“Silent No More” deserves your time. It was originally published in December 2002, as an eight-page special section of the paper.
To create the section, Kim Strong, then the editorial page editor and writing coach for the York Daily Record, took a leave from her regular duties to write about the murder of Lillie Belle Allen during the York riots of 1969 and the trial that ended 33 years later.
A note from then-Editor and Publisher Dennis Hetzel said the article, perhaps for the first time, clearly “connects the dots” in this complex, significant chapter of our community’s history. Hetzel thanked the sources, named and unnamed, who allowed Kim into their lives so that we could present this project, no less valuable today than it was at its publication in 2002.
an awful secret
ONE CRISP MORNING in April 2000 along a dusty road in East Manchester Township, Donnie Altland stopped running away.
He made peace with his family, asked God for forgiveness, pulled a .22 pistol out of his pickup and squeezed a bullet into his temple.
The secret he held for three decades was out.It was an awful secret about belonging to a gang that drew a line around its neighborhood July 21, 1969, then grew bloodthirsty awaiting a carload of black people.
Lillie Belle Allen, the daughter of a Baptist minister, became the sacrificial lamb that hot summer evening. The 27-year-old divorced mother of two innocently stumbled into the middle of a city’s civil racial war, just north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
But no one would win this war. Each side would blame the other; some would call it “even,” as one black woman and one white police officer lost their lives. After one week of fighting, the war ended, but a battle raged on in York.
Lives had been reshaped and recast, unalterably changed.
Hattie Dickson would never move far from where her sister Lillie Belle’s blood spilled across York’s railroad tracks, staining the hands of boys and men.
Donnie Altland would return to the city every weekday to earn his keep. He and his wife would raise two daughters, and he would become a church-going man and homeowner, forever haunted by a night long passed.
And one day, the name Lillie Belle Allen would move across the lips of a prosecutor, as single-minded as Altland and his friends.
Tom Kelley had been a kid growing up near Philadelphia when the riots occurred, raised by a mother who had encouraged him to study history’s greatest leaders, men who had made the right decisions in tough times. As the second-in-command in the York County District Attorney’s Office, he would be undeterred by the years that had passed since York’s civil war, unfazed by the dirty secret many people wanted to keep hidden and unwavering in his determination to give a 30-year-old murder its day in court.
1965: the follower
DONALD EUGENE ALTLAND PEEKS out from behind a row of boys in a photograph of his 10th-grade homeroom at William Penn High School. His short, dark hair and white button-down shirt reflect the times – 1965. And the single photograph of him in the yearbook reflects the 17-year-old boy who stayed in the background and would remain there most of his life.
Even as a teenager, he was good with his hands, working on machines and fixing things. He just didn’t find a place where he belonged in high school. He didn’t join the football or basketball team. He didn’t belong to the marching band or the foreign language club.
His friends didn’t either.
The wind was shifting for teenage boys by 1965. Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and The Temptations’ “My Girl” told one story of life in the ’60s. But the times, they were a changin’. Young Bob Dylan and his contemporaries sang of war and peace, revolt and revolution, as conflict had become the American way of life.
On black-and-white television sets, the images of Vietnam – of America’s sons – flickered right before their eyes.
A fierce fight for territory was playing on the streets of American cities, too. The turf war between blacks and whites made the nightly news, as a young minister from the South led black folks out of the back seats and the colored bathrooms. Martin Luther King Jr. had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 with a message of change through peaceful means, but riots erupted anyway.
The Watts area of Los Angeles tangled in riots for six days in August 1965. Thirty-four people – most of them black – were killed.
But the message of change was quiet in predominantly white York. Equality? Tolerance? Hush now. Let’s not talk about it, and maybe those contentious issues with the coloreds would go away.
Young black men and women, though, no longer accepted the place in which their parents were confined.
Although York’s city schools had completed their desegregation 10 years earlier, blacks and whites still lived in separate neighborhoods in 1965. Like pieces of a puzzle, they fit together in odd ways, but they were rubbing uncomfortably.
Donnie Altland learned those territories as a city boy. He lived at 758 W. Poplar St., one of four children of John William and Margie Ellen Altland. Dad punched a timeclock at Borg-Warner as a sheet metal worker.
A few blocks away lived another blue-collar family with a brood of boys well-known in the North Newberry Street neighborhood, the Messersmiths.
Bobby Messersmith and Altland were the same age, both in the Class of ’68 at William Penn, both interested in shop more than math.
Their similarities ended there.
Messersmith, like his dad, intimidated people. John Messersmith was abusive and a drinker. Classmates didn’t see Bobby Messersmith pummel anyone, but they knew he could. More importantly, they knew he would.
He was the type of guy you either followed or avoided.
Altland, meanwhile, blended into the background. Yeah, everyone was aware he was friends with Bobby Messersmith, but Altland wasn’t a guy to be feared. He smoked and drank with the Newberry Street crowd, but he was harmless, easygoing actually.
The only thing to fear in Altland was his penchant for following the lead of Bobby Messersmith.
1966: a free spirit
HATTIE DICKSON’S FREE SPIRIT couldn’t fly far in 1966. A rambunctious child who had grown into an independent young woman of 20, she craved change from the country life where she had been raised.
The backdrop for Dickson’s childhood was Aiken, S.C., a southern town where rich white folks had moved at the turn of the century to build their large homes in the country.
Dickson’s parents, the Rev. James and Beatrice Mosley, raised their children in more humble surroundings. James Mosley worked at a funeral home by day, but his true vocation was as a Baptist minister. A deeply religious man, Mosley had strict standards for his children – no shorts or short-sleeved shirts and no dating until they were older teens. They couldn’t attend basketball games at their all-black high school, and they weren’t allowed in theaters or public places where they would be forced to sit in segregated areas.
The Mosleys shielded their children from much of the overt racism in Aiken, but Hattie and her brothers and sisters knew it was there. They were called coloreds and, occasionally, niggers.
Dickson, married with two children in 1966, lived as exciting a life near the South Fork Edisto River as she could manage. She and her husband, Murray, rode to juke joints out in the woods or traveled to the stadium to watch rasslin’. But it wasn’t enough. Dickson was a woman thrilled to travel where the wind blew, so when Murray Dickson’s relatives in Pennsylvania suggested he bring his family north, they packed up for an adventure.
Murray Dickson moved first, sending for his wife and children after he found a construction job.
When Hattie Dickson arrived in York, she was excited to make friends and find new ways to plug into her social frame of mind. She danced through her house, singing with the sounds of Marvin Gaye and Rufus Thomas, raising her little ones, Todd and Joe. And she soon fell in love with life in a city of 51,000 people.
She knew that when her Aiken family traveled to visit her, she would have so much to show them in the bustling city of York, especially her effervescent oldest sister, the woman who Dickson saw as a second mother, Lillie Belle Allen.
1968: the sacrifice
IN 1968, THE PENNSYLVANIA Railroad carried passengers from Philadelphia and New York City to points west, cutting through the middle of a tiny borough two stops from Philadelphia, called Narberth.
Aristocrats had ridden past the Narberth Train Station since the railroad opened to build their country estates along the Main Line. Instead of attracting wealthy Philadelphia commuters, Narberth housed the Irish and Italian Catholic laborers whose ancestors had built the railroad then later worked in local industry.
The borough in 1968 didn’t reflect the diversity of Philadelphia or its rich culture because it was only a half square mile, only big enough for a small downtown, row houses and a variety of old Victorian homes.
Narberth didn’t replicate the race wars going on all over the country, and even if it had, Tom Kelley wouldn’t have cared much. He was only 4 years old, and a more important battle to him was going on in his own home.
Time and time again, Kelley watched his father physically abuse his mother.
Anne Quinn Kelley, the one-time model and former college student, was a proud woman, feminine and loving but bold and determined. She taught her three children to be independent, raising them with the philosophy, “The only way you learn is if you do it for yourself.”
She wanted to live that theory, too, but she was caught. Surrounding Narberth were the most affluent areas of Pennsylvania, yet she and her hus band shared none of that prosperity. Without much money, getting out of an abusive relation ship would be difficult, and she had two daughters and a son to worry about.
Each of the children was a handful, especially her boy. Tom looked like his father, but shared few other similarities. Much like his two older sisters, he reveled in the spotlight. Anne Kelley knew he would need firm discipline to seek the right path and the guidance of men more stable than his father.
Could she handle raising Tom and the girls as a single woman? That wasn’t the path many women chose in the 1960s. They didn’t often divorce their husbands, fight for custody of their children, return to college and start a new life. Anne Kelley had taken the abuse long enough, yet she would take it for a few more years before she ended her marriage.
When his mother finally took that leap, young Tom Kelley would learn that doing what is right can take great anguish and sacrifice.
