NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The gunman was a black former military man who targeted white police at a time of social unrest. The chaos and confusion led authorities to conclude there must be more than one shooter. When it was over, a major city mourned five dead officers.
Last week’s sniper attack in Dallas was gloomily reminiscent of a 1973 shooting spree in downtown New Orleans that shattered the peaceful urban landscape and went on for 11 hours, until police shot and killed Mark Essex from a helicopter hovering over a hotel.
“It was a horrible time,” said David Cressy, then an assistant city attorney who was at City Hall, across the street from the hotel. “When I hear a helicopter coming over the house, I still remember.”
The Dallas deaths revived disturbing memories for the police, city employees and reporters who lived through the New Orleans attack, which unfolded under many of the same circumstances as the Texas shootings.
There were differences as well, including the way news of the carnage was reported to the world compared to the instantly streamed and tweeted events in Dallas.
Retired Times-Picayune columnist Angus Lind was then a 28-year-old reporter. He remembers tracking down a payphone to dictate notes. The only way for people to learn what was going on was through local TV stations.
Even though fears persisted of multiple, organized shooters, news organizations were granted access to the hotel that would be unusual today.
“The cops would actually cover us as we ran across the street to relieve each other,” Lind said.
The connections between the two events were unavoidable for Larry Preston Williams, a 67-year-old former New Orleans police officer who was there in 1973.
Asked what went through his mind when he heard the news from Dallas, Williams’ mind went straight to the hotel: “Howard Johnson’s,” he said Monday. “Immediately.”
Now a security consultant in Arkansas, Williams was 24 at the time. As an African-American, he was recruited by the New Orleans Police Department as it was integrating, Williams had been a patrol officer and was later assigned to intelligence, helping place infiltrators in left- and right-wing organizations.
He remembers being summoned to City Hall on Sunday morning, Jan. 7, 1973, because police hoped that, with his background in intelligence, he might be able to identify the gunman if he got a good look at him.
Despite the danger, Williams felt less vulnerable than those around him.
“I was in plainclothes and I was black,” he said. At the time, Essex “was not shooting black people.”
Williams never got a look at the shooter. What he saw was carnage in the grassy park in front of City Hall. He watched as Paul Persigo, with whom he had patrolled at times, was gunned down. Then came the shots that felled Phillip Coleman, who died of a head wound, and Ken Solis, who survived.
Inside the hotel, Deputy Police Superintendent Louis Sirgo was killed, along with four civilians.
Essex was a 23-year-old from Emporia, Kansas, who had been discharged from the Navy for “character and behavior disorders” according to archived accounts from The Associated Press. He was living in New Orleans and working as a trainee in an anti-poverty program. He harbored deep-seated hatred for whites that people who knew him said took root in the Navy. Investigators later entered his apartment and found racial epithets painted on the walls.
Authorities eventually learned that Essex had actually begun killing people a week earlier, on New Year’s Eve. His first victim was a black police cadet hit when Essex fired at a gateway at the New Orleans jail and escaped. Later that night, he broke into a warehouse, fatally wounded a responding officer and disappeared again.
The violence resumed on Jan. 7 when Essex shot and wounded a white store owner, stole a car and led police on a chase that ended at the Howard Johnson’s, where he turned into the parking garage and ran into the main building.
Then-Mayor Moon Landrieu said in a 1983 AP interview that the shootings occurred at a time of racial and political unrest and authorities feared the violence was part of an organized revolutionary attack. No conspiracy was ever revealed.
The pain lingered for years.
“There was the agony of the burials, visiting the survivors, helping raise funds for those orphaned,” Landrieu said. “So that aftermath continued for a very long time.”
In 1973, Louisiana and other Southern states had been rocked by more than a decade of political and social turmoil that accompanied the civil rights movement. Landrieu, in his first term when Essex attacked, had gained the trust of many black voters and the enmity of some whites by bringing African-American appointees into city government.
Williams left police work for law school in 1974. His tenure with the New Orleans Police Department had been difficult at times. Most of the white officers accepted him, but a few refused to ride with him. He was part of a lawsuit alleging discriminatory employment practices by the department.
None of that mattered on Jan. 7, 1973.
“When those officers got shot, any kind of racial politics I might have indulged in was put on the back burner,” Williams said. “Because those were my comrades.”
Associated Press Writer Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.