Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson Sniper

Help Arrives

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Chuck Pitman had been watching the drama at the Howard Johnson's unfold on television all afternoon. The big New Orleans television stations had camera crews and reporters at the scene.

Marine Lt. Chuck Pitman
Marine Lt. Gen. Chuck Pitman
Pitman was a helicopter pilot and the commander of the Marine air unit stationed across the Mississippi River, just south of New Orleans, near the town of Belle Chase. Pitman was recovering from a .50-caliber bullet wound he took in the leg in Vietnam, where he'd flown 1,200 combat missions and been shot down seven times.

Pitman and the U.S. Coast Guard commander had recently worked out a deal to assist local authorities with rescue efforts in case of a high-rise fire. Just a couple of months before, a fire at the Rault Center, across Gravier from the Howard Johnson's, forced four women to jump to their deaths from the 15th floor. Although the Coast Guard had primary responsibility for air rescue because of their sophisticated equipment, Pitman had seen on television that there was a lot of gunfire in and around the hotel, so he sent two Marine sergeants armed with M-14 rifles to fly with the Coast Guard. "Their mission was to protect the Coast Guard helicopter," Pitman says.

As the afternoon wore on, Pitman grew more anxious. He'd heard nothing back from the Coast Guard. "I kept waiting to see [the Coast Guard] on TV," he says, "but they didn't show up."

By late afternoon the two sergeants returned. Pitman asked what the Coast Guard plan was.

"They say they can't fly," one of the marines reported. "The weather is too bad."

Pitman glanced outside. It was getting dark. The airfield was completely socked in by fog and low-hanging clouds. Visibility was terrible. "Shit," he said. "It's not too bad for me. I can fly up the river."

Pitman ordered his operations officer to call the New Orleans Police Department and offer their assistance. An hour later, an NOPD desk sergeant called back. "If you've got a searchlight, come on down," he said.

The visibility was so bad that Pitman couldn't just take off and fly straight to New Orleans. He had to "air taxi" toward downtown. Hovering just a few feet off the ground and creeping forward, Pitman took his twin-rotor Sea Knight helicopter out over the Mississippi River and turned left. "We were looking up at some of the ships in the channel," he says.

The mile-long Greater New Orleans Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River, was shrouded in fog. When he reached it, Pitman saw car headlights crossing above him. Somehow he missed a string of high-tension wires near the bridge that he didn't even know were there. Pitman took a right at the bridge and followed the expressway into downtown. He set the Marine helicopter down in a parking lot, between the under-construction Superdome and City Hall.

While his crew — a copilot and two sergeants with M-14s — waited, a police car drove Pitman to Loyola Avenue. Police vehicles were scattered everywhere. Gunshots were popping up and down the street. "The fire trucks were sitting there pumping water, but all the firemen were inside so they wouldn't get shot," Pitman says.

The policeman driving the car pointed to another police cruiser sitting in front of the hotel. "You see down there at the next block, the car with the door open?"

"Yes," Pitman said.

"That car has a radio in it that you can use to reach the chief."

"Wait a minute," Pitman said. "You want me to walk down that street, with gunfire going overhead, the police hiding in every doorway, and get on a car radio?"

The policeman nodded.

Pitman walked down the street. He was afraid that if he ran he'd attract a bullet. When he reached the second police car, he picked up the radio microphone and identified himself as the helicopter pilot. A voice on the radio told him to come into the command post. "Where's that?" Pitman asked.

"In the hotel?" the voice said.

"You've got to be kidding me?"

Pitman strolled into the hotel. The lobby was dark, lit only by a few feeble emergency lights. Many of the guests were jammed into a corner of the restaurant just trying to keep warm. "There were a lot of nervous people," Pitman says.

Chief Giarrusso waved him over and said, "You're the guy with the armored helicopter, right?"

"It's not really armored," Pitman explained. "It's got a little boilerplate over the engine."

"What can you do for me, then?" the chief said, but then, before the pilot could respond, Giarrusso snapped his fingers. "I know," he said. "I want you to pick up my armored car and put it down on the roof?" NOPD had an old armored personnel carrier that weighed close to 16,000 pounds. Pitman explained that his Sea Knight could only lift about 5,000 pounds.

"Well, what can you do?" Giarrusso said.

Pitman told the chief that he could carry a load of police officers above the roof to see what was going on. "We'll try to root him out," he added.

Giarrusso picked one officer to go as his communications man; then he put out a radio call for volunteers with specialized weapons to go on a dangerous mission. Tom Casey, Frank Buras, and Antoine Saacks came into the command post and signed up.

Since his arrival early that afternoon, Saacks had been across Gravier Street in the Rault Center, the location of the deadly high-rise fire two months before. He had found a position opposite the cubicle that sat on top of the Gravier stairwell. A solid cinderblock wall shielded the sniper from Saacks' view, but he could hear the gunman shouting obscenities and firing his big gun. Saacks occasionally saw the sniper flick out still-burning cigarette butts. Less than 100 yards separated the two men. "I periodically would pepper the cubicle just to let him know somebody was close by," Saacks says.

Eventually, the sniper tossed a crumpled red and white cigarette pack onto the roof. "I shot the pack a couple of times and bounced it around on the rooftop," Saacks says. He was trying to send the sniper a message: He wasn't the only one who knew how to shoot.

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