1968: the first riots
LIKE MANY AMERICAN CITIES, York was evolving.
In 1968, the National Commission on Urban Problems shared its study on the changes expected in America’s cities over the next two decades. It found that cities would increasingly draw blacks and other minorities, while the white population would shift to the suburbs.
The chairman of President Johnson’s Commission on Civil Disorders, former Sen. Paul H. Douglas, hoped the report was a wake-up call to suburban neighborhoods. They needed to absorb blacks in larger numbers because if black popula tions grew too large in cities, violence would follow, he told reporters.
Actually, the violence followed blacks’ desire for change and the resistance to change – sometimes violent – from the white population.
The growth of the black population in York made the pieces of that strange city puzzle change their shapes and sizes. The chafing between them began to change the city, but change wasn’t what city leaders wanted, and it wasn’t what some of the residents wanted.
In York, city cops took barking dogs into black neighborhoods night after night. Black residents asked for the dog patrols to end almost from the time they started in 1962. Instead, Mayor John L. Snyder in 1968 increased the number of dogs along with the number of canine cops.
In the summer of 1968, riots began, rising and falling through July and August. Black residents had grown frustrated by the dog patrols and tired of racist cops picking on them. Black teenage boys would do much of the fighting, sparked initially by city police officers shooting into a pack of black teenagers.
In mid-July, boys threw stones at a car driving along East College Avenue. When police cars arrived, the boys bolted across a playground in a black section of town. Police Chief Leonard L. Landis said one officer shot once; neighbors who witnessed the shooting said more than one officer shot more than one time. No one was hurt.
Landis agreed the patrolman who shot at the boys was wrong but defended the action by saying the police officer had shot above the boys’ heads.
His words didn’t ease the minds of the black community. About 50 black residents met at Penn Common one night later to talk about the city cops. When Landis arrived, they held nothing back.
One resident told him, “What you don’t seem to understand is that you have racists in your outfit. Definite racists. Bigots.”
Landis admitted he couldn’t easily change the 90 men under his command. Yet he failed to see the warning signs that black residents had lost their patience.
Black folks knew which cops had a grudge against their race, but naming them publicly changed nothing. Black residents formed a committee to ease tensions between cops and teenagers. The mayor refused to meet with them.
Mayor Snyder downplayed what was happening in his city, calling the teenagers throwing bricks and rocks at passing cars just a “few rabble-rousers.”
The violence turned up a notch in the days that followed, as black teenagers began hurling bottles and rocks at cops and firefighters while they did their jobs. Black teenagers told newspaper reporters that police beat them with billy clubs and harassed them. Older black residents said they had faced years of job, education and housing discrimination in York. Complaining, they said, didn’t work.
Chief Landis put cops on 12-hour patrols, sometimes 70 at a time.
He defended the police. The mayor defended the city. The black residents seethed at the defensive posture.
The violent episodes eased after a week, but the dogs continued to patrol, four cops named by black residents as racist instigators continued to walk the beat, and city leaders ignored the volatility of the problems bubbling under the surface.
Early Sunday morning, Aug. 4, 1968, Chester Roach, a 58-year-old white man who lived above Hoffman’s Meat Market, 226 S. Penn St., burst from his apartment to yell at the black teenagers making noise on the sidewalk. He fired shots at the youths, injuring 11 people, 10 of them black.
Police charged him two days later with aggravated assault with intent to kill and aggravated as sault and battery.
The summer of tumult ended when the children returned to school. And despite significant property damage done primarily in the city’s black neighborhoods, city leaders viewed that small leak in the city as patched.
1969: one of the boys.
BOBBY MESSERSMITH, DONNIE ALTLAND, MIKE BERRY, Stewy Aldinger and the guys who lived in the Gap, the North Newberry Street area, rotated through Art Morris’ North End Cigar Store on Gay Street daily. Morris never minded the neighborhood guys hanging out in the back of his place because he made a mint off the cigarettes, candy and food he sold them.
The Newberry Street Boys considered Morris’ business their headquarters. They would run into each other at the store, which sat beside a set of railroad tracks that broke the hill on North Newberry Street.
The club’s first president, Bobby Messersmith, called meetings at a location north of the store, the Farquhar Park pavilion. Thirty or 40 boys gathered to talk about their organized activities, while Messersmith took notes. They talked about cleaning up gar bage along the neighborhood streets and railroad tracks, holding sub sales to add to the club’s coffers and handling trouble stirred up by other gangs.
When a new member wanted to join, he was asked to take a walk along a dirt path near the park as the members discussed whether the kid was nice, stayed out of trouble enough to keep the cops off their backs and was known in the neighborhood.
Gangs had evolved in the 1960s, some from social or athletic clubs. The Girarders grew out of the Girard Athletic Association in the city. The men wore satin jackets to display their affiliation to the club, so the boys followed. The Girarders sported gray windbreakers with dark letters.
The Newberry Street Boys had organized because they were tired of being chased down by Gi rarders in their own neighborhood. The NSBs wore maroon jackets with yellow letters – the club name across the back of the jacket and the gang member’s name over the heart. A hardware store in York produced the jackets for about $15, a hefty sum for the teenagers. But territorial cliques needed easy ways to identify who was in, who wasn’t. The jackets were a badge of honor.
The Newberry Street Boys patrolled the street where the Messersmiths lived. Their turf stretched from Philadelphia Street to Farquhar Park. The Girarders owned the area around Girard Park in the city’s east end. The Swampers covered the Arch Street neighborhood. The Yorklyn Boys came from a neighborhood in Springettsbury Township.
Anyone could walk through another gang’s territory without fear of a scuffle. But if Swampers drank beer in Girard Park or chased a girl dating a Yorklyn Boy, the gangs fought.
They used their belts as whips and beat each other with baseball bats. They might even use crude weapons they had made at the York County Area Vocational-Technical School from chains and pipes. They left bruised and sore, but no one was knifed, no one was shot, no one was killed.
On warm summer nights, the Newberry Street Boys rode the loop – Philadelphia, King and three lanes on Market Street. East of the city, they would stop at Gino’s, which served the first 15-cent hamburgers in town. Sometimes they drag-raced. Mostly they drank beer and hit on girls, although some of the gang members were into the harder stuff, marijuana, even acid when someone had it.
Altland, a reserved guy, hovered close to his buddy Messersmith. Gang members either lead or follow. Most are followers, most want to belong to something powerful because individually they don’t have much influence.
In January 1969, Richard M. Nixon had become the 37th president of the United States and offered this advice in his inauguration speech: “We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another – until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”
Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken softly.
Bobby Kennedy had spoken softly.
But their measured tones were silenced.
Now, change was a thunder roaring through city after city, and resistance was trying to be heard over it.
A music festival near Woodstock, N.Y., turned into a hippie drug fest and created a dissonant soundtrack for America’s college-age generation. Sonny and Cher and the Temptations didn’t represent these anti-war, pro-feminism activists, but the brash voices of Country Joe McDonald and Janis Joplin did. This young generation that watched the tug-of-war in Vietnam, race riots and the proliferation of illegal drugs wanted desperately to make a political statement all its own.
The German roots buried deep in York’s soil shied away from dramatic reform. They avoided voting for the loudest candidate; they valued the politician with the subtle message. They depended on consistency and permanency. After all, many of them still lived in the same town where their parents and grandparents lived. They weren’t always conservative in politics, but they were conservative in action.
They were watching with great interest America’s plan to land on the moon. The disturbances of a year earlier had vanished from the minds of many of York’s white residents.
In the summer of 1969, Donnie Altland, 21 years old, had a full-time job working on the city park crew.
The crew trimmed bushes, mowed lawns and dumped garbage. Altland, lean and muscular, drove a trailer with a hitch on the back, lugging the mower behind it.
He was nice and friendly to the guys on the crew, working hard and using his good mechanical skills on the job. He was rough around the edges, cursing and smoking a lot, but he wasn’t intimidating. In fact, he didn’t mention his connection with the Newberry Street Boys – until after the riots that summer.
July 17, 1969, was a warm Thursday afternoon in York, as a 12-year-old black boy and his friend experimented with lighter fluid and matches. The boy burned his face and was taken to the hospit al. Questioned by police, he blamed the Girard ers, the white gang at Girard Park.
The lie spread through the city in a flash.
What had been a small flicker of anger and tension in the city turned into a raging blaze. The ease with which so many people had ignored the complaints and anger from black residents a year earlier wouldn’t work this time. City leaders, city residents young and old, and the previously untouched in the suburbs and rural areas of York County would become swallowed up by the rage of boys and men.
The city would be forever changed, marked by fighting and conflict, black on white, white on black, boys on boys. And several uniformed police officers, charged with keeping the peace, would hide behind their badges as they cheered racist behavior by the city’s impressionable teenagers.
