New Orleans Deputy Police Superintendent Louis J. Sirgo may have been ahead of his time, but he never lived long enough to find out. Thirty years ago this Tuesday, Jan. 7, Sirgo became the highest ranking of five NOPD officers killed by sniper fire during a one-week ordeal that ended with a dramatic police siege at the Downtown Howard Johnson's hotel across Loyola Avenue from City Hall.
Authorities say Sirgo was one of nine people killed and 10 seriously wounded by self-styled black extremist Mark Essex, who held hundreds of cops at bay for 10 hours, paralyzing the Central Business District. Essex, 23, was killed during a rooftop gun battle with police sharpshooters who fired from a marine assault helicopter. An additional nine NOPD officers were injured by friendly fire. This week, police and city officials invite the public to gather at NOPD headquarters' Louis J. Sirgo Memorial Plaza (named in his honor in 1975) to remember the five officers killed during the ordeal. The memorial service begins at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 7.
Sirgo's dramatic death has overshadowed the intriguing life of a New Orleans native with a unique police career path and an unconventional worldview. In a speech that has been all but forgotten since his death, Sirgo suggested ousting political extremists by eliminating the social conditions in which they thrived. "As citizens of the United States, we are guilty of malfeasance in office," Sirgo said in a lengthy address to civic leaders titled, "Working Against the Odds," printed in its entirety by The Washington Post one week after his death.
Sirgo warned that a "thin blue line of police officers, working against the odds, is able to partially contain the violence and prevent complete criminal anarchy." But not for long. "Police forces were not designed for, nor are they capable of coping with the kind of [social ills] which exist in most of our urban areas, conditions which are becoming worse by the day."
A white, 17-year veteran of the NOPD, Sirgo deplored public indifference to poverty, a "vindictive system" of crime and punishment, and "the greatest sin of American society -- the status of the American Negro." He decried "slum" housing as well as educational and social inequities, which he said increased the power of anarchists and the appeal of breakfast programs in the Desire housing project sponsored by the militant Black Panther Party.
"If there were no 'Desires,' there would be no Panthers," Sirgo said, imploring his audience to assume responsibility for reversing widespread poverty that fueled urban crime. "What I am saying is that we have to get our heads out of the sand, for after all, it is an unsafe position. An ostrich buries his brains, and that part of his anatomy [that] remains visible makes a very good target for a sniper."
Appointed deputy chief Sept. 8, 1970, by then-Police Chief Clarence Giarrusso, Sirgo took command in time for three police confrontations with the Panthers. Historian Adam Fairclough noted a 1970 survey of community leaders conducted before the Panthers' arrival "placed police harassment and overreaction above all other grievances." Although the Panthers' often violent, separatist rhetoric agitated the predominantly white NOPD and city administration, the group's breakfast program and defiance of NOPD was cheered by many Desire residents.
Sirgo's direct role in addressing police-community relations is not clear, but his ascent to the upper ranks of NOPD was somewhat unorthodox. An Army dental lab technician in the Pacific during World War II, Sirgo joined the NOPD in 1946 and was personally praised by then-Mayor Chep Morrison for helping collect city refuse during a sanitation workers' strike. Sirgo worked as a homicide detective and, as a police captain in the late '50s, developed an award-winning system of statistical reporting of crimes and police calls for service that replaced NOPD's practice of assigning police personnel to districts "based on memory and assumption," Police Chief Provosty Dayries said.
Sirgo retired in 1964 and worked as clerk at Traffic Court. But six years later, he was re-appointed as the No. 2 command at NOPD and led the police department's pitched battles with militant groups like the Black Panther Party -- and the sniper who killed him.
On Sept. 14, 1970, police and Panthers clashed; after a 32-minute shootout -- in which no one was killed -- 14 Panthers surrendered. "We lived on Downman Road then; you could hear the gunfire from our house," recalls Joyce Sirgo, the deputy chief's widow. "He was right in the middle of it all."
Riddled with police informants, the Panthers were quickly routed from the city after relatively little violence, when compared to confrontations in some other American cities. But the conflicts illustrated the racial tensions in New Orleans that preceded the bloodiest chapter in NOPD history and the death of Louis Sirgo.
He was killed by sniper fire from a .44 caliber magnum rifle during a one-week ordeal that began with the New Year's Eve 1972 shooting death of police cadet Alfred Harrell Jr. Later that night, K-9 officer Edwin Hosli Sr. was investigating a warehouse burglary when he was ambushed and fatally shot in the back by the same .44 caliber rifle. Hosli suffered for three months in a hospital before dying; his oldest son, Edwin Hosli Jr., then 12, is now a police captain and commands the Second Police District. The NOPD K-9 compound at City Park is named for his father's memory.
