Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson Sniper

Tracking a Killer

Mark Essex Navy ID.
Mark Essex Navy ID.
On Tuesday, January 2, at around 6 p.m., Essex strolled into Joe's Grocery Store at the corner of Erato Street and South Gayoso. The grocery store was three blocks from the church on South Lopez. Essex had a bloody bandage covering his left hand. The owner, Joseph Perniciaro, had heard on the news that law enforcement authorities were looking for a suspect in the rash of police shootings who might have an injured hand. Essex bought a Schick razor and asked for lipstick and makeup. Joe's Grocery didn't carry cosmetics. Essex paid for the razor with a $20 bill and left.

An hour later, Perniciaro and his 14-year-old stock boy went to police headquarters and told detectives about the man. They described him as average size and said he wore "army clothes" and a "safari jacket." The man had kept his bandaged left hand in his pocket almost the entire time. Perniciaro said he had been worried the man was going to rob him.

The stock boy told detectives that after the man left he'd seen him walking down Gayoso in the direction of Clio Street. From Clio it was just two blocks to the church on South Lopez.

The next day, Wednesday, January 3, the police got another tip about their suspect. At 7:30 p.m., a woman called the police department and said that the shooter they were looking for was hiding inside a church on South Lopez Street.

Detectives raced back into Gert Town and searched the church. On the walls and on the floor they found bloodstains. Inside the bathroom, they discovered a bag filled with .38-caliber cartridges. Near the altar, they found a note, later proven to have been written by Mark Essex, which apologized to the pastor for breaking into his church. But again, the sniper was gone.

Sunday, January 7, dawned gray and wet and cold. By mid-morning, the mercury had climbed only into the mid-30s. That was the high. The cold rain was intermittent. The mist and cloud cover pushed down so low that it shrouded the tops of many downtown buildings.

At 10:15 that morning, Mark Essex entered Joe's Grocery Store again. This time he didn't stroll in. This time he stormed in. Essex wasn't looking for a razor blade, lipstick, or makeup. He was looking for revenge. In his hands he carried his Ruger carbine.

Joe Perniciaro was in the back of the small store. He looked up at Essex and recognized him right away. Essex jabbed the muzzle of his rifle in the grocer's direction. "You, you're the one I want. Come here."

Perniciaro turned to run. Essex shot him. The semiautomatic rifle kicked out the spent shell, a Winchester-Western .44 Magnum. It landed on top of a nearby cooler. Essex bolted from the store. He cut through a yard, hopped a low fence, then darted across a footbridge that spanned the Melpomene Canal.

When the police arrived at the grocery store, they found Joseph Perniciaro bleeding badly but conscious. The heavy slug had torn apart his right shoulder. The floor was slick with his blood. "He shot me because I talked to the police," Perniciaro said. "I told you all not to come around here."

During the preceding days, Chief Giarrusso had sent detectives from his Intelligence Division into Gert Town. They'd been asking questions about the suspect's visit to the grocery store. According to one former detective, word could have easily gotten back to Essex in the all-black neighborhood that the white grocery store owner had been talking to the police. "The first person he went after was the grocer," the former detective says. "And he popped him."

Moments after fleeing the store, Essex found 30-year-old Marvin Albert sitting in his 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle. Albert was parked in front of his house at 1506 South White St. The car engine was running. Albert's house was just four blocks from Joe's Grocery. Essex shoved the muzzle of his rifle through the open car window and into Albert's face. "Hi, brother. Get out of the car."

Albert had served a hitch in Vietnam. He'd seen guns before. He didn't move. "Are you crazy?" he said.

"I don't want to kill you," Essex said. "I'm just killing honkies today, but I will kill you, too."

Realizing the gunman was deadly serious, Albert climbed out of his car.

Essex slid behind the wheel and took off.

Albert ran inside and called the police.

Two minutes later, a police car showed up and Albert jumped into the front seat beside Officer Phil Dominick. They cruised the area and within minutes Albert spotted his car flying down Broad Street in the opposite direction. Before Officer Dominick could fight through the traffic to get his police car turned around, Essex and Marvin Albert's Chevy had disappeared.

As he raced through the uptown streets, Essex bounced Marvin Albert's black over tan Chevelle off of another car on Washington Avenue. The woman driving the other car scribbled down the license plate number as Essex accelerated away from the accident scene.