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Handcuffed By History, the story of York, PA Mayor Charles Robertson

September 2, 2001

Handcuffed by History


The shotgun blast that struck Lillie Belle Allen in the chest was so powerful that it blew her out of her sneakers. While she lay half-dead beside her family's Cadillac, a group of about a dozen young men fired more than 100 rounds at the car. Allen's sister, brother-in-law and parents remained trapped inside. ''So many pings, so many booms -- oh, God!'' the sister, Hattie Dickson, would recall many years later. ''We asked Jesus to come and help us.''

This was July 21, 1969, in York, Pa., the fifth night of race riots that turned the blue-collar city into a war zone. The shooting at the Cadillac did not stop until a police armored vehicle rumbled up the street and a man stepped out. While so much about Lillie Belle Allen's killing remains in dispute 32 years later, everyone agrees on what they heard next.

''It's me, Charlie.''

Now it is another balmy July night, in 2001, and the former police officer, Charles Robertson, is peacefully taking in an amateur baseball game in Mt. Wolf, Pa., a small Susquehanna River town some 10 miles outside of York, the city where he has been mayor for nearly eight years. Robertson, 67, is sitting in a yellow lawn chair behind the chain-link fence in center field. He is wearing a Colorado Rockies T-shirt, a white baseball cap, black shorts and beat-up tan sneakers with Velcro straps. There is no one else within 100 feet of him.

''It's not been a real pleasure now,'' Robertson told me earlier that afternoon when I asked him if he still goes to many ballgames. ''Everybody knows me, and then everybody wants to talk to me about it.'' The mayor doesn't need to explain that ''it'' is his pending trial on charges that he was an accomplice in Allen's murder that night back in 1969, that before he appeared on the scene in the armored vehicle he had told gang members to ''kill as many niggers as you can'' and even had passed out bullets. ''I thank them, you know, for having an interest, but you know. . . .'' His voice trailed off.

So now, as I sit down next to Robertson, I try to oblige the mayor by talking about anything but the riots. We discuss his long and unsuccessful quest to bring minor-league baseball back to York, an ex-girlfriend who left him to work at the U.S. Embassy in the Sudan and the reasons that he has remained a bachelor all his life. ''Sports kept me from getting married,'' says Robertson, explaining how he spent all his spare time coaching and refereeing. ''You would go from football to basketball to baseball.''

Even though his lawyers have told him not to talk about what happened in 1969 or about the murder trial -- which is expected to begin some time next year -- Robertson can't help himself. Soon, he is insisting that other than leading a ''white power'' chant in a park the day before the killing, he did nothing wrong. He is being picked on, he says, for political reasons. ''I wonder how in hell I was the only policeman who was working that night,'' he says. Robertson, a Democrat, is just starting in on the Republican D.A.'s staff when the left fielder misjudges a pop fly. ''There are people in the district attorney's who don't know that he-e-e-e-e-e-e-e. . . . ''

Robertson loses his train of thought as he watches the outfielder shift gears and run in toward the ball. He never finishes the sentence, and for the few seconds that the pop-up hangs in the haze, it's almost as if he is able to forget all about the tumultuous turn his life has taken since May.

York, Pa., nearer to Baltimore than to Philadelphia, is a living anachronism, a manufacturing city of 41,000 that has held on to its jobs, in part because of the local Harley Davidson motorcycle plant. It has also held on to a relatively peaceful racial balance, aided perhaps by a kind of willful amnesia about those summer days in 1969. That began to change two years ago when York's two daily newspapers published a series of articles looking back at the riots of 30 years before. Among the questions raised by the papers was why no one had ever been charged in the riots' two killings (of Lillie Belle Allen and of Henry Schaad, a rookie police officer). The articles caught the attention of York County's 35-year-old deputy prosecutor, Tom Kelley, who had his staff unearth the files related to the riots and then began reinterviewing witnesses.

Among those he was most eager to talk to were members of a gang involved in Allen's murder, local toughs known as the Newberry Street Boys. But prosecutors soon learned that three of them had committed suicide over the years and that another, Mark Barr, was suffering from terminal cancer. Barr wanted to talk, though, and before he died he told investigators what he knew about the night Allen was killed. And there was more. Last April, a detective visited the rural home of Donald Altland, 51, another ex-member of the gang. Altland was a model citizen, a worker at the city sewer plant, a churchgoer, happily married with two grown daughters. But his guilt was evident when he was shown photographs of Allen's corpse. He admitted little to the detectives, but stayed up all night telling his wife how he had fired at the woman and her family. Then he drove his pickup to a fishing hole along the Susquehanna River and shot himself in the head. He left a taped confession for the prosecutors and a message scrawled on a napkin, ''Forgive Me, God.''