One week after Hosli and Harrell were shot, police chased Mark Essex in a stolen car to the Howard Johnson's. The sniper set diversionary fires throughout the 300-room hotel and shot at hundreds of cops surrounding the burning building. Sirgo was fatally shot as he led a police rescue effort up a hotel stairwell. "He was less than 2 feet in front of me when he got shot," says Jules Killelea, now a retired NOPD captain. Killelea fired three shotgun blasts at the sniper, who retreated. Killelea and other officers then carried their dying commander down more than a dozen flights of stairs. "I remember Louie every day in my prayers," Killelea now says.
Ret. Det. Anthony Radosti recalls he was manning a counter-sniper position in a building across from the hotel when he heard Sirgo had been shot. "When I got shot he stayed at the hospital most of the day with me," Radosti said recently of a 1971 incident in which the young patrolman had been shot in the face. "Chief Sirgo was there when the priest was there and he (Sirgo) held my hand through the Last Sacraments," Radosti recalls. "I still have a picture of him standing over me. He was literally holding my hand. You have a bond with somebody who was there with you for something like that."
Attorney Harry Tervalon was a rookie policeman stationed at Charity Hospital when the dying deputy chief was rushed into the emergency room. Moments earlier, sniper fire hit the hospital wall. "Chief Sirgo was brought in right after that," Tervalon says. "I knew fear that day."
Earlier that Sunday, Officer Paul Persigo was killed by a sniper near the hotel moments after he spoke to a police chaplain. Persigo had planned to celebrate his wife's birthday that night; retired officer Clarence Hernandez recalls Persigo was a "compassionate" veteran officer who was "well-versed in criminal law" and always available to help a rookie. "As a young patrolman, you look for someone who can show you the ropes -- Persigo helped me," Hernandez says.
At nearby Duncan Plaza, Officer Philip Coleman was cut down shortly after he and Officer Leo Newman arrived to assist wounded policeman Ken Solis. "When Kenny got shot I put him up against a tree," recalls Dave McCaan, a young patrolman and Solis' police partner. "I kept telling Coleman not to get out the car. ... He did and he got shot. And to this day, I still feel bad about it. I was a medic in Vietnam. I knew he was dead. There is nothing like being there to help somebody and there is nothing you can do."
As the gun battle raged, McCaan turned back to Solis. Officer Larry Williams left his own cover near the Supreme Court building and crawled over to help. "Larry Williams gave me his T-shirt and I put a pressure bandage on Solis to stop the bleeding," McCaan says. Solis survived and is now a U.S. Marshal.
A national television audience saw urban warfare unfold as it happened, and chaos increased as civilian vigilantes and gun clubs showed up to volunteer their help. One of the older NOPD detectives armed himself with his personal Thompson submachine gun. A few small clusters of young African-American spectators cheered the sniper and waved clenched fists as police ducked for cover. A bitter cold front moved in; shivering police manned the rooftops in buildings nearby. Hotel guests were virtually held hostage by the melee. Also killed by sniper fire that day were Dr. Robert and Elizabeth Steagall, a couple honeymooning from Virginia, and two hotel employees: Sherwood Collins and Frank Schneider.
The 36-hour police siege climaxed with a rooftop gun battle between a lone suspect and police sharpshooters who fired from a Marine assault helicopter that hovered overhead. When it was over, 23-year-old Mark James Robert Essex of Emporia, Kan., lay dead on the roof. The next day on Canal Street, the D.H. Holmes Department Store signaled an end to the crisis when the store's Christmas bells played "God Bless America."
For the next three days, police responded to anxious but unfounded calls of other snipers. Common criminals knew better than to venture out after a police killing. Crime dipped. Louisiana Attorney General William J. Guste Jr. called for a federal investigation and announced: "I am convinced that there is an underground, national suicidal group bent on creating terror in America." Members of Congress proposed legislation to make assault on a police officer or firefighter a federal offense.
Then-Police Chief Clarence Giarrusso later testified about the shoot-out before a congressional panel. Since the incident, he had collected master keys, aerial photos and blueprints of local high-rises, "simple preparations which he said would have eliminated much of the delay and confusion at the Howard Johnson's," wrote Peter Hernon, author of A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper (Garrett County Press, 2001).