Bobby Messersmith didn’t need much encouragement to become involved in the city riots. His Newberry Street Boys had become a gang to be feared. They were tough and increasingly violent – because their leader was a hood, a ruffian.
Almost as soon as word spread about the young boy’s lie, commotion between the races began. This time, the gang wars were white on black and black on white.
That night, TakaNii Sweeney, a black teenager, and another boy broke the windows out at Morris’ North End Cigar Store. They knew the trouble they were stirring up. If the lie about the Girarders wasn’t bad enough, the NSBs were really hot now about this intrusion on the sanctity of their headquarters.
Sweeney was in more danger than he was aware. He had toyed with Bobby Messersmith, whose father had an arsenal of firearms in the basement. Quick to anger and ready to do battle, Messersmith had a weapon in his hands before Sweeney left the area.
When Detective George Smith stopped Sweeney for violating the city’s youth curfew that evening, Messersmith hid in the shadows and shot the teenager in the back.
Pandemonium ripped through six blocks downtown. Blacks and whites huddled behind bushes and poles, throwing rocks at one another and shooting rifles until early the next morning.
The anger of a year earlier had exploded into hate from the city’s young blacks. The response from young whites brought the sky down on all of them.
By the second day, Friday, July 18, firefighters and police officers worked around the clock, as young men firebombed city homes and businesses with Molotov cocktails.
The cops and firefighters would one day be labeled by the handful of overt racists among them, but many of these men bravely faced the dangers of the streets each day and night. Firefighters ar rived at fires prepared to wash away the flames, but boys shot at them from windows and rooftops. Police officers, prepared to chase teenagers from criminal acts, feared gang members would rise up against them.
What was expected in a civilized society had been turned upside down in a number of city neighborhoods. Vigilantes created anarchy.
Fire alarms rang throughout the city, some at blazes, others false. A team of three city cops cruised the streets of York in Big Al, one of the city’s two armored trucks. After protecting firefighters at a mattress fire in the middle of Hope Avenue, Big Al headed toward the shooting of a motorcyclist at Pershing and College avenues, where police had requested the armored vehicle.
Big Al’s exterior, the cops believed, would deflect bullets. But as the truck sped toward the scene, a steel-jacketed bullet punctured the steel wall of the truck and fractured into three pieces. All three pieces hit a young police officer sitting inside the truck.
Henry Schaad, the 22-year-old son of a city detective, was paralyzed by one fragment that reached his spine. The bullet also hit his shoulder and ribs before he slumped to the floor. Still alive, Schaad told the other two cops, “I’ve been shot.” They rushed him and the injured motor cyclist to the hospital.
The heat rose in the city, as more firebombs hit businesses, more rocks hit windows, and the toll of injured climbed in the emergency room. Mayor Snyder declared a state of emergency for the city. Anyone 21 or younger had to stay inside between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. He closed liquor stores and taverns and restricted the sale of guns and gasoline.
As Schaad lay dying in York Hospital, state troopers joined city cops on the streets of York. Schaad was one of 27 people injured in the first four days of riots. Three of the injured were children.
While York raged, much of the world grew still to watch something historic that Sunday. At 4:18 p.m., the Eagle landed. The first manned spacecraft touched down on the moon, and almost eight hours later, Neil Armstrong took the first steps on its surface.
American history beamed right into the homes of York residents. They watched the American flag pierce the moon’s surface and heard Buzz Aldrin describe it as “magnificent desolation.” But many eyes in York searched the darkness that enveloped the city, drawing out criminals for the fourth night in a row.
A meeting between the chief of police, the Community Progress Council, the district attorney and members of the black community that Sunday relieved none of the hysteria in the city. The chief wasn’t willing to change how grievances with the police were handled or appoint a liaison to help those arrested find attorneys. Talk to the mayor or the public safety director, he said. He admitted that as many white folks were creating the violence as black.
That same day, several city cops cruised the streets of York, telling white gang members to meet at Farquhar Park for a rally. These guys always ran from cops, not toward them, but what had been normal wasn’t anymore. They headed to the park.
Several uniformed officers jumped out of their police cruisers to lead the young crowd of boys in a chant of “White power!” One of those men on the bandstand stage was a 35-year-old cop who many of the boys knew as Charlie.
Charles Robertson, born and raised in York, typically had a congenial air about him. He coached city sports teams, invited boys over to his house to play sports, watch sports and even drink beer. Some of these guys knew him well.
The other cops were strangers to most gang members, men the boys had feared. But this time, they were on the same side, fighting the coloreds. The cops who led the white power chant were furious that one of their own was dying of his wounds.
Take up arms in your neighborhoods, the cops told the boys. Protect your families. Then they added another layer of fear to the young boys: The Black Panthers were coming. The police had been watching the movements of the militant Black Panthers for several days, fearful the men would join what was already a city out of control.
North Newberry Street had been a prime area for shootings. Several people walking along the road were shot over the weekend. Similar stories were told from the Penn Street-College Avenue area and Penn Common. Sometimes, reports of shootings would be called in to the police as a tactic to draw them into an area for an ambush.
One story of a light-colored car driving up North Newberry Street about 9 p.m. Sunday night would be frequently disputed. It was said that a black man was driving, the trunk popped open and a gunman fired a double-barreled shotgun. Boys later said they chased the car out of the neighborhood with rocks.
That same evening, the Cottage Hill Road home of Jimmy and Sherman Spells’ mother was firebombed. Jimmy Spells learned from his white friends that the kings of Newberry Street had done it, Bobby Messersmith and his young brother, Artie.
The next morning, the Messersmiths’ buddy, Donnie Altland, appeared for his shift with the parks crew.
Monday, July 21, was hot, nearly 90 degrees.
Barricades prevented traffic from entering city streets that had been under siege since Thursday. Only residents could pass through.
North Newberry Street was one of those neighborhoods, but late in the afternoon on that Monday, Jimmy and Sherman Spells knocked on the door of John Messersmith’s home. They talked to his son, Bobby.
Jimmy Spells told the NSB leader that his mother had nothing to do with the riots. Call off his boys, Spells said, or Messersmith would be held personally responsible if Spells’ mother was hurt. Boys on the street that afternoon claimed the Spells brothers drove a white Cadillac into the neighborhood.
As the long July day began to grow dark, at least 100 boys gathered in the neighborhood known as the Gap, most out in front of the Messersmiths’ 229 N. Newberry St. house, next to the railroad tracks at Gay Street. John Messersmith’s basement held an array of rifles, guns and ammu nition, which many boys grabbed to await the Black Panthers or a light-colored car whose trunk might hold a gunman or Jimmy and Sherman Spells.
Boys pointed their rifles out of the Messersmiths’ second-floor windows or stood on the rooftop. Others lurked around the railroad tracks or hid in empty boxcars. They swarmed the street, darkened because they had shot out the street lights. They eyed a few cops down on Philadelphia Street stationed next to wooden barricades and directed to keep cars from traveling north on Newberry Street.
Donnie Altland grabbed a rifle and took a position on the Messersmith roof with a few guys, including Gabriel Mark Barr, an immigrant from Ireland and NSB member.
As soon as a white Cadillac turned from Philadelphia Street onto Newberry, the boys began shouting, “The niggers are coming. The niggers are coming.”
Like a ball bouncing up the road, those words reached each group of boys, at least one-third of them armed.
Altland pointed his rifle at the car, as boys shouted for some of their sharpshooters to take aim. The car slowly reached the railroad tracks and inexplicably began turning around. As it stopped, straddling the tracks, a black woman stepped out of the back seat holding her hands in the air.
“Don’t shoot,” she called out.
A gunshot punctured her chest, and she collapsed to the pavement.
The boys surrounding the car fired on it again and again.
When the shooting ended, Barr turned to Altland, asking if he shot at the car.
The 21-year-old answered, “Yes, once.”
1969, the 1970s and ’80s: the guilt
LILLIE BELLE ALLEN LAY dying just outside Hattie Dickson’s car door, moaning, “Somebody help me. Would you please help me?”
Horrified, Hattie and Murray Dickson and James and Beatrice Mosley cowered in the car as bullets dug into the doors and trunk. Glass shattered on them. Windows burst. For one minute or more gunfire followed gunfire. It felt like forever.
The boys closest to the Dicksons’ white Cadillac could hear the screams from inside the car, so high, so piercing that they sounded like children.
Murray “Bubba” Dickson, in the front passenger seat, tried to sit up and see what was happening. In the back with her husband, Beatrice Mosley cried for the oldest of her eight children. Lillie Belle was so near at that moment, yet Mama could do nothing for her.