It was not long before a state trooper and a detective from the D.A.'s office called Robertson's office to request an appointment. He had not been expecting them. He had spoken to the papers for their stories on the riots, but never once, he says, considered himself in any kind of danger. Then in May of this year, as the investigation heated up, the ex-cop was taken from his office in handcuffs. At a preliminary hearing in June, Rick Knouse, a former member of a rival gang, testified that Robertson had played a key role in inciting the violence that led directly to Allen's death. (Knouse, who admitted to being one of the gunmen, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of criminal conspiracy.) It is impossible to know just how much the events of 1969 figured in the lives of the Newberry Street Boys, how many of the four suicides can be linked at all to Allen's murder. There are five surviving rioters who are now facing trial for murder along with Robertson, and among them, there are no happy stories

Robertson, it seems, came up with his own rudimentary coping mechanism. ''It was about three months after the riots were over that I went to a doctor and said I was just worried about what could have happened to me -- and it could have happened to me many a time, that I could have got killed doing the things I was doing,'' he told me. ''So he gave me a couple of nerve pills, and he gave me some medicine, and told me, 'Get it out of your mind.' I guess for 30 years I never even thought of it.''

For Robertson, the intervening years have been placid. He still lives in the same place, a modest gray-shingled three-story row house at 828 Princess Street, where he was born in 1934. His home phone number, still listed in the book despite his recent notoriety, has been the same for about 50 years. When he was released on $50,000 bail, the mayor had no passport to surrender. The maelstrom of the 1960's that has now engulfed him seems to have had little impact on him when he was actually living through it; only a recent conversation over the back fence with his pony-tailed, tattoo-covered next-door neighbor reminded him that Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed the year before York's riots.

That afternoon before the ballgame in Mt. Wolf, I watched him patch his walkway, mixing concrete in a small white tub. ''You know what this is?'' he asked. ''This is my baby bathtub. This is what I had baths in when I was a baby -- and I still use it.''

When Robertson became mayor, he fulfilled his only ambition. To see him now at City Hall is to witness an old-time mayor from central casting: the conservative and slightly baggy gray suits, the tie clasp, a white-rose emblem (York is ''the White Rose City'') stitched to his lapel, the saggy jowls, the wire-rimmed glasses, whitish hair neatly combed back. He loves the quotidian rituals of his job, handing out $25 gift certificates to city employees or showing up at two-alarm fires. He used to tool around the city in an oversize white Crown Victoria, until he decided this summer it might remind people of ''white power.'' He thrived in an era when the best urban leaders, like Ed Rendell in Philadelphia or William Schaefer in Baltimore, were civic cheerleaders.

When he was arrested in May, reporters sought to gain his attention, shouting: ''Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor!'' Robertson turned to them and said: ''Thank you. I am still the mayor of the City of York.''

Robertson's intense pride in his job reflects the long, improbable haul he took to get there. The youngest of six brothers, he was born at the tail end of the Great Depression. Every summer, the Robertson boys caddied at the local golf course and tossed all of their earnings in a kitty that paid for coal in the winter. His father, Milford (Hap) Robertson, was a school janitor who died from a heart attack on the day his retirement notice came in the mail.

Robertson was an average student, and when he graduated from William Penn Senior High School in 1952, he says there was no money for him to go college. He may not have been college material anyway. He drifted for the next decade, spending two years as an Army medic and then getting laid off from the local defense plant. Finally, he landed a job with the York Police Department in 1962.

His career as a police officer was anything but exemplary. He spent 29 years on the force, promoted only twice, and the second promotion was short-lived. He lasted just two months as a sergeant, a stint that was, by all accounts, a disaster. Some fellow officers later said that Robertson lacked management skills, but the mayor insists he simply couldn't hack the overnight shift. ''I was drinking too much coffee and couldn't sleep in the morning,'' he says. ''And when I came home, I was throwing up all the time.'' In his living room, he still keeps two pictures of himself in his sergeant's uniform.

