Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson Sniper

The Siege

Police on the roof of the Howard Johnson.
Police on the roof of the Howard Johnson.
For some reason, Chief of Police Clarence Giarrusso decided to set up his command post in the lobby of the Howard Johnson's. To get to or from the command post meant running through a gauntlet of police and sniper gunfire. Although setting up the command post inside the hotel with the sniper didn't make any sense, one possible explanation is that, as a former Marine, Giarrusso wanted to be as close to the action as possible.

As soon as he ran through the storm of gunfire and arrived inside the command post, 48-year-old Deputy Chief of Police Louis Sirgo found out there were at least two officers trapped in an elevator somewhere near the top of the hotel. He grabbed a shotgun and a portable radio and threw together a rescue team of five volunteers; then the deputy chief led them up the dark, smoke-filled Perdido stairwell toward the roof.

On the roof, above each stairwell, stood a cinderblock cubicle. The cubicles, one on each end of the building, were about 20 feet wide and about 10 feet deep. A metal door that accessed the stairwell was mounted in the center of each cubicle. On each side of the door was a covered alcove about five feet wide. The alcoves were surrounded on three sides by cinderblock walls. The open sides, along with the stairwell doors, faced the center of the roof.

Between the two cubicles, sitting atop the elevator shafts and flush with the back wall of the building, was a cinderblock structure about twice the size of one of the cubicles. The structure housed two adjacent workplaces, a boiler room and an elevator maintenance room.

Essex climbed the Perdido stairwell to the roof but found the door chained and locked. He shot the lock but couldn't get the door open. On his way back down the stairs he heard voices coming from below. It was Deputy Chief Sirgo's rescue team. Essex stopped on the 16th floor and waited for them.

When the first man coming up the stairs reached the landing between the 15th and 16th floors, Essex was above and behind him. He aimed his rifle through the darkness and fired.

The bullet hit Deputy Chief Sirgo in the back and blew out a chunk of his spine. The wound was fatal. One of Sirgo's men raised his shotgun and fired three blasts up the stairwell but Essex was already gone. He had opened the door and slipped into the 16th floor hallway. Essex scampered to the other side of the building and entered the Gravier stairwell. He again climbed to the roof, but this time the door at the top of the stairs was unlocked. It was 1 p.m.

Deputy Chief Sirgo, killed
Deputy Chief Sirgo, killed
After Deputy Chief Sirgo's death, the situation inside the command post was out of control. Although the police had no idea how many snipers there were, most of them agreed that it was impossible for one person to have done so much damage. Some reports coming in put the number of shooters as high as three. Police officers in nearby buildings reported seeing at least two shooters on the hotel roof. There was even a report that the gunmen had taken several hostages. Scattered throughout the hotel were dead and wounded hotel guests and staff and trapped firemen and police officers.

Eighth District officer Antoine Saacks had worked undercover in the French Quarter until four or five o'clock Sunday morning. Around 10 a.m. his wife woke him up and told him there was a sniper at the Howard Johnson's. Saacks knew immediately that it was connected to the string of police shootings. His wife got hysterical when he started collecting his gear and told her he was going to the hotel. To calm her down, Saacks claimed to have changed his mind. He told her he wasn't going; then he tossed his weapons and equipment out through the bathroom window of their house. He sneaked outside and loaded it into his car and headed for the Howard Johnson's. With him he brought an M-16 rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammunition. He thought that would be enough. He was wrong.

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