When the shooting paused, Hattie Dickson rose from the driver’s seat, opened the door and began running down the railroad tracks. She wanted to run into the darkness, where no one could see her and hurt her. But she forgot that the car’s lights shone toward her. She returned to the car to turn off the lights, and her husband pulled her into the seat, begging her to stay there where she might be safe.
More shots stung the car.
When an armored truck arrived, a police officer jumped out, telling the boys to hold their fire. “It’s me, Charlie,” Officer Charlie Robertson said to settle them.
“OK, Charlie, we won’t shoot,” someone shouted back.
Robertson had been down this street before and talked to these boys. This was the man who had been with them one day earlier at a white power rally, whose fellow officers had told these white gang members to take up arms in their neighborhoods, to defend themselves against the Black Panthers.
The folks in the car were no Black Panthers.
“Is everybody all right?” one of the officers asked, leaning into the car.
“My daughter was shot,” Beatrice Mosley answered.
Allen was taken to the hospital, and the officer told the family to drive the car out of the neighborhood.
“Keep your heads down, and get the hell out of here,” he said.
The windows had been shot out. The lights had been shot out. The tires were flat. Hattie Dickson crouched so low in the driver’s seat that she could barely see over the dashboard to return down the North Newberry Street hill where she had first seen the boys with the rifles pointed at her car.
All she had wanted to do that evening was take her parents and Allen, visiting from South Carolina, to J.M. Fields Discount Department Store. They needed a few supplies to go fishing the next day, and while they were on Loucks Road, Dickson had wanted to show them the grand fountain at the North Mall. But they never made it out of the city.
Hattie and Bubba rented a two-story brick house at 334 S. Pershing Ave., several blocks south of the Gap. Their house, where they had recently moved their five children, was sandwiched into a series of row houses, with no front yards and narrow back yards abutting an alley.
The Dicksons’ front windows faced Penn Park. The Dickson children had played there on and off throughout the hot summer day with their cousins, Debra and Michael Allen, and their teenage aunt, Gladys Mosley, who were visiting from South Carolina.
It was long past dusk when 11-year-old Debra Allen heard a thumping sound coming up Pershing Avenue. Her grandparents, mother, aunt and uncle had taken much longer at J.M. Fields than the children had expected.
The children crawled to the window and peeked out. They saw a car creeping up the road. Thump. Thump. Thump. Then it slowed and stopped in front of the Dicksons’ home. It was Uncle Bubba’s Cadillac. The children moved away from the window and waited for the grown-ups to come inside.
Debra watched as her grandmother, grandfather, aunt and uncle entered. Their hair glistened in the room’s light.
Debra waited for her mother to walk in the door. She must be out pulling packages from the car, Debra thought. But the door closed behind her relatives.
“Where’s Mama?” she asked.
The Mosleys told young Debra that Lillie Belle had a cut on her finger, and she was at the hospital. They wanted to clean up and leave for the hos pital to see her. This time, they would take the Rev. Mosley’s Cadillac.
But Lillie Belle never came home again. She would never hold her beautiful babies in her arms, never laugh with them or soothe them or wipe the tears from their eyes. When the Mosleys and Dicksons arrived at York Hospital, they learned that Lillie Belle Allen had been declared dead at 9:50 p.m. They returned home and told the children.
July 21, 1969, slipped into July 22 as Allen’s children, sisters, brother-in-law, nieces, nephews and parents rested together on the living room floor of 334 S. Pershing Ave., wrapped in each other’s arms. They left the lights on all night.
The terror of that night would change the directions of their lives, each and every one. It would leave an impression that no love, no faith, no memory could erase, but they would all try.
When the sun rose on the next day, York returned to its chaos. Vigilantes retaliated again and again.
But Lillie Belle Allen’s family saw none of it.
As her lifeless body returned by plane to Aiken, S.C., for burial, her loved ones in York piled into the Rev. Mosley’s Cadillac Tuesday evening – eight children, Hattie and Bubba, the Rev. Mosley and Beatrice. They sat on one another’s laps, pulled together as they had the night before, taking comfort in the presence of one another.
The sky opened up that Tuesday, releasing rain onto the hot, sticky surfaces of York. The Rev. Mosley drove through the day and into the night in that rain, 600 miles to Aiken. He asked Hattie to drive. She tried but couldn’t do it. She was drained, frightened and grieving.
One week later, a Sunday, the vivacious Lillie Belle Allen was laid into the ground at Pine Lane Memorial Gardens.
When Hattie and Murray Dickson returned to York with their children, much had changed – for them and for the city they called home.
The fierce fighting that killed Dickson’s sister had ended. It had filled seven days, required the assistance of National Guard troops and injured dozens of people, including children.
The toll on the City of York would be measured for decades to come. County residents, wary of conflict and impatient with radical behavior, would mark the city as a scary place to go, a place where the riots happened and could happen again. Cities all across the country suffered through riots in the 1960s, but in York County, the city would never fully recover.
And neither would Officer Henry Schaad. After two weeks in the hospital battling his gunshot wounds, he, too, slipped away.
Donnie Altland told his co-workers at the city parks crew that he was up on Newberry Street the night the black woman was shot. He had a rifle, he told them. They could see he was telling the truth, but he was clearly uneasy about it.
The woman who had suffered the loss of her sister didn’t lock down her house. She didn’t grow fearful walking to the store. She didn’t close her children off from school or play.
Hattie Dickson carried on with her life.
It was not the life she had imagined, although she still smiled and laughed, still played soulful music in the house, still held her children tightly every night.
She was a changed woman. Guilt lived inside her.
Her parents would never talk much about Lillie Belle’s violent end, and Hattie wouldn’t much either.
It ate at her, though, and threatened to eat right through her.
The early ’70s ushered in a new era in the United States. Soldiers continued to pour into Vietnam, and record numbers died there. Peaceful marches to improve civil rights never returned to what they had been before King died, and the tide of violence that had come with cultural changes receded slightly.
President Nixon lectured on global issues, and a new conservativism caught fire in the country.
The first half of the ’70s was trying for Dickson. She spiraled into a dark place that she would never say much about. It affected her deeply. She wanted her kids to finish high school and go to college. She wanted her youngsters to have more opportunities than she had, but she became mired in her own life, falling fast.
Dickson had turned from the church. Her father exuded the ministry every moment of his existence. He was a spiritual man, a Baptist through and through. He sifted every message through the Bible and his faith when Hattie grew under his wing. Now, she had her own babies under her wing, yet she lost Jesus somewhere between here and there. She had turned down a road without a sanctuary.
The cross she bore in the early 1970s was her own, but she knew that everyone around was carrying it with her.
Dickson drew strength from her family and friends through those darkest moments of her life. They helped lead her back to God, and when Dickson finally opened the church door, faith and hope washed over her. Light replaced darkness, and Dickson began to rebuild her life.
She knew it was too late to save her whole family. Her children, Todd, Joe, Angelina, Stephanie and Toby, struggled sometimes in school. They got into fights and ran home for their mother’s comfort. She was finally there, finally able to do something for them. She felt guilty that she had for so long failed in her duties as a mother.
The happy-go-lucky girl she was had evolved into a woman with responsibilities and concerns.
Dickson and her family moved from home to home in York. They struggled sometimes. But Dickson lived for family and church. She really knew very little of what was going on around her in the city or county.
She saw herself as a country girl from Aiken, never a piece of the community she lived in.
John L. Snyder, the anachronistic mayor of York, had died in 1969 during emergency surgery. The York Charrette of 1970, credited with easing racial tensions in the city, passed without Dickson’s involvement.
The Vietnam War ended after 11 years. More than 11,000 York County residents served in it, and 101 gave their lives.
The county became more diverse as Latinos began to migrate here, and the city elected its first woman mayor in 1977. Farmland had started to lose its dominance in the county.
Dickson moved in and out of jobs, working when Bubba wasn’t – at the sewing factory, Danskin, the candy factory. But through the ’80s, her favorite job was caring for elderly people. She cooked, cleaned and chauffeured them around town. She wanted to brighten their days, and she did so with a warm smile, a loving hug, and a gentle laugh.
The elderly have a wisdom she admired. They reminded her of her grandmother, who would tell rich, colorful stories of days gone by.
In the ’80s, Dickson stopped voting – the politicians didn’t deliver on their promises. She watched two of her children graduate from high school. Her children didn’t go to college, as she had hoped. They didn’t have easy lives. They had their dark times, too, but Dickson stayed true to them.
Then, Dickson struggled with a question.
“What is hate?” she asked God. She didn’t feel it and didn’t understand it, but she could see it around her, had felt its presence throughout her life. “What do it do?”