Subsequent investigations by both FBI and the NOPD concluded that Essex acted alone in the attacks. "Our investigation had not identified Essex as being affiliated with a particular black extremist organization, although there is ample evidence of his antiwhite feeling and predilection toward terrorism," stated the FBI report. Widespread police sightings of a "second man" at the Howard Johnson were not substantiated by investigations, but the issue continues to divide active and former NOPD officers.
City and NOPD officials drew criticism for their handling of the crisis, especially establishing the command center on the ground floor of the hotel during the siege, which pre-dated police SWAT teams and lightweight police communications. "The department learned we were terribly underprepared for this situation and one man could shut down the business district of the city of New Orleans," says Anthony Radosti. "It became a study of how not to respond. To get to the command center you had to expose yourself to fire."
"We never heard of SWAT teams back then and hostage situations were very rare," says Officer William Trepagnier, a 38-year NOPD veteran who provided covering fire for police partner Jack Uhle as they climbed up a fire truck ladder outside the burning hotel to rescue a wounded firefighter.
Four days later, the local NAACP held a citywide memorial service for everyone killed since the New Year's Eve shooting of Cadet Harrell -- including the sniper, which infuriated some officers at the time. "They were all human beings," a NAACP official told The Louisiana Weekly, a black-owned newspaper whose editorial pages echoed Giarrusso's condemnations of the initial attacks on police.
On May 19, 1975, after the investigations of the attacks had concluded, the NOPD honored its dead and wounded officers in a general awards ceremony. But the city's handling of the aftermath of Howard Johnson's left some officers bitter. Antoine Saacks, an NOPD sergeant who fired at Essex from the helicopter, says proper recognition of the five slain officers by the city is long overdue.
"They are kind of forgotten heroes," Saacks says. "I think the time is long since past when the city should have recognized their valiant efforts." Saacks believes that racial overtones from the police encounters with Essex, the Panthers and other black militants spurred city officials to quickly put Howard Johnson's in the past. "They gave their lives for the city and it seemed like [the city] couldn't get them in the ground quick enough," Saacks says of the fallen officers.
Within the ranks of NOPD, the attacks galvanized police despite their own racial divisions. Larry Williams, an African-American officer who two months after the attacks became the lead plaintiff in a far-reaching lawsuit filed by black cops alleging racial bias within the department, left safety to help Officer Coleman, who was white.
"I wasn't thinking about race that day," Williams says. "Normally, I would have been. But that day it didn't matter. Even though I had my views about the makeup of the police department and how that did not work well with a majority black city, I never once thought of police as not being a fraternity. When attacked from outside, we stuck together. ... That day united us in a way in which we had never been united."
"There were tremendous racial problems on the department at the time, but on the street we all backed each other up," says Harry Tervalon, who is African-American. "Especially that day. Everybody was blue. Alfred Harrell was blue. That is the good part about the department and the brotherhood."
Alfred Harrell Jr., 19, one of the few black cadets on the force, was the first to die. The nephew of renowned Chef Austin Leslie, Harrell had worked part time in the family restaurant. As a youth growing up in Uptown during the 1960s, he looked up to black NOPD Sgt. Lloyd Verrett, who lived next door. Verrett served as a role model for the neighborhood until he himself was killed in the line of duty in 1967.
"When I was Sirgo's aide, Alfred worked in my operations office," recalls Ret. Capt. Killilea. "He was an ambitious young man who probably would have gone far on the job."
When the sniper made a New Year's Eve assault on Central Lock-Up, Harrell was shot as he ran toward a fellow unarmed cadet who had come under fire. Lt. Horace Perez was shot in the ankle. Lt. Kenneth Dupaquier rushed to Harrell's aid. In A Terrible Thunder, author Hernon describes what happened next: "Dupaquier knelt down and picked up Harrell's left hand to check for a pulse. The cadet's wedding ring came off and fell into the dark pool oozing out from under him. 'Al, can you hear me?' Dupaquier asked, anxiously. Harrell, who lay with his head bent back, eyes wide open, didn't answer. Dupaquier picked up the wedding ring and gently slid it back on Harrell's finger."
Later that night, Hernon wrote, Chief Giarrusso wondered aloud what life would be like for Harrell's now fatherless son. Several years later, Harrell's widow committed suicide, says NOPD Officer Stephen Harrell, the slain officer's younger brother. Alfred Harrell's twin brother, Hasim Abdul Salaam, adopted the boy, and the whole family and their church helped to raise "Little Alfred." Now 30, Alfred Harrell III graduated from Southern University with a degree in business administration and will graduate in May as a minister from a Baptist seminary in Virginia; he is currently employed by the Boy Scouts of America. "He works with youth around the country and he's just like his dad -- he's ambitious, eager, and he wants everything right now," Stephen Harrell says.
