Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson Sniper

Aftermath

The standoff didn't end with the death of Mark Essex. Very few of the police officers involved in the siege of the Downtown Howard Johnson's believed that there was just one sniper.

Racist graffiti on Essex's wall.
Racist graffiti on Essex's wall.

Descriptions of the shooter provided by hotel guests and staff varied. Throughout the long cold night, tired and hungry police officers, stationed at the top of both stairwells and on the surrounding buildings, continued to hear and see what they believed were more gunmen. Chuck Pitman continued to fly sorties over the hotel trying to draw fire from additional snipers. Policemen onboard the helicopter saturated the roof with tear gas.

On Monday afternoon, Chief Giarrusso ordered an assault on the roof. Several policemen received minor injuries as they fired into the boiler and maintenance rooms. When they finally got inside, the police found both rooms empty.

Spent Winchester .44 Magnum shell casings littered the hotel. Inside the Gravier cubicle, police found 18 empty casings.

After detectives identified Essex's body, they searched his uptown apartment and discovered a shrine dedicated to his hatred. Every inch of wall space was covered with racist graffiti. The words "hate" and "kill" were repeated over and over. Among Essex's possessions were Muslim and Black Panther newspapers along with a well-worn copy of the book Black Rage by Doctors William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs. Detectives also found a New Orleans map with the locations of police headquarters and the Downtown Howard Johnson's circled.

Essex's warning letter.
Essex's warning letter.

During Essex's funeral, the New York office of the Black Panther Party sent a condolence note to his parents in Emporia, Kansas. The note hailed Mark Essex as a "warrior and revolutionary."

After the siege, New Orleans television station WWL turned over a handwritten note to the police that they'd received sometime after January 2, but had not opened until January 6, the day before the attack at the Howard Johnson's. The police crime lab later proved that the note — dotted with misspellings and punctuation errors — had been written by Essex. The note said:

Africa greets you. On Dec. 31, 1972, aprx. 11 p.m., the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason — many, but the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged. And many others.

P.S. Tell pig Giarrusso the felony action squad ain't shit.

Mata

All of the physical evidence and the official police report point to only one shooter: Mark James Robert Essex, a 23-year-old, ex-Navy man, and hate-filled racist. But to this day, some of the policemen who were there disagree. In 1998, Bill Trapagnier, one of the policemen who rescued wounded fireman Tim Ursin, told the Times-Picayune newspaper, "My gut feeling is, I shot at two different people."

The NOPD report on the investigation into Mark Essex and the Howard Johnson's shooting, which ran to more than 900 pages, concluded by saying, "What he intended to achieve will probably remain in the grave with him."

Helicopter crew, shootout.
Helicopter crew, shootout.

What is certain is that Mark Essex was angry at the world, and he chose to vent that anger through the barrel of a gun.

Essex's tactics suggest that he studied and learned from the techniques of criminal snipers before him: Lee Harvey Oswald, who left behind an assassinated president and a dead policeman; and Charles Whitman, who crawled to the top of a Texas tower and gunned down more than two dozen innocent people.

Recent events also suggest that Essex left behind a tactical blueprint and a legacy of hate for others to follow. Growing up in nearby Baton Rouge, John Allen Williams, who later converted to Islam and took the name John Allen Muhammad, would have heard time and again about Essex and the Howard Johnson's shooting. In 2002, after a month-long sniping spree centered in Washington, D.C., Muhammad and his young partner left 10 people dead.

While no one is likely to ever uncover the extent to which Essex's actions influenced Muhammad, it is impossible to deny the similarities. Armed with high-powered rifles, both men shot and killed their victims from long range, they moved quickly, and they taunted their pursuers. Both were ex-military men, both filled with rage, and each wrote a page in our nation's history in blood.

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