1987: the idealist
BY HIS FINAL YEAR at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Tom Kelley had a reputation for making friends easily. Gregarious, fun, handsome and smart, T.K., as he was known, appealed to many of his classmates. He had been president of Alpha Chi Rho, vice president of the interfraternity council, a football player, boxer and actor. He was also a good student, preferring to study for exams over the course of days rather than cramming in one night.
Some people, though, were turned off. People, he learned, were either hot or cold on him and always would be. He was the guy for whom everything seemed to come easily.
Far from it. After his parents’ bitter divorce in the early 1970s, Kelley’s father practically vanished from his life. His mother, Anne Kelley, had inspired him to be successful, teaching him to be a fighter. She lectured on holding to his ideals, pushing him to make something of his life.
Anne Kelley supported her children by selling Revlon, then she returned to college. When Tom Kelley was considered for a football scholarship to a good private high school in Philadelphia, his mother told him to decline. She couldn’t afford to supplement the high tuition, as she already had one daughter in a private school.
Then, young Tom became a bit of a hell-raiser. Even Anne Kelley’s boyfriends faced the teenage boy’s cross-examination technique.
People told Kelley he should be a lawyer because he was so argumentative.
He started looking at colleges. Dickinson, which he had heard created good lawyers, was the only place he applied as an undergraduate, and the college took care of him with a lot of financial aid.
Eventually, though, money grew scarce, and Kelley turned to the one thing in his corner: the law. He sued his father to help pay tuition at Dickinson and won.
He wouldn’t open up to a relationship with the elderly Kelley for several more years, shortly before his father died of cancer.
After four years dating the same girl, Kelley broke off the relationship. They were too much alike, both outgoing, both always wanting to be at the center of the stage. He needed someone to complement him, he knew, and he had law school ahead of him.
He was headed to the University of Richmond, where he would study the art of law. Money didn’t lure him into the profession. He believed his mother when she told him that there’s a difference between people with money and people with power. He had grown up surrounded by money, even though he had none of it himself. Cash never appealed to him but influence did.
He hoped that practicing law would help him change people’s lives.
The 1990s: spiritual woman
CHURCH AND FAMILY anchored Hattie Dickson to the spinning world. Her parents had always shielded her from overt racism as a child, even though she knew it was there. Now, she ignored it, turned her back when it slapped her in the face. Her friends were black and white, old and young. She welcomed strangers with the love she had for friends. Bitterness and anger didn’t find a place inside her.
Dickson traveled as often as she could to visit family. And her family came to York, too. A decade earlier, her younger sister, Gladys, had asked Dickson if she could move in with her family. Dickson told her to pack her bags, and they would make room for her. Gladys Oden lived with the Dicksons until she found a job and could move out on her own.
Dickson had never plugged into York politics, staying out of the machinations of her city.
But in the ’90s, she would stand face to face with York’s mayor.
Dickson stopped at a city Laundromat one day to do her wash. Her friend pointed out the tall, broad man doing his laundry as Charlie Robertson, the mayor of York.
Dickson lived in the city for most of her life, but she didn’t know the mayor to see him and didn’t recognize this man as the cop at the scene of her sister’s murder two and a half decades earlier.
Well what was the mayor of York doing in a Laundromat, she wondered. Intrigued by him, she stared. When she finally worked up her nerve, she approached him. With her friend by her side, she asked Mayor Robertson a question. He turned to answer and glanced past Dickson, directing his comments instead to the friend. They stood just so for several minutes, the mayor speaking to the friend and ignoring Dickson.
She turned her back. She knew what was happening. Her friend was white. The mayor was ignoring the black woman.
Hattie Dickson’s independent spirit rejected discrimination. She turned away from him and let the moment go. The lessons of her parents stayed with her even as she passed the age of 50. They had protected her from racism. Now, she protected herself.
Dickson saw her mom and dad and siblings at Christmas and Thanksgiving, funerals and vacations. They all traveled to the Mosleys’ for holiday gatherings, filling their Aiken home. The Rev. Mosley was by then training men at the funeral home and remained solidly a man of faith.
He never spoke of his eldest daughter’s murder, nor did his wife.
Dickson didn’t dwell on it much either, but she always avoided Newberry Street.
1999: seeds of a case
A REPORTER CALLED York County prosecutor Tom Kelley one summer day in 1999 with a question about the 1969 murder of Lillie Belle Allen.
Lillie Belle Allen?
He had never heard of her.
Sure, he knew that a young police officer named Henry Schaad was murdered in 1969, but how and why weren’t clear to him. Kelley had been only 5 years old when whites, blacks, gangs and armored vehicles rolled over the streets of York. He knew nothing of the riots and nothing of a young black woman killed then.
But he would learn.
He had started his job at the District Attorney’s Office two days before Christmas in 1991, driving his new Honda Civic, the first car he ever had. He had just married his University of Richmond sweetheart, Natalie, and just passed the bar. After Kelley prosecuted one of his first cases, York County Judge Sheryl Ann Dorney leaned over and said to District Attorney Stan Rebert, “You won’t keep him long.”
Eight years later, Kelley, 35, was the first assistant district attorney and a York City councilman.
Curious after the reporter’s phone call, he asked his boss if he could pull the case file. Sure, Rebert said, but he wouldn’t find much there.
In fact, all that existed in the county’s Lillie Belle Allen file were Pennsylvania State Police reports from the summer and fall of 1969, interviews with suspects and witnesses. The case was never solved, never reopened, never prosecuted. Kelley scanned the thin folder and rested it on a filing cabinet in his office, where it would most likely gather dust.
Neither the Allen nor Schaad cases had much to go on.
On June 25, 1999, the Daily Record published a retrospective on the riots and murders of 1969. One month later, The York Dispatch published its 30-year anniversary pieces on the riots.
All the secrets of 1969 had stirred quietly in a closet for 30 years, but the retrospectives published in the two newspapers knocked on that door hard enough that people started to open it. Calls began to trickle into the District Attorney’s Office. They were tips, details, little pieces of evidence about the Schaad and Allen shootings.
The Allen file still might be sitting on Kelley’s filing cabinet, if it weren’t for those calls. He might have ignored two murders that were 30 years old, as prosecutors had for years before him. But the information leaking out of that closet couldn’t be ignored. He had to open the door, had to let it out, had to see how deep that secret lay buried.
He would find it buried under guilty consciences, faded memories, dead witnesses, scarce evidence and a thick layer of fear and frustration. Some local folks felt that what had been left in the dark for so long should stay in the dark. He would be lambasted and admonished for taking on the case, and before it ended, he would wonder how he and his family survived it.
He and his wife, a part-time accountant, had two children, Connor, 3, recently diagnosed with a mild form of autism, and Quinn, 1.
But Kelley couldn’t see the massive amount of work and anguish ahead of him as the case began. He was idealistic. He believed in justice. It was why he had become a prosecutor.
He fought hard to put child abusers in jail. He skewered rapists in the courtroom to move juries toward guilty verdicts. He was a passionate, intense man who had fought hard to become a prosecutor. The truth must be told, and when it came to light, everyone would see that he was doing the right thing, he believed.
Both 1969 murder cases opened up, as tips led the District Attorney’s Office toward names and details. Much of the information trickling in began to pile up in the Schaad murder. Rebert and Kelley decided that they must separate the two cases and build their own teams. Rebert took Schaad; Kelley took Allen. They would work independently and at their own speed.
The first person Kelley chose for his team was Rodney George, a York County detective who had served on the York City police force. He had two things going for him: He was an excellent investigator, and he worked damn hard.
George became the guy who cleaned the closet, from top to bottom. He would ferret out every witness still living. He would search for every gang member he could locate, talk to every cop he could find who worked in 1969 and was still alive. In the beginning, he and Kelley rarely saw one another. George dropped his investigation reports in a box at the county’s old Zion Lutheran Church property, and the assistant D.A. combed through them when he had time.
Detective George started with the file Kelley already found: the 33 pages of Pennsylvania State Police reports from 1969. He would reinterrogate the people interviewed 31 years earlier. The state police had talked to boys who had been on the street July 21, 1969, as well as the people in the car with Lillie Belle Allen.
George and Detective Dennis Williams, one of several investigators enlisted to help with the Allen case, knew that Hattie Dickson was a crucial witness. She was the only person still alive who was in the white Cadillac with Allen the night of her murder.
James Mosley, her father, died in September 1994 of a heart attack. He was 72. Four months later, her mother, Beatrice Mosley, died of ovarian cancer. She, too, was 72. A year later, 71-year-old Murray Dickson died, after suffering with heart trouble and high blood pressure.
On Feb. 7, 2000, the detectives knocked on Hattie Dickson’s door. They noticed her reticence as soon as they explained who they were and why they had come. Kelley, who met them back at his office, also noticed Dickson’s defensive posture. Her sister’s death was ignored for 30 years. She had grown cynical and distrustful of a system that had done nothing for her Lillie Belle, but she answered their questions anyway.
