Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson Sniper

The Howard Johnson

Map of immediate area.
Map of immediate area.

The Downtown Howard Johnson's Hotel was at 330 Loyola Ave. The building was a functional, 17-story elongated rectangle, built during the mid-1960s. The long front of the hotel faced Loyola Avenue, a four-lane boulevard separated by a wide, grassy median.

The ground floor of the hotel contained the lobby, the reservation desk, a restaurant and bar, and the hotel business office. The second through seventh floors served as the hotel parking garage. The eighth through the 18th floors — there was no 13th floor — housed the guest rooms. On the eighth floor, a pool deck and patio extended from the back of the building. The hotel was bordered on either end by Gravier and Perdido Streets, and on the back by South Rampart.

Hotel, now a Holiday Inn.
Hotel, now a Holiday Inn.
Directly across Loyola from the hotel was a Duncan Plaza, a grassy park dotted with oak trees. Surrounding Duncan Plaza was a government office complex, which included City Hall, the Louisiana Supreme Court, a state office building, and the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library.

Essex careened into the Howard Johnson's parking garage in the stolen Chevelle. He dumped the car on the fourth floor. The hotel had a stairwell on either end of the building, one on the Gravier side and one on the Perdido side. The elevators were along the back wall.

After dumping the car, Essex — rifle in hand — ran into the Gravier-side stairwell. He climbed to the eighth floor and tried to open the steel fire door but found it locked; the firedoors could only be opened from inside the hallway. The guest floors were built around a central hallway that ran the length of the building. There were 30 rooms on each floor. Set into each fire door was a steel re-enforced glass window. Essex looked through the window and saw a couple of housekeeping maids. He banged on the glass to get their attention and asked them to open the door for him. They refused.

On the ninth floor, Essex again stood outside the fire door and got the attention of a maid. She also refused his demands to let him into the hotel. Essex continued to climb.

He found the door to the 18th floor wedged open. A police investigation later found that the maids sometimes jammed a piece of linen or a hand towel into the locks so that they could get back onto the floor after visiting other housekeepers on different levels.

When Essex burst out of the Gravier stairwell into the 18th floor hallway, he startled three black housekeepers. As he ran past them, Essex told the hotel workers not to worry. He said he was only after white people. In the hallway in front of room 1829 Essex found 27-year-old Dr. Robert Steagall and his wife Betty. It was the last day of the Steagalls New Orleans vacation, and they were moments away from checking out of the hotel.

Dr. Steagall tried to stop the man he saw running down the hallway clutching a rifle. The two men struggled briefly; then Essex shot the doctor in the chest. As Mrs. Steagall dropped to the floor and wrapped her arms around her husband, Essex pushed the muzzle of his .44 carbine against the back of her head and fired.

Essex slipped into the Steagalls' room and snatched the telephone book from the nightstand. He doused it with lighter fluid, set it on fire, then tossed it under the window drapes. As he scuttled into the hallway and past the blood-soaked bodies of the Steagalls, Essex dropped a red, green, and black African flag onto the floor beside them. Within minutes, room 1829 was an inferno.

Essex ran down the stairwell to the 11th floor. This time he didn't knock on the fire door. He just shot the lock off. He strode down the hallway, ducking in and out of empty rooms and lighting fires.

Calls started coming into the hotel switchboard about a man with a gun wandering the hotel and shooting guests. Frank Schneider, the hotel assistant manager, rode the elevator up to the 11th floor to investigate. As soon as Schneider stepped off the elevator, he spotted the big gun in Essex's hands and bolted for the Perdido stairwell. Essex raised his rifle to his shoulder, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. The .44 Magnum bullet hit the assistant manager in the back of the head. His body fell just short of the fire door at the end of the hall.

Essex walked down to the 10th floor.

Outside the hotel, a crowd started to gather. Plumes of smoke poured from several of the upper-floor windows.

Walter Collins, the hotel general manager, started climbing the Gravier stairwell. The switchboard had received more reports of a man with a gun. The eighth and ninth floors were filled with smoke. When Collins reached the 10th floor he spotted someone through the fire door window. He opened the door with a passkey. As Collins stepped into the hallway, Essex shot him. Mr. Collins died from his wound three weeks later in the hospital.

Someone called the fire department. A few minutes later, policemen and firemen were on the way.

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