New Orleans — No one expected the ambush that cold Sunday morning 40 years ago.
Mark James Robert Essex, 23, terrorized the city from his perch on the roof of the Downtown Howard Johnson’s on Loyola Avenue during his siege that began shortly before 11 a.m. Jan. 7, 1973. The former Navy seaman was hellbent on killing as many white police as possible as part of a personal race war.
Three police officers, including Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo, and four civilians died; 12 other people would be injured by bullets Essex fired from his .44 Magnum carbine during his nearly 10-hour rampage that day. He killed another cop and a police cadet, his only black victim, and wounded yet another officer during a separate offensive a week earlier on New Year’s Eve 1972.
While Essex paralyzed the city during his attack at the Howard Johnson, life returned to normal for most people in the following days. Those involved with the incident also found ways to move on. The memories, however, are fresh and offer unique perspectives — on the era.
A surprise attack
Mark Essex was unknown to Larry Preston Williams Sr.
The 24-year-old New Orleans police officer had spent time in the department’s intelligence division where he helped to infiltrate various extremist groups, but he was unfamiliar with the sniper once investigators learned his name.
“From the time I was in intelligence to the time I transferred out, I’d never heard of Mark Essex,” Williams said recently.
Essex suffered racial attacks during his time as a sailor. He connected with the Black Panthers in New York in the early 1970s. He did not link up with the militant group once he arrived here, but his hate blossomed.
That’s what made Essex so dangerous, Williams said.
The former detective said the Panthers were “heavily infiltrated” with undercover police. Had Essex become involved here, perhaps authorities would have learned of his motives.
But Essex largely kept to himself, apparently formulating his assault alone at his Central City apartment. “The problem is when you have a guy acting alone, you can’t infiltrate him,” Williams said.
Williams learned of the showdown while on duty that day while working as a plainclothes detective. He rushed to the scene to find colleagues quickly popping up to fire and just as quickly ducking for cover.
Minutes after his arrival, he saw officer Philip Coleman die while trying to help injured officer Ken Solis. Williams left his cover to continue the effort to save Solis, who survived.
Williams soon learned of the loss of officer Paul Persigo, one of his friends, and someone he described as “one nice guy.”
He wondered the whole time what the shooter hoped to accomplish. “He was trying to solve a problem,” Williams thought. “But why does he think this is a good idea?”
Williams wasn’t scared as he huddled on the grass across from the hotel. It was more a feeling of despair.
“I can’t say it was fear. The thing that struck me was seeing fellow officers felled by bullets,” he said. “That is a very, very haunting feeling.”
Williams left the scene that night after he got word that police in a Marine transport helicopter finally got their guy.
‘An incredible trauma’
Walt Philbin spent that bitter cold Sunday night, his 28th birthday, dodging light rain and bullets as he watched that helicopter lift off in an attempt to get officers close enough to the man on the hotel’s roof to finally end the madness.
Philbin had recently moved back home to take a job as a police reporter at The States-Item. He hoped for something a little more exciting than the beauty pageants and obituaries his editors assigned him at his last job with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.
He got his wish: Monday would be his first day at work.
He couldn’t wait, though, so he and a cousin made their way to Poydras Street, near the hotel. “Then I saw the police line,” Philbin said. “They told me, ‘You have to have newspaper credentials to get in.’ I just wanted to be as close to the story as I could.”
As he watched the activity, he tried to comprehend the scene.
“It felt a lot like the atmosphere in Vietnam,” said Philbin, a former Marine who served overseas. “It was one thing to go to war out of the country, but to have it come to where you are, it was just very surreal. It was just so hard to imagine.”
As police continued to fire at the building for hours after Essex’s death, fearing there were more shooters, unnerved citizens called in countless unfounded reports of snipers across the city, Philbin said.
As he monitored those reports from the press room at NOPD headquarters on Monday morning, a co-worker the editors had dispatched to the CBD darted between doorways while he looked for any other shooters.
“It was an incredible trauma that had a serious effect on people,” Philbin said.
That trauma extended to the relationship between police and the black community, he said. After the Essex shooting and a 1970 standoff between cops and the Panthers in Desire, nervous police would arrive at some crime scenes with K-9 units, an uncommon practice, Philbin said.
“There was a palpable tension at some of those scenes I rarely felt in 36 years (on the job),” the retired reporter said.
Bob Tucker Jr. remembers well that feeling in the city after the sniper. But it didn’t seem to last too long, he said.
At the time, Tucker was one of three special assistants to former Mayor “Moon” Landrieu.
One of the first blacks hired for a senior administrative position at City Hall, Tucker acknowledged the city had problems but that there was a general sense of optimism in the ’70s, thanks to the oil boom, a growing economy and evolving opportunities for minorities and women.
“For New Orleans ... it was a time of excitement. Some might say it was a time of Camelot,” he said. “Everything that should have been going good was going good.”
The race problems that existed here were a little more sophisticated than other places, he said, thanks to neighborhoods with million-dollar mansions a block away from hardscrabble shacks. The familiarity among people, even if cursory, helped prevent the riots other Southern towns experienced during the ’60s, he said.
“There’s no south side of New Orleans,” Tucker said. “We’re poverty pocket rich.”
Compared with other places, the closest tumult the city experienced came on Sept. 15, 1970. A 20-minute gun battle between police and the Panthers in the Desire housing development erupted as authorities tried to dismantle the militant group’s presence. An innocent bystander died that day, and 14 Panthers surrendered and were arrested.
Tensions reached a boiling point two months later on Nov. 19, 1970. About 250 police arrived in Desire in an effort to evict the remaining Panthers from one of the development’s units. Thousands of residents filled the streets, ready to defend the group they said helped them.
Tucker, a civil rights activist, was arrested 10 years earlier in Atlanta when he and nearly a dozen other Clark College students staged the first lunch counter sit-in in that city’s Central Business District. He said Landrieu let him and a few other officials work behind the scenes to diffuse the potentially explosive situation in Desire.
The ability to have a meaningful conversation meant the standoff ended peacefully, and nothing of that magnitude happened again. “It was a turbulent time, but New Orleans survived it,” Turner said.
The difference between the Panthers and Essex, Turner said, is that the group, while espousing violence if necessary, did work that Desire’s residents appreciated. They picked up where the system failed, he said.
“He (Essex) said something about revolution,” Turner recalled recently. “But it was a one-person revolution. ... He had no purpose but to hurt people and bring his own death.”
While Turner said he heard unconfirmed reports that police arrested more black people than usual during the Essex blitz, he didn’t notice any long-lasting negative changes after that night.
Forty years later, he believes relations have gotten better but said there is room for improvement that will result in total equality.
“We’ve been able to get some good things done, but it’s a work in progress,” Tucker said.