Her statement to the men that day faltered little from the original statement she gave to the state police three weeks after her sister’s death. At that time, she had told the police about fishing that day with her husband, parents and sister, stopping for a little food and returning home before heading to J.M. Fields.
She said: “Just as I was going over the railroad, I saw the guys with guns. I got so scared I started to turn around. They (her family) wanted me to go straight ahead. When I turned, I had my head laid over. They said, ‘Stop, you are going to hit the pole.’ My foot was on the brake, but the car was moving. I stopped. I didn’t cut the car off.
“Lillie said, ‘Stop the car, and I’ll take the wheel.’ When I stopped, she got out of the back and went to open the front door. There was a shot fired. I put the car in park and pushed my door open and got out. Lillie was lying at the door. I could see her insides hanging out, and her head was toward the front of the car.
“I got up and started up the railroad track, and I saw the car lights were on. I came back to the car to turn the lights out. I started to get into the car and wasn’t completely inside, and a second shot was fired. My husband pulled me back into the car down on the seat. There was more shots fired.”
April 2000: a man’s conscience
WHEN ONE OF DONNIE Altland’s old Newberry Street buddies would call his home, he wouldn’t take the call. He had built a separate identity from the one he lived as a young man. Altland, 51, hadn’t run with the guys in decades, and his old buddy Bobby Messersmith had moved to the Philadelphia area.
Altland had married Cindy Bateson 25 years earlier, and they had raised two daughters in a home on Park Street in East Manchester Township. A century earlier, city residents had traveled by trolley to East Manchester Township, up this same road. Some would stay at their summer bungalows there and swim at the Conewago Creek.
In 2000, residents of Park Street owned or rented these homes, which had long ago been converted into four-season houses.
Altland still enjoyed a social life but now north of the city. He worked as a mechanic at York’s wastewater treatment plant and socialized at Mount Wolf Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Vigilant Social Club. He attended Ambassadors Bible Chapel.
He once stopped in at a reunion of the old Newberry Street guys, but he didn’t talk to many of them. He hardly knew anyone. The Newberry Street Boys who Altland had seen emerge in the ’60s continued cleaning the railroad tracks and playing ball games long after Altland and Messersmith moved on. Altland hadn’t stayed in touch.
Altland’s life in the background continued through adulthood. He was seen as a friendly guy who stayed out of trouble, a good father and husband.
The only time a Northeastern Regional Police officer encountered Altland was when a construction company that had worked at Altland’s home illegally dumped some of its trash. The police asked Altland if he could provide any information about the company. Altland, congenial and open, offered what information he could.
His next encounter with the police would be unexpected.
One spring morning in 2000, Cindy Altland answered the phone when a police detective called for her husband. He had questions about an incident 30 years earlier that Altland had witnessed on North Newberry Street.
“Oh, Bobby Messersmith,” Cindy Altland responded. She told the detective that her husband had mentioned Messersmith being involved in a shooting back then.
When Altland returned the call that afternoon, County Detective Rodney George asked him to drive down to the District Attorney’s office to talk about the shooting.
The detective knew Altland had talked to the cops once before; he also knew someone had given Altland up to the police three decades earlier. George had copies of the state police reports and the interviews with gang members from 1969.
One of those reports involved a brag started by a Newberry Street Boy, Gabriel Mark Barr, to his father, Mark Barr. The younger Barr, a 1968 graduate of William Penn, had been home from military service when the riots occurred. He told his dad he had been at the shooting over at that Negro’s murder in July and that she had a gun and fired it at the boys.
His father boasted to his co-workers at a used car lot of his son’s involvement.
Arthur Murphy, one of those co-workers, didn’t believe the story and told Mark Barr that his son was lying. Soon after, Gabriel Mark Barr called Murphy at work to repeat his story, unaware that Murphy had one of his co-workers listening on the other line. Two witnesses were better than one.
They called the police.
By the time an investigator was assigned to interview Barr, the boy had returned to military service at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. That’s where Pennsylvania State Police troopers interviewed him on Sept. 3, 1969.
Yes, he told the troopers, he was on Newberry Street July 21. He had been there since about 5 p.m., hanging out at Bobby Messersmith’s house. As the sun set, Barr heard shouts that the car was coming and someone yelled to Girarder Greg Neff, “Get ‘em Neff.” The firing lasted about one minute. No, he wasn’t one of them, but he stood on the roof of John Messersmith’s house next to a guy who said he shot at the car: Donnie Altland.
Just a couple of months later, Trooper Dale E. Allen asked Altland to meet him at the Pennsylvania State Police substation, 1195 Roosevelt Ave., the local barracks where 38 troopers worked.
Donnie Altland had turned 21 just a month before the riots. He had moved out of his parents’ home and was living at 573 W. Market St. when Allen interviewed him Oct. 14, 1969. Still friends with Bobby Messersmith, Altland wouldn’t give the trooper any information about who was on Newberry Street that night or who had weapons. Unaware that Barr had snitched on him, Altland told his version of the story:
“I was in the alley, and it was about 9:15 p.m., and I heard a shot, then I heard a lot of shots, and I ran out front of the house. I saw the armored car go down the street. I guess they took the person away.
“I was carrying a baseball bat, and I didn’t have any gun. I saw several boys with guns, but I don’t remember their names.
“I was up on the roof earlier in the evening, and there were several persons there with guns, but I don’t know their names. After the shooting, we stood out front of the Messersmith home and talked for a while and then a policeman came over and talked for a while and then I left the Messersmith home and walked to where I live. I think that was around 10 p.m.
“I can’t remember too much about what happened that night. It was so long ago.” That was just three months after the shooting.
In 1969, Altland had been a thin, muscular young man with dark hair. On April 10, 2000, his salt and pepper hair framed a wider face. He had become a big man with an easy smile, a nice guy, well-liked by most people who knew him.
Altland had no idea that Gabriel Mark Barr had squealed on him to the police 31 years earlier. But the secret had been doomed to leak. So many people had known, so many of the boys that night had bragged about what they had done. But by now the gang members were older. Now they had children of their own. Now most of them saw that what they had done was nothing to brag about. They had shot at a frightened black family that had caused them no harm, held no gun, had no chance against their ambush.
Gabriel Mark Barr was dead, father of three taken by cancer in 1999, but his 1969 statement to police was on the record. He couldn’t testify in court, but in his youthful past, he had offered the detectives the name of a man who would live most of his life quietly behind the scenes, Donnie Altland.
In the 90-minute interview in 2000 with detectives George and Williams, Altland broke. He ad mitted that he shot at the car’s trunk that night. He told the police what he knew, but he implicat ed no one else. Something remained from that bond with the NSBs.
George now had a shooter, a credible man who admitted to being on Newberry Street that night. That was the piece he needed to help the case move forward.
But Altland was anguished. He returned home from the interview sweating. Donnie and Cindy Altland stayed up that night, talking about what happened. He felt sorry for what he did and wondered if it was his bullet that hit her.
His wife always knew Bobby Messersmith had been involved in the shooting, but she learned that her husband had his secrets, too. He feared what this investigation would do to his family. He might go to jail, and his two daughters would see that happen. He wondered how he could put them through such an ordeal.
Cindy Altland consoled him through the night. When she left for work in the morning, she assumed he was leaving for work, too. But before he left his home that day, he prepared two audio cas sette tapes. One was for his family, telling them he was sorry for letting them down and explaining the days of rage that haunted him throughout his life. He gave them his love.
The other tape was for the police, his second admission of guilt.
He drove out of the Manchester area April 11 to a remote section of East Manchester Township near Brunner Island. He turned down Gut Road, a bumpy dirt road crowded by trees so thick that the wide Susquehanna River is impossible to see through them.
A man driving over Gut Road about 10 a.m. was the first to notice Altland’s body and called the police. A road crew traveling back and forth on the same road that morning told the police he couldn’t have been there long because they had just been past.
Indeed, Altland planned to take his life, and once he arrived at his destination – far enough from his home that his loved ones would never witness this tragedy – he acted without hesitation.
Dressed in blue jeans and a red flannel shirt, Altland rested on a mound of dirt, his gun underneath him. A pack of Marlboros sat next to the tapes in his truck, along with a note scrawled on a napkin, “Forgive me, God.”
2000-2002: bid for justice
ALTLAND’S DEATH STUNNED Tom Kelley and Rodney George. This part-time investigation, this long-buried case meant a whole lot more to a number of people than it would have appeared from that thin file Kelley pulled out of the courthouse attic so many months earlier. Now a man had died for his crime, at his own hands.