Stephen Harrell, 39, an NOPD school resource officer and church choir director, says he was personally recruited by Chief Eddie Compass but did a lot of soul-searching before leaving the Army for NOPD in 1988. Harrell says he was motivated to join the force by his brother's example. "You've got to learn to forgive and I have no hatred toward [Essex]," he says. "I took the psychological tests and thought about would the department turn me down thinking I was coming for revenge. But I went about my job like I thought my brother would. When I put on my uniform, it's a tribute to him." As fate would have it, Harrell once worked in the Mounted Division under the command of Capt. Hosli Jr.; the two talked briefly about the tragic deaths of their loved ones, Harrell recalls.
Stephen Harrell was 9 years old the night of his brother's murder. "Our mother was away at a New Year's Eve party and a squad car showed up at the house," he recalls. "At the time, I had three brothers and one twin sister. There was a lot of commotion at the door. We thought something had happened with our mother."
The police took Harrell's mother to the hospital, where the last rites were being administered to her son. "Chief Giarrusso came over and consoled my mother and family," Harrell says. "I remember back then feeling [NOPD] was a close-knit group of people."
That is a feeling he says he has known again and again: as a cop responding to the murder last year of Officer Christopher Russell, when looking at his brother's name on the glass monument to fallen NOPD officers at Sirgo Plaza or when passing Alfred Harrell playground in Carrollton, named in honor of the slain cadet.
Seated in the immaculately clean kitchen of her modest suburban home, Joyce Sirgo smiles as she fidgets with an empty Christmas candy bowl. "If there is any consolation, it's that people care," she says. After her husband's death, she received condolences from around the world. "They planted a tree in his honor in Israel," she says, still apparently overwhelmed by the gesture. A Lakeview garden club planted two trees in his memory. A classroom of school children sent letters to comfort Mrs. Sirgo and the couple's two daughters.
Immediately following her husband's death, the Police Department screened the "hate mail" that cheered the sniper, though one letter did get through to her, she says, calmly.
The only lingering hint of anger over the Howard Johnson's attacks that Sirgo shows during a two-hour interview is directed at a television reporter of the period. As the drama unfolded, she says, both she and her youngest daughter learned her husband had been shot when the reporter broadcast the news -- before the family had been personally notified by police. "I was in the other room and all of a sudden I heard my daughter, who was then 15, cry out, 'My Daddy! My Daddy!'" Sirgo recalls. "I know there is no gentle way to tell someone about something like that, but that is not the way."
At the time, she says, she wanted to go to court to file an injunction against the television media during their live coverage of the siege. "[Reporters] also were jeopardizing all police officers by broadcasting where the man was going and what the police were doing," she said, noting there were televisions in the hotel.
Afterwards, she coped the best she could. "I have a deep faith," she says. "I know you are not supposed to question God's will, but it is hard to console yourself.
"If it had to happen it is [fortunate] that he was killed outright and did not lose his life like Officer Hosli," she says, remembering that Louis Sirgo visited the wounded officer every day at the hospital until Sirgo himself was slain. She recalls the nightmarish night of New Year's Eve of 1972, when she and her husband abandoned their social plans after the separate sniper shootings sent Harrell and Hosli to Charity Hospital. She dropped her husband off at the hospital and drove home in his unmarked police car. Sirgo went to join a team of detectives who began searching the warehouse that Hosli had approached when he was shot in the back.
"I was one of the guys that went in," recalls retired Capt. Paul Titus, then a detective in the intelligence division. "I remember the warehouse with 30-foot ceilings and pallets of merchandise stacked up. I turned around -- I had a shotgun with me -- and there was Sirgo in a suit. "I said, 'Chief, what do you want us to do?' He said, 'Keep doing what you are doing. You are doing fine.' I cannot tell you how good it felt to have him there. ... There are men that can command, then there are commanders that can lead. Sirgo was a commander and a leader. He was the kind of guy, if something was going down, he would be right there with you. And that was the cause of his demise."
When Sirgo returned home that night from the warehouse, his widow recalls, she told her husband: "I hope this is not an indication of how the rest of the New Year is going to go." He said it wasn't.
The telephone rang later that Sunday morning, calling her husband to duty. The Howard Johnson's incident was beginning.