish survived the shooting.

Essex started lighting fires on the eighth floor. When he looked over the balcony of one of the rooms, down toward Loyola, he spotted a heavily-laden fireman climbing a ladder toward the ninth floor. The fire department had set up an engine and a ladder truck on Loyola Avenue in front of the hotel. Fire Lieutenant Tim Ursin was clawing his way up the ladder under the weight of an air bottle and a roll of firehose. Two policemen were following him.

Knowing there was a gunman loose in the hotel, officers Bill Trapagnier and Jack Uhle had decided to try to seize the high ground. Armed with shotguns, they scrambled up the ladder behind Ursin. The two policemen wanted to make their entry into the building as high as the ladder truck would allow.

Lt. Tim Ursin, wounded.
Lt. Tim Ursin, wounded.
Essex pushed his rifle over the edge of the balcony and shot Tim Ursin. The bullet blew the fireman's left forearm apart. "I looked at my raincoat and blood was pouring out of the left sleeve," Ursin said later.

Officer Ken Solis, wounded.
Officer Ken Solis, wounded.
Trapagnier was only a few feet below Ursin. "When he was hit, I was looking up and the blood all came down," the policeman later told a reporter. "I had blood all over my face and everything else." Trapagnier braced his feet against the ladder and started blasting his pump-action shotgun at the gunman.

Sgt. Emanuel Palmisano, wounded.
Sgt. Emanuel Palmisano,
Jack Uhle climbed past Trapagnier and grabbed hold of Ursin and helped him down the ladder. Policemen dragged Ursin behind one of the trucks and took at look at his wound. According to Peter Hernon, one of the policeman later said, "It looked like someone had slammed him in the arm with a pickax." Ursin survived but lost most of his left arm.

Officer Philip Coleman, killed.
Officer Philip Coleman,
As more police officers flooded the area around the Howard Johnson's, many fanned out into nearby high-rise buildings to get a better angle of fire on the shooter. They carried with them a variety of weapons, many of them personally owned. There were shotguns, carbines, hunting rifles, even a couple of elephant guns, but the vast majority of the police officers carried only their .38-caliber service revolvers. It was before the age of SWAT, and the New Orleans Police Department was not at all prepared for what was happening.

Officer Paul Persigo, killed.
Officer Paul Persigo, killed.
Essex stayed on the eighth floor, firing down onto Loyola Avenue — crowded with policemen, firemen, and spectators — and into the nearby buildings, from where policemen had started to shoot at him. Some of the spectators cheered every time Essex fired.

Officers Ken Solis and David McCann had been sitting in car 802 about seven blocks away from the hotel when they heard on their police radio that Phil Dominick was chasing a stolen car. They were hoping the car would come their way. A few minutes after Dominick reported that he'd lost sight of the stolen car, Solis and McCann heard the dispatcher say the Downtown Howard Johnson's was on fire. Then the dispatcher said officers were being shot at outside the hotel.

Solis and McCann parked their car at the intersection of Loyola and Perdido to block traffic from crossing in front of the Howard Johnson's. Columns of smoke rose from the windows of the hotel and gunfire crackled through the air. The two officers tried to push a crowd of spectators away from the street and into the relative safety of Duncan Plaza.

From one of the eighth-floor balconies, Essex spotted the two officers across the street in the open plaza. He took aim at Ken Solis and fired. From nearly 150 feet away, firing down at an angle of more than a 30-degree, Essex hit the policeman in the back of his right shoulder. "It felt like somebody hit me with a two-by-four across my back," Solis says. "A little bit more and it would have taken me out, but luckily it just blew my arm apart."

Dave McCann, who'd served a year in Vietnam as a Marine Corps medic, dragged his partner behind an oak tree and tried to stop the bleeding. Essex fired at the two officers again, but missed, his bullet kicking up only a clod of dirt beside the tree.

Sgt. Emanuel Palmisano was crouched behind his parked cruiser on Loyola when he saw Ken Solis go down. Palmisano broke out from behind his police car and sprinted toward Solis and McCann. From his position on the balcony, Essex fired at the sergeant as he dashed toward Duncan Plaza. The bullet shattered Palmisano's left arm and ripped into his back, but he survived.

Officer Philip Coleman and his partner were in their patrol car on Loyola at Gravier when Solis and Palmisano were shot. Coleman drove down Loyola and plowed his police car through Duncan Plaza until he pulled to a stop beside the tree that Solis and McCann had taken cover behind. In an incredible demonstration of marksmanship, Essex shot Coleman in the head as he stepped out of his car to help his fellow officers. The policeman died on the spot.

Police gunfire from the ground and from the surrounding buildings finally drove Essex from the eighth floor. After an unsuccessful attempt to get back to the stolen car he'd ditched on the fourth floor of the parking garage, Essex climbed to the 16th floor. He lit several more fires and continued crawling out onto balconies and firing down at Loyola Avenue. He wounded an ambulance driver, a civil defense fire chief who'd shown up to see if he could help, and killed Officer Paul Persigo with a shot to the head.


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