There was no turning back.
As the investigation cranked up a notch, George asked Mayor Charlie Robertson, his former boss, if he could meet with him. George needed advice about how to proceed. Police from 1969 would need to be questioned, and George was sensitive to how his fellow men in blue would respond to the interrogations. These men shared a bond that broke through generations and police departments. His police department had already put a city detective on the case.
Robertson was an affable man, a longtime public servant who had dreamed of becoming mayor since he was a small child growing up on York’s streets. Although Robertson wasn’t a brilliant politician, he hired people who wrote the budget and set his agenda and lured businesses into the city. He did little of that himself.
What he was good at was what he had always been good at – being a friendly guy, shaking hands and showing up on time dressed in a suit. He was dependable and most of the people who lived in York all their lives knew just who he was.
Robertson had watched the city grow and change and diversify from the same perch, the house in which he was raised on West Princess Street.
Pictures of his family and ball teams filled his living room. His parents, Milford and Margretta, were both dead. He never married or had any relationship that was publicly known. He lived alone most of his adult years.
When George talked to Robertson, he hadn’t known the mayor was anywhere near the scene of the Allen murder. Although he knew Robertson had worked that night, George hadn’t been aware that Robertson was one of the first cops on the scene of the crime.
But what the detective began to learn in interview after interview was that a 30-year-old secret could be dusted off a little easier than it might have been shortly after it happened. People thought the case was so far in the past that it wouldn’t hurt to tell the truth now.
One day in the District Attorney’s Office, Bill Graff, a county prosecutor, suggested to Kelley that a grand jury be impaneled to aid in the investigation.
Grand juries aren’t like trial juries. They help ferret out information. In the grand jury room, jurors can ask questions of witnesses. In a trial, a prosecutor would be a fool to ask a witness a question that he doesn’t already know the answer to. Unprepared prosecutors can damage their case if they use the witness stand as an investiga tive tool. In the grand jury room, though, the jurors are investigators, too.
Kelley liked the idea and moved on it.
This was an opportunity, one that hadn’t been undertaken in York County in three decades.
But county natives were restless.
The mayor had gone on the attack. At a York City Council meeting in June 2000, Robertson said, “Is it being done now for political reasons? I don’t know. Is it being done now to embarrass the city? I don’t know.”
This was the same council forum in which Kelley, a Republican, had lambasted Robertson, a Democrat, for leasing a car with city funds and argued for limiting the mayor’s ability to temporarily serve as a city department director.
Regardless, Kelley was stunned to find Robertson, a former cop and head of the police department, disparaging the reopening of the murder cases.
The accusations stung.
Police Commissioner Herbert Grofcsik publicly declared that Robertson was not suspected of any wrongdoing in either homicide.
The District Attorney’s Office retorted that no one had been exonerated in the case, and behind the scenes, they wondered why there was this public condemnation of their cases by law enforcement leaders. Unsolved crimes are reopened in cities across the country, some even older than this.
But Robertson was a study in contrasts. He bent with popular opinion or with the views of the people closest to him.
The county’s prosecutors had no idea where Robertson’s comments were coming from this time, but they would soon find out there might be more to it.
Thirty York County people were chosen by computer to serve on the grand jury, two days each month for up to 18 months in or near 1 Marketway West. There, in a room closed to the public, the all-white jury listened to testimony from every witness, suspect, cop or former cop who detectives could locate in both the Allen and Schaad murders. Common Pleas Court Judge John C. Uhler presided.
Kelley was the prosecutor inside the grand jury room, aided by other prosecutors. And another member was added to Kelley’s team: Assistant District Attorney Tim Barker.
Barker has a savvy mind for the law, a man whose brain never shuts off. He had known Kelley since their college days at Dickinson, Barker a freshman when Kelley was finishing his degree. Barker signed on to become the prosecution team’s researcher, a behind-the-scenes role for now that would eventually draw him closer to the investigation and bind him to the Allen case for its length.
Helping Detective George was Trooper Keith Stone, who the Pennsylvania State Police had offered as an investigator.
While the grand jury started to see witnesses in the fall of 2000, politics overwhelmed the national news. The next president of the United States was anyone’s guess, even after the polls closed. Democrat Al Gore didn’t concede the presidential race to George W. Bush until Dec. 13, five weeks after the election ended.
A political race for mayor of York began in the new year. It seemed like an uneven match from the beginning. The primary pitted Robertson, an eight-year incumbent lucky to have ridden on a good economy, against Ray Crenshaw, a city councilman who, if elected, would be the city’s first black mayor. The winning Democrat was expected to face Republican Betty Schonauer, a former city school board member.
Inside the grand jury room, York County jurors heard Robertson’s name come from witnesses. The first of them was shocking: former York Police Officer Dennis McMaster. On the stand, McMaster admitted he saw Robertson hand out ammunition to gang members. His implication of Robertson came not as the result of a question from Kelley, though. One of the grand jurors dug out this detail.
When asked if other cops were involved, witnesses said that they were. Who were they? No one remembered.
But they remembered Robertson.
He was a victim of his own celebrity. Robertson coached boys baseball back in the ’60s and refereed basketball games. Most boys growing up in York knew Charlie Robertson, and through the years, he never stepped from the spotlight. The boys who saw him in York in 1969 watched him become mayor in 1994.
When Robertson took the stand in the grand jury room, he took the Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
Kelley wasn’t a Robertson fan, but he cringed to hear evidence that the mayor might have done anything illegal when he was a cop. Kelley works with cops every day. His job as a prosecutor is to defend the investigations and actions of the police in solving crimes. If the grand jury handed down a recommended charge on the mayor, Kelley would have to prosecute a former cop. He thought it unlikely that Robertson would be indicted.
When the recommended charges came from the grand jury, Kelley was surprised that 10 were there for the Allen case, one of those for Charlie Robertson.
The grand jury’s affidavit said, in part: “The grand jury found that based upon the evidence, the record supported a probable cause finding that Charles Robertson acted as an accessory before the fact in the crime of first-degree murder in the death of Lillie Belle Allen.”
Behind Kelley’s back, rumors swirled that he was just an aggressive, politically savvy young man climbing the ladder to Rebert’s chair.
At one of her daughter’s swimming lessons, Natalie Kelley sat beside a woman chattering away about how awful Tom Kelley was to prosecute the Allen case. Neither Kelley nor his wife knew the woman. While public opinion leaned heavily against the re-emergence of this case, Kelley felt vindicated by the unanimous decisions.
The grand jurors – 30 local folks who saw the evidence – agreed that the case must move to trial. April 26, 2001, just over one year after Altland’s suicide, Kelley had the first two men arrested for the murder of Lillie Belle Allen – Bobby and Artie Messersmith. The first assistant district attorney viewed Bobby Messersmith as the most culpable person in the crime. Bobby Messersmith had been arrested before – twice – for shooting people in York.
He served nine months for shooting TakaNii Sweeney the night the North End Cigar Store’s windows were broken on July 17, 1969. Three years later, Messersmith shot 16-year-old Charles W. Keener Jr., a stranger, as he walked along Salem Road. He served six months in a mental hospital and nine months in jail for the crime.
Arresting the Messersmith brothers first could make other people squawk, a tactic for confessions or pleas.
Bobby Messersmith talked. He blamed the shooting on someone who couldn’t defend himself: Donnie Altland. “I hate to do this. I hate to do this because he was a friend of mine, but Donnie Altland was the one who killed that woman,” Messersmith said. Prosecutors didn’t buy it. They believed Messersmith’s shot ended Allen’s life.
Eight more men arrested in Allen’s death marched into court one by one: Former Girarder Rick Knouse, former leader of the Girarders Gregory Neff, William Ritter, Clarence “Sonny” Lutzinger, former Newberry Street Boy Chauncey Curvin Gladfelter, former Yorklyn Boy Thomas Smith and, on May 12, 2001, Mayor Charlie Robertson. (Ezra Slick, who lived on Newberry Street, was arrested in July 2002. His arrest was slowed only because the prosecution team had been so busy.)
The District Attorney’s Office timed the mayor’s arrest to come after the primary, which he won over Ray Crenshaw. Kelley had received a letter from Richard Oare, one of Robertson’s attorneys, warning him not to arrest the mayor before the election because the District Attorney’s Office could be accused of tampering with the process.
Charged with murder, a crying Robertson admitted only that he said “White power” at the rally in 1969.
Before the end of May, Robertson dropped out of the mayoral race and gave up his political career. Kelley was drained. He had worked part time on this case for months, as had detectives George and Stone and prosecutor Barker. Kelley had taken every hit on the District Attorney’s Office for a year.