His police career was marred by other strange behavior. He was suspended twice, once for not using good judgment in cases involving minors and another time for slapping a black woman he was bringing into custody.

Despite his long police career, Robertson never had many friends on the force, preferring to spend his time around kids. He usually ate lunch, in uniform, at the cafeteria of York's middle school. ''Kids never had an opportunity, when they were young, to talk to a policeman,'' he says. It was in the cafeteria that he met Alex Chhum, a 14-year-old Cambodian refugee who had been having family problems. Chhum ended up moving into Robertson's home. For several years, the two were often together at wrestling matches and other sporting events, and eventually Robertson became his legal guardian. Chhum is now 31, married with two kids and a stepchild, and since Robertson became mayor, he has worked in the city finance department. Chhum has dinner with the mayor every Wednesday and occasionally helps him with chores around the house.

For years, Robertson sponsored his own basketball teams in the York City Recreation League, ''Robbie's Rockets'' and ''Robbie's Raiders,'' and coached American Legion baseball. Parents trusted Robertson with their children, and these relationships formed the basis of his political career. He was elected to the school board in 1975, and people who hadn't voted for years lined up on his behalf when he decided to run for mayor in 1993.

As a politician, Robertson was raw and untested. He did not even have the support of his own colleagues. ''By the end of his long tenure in the Police Department, he was very isolated,'' concedes his political adviser and close friend, Charles Bacas, explaining that the younger officers with college degrees saw him as a crusty veteran ''who did things the old way.'' But he made his average-guy-ness the cornerstone of his campaign. The slogan he liked to use in later races was ''He's one of us.'' It carried the echo of his now notorious shout after the Lillie Belle Allen shooting: ''It's me, Charlie.'' No one had to shout back, ''Charlie Who?'' Robertson admits that he was a racist as a young police officer. He blames something that happened back in 1949, when he was 15. His father was walking home from work with his janitor's pay ($18) when three young black men robbed him on the West College Street Bridge and beat him up. The family was traumatized. ''My dad came home so bruised, everybody wanted to take up arms and go over there,'' Robertson's older brother, Bud, remembers.

When he joined the police, Robertson's antipathy toward black people did not make him stand out. York's mayor at the time, John Snyder, openly referred to blacks as ''darkies'' in a newspaper interview, and the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter was an auxiliary cop. In the late 1960's, while Robertson was coaching hoops and making friends with the white teenagers over on Newberry Street, black kids knew to steer clear of the young beat cop. ''He would tell us to keep walking, and I kept walking -- I didn't want to get into trouble,'' recalls Loretta Claiborne, a mildly retarded black woman who grew up to become a Special Olympic champion distance runner.

On July 17, 1969, York's racial tensions were already at the boiling point when a black youth who burned himself playing with lighter fluid blamed a local white gang known as the Girarders. That would be revealed as a lie, but not before the pent-up resentments of the black community turned violent. The next night, a bullet believed to have been fired by a black rioter killed Henry Schaad, a white rookie cop. He was struck on the West College Street Bridge, the same spot where Robertson's dad had been mugged. White gangs around the city prepared for revenge.

This was the situation Lillie Belle Allen stumbled into. She wasn't even from York. She and her parents -- a minister and his wife -- were up from Aiken, S.C., visiting her sister Dickson. They hadn't heard much about the riots and were on their way to the grocery store when they found themselves in the midst of an armed white gang at the corner of Gay and Newberry. When Dickson's Cadillac hit a dip near the railroad tracks, her headlights caught a second-story sniper, and she screamed, ''Oh, Lord, they're getting ready to shoot.'' Panic-stricken, she stopped on the tracks. Allen was trying to get out and get into the driver's seat when she was cut down by gunfire. ''It was just like that scene at the end of the movie 'Bonnie and Clyde,''' says Rick Knouse, who watched dozens of bullets blow out the car window and riddle the trunk and tires.

No one disputes that Robertson showed up, but witnesses disagree on just about everything else he did. The mayor insists that he saved lives by telling the shooters to hold their fire, but others -- including a fellow cop and a respected Y.M.C.A. youth counselor -- say that they saw Robertson casually chatting with Knouse and other armed men.

