Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson Sniper

Hate as Ammunition

Mark James Robert Essex grew up in Emporia, Kansas. As a black family, the Essex's were a distinct minority. Of Emporia's 28,000 residents, less than two percent were black. Yet, Emporia was certainly no hotbed of racism, nor had it ever been known as a breeding ground for black militantism. Essex didn't come from poverty or a broken home. His parents were decent, hard-working, religious people. His father served in the Army during World War II.

Black Panther Party meeting
Black Panther Party meeting
Growing up, Essex, although a mediocre student, showed no signs of the deep-seated hatred or rage that later consumed him. Friends and family have described his childhood as fairly typical and fairly happy. Essex was a cub scout. He liked to fish and hunt. During high school he worked part time as a mechanic. After graduation, he enrolled at Kansas State College but left after just one semester.

The year 1968 offered Essex, a healthy 19-year-old man from a working-class family, basically two things to look forward to — the draft and Vietnam.

So in January 1969, Essex signed up for a four-year hitch in the U.S. Navy. After boot camp, he went to dental technician school and landed a cush assignment at Imperial Beach Naval Air Station in San Diego.

Things could have been much worse for the young Navy dental tech.  While he worked 9-to-5 scraping teeth clean and spent weekends guzzling beer in Mexico, many of his contemporaries were slogging through the Vietnamese jungle or pushing patrol boats up the Mekong River.

The Navy assigned Essex to work with Lt. Robert Hatcher, a young Navy dentist. Although their race, background, and education were vastly different, the two men hit it off from the start.

In his book A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, writer Peter Hernon quotes Hatcher's opinion of Mark Essex: "He was the kind of person I liked to have around, a happy-go-lucky kid." Essex even signed up for a flag football team Hatcher coached.

San Diego, the 1960s becoming the 1970s, far from the war, a beautiful beach drenched in sunlight — they combined to create an almost idyllic setting, one that would have made many young single men happy, but not Mark Essex. Soon after he arrived at Imperial Beach NAS, he started complaining. He claimed to be the victim of the Navy's institutionalized racial discrimination, bigotry, and harassment. He got into fights with white sailors and on several occasions received disciplinary action.

Ruger Model 44, similar to rifle used by Essex
Ruger Model 44, similar to the semi-automatic used by Essex. His weapon did not have a scope.

Essex became interested in the Black Panther Party, a militant group that advocated armed revolution to affect social change. He also befriended a fellow sailor, a black man, who, like Essex, felt the Navy had disenfranchised him. The sailor was from New Orleans. Before he joined the Navy, Essex's new friend, a Black Muslim convert, had racked up a string of arrests in New Orleans, including robbery, rape, and theft. Essex's friend didn't do much better following the rules in the Navy than he had following the laws in New Orleans. He was a troublemaker.

Lt. Hatcher noticed that Essex's personality and attitude changed after he met his new friend. "It seemed to come in a matter of weeks," Hatcher said.

Apparently fed up with the Navy after less than two years, Essex went AWOL, absent without leave, for a month at the end of 1970. During his unauthorized time off, he went home to Emporia.

In January 1971, the Navy court-martialed Essex. He took the stand in his own defense. According to Hernon, Essex testified, "I had begun to hate all white people." He also said that when he got out of the Navy he wanted to become a dentist.

Following his court-martial conviction, the Navy decided they didn't need Essex anymore; they discharged him in February 1971. Essex had served just half of his four-year commitment. With the Navy behind him, the ex-sailor struck out for New York City.

Essex spent about three months in New York, where he immersed himself in the culture of hatred and violence promoted by the Black Panther Party. The party's publications taught tactics for urban guerilla warfare, referred to police officers as "pigs," suggested the best weapons for the urban guerilla — one of their recommendations was the .44 Magnum carbine — and stressed head shots for quick kills.

After his stay in New York, Essex went back to Emporia but couldn't readjust to small-town life. He had a string of jobs, most of which he lost because of his bad attitude. He also bought a couple of guns: a Colt .38-caliber revolver and a Ruger Model 44, a .44-caliber semiautomatic carbine rifle.

After a little more than a year back in his hometown, Essex picked up the telephone and called his old Navy buddy from New Orleans. His friend's naval career had also been cut short. He had been booted out after suffering a string of bad luck that put him at odds with his commanders: possession of marijuana in the barracks, insubordination, failure to meet the Navy's grooming standards, and two periods of being absent without leave. Essex's friend was back home in New Orleans, where he'd joined a Black Muslim mosque. Essex told his friend that he was leaving Kansas for good and was headed south.

In August 1972, Mark Essex packed up his hatred, his rage, and his guns and took them to New Orleans.

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