In June 2001, one month after the mayor’s arrest, a letter was sent to the York Daily Record and York Dispatch, their owners and then-Gov. Tom Ridge by some of the most powerful people in York County. In it, they expressed their displeasure with media coverage: “We believe newspaper coverage has been entirely excessive as well as irresponsible. We believe that in the guise of covering the news the local papers have done and are doing a grave disservice to the community. We fear that this unre lenting attention to the tragedies of 32 years ago, if continued, will have grave social consequences which have already begun to be manifested.”
The Daily Record printed the letter and the 94 names of the people who signed it.
Prosecutors viewed it as York County’s elite subtly nudging the District Attorney’s Office to drop the case. The lawyers were astonished and unmoved. Between the arrests and the preliminary hearing, Kelley and Barker set the case aside. Their day in court was coming. But not before a motion was filed by defense attorneys to drop the charges because of the 32-year time delay in arresting defendants.
It didn’t work.
The prosecution offered deals to some of the defendants to testify against other defendants, and pleas came from most of them. They offered Bobby Messersmith nothing. Two weeks prior to the trial in 2002, the prosecution team assembled its trial manuals – a Kelley staple – at a retreat site in the mountains west of Mifflinburg. In large, three-ring binders, Kelley organized all the notes taken on each witness who would be called to testify, and his co-counsel was expected to do the same. Included in his team now was Fran Chardo, a Dauphin County prosecutor who had offered to help with the case.
Even this close to trial, the prosecutors were deciding which of the 400 witnesses the detectives had interviewed would be called to the stand. Too many witnesses would bore the jury. Too few could weaken their case.
On the walls of their room, the lawyers hung photos, reminders of why they were there: Lillie Belle Allen. On Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2002, the courtroom of Judge Uhler filled early. Guards stood at the door checking identification tags. When the doors closed and court began, no one could enter.
Twelve white jurors and six alternates had been chosen to hear the trials of Robert Messersmith, Gregory Neff and Charles Robertson. Unlike Messersmith, Neff had been offered a plea deal. When he testified at the preliminary hearing that Allen had been armed on the night she was shot, his plea was revoked. Robertson’s attorney would only consider a plea agreement if it meant no jail time. It wasn’t offered. At the front of the packed courtroom sat the three defendants, each at his own table with one, two or three lawyers.
Tom Kelley’s team sat in front of the judge’s bench – Tim Barker beside Kelley, Fran Chardo behind Kelley and Rodney George beside Chardo.
The opening arguments set the stage for what would be a 13-day trial with nearly 100 witnesses. The first witness was Debra Taylor, a graceful woman in her 40s and the daughter of Lillie Belle Allen. Holding back her tears, she described the night her mother never came home, the firecrackers she thought she heard in the distance that night and her Uncle Bubba’s white Cadillac that she saw the following day on Pershing Avenue, covered with dings and holes.
The next person to take the stand was a 56-year-old woman dressed in black with her hair piled behind her. Her jet-black hair was streaked with strands of white. Still a small-town girl from the South, Hattie Dickson was terrified of the witness stand. She told the same story she had told before – traveling down the wrong road at the wrong time, unaware of the danger ahead, trying to turn the car, her sister jumping out to take the wheel and the bullets that followed. “I heard my sister,” Dickson testified in her soft Southern voice. “I heard her cry out to us. I heard her cry out. She said, ‘Somebody, will you please help me?’”
The witnesses who followed her told their own versions of the events that night. Philip Grosklos, a teenager in 1969 who lived on Atlantic Avenue, cried on the stand as he described the Mosleys and Dicksons screaming while bullets hit their car. Former cops took the stand. Former firefighters. Former gang members. Former residents of the Gap. Some forgot details. Some remembered vividly. The night of the shooting was no longer the black and white image many had of that night. It had become painted in with the rich strokes of men and women, some deeply affected by what happened, a few just as bigoted today as they were in 1969.
In the light of 2002, the picture became as clear as it could be 33 years after the fact. A woman died. One shot killed her. The man who prosecutors believed shot her had bragged of his deed, but the evidence of a fragmented bullet was gone, the memories of those he told hazy.
For his closing arguments, Robertson’s attorney, William C. Costopoulos, clicked through a slide show of the riots, disturbing pictures of the National Guard rolling through town on personnel carriers and police officers in riot gear. He talked of his client’s heroism in the riots and of the lack of evidence that he supplied ammunition to any gang members.
Harry Ness told the jury that his client, Neff, was caught up in the times. He had used birdshot, nothing that could kill a woman. “These kids on the bandshell that night (at Farquhar Park) were incited,” Ness said. “Had they (the police) done their jobs, no one would be here today.”
Kelley dramatically delivered his closing argument, shouting at times and quieting his voice to a hush at other times. “These guys weren’t protecting themselves,” he said. “They were trying to suck people into a war.” He had the final word of the trial: “Is it ever too late to do the right thing? Is it ever too late for justice? Go back there and do justice.”
When he retired to the prosecution’s office, otherwise known as the squirrel hut, to await a verdict, Kelley was relieved. He hadn’t seen his kids much over the last two months. He had read to them at night then retired to the basement of his spacious home to review his notes. Natalie Kelley had taken on the role of single parent while he handled this case. It took its toll. He had dreamed about this trial and worried about what effect all of this would have on his life after the verdict. He would like to run for judge one day. He believed the answer from this jury would reflect the work he had done.
Over the next couple of days, he and his team pondered questions that came from the jury, analyzing them and trying to read their meanings. The microsopic study frustrated the prosecutors, so they watched a “Godfather” marathon on television.
The jury returned with a verdict at 4:20 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19.
Two hours were given for the judge, attorneys, defendants, families, friends and media to assemble in the courtroom.
Robertson was the first person in the room, sitting at the table at about 4:30, but he was emotional. His lawyers took him out.
At 6:20 p.m., the doors closed, the judge spoke to the court’s audience, then the jury entered. Some of them had been crying. They would say later that this was one of the hardest things they ever had to do.
The families of the defendants sat on the left of the courtroom, three, four and five rows back. Hattie Dickson and her family sat in the same row they had been in the whole trial, on the right side, with victim-assistance coordinators Missy Barker and Karen Fry.
The jury foreman was asked the verdict for Robertson.
First degree murder. Not guilty.
Second degree murder. Not guilty.
For Bobby Messersmith.
First degree murder. Not guilty.
Second degree murder. Guilty.
For Gregory Neff.
First degree murder. Not guilty.
Second degree murder. Guilty.
The defendants’ families gasped, Robertson hung his head, weeping. Hattie Dickson leaned forward in her chair with a small smile on her face, shaking her head in affirmation. Absent from the courtroom was Donnie Altland, betrayed even after his suicide by his closest Newberry Street friend, Bobby Messersmith.
Tom Kelley offered no emotion from the front of the courtroom. He watched, though, as guards handcuffed and led away Neff and Messersmith.
It took him three agonizing years to reach this point, to bring these men to trial, to find justice for the murder of Lillie Belle Allen.
About the author
Kim Strong is a former editorial page editor and writing coach at the York Daily Record. In 2002, Strong won a first place Keystone Press Award for editorial writing and her editorial page and Comment section won a first place publishers’ award. In 2001, the Daily Record won state and national awards – including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award- for the series “Paper Shield: The Battered State of PFAs,” which Strong helped to edit. Strong has also edited “Never to be Forgotten,” “Nine Months in York Town” and “Almost Forgotten,” three local history books written by Daily Record Managing Editor James McClure. A Penn State graduate, Strong initially worked as the police and court reporter at the Lewistown Sentinel, where she won state and regional journalism awards. She then worked for six years as the news adviser for Penn State’s Daily Collegian.
This story was written without direct attribution, although every detail is taken from people, reports or historical documents. All of the direct quotes were taken directly from news and police reports. The following sources provided all the details: the Daily Record staff and archives; The Gazette and Daily; Tom Kelley; Hattie Dickson; Gladys Oden; Jennie Settles; Fred Flickinger; Tim Barker; York City Police reports; Pennsylvania State Police reports; FBI reports. The trial of Robert Messersmith, Gregory Neff and Charles Robertson; “Never to be Forgotten”; Daryl Albright, Northeastern Regional Police chief; Jim Hubley, a former editor at The Gazette and Daily; Dickinson College; Gary Sheaffer, a former president of the Newberry Street Boys; Jerry Francis, president of the Lower Merion Historical Society; William Penn High School’s Tatler; the York County Heritage Trust; Debi Beshore of the York City School District; Jean Parks of the York County School of Technology; Jack Lewis of the Pennsylvania State Police. Missy Barker of the York County Victim Witness Program; Northern School District; Barre Shepp of York County Veterans Affairs; Manchester Union Cemetery; the Associated Press; the Seattle Times; The Independent in London.