The questions linger. Why didn't Robertson or any of the other officers who responded arrest the youths who had just shot and killed an unarmed black woman? Why, for that matter, was no one arrested and charged with shooting the police officer, Schaad? What happened on the streets of York was viewed by everyone involved, including the police, as acts of warfare, not as violations of the law. Any arrests or trials might have disturbed the fragile peace that York embraced after the killing was over. Robertson himself explained it with brutal candor after his arrest in May. ''Everyone knew who was involved,'' he said. ''But everyone just thought it was even. One black had been killed and one white. Even.''

The prosecutors soon learned that in its eagerness to move past the riots, York had given its future mayor a free pass. One of the Newberry Street Boys, Fred Flickinger, told a federal judge in a civil lawsuit back in 1969 that Robertson showed up at a white youth rally in Farquhar Park the day before Allen was killed, told the gang members to protect their neighborhoods and then led a ''white power'' chant. Flickinger's testimony was reported in the York papers at the time but then forgotten, and Flickinger, scorned by his former buddies, moved to Texas. But the investigators now learned that some witnesses had even more to say about the cop-turned-mayor. It was from Knouse that the story emerged about Robertson's tossing bullets to the kids hours before the shooting and urging them ''to kill as many niggers as you can,'' an account that Robertson denies. But a former cop who was present that day also told the grand jury that Robertson passed out bullets. Said Knouse, ''It felt like we had a license to kill.''

Robertson's trial lawyer, William Costopolous, admits that his client ''said some dumb things -- but that was 32 years ago and in the middle of riots. It's not murder.'' Knouse, his strongest accuser, went on a drinking binge right after Allen was killed and blacked out -- and he has battled drug addiction and depression for most of his adult life. (He is currently in jail for violating his bail agreement.) The defense has already produced witnesses who say that Robertson borrowed a neighbor's rifle and ammunition during the riots, but they were not the .30-06 bullets that Knouse says he handed out. What is more, Allen was killed by a different type of slug, not by .30-06.

Robertson was up for re-election this year and had just won his party's primary two days before he was arrested. Another term seemed likely, and if Robertson had his way, he would still be in the running. But shortly after his arrest, his two closest political supporters, Charlie Bacas and Eric Menzer, his economic development aide, came to Princess Street with a withdrawal letter. Robertson didn't want to sign, and they badgered him for 90 minutes.

''They said it was for the betterment of York, that you've got to get out,'' the mayor says. ''I didn't even know what they were talking about. I was hurt -- these were my two best friends and my two best campaign people.'' Today, he keeps a copy of the letter on the easel next to his desk at City Hall, and he sounds almost befuddled as he leans back in his chair. ''I'm still trying to figure out what happened. I don't get too much support from my campaign people anymore.''

Toward the end of my first meeting with Robertson, I casually ask him about religion. ''I'm not overboard, but I'm very religious,'' he says. ''And I believe in prayer.'' Suddenly, his cheeks turn flush red, and he bolts upright in his chair. He begins to sob. ''I've never got so many cards, people calling from all over the United States, praying for me. This is no little thing.'' Is he afraid of going to jail? ''I was afraid of getting the handcuffs put on. It was a very bad thing. It was embarrassing.''

Later, when I was standing with Robertson outside his house, Juan Flecha, a 21-year-old Puerto Rican neighbor, drove up in a black Camaro, stereo blasting. He looked, in every way, like the sort of brash, swaggering kid that might intimidate older people. But he greeted the mayor warmly and invited him to come out to a ballgame. Flecha, it turns out, was once a promising player, one of the many kids Robertson had been a mentor to. When Flecha's father was involved in a violent feud with another man, Robertson walked the kid to school and otherwise looked out for him. Later, he even lined up a couple of pro tryouts for Flecha. So all the controversy swirling around the mayor didn't seem to make much of a difference to Flecha. ''It's like, I mean, we're not friends -- we're family,'' Flecha said. ''It's like my dad right there.''

Even with neighbors like Flecha, though, York is suddenly not the comfortable place it has always been for Robertson. When he leaves office in January, he says, he intends to move away, to a place in the mountains maybe -- assuming he has the freedom to choose where he goes. As the trial looms, he has a harder and harder time putting it all out of his mind, as he had done so easily for 30 years. Occasionally, kids who see him on the street at a distance shout, ''Murderer!'' When I ask him how that feels, he replies, in an almost smug tone, ''I know I'm not.''

William Bunch is a senior writer for The Philadelphia Daily News and author of ''Jukebox America.''

Copyright 2001 The New York Times CompanyPrivacy Information

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