The Howard Johnson Killer: Notes On The Life And Death Of Mark Essex

“It’s unbelievable, diabolical, maniacal.”

That was the Reverend Peter Rogers, New Orleans police chaplain, responding to the wild violence in New Orleans during the first week of 1973.

Mark “Jimmy” Essex had dreams of becoming a dentist before being discharged as “unsuitable” by the US Navy.” Character and behavior disorders,” were cited by his superiors on his separation papers.

Instead, the former sailor became a spree killer moved to action by the racism he experienced in the Navy, and the 1972 killing of two Black students by white police officers at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Essex developed “a tremendous hatred for whites while he was in the Navy,” said Reverend W.A. Chambers, the Essex family pastor.

The New York Times reported that when investigators combed through his apartment at 2619 Dryades Street in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, they discovered graffiti on the walls of the young man’s $40 per month flat. It was jarring.

2619 Dryades Street where Mark Essex’s apartment building once stood

“My destiny lies in the bloody death”

“Kill black pig devil”

“The quest for freedom is death, then by death I shall escape to freedom”

and

“Revolutionary justice is black justice, shoot to kill.”

It’s New Year’s Eve 1972.

Jimmy Essex swings his murderous plans into motion. Parking his ’63 Impala in the 1800 block of Perdido Street in downtown New Orleans, the young man walked to a vacant lot adjacent to the New Orleans Police Department Central Lockup.

Black police cadet Alfred Harrell Jr., 19, is just minutes from the end of his shift manning the gate at the sally port of the facility. A rifle sings out from some 280 feet away. Seven shots. Harrell falls over, dead before he hit the ground.

Police Cadet Alfred Harrell Jr

The shooter goes on the run. 45 minutes later Essex sets off a burglar alarm as he’s breaking into the Burkart Manufacturing Company at 1065 South Gayoso Street. K-9 Officer Edwin Hosli responds to the call. As he’s opening the door of his squad car to release his dog, he’s shot in the back and grievously wounded.

Hosli would die nine weeks later.

After shooting Hosli, Essex fled to First New St. Mark Baptist Church at 1208 South Lopez Street where he took refuge. As dawn broke, Reverend Sylvester Williams entered the house of worship and discovered Essex. He immediately called police as Essex once again took it on the lam.

Jimmy Essex went to ground til January 7th when he entered Joe’s Grocery at 4200 Erato Street, shooting and wounding proprietor Joseph S. Perniciaro.

Essex then carjacked one Marvin Albert, relieving him of his 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle.

Don’t worry, he told his victim. I don’t kill Black people. Only honkies.

He would drive straight to the downtown Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge where he restarted his bloody siege.

The killing was about to begin in earnest.

Joe’s Grocery at 4200 Erato Street, owned by Joseph S. Perniciaro

After climbing the stairs to the hotel’s 18th floor, Essex attempted to start a fire drawing the attention of Dr Robert Stegall who was on his honeymoon with his wife Elizabeth. The fight was on.

As Essex and Stegall battled, the ex-Navy man produced a .44 carbine Deerslayer and shot Stegall once through the heart. The doctor fell, mortally wounded. As his wife attempted to aid her husband, Jimmy Essex approached from the rear and fired one round into the back of her head. She died instantly.

Essex ran down the stairs to the 10th floor where he encountered hotel manager Walter Sherwood Collins. The .44 barked and Collins fell. He would die some three weeks later.

Next Essex went to the 11th floor where assistant manager Frank Schneider was responding to reports of a man with a gun. Schneider was shot in the back of the head and died on the spot.

The shooter descended to the 8th floor and made his way to an exterior patio where he fired upon and wounded Robert Beamish of San Francisco. Beamish fell into a swimming pool and played dead. This action saved his life.

To further drive the fear and confusion of those in the hotel, Essex began setting fire to the drapes of the nearby guest rooms before resuming his shooting spree.

After wounding a firefighter and three policemen, Essex shot and killed Patrolman Phil Coleman, and Motor Scout Paul Persigo as they arrived and parked their vehicles on nearby streets.

Howard Johnson Hotel in downtown New Orleans

It was time to escape.

The shooter returned to the 4th floor garage of the hotel where he’d parked the stolen Chevelle. He was immediately spotted by police.

Fleeing, adrenaline hammering, Essex absconded to the 17th floor where he was spotted in a stairwell by Police Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo. Essex got the drop on the officer and killed him instantly.

Essex then made his way to the roof.

It was 1pm.

Hundreds of cops ringed the Howard Johnson Hotel. Every radio and TV station in southeast Louisiana was broadcasting live from downtown New Orleans. It felt like the city was at war.

37 year old Marine Corps lieutenant colonel Chuck Pitman was outraged by what he was watching on WWL-TV. He got on the horn to three fellow Marines, and they hopped in a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter and began choppering towards the hotel from their Belle Chasse base on the West Bank of the Mississippi River.

Marine Corps lieutenant colonel Chuck Pitman

After landing his 45 foot-long chopper in a nearby parking lot, a cadre of New Orleans cops, all with rifles, clambered aboard the twin rotor transport aircraft.

Time to kill the shooter. Pitman hovered over the hotel as Essex took potshots at his vessel. Using some tricky maneuvering he coaxed the gunman from his lair, and with a massive spotlight illuminating the roof of the hotel, the cops onboard the whirlybird opened fire.

Hell rained down.

Essex, 23, took 200 rounds during the fusillade. Shot to doll rags, his body collapsed to the roof of the hotel. His Ruger .44-caliber rifle by his side. The FBI identified him by his fingerprints.

Now the hunt was on for his accomplice.

But was there a second shooter? Policeman John Fields was stationed on the 10th floor of City Hall, three blocks from Howard Johnson’s and he claimed he could see other snipers through a 12X scope mounted to his .300 caliber elephant gun.

Fields was under orders to not shoot as it was feared his high-powered rifle’s rounds would pierce the brigand and potentially harm officers in the background.

United Press International reporter Joe Manguno claimed that after Essex was killed a second shooter on the same floor fired a couple rounds at the chopper whilst hollering “power to the people.”

Jimmy Essex would interact with some 30 people on the day of the rampage. Each one of these witnesses said that he was solo. During the course of the investigation local authorities would interview 470 people at or near the Howard Johnson Hotel on that day.

Each person claimed that Mr Essex acted alone.

Yet to this day there are still New Orleanians that claim there was more than one shooter.

At Essex’s funeral in his hometown of Emporia, Kansas, a week after the shootout, a pallbearer gave the Black power salute and said: “Up goes my arm, for today we have freedom from our bonds.”

The funeral of Mark “Jimmy” Essex

Research
NOPD Status Report on Howard Johnson Sniper
NYT, Jan 15th, 1973
Full text of “Street crime in America. Hearings, Ninety-third Congress, first session ..”
Writing New Boundaries for the Law: Black Women’s Fiction and the Abject in Psychoanalysis. by Angelique Warner

  1. Now 2022 they’re putting implants in civilians bodies and asses groping them provoking them to violence. Ain’t shit changed. Electronicly Molesting the people, but know this, there’s always someone who’s powerful than you who won’t take that shit !

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