Shots in the dark
Sunday, January 5, 2003
NEW ORLEANS -- It was a textbook example of how not to stop a serial sniper: Police from dozens of agencies, with only a handful of radios for coordination, blazing away at a high-rise downtown hotel from all sides.
But the textbook hadn't been written 30 years ago when Mark James Robert Essex took over the Howard Johnson's during a nine-day killing spree.
By the time police sharpshooters in a Naval Reserve helicopter mowed Essex down on the roof, he had killed nine people in attacks across the city and injured 10 more.
Essex's attacks were only the start of the injuries. Police bullets wounded another 10 people at the hotel, nine of them officers hit by ricochets and shrapnel as they stood in a semicircle firing at an empty cinderblock room on the hotel roof where they thought a second sniper was holed up.
"Everything would have been done differently" today, says veteran New Orleans police Detective Bill Trepagnier. Today, New Orleans police have better communications and better guns. And they have a trained SWAT team, a direct result of the Essex shootings.
"I can't say we were undertrained. We were trained. But not like today," Trepagnier said.
John Gnagey, general manager of the National Tactical Officers Association, said the only trained SWAT teams that he knows were in existence at the time were in New York and Los Angeles.
At Howard Johnson's
Essex took over the 18-story Howard Johnson's on Jan. 7, 1973, paralyzing the city until afternoon the next day.
It came at a tense time, said Moon Landrieu, the city's mayor at the time. There was racial tension, Black Panther shootouts, demonstrations against the Vietnam war.
"There's a certain chaos that envelops these things. I thought, frankly, that the department did as well as it possibly could have under the circumstances," Landrieu said.
Essex first struck on New Year's Eve, picking off two policemen. Six days later, he killed a grocer who had talked to police about him, then stole a car, telling the driver he didn't want to kill black people like himself, "just honkies."
He said the same thing to black maids at the Howard Johnson's, where he killed four guests and three officers.
Hundreds of officers from city, federal, state and local agencies took up firing positions in surrounding buildings.
Essex was armed with a powerful .44-caliber Magnum carbine. Police had plenty of guns, though many were pistols or shotguns with no long-range accuracy.
Officers also had only a few handheld radios.
"You really didn't know what was going on until you found somebody with a radio," Trepagnier said. "They were cumbersome, like an automobile battery. And the batteries didn't last that long."
During the shooting, Trepagnier was on a fire truck ladder with firefighter Tim Ursin and fellow officer Jack Uhle.
Ursin was about eight stories up, trying to get to a balcony full of people.
"I heard a loud boom coming from my left," he said. "I looked up for a second. I didn't know what had happened. It felt like a shock wave in front of my face. I looked at my raincoat and blood was pouring out of the left sleeve."
The slug had come from below, ripping through his arm.
Uhle helped Ursin down the ladder while Trepagnier fired his shotgun toward the sniper. "I knew I couldn't do any damage, but he didn't know what was shooting at him," Trepagnier said.
Getting a hook
Ursin underwent six months of reconstructive surgery before choosing amputation and a steel prosthesis. He runs a charter fishing boat, billing himself as "Captain Tim Ursin Sr. a.k.a. 'Capt. Hook."'
"I've been living on borrowed time for 30 years," he said. "It just wasn't my time."
Snipers attacks in this country were rare at that time, although Essex was hardly the first or the worst.
Six years earlier, Charles Joseph Whitman had killed 14 and wounded 31 from atop the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The United States averaged one mass killing a year in the 1970s; in 1999 alone, there were at least 12.
Last year, two other men with ties to Louisiana were accused of carrying out a string of sniper killings in the Washington area. John Allen Muhammad, who is from Baton Rouge, and John Lee Malvo also were indicted on murder charges in a Baton Rouge killing.
Both Muhammad, 41, and Essex, 23, served in the military, but while Essex spent just two years in the Navy, becoming embittered by racial prejudice before he was discharged for "unsuitability," Muhammad spent 17 years in the Army and National Guard; his discharge reportedly was honorable.