Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson Sniper

Death From Above

View of hotel and helicopter.
View of hotel and helicopter.
As soon as the chief explained the mission to the four policemen, Saacks, a 26-year-old former marine, was disappointed. He thought he was volunteering to assault the roof. Before the briefing ended, Saacks asked the chief for permission to drop from the helicopter onto the rooftop. 

Giarrusso shook his head. He was adamant. "I'm not going to have anymore cops killed today."

As darkness closed in around them, Lt. Col. Pitman led the heavily-armed policemen to the helicopter. Pitman's crew had taken out the windows to prevent glass fragments from flying inside the aircraft in case gunfire hit it. The doors were locked open so the policemen could shoot.

Once they were airborne, the bone-chilling wind whipped through the helicopter, almost freezing the underdressed policemen. "It was so friggin' cold, I didn't think I was going to be able to shoot," Saacks recalls. "I was shaking like a leaf." But when Pitman lifted them over the top of the Howard Johnson's, everything changed. "As soon as the crew chief tapped me on the head, it was like he threw a heating blanket on me," Saacks says. "I was ready."

Reports from policemen in the surrounding buildings put the sniper inside the cubicle above the Gravier stairwell.

Drainpipe concealed sniper.
Drainpipe concealed sniper.

Because of the wind, the rain, and the low clouds, Pitman had to make his approach from the south. He came thundering in below the tops of the buildings then swept up over the roof of the Howard Johnson's. Once he was over the hotel, Pitman fixed his searchlight on the Gravier cubicle but couldn't see anyone. Saacks and the other police sharpshooters figured the sniper was either hiding just inside the stairwell or in one of the two alcoves on either side of the door. They opened fire. 

During several passes over the cubicle, Saacks used his M-16 to cut gaps in the cinderblock walls. Although the policemen couldn't find the sniper, he didn't have any trouble finding them. Each time Pitman pulled away from the hotel, police officers in nearby buildings reported seeing the gunman run out of the cubicle and fire at the helicopter.

When the policemen ran out of ammo, Pitman had to set the Sea Knight down so they could get more. They made a second flight over the roof at about 7:30 p.m. Essex fired at the helicopter as Pitman made his approach, but again he vanished as the aircraft roared over the roof. The policemen in the back of the helicopter continued to blast away at the cubicle.

Soon, they needed to land again for more ammunition. Saacks had burned through the 1,000 rounds he'd brought from his house. As Pitman dropped away from the hotel, the sniper again popped out of his hole and started shooting at them. "It was obvious the helicopter was getting hit," Saacks says. "You could feel the strikes."

Mark Essex's body on roof.
Mark Essex's body on roof.

At 8:50 p.m., Pitman lifted off from behind City Hall for a third time. Reloaded, Saacks and the other officers were ready for another confrontation with the elusive sniper. On the approach to the hotel, the helicopter again took fire, but as they rose above the roof, the sniper had once more disappeared. Pitman hovered just over the rooftop and tried to hold his searchlight steady as the policemen fired into the Gravier Street cubicle.

Essex was in the back of the alcove on the right-hand side of the Gravier stairwell. A metal water pipe ran up along the back wall of the alcove. Each time the helicopter passed overhead, Essex shimmied to the top of the pipe and clung there. As they looked down onto the top of the cubicle, the marines and policemen inside the helicopter couldn't see him. It was an almost perfect hiding spot.

As Saacks fired into the cubicle, trying to open even bigger holes in the cinderblock walls, he noticed that the water pipe at the back of the alcove was shaking. He stopped firing and tapped Officer Tom Casey on the shoulder. When Casey looked over, Saacks shouted above the roar of the engines, "I think he's on the pipe." Casey nodded that he understood, and Saacks said, "Put some fire on his ass to try to get him to drop."

Saacks fired several rounds into the roof just outside the alcove. He was trying to skip them high up along the back wall near the pipe. One of the shots from the helicopter hit the water pipe and shattered it, sending a torrent of water down on top of the policemen in the Gravier stairwell.

In the cockpit of the helicopter, Pitman was aware that the policemen had discovered the sniper's hiding place. He eased the big helicopter away from the roof as if he were pulling out. It was a high stakes game of cat and mouse.

With the pipe under him split open and the helicopter again flying away, Essex dropped to the floor of the alcove and picked up his rifle. He charged out onto the roof to fire another couple of parting shots at the retreating aircraft. Then the searchlight hit him.

After dropping away from the hotel, Pitman had reversed direction and slipped back over the building. He swept his searchlight across the roof. "I saw him come out of the dark," Pitman says. The gunman was caught out in the open, 30 feet from the Gravier cubicle. The sniper snapped his rifle up to his shoulder. Pitman saw a flash and a red-hot ball rocketing up toward him. The gunmen's round slammed into the transmission housing just above the cockpit. Pitman knew the helicopter had been hit. He didn't know how badly or even how long they could stay in the air, but he held the big bird steady over the hotel as the policemen in the back adjusted their line of fire. They were 10 feet off the roof and less than 50 feet from the sniper.

"We were looking eyeball to eyeball at him," Saacks says. With a fresh magazine in his M-16, Saacks opened fire. "I just walked the bullets right into him."

When Pitman's searchlight finally caught Essex out in the open, the elusive enemy that the police had been chasing for a week was finally exposed. Policemen who'd crouched for hours in open windows and on rooftops all around the Howard Johnson's started shooting.

Mark Essex's body convulsed beneath the fusillade of police bullets and collapsed onto the roof. His Ruger .44-caliber Magnum carbine lay beside him, broken into pieces by the hail of gunfire.

"He was hit a number of times," recalls Pitman, in a bit of understatement. An autopsy later revealed Essex had been struck by more than 200 bullets.

"The guy was so shot up he had to be picked up with a scooper," says Eddie Rantz, who was perched on a nearby building, armed with a .30-caliber carbine, and who took part in the volley of shots that finally brought Essex down.

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