Covering Louisiana

Jan 7, 2013 10:37 AM by AP/NOLA.COM/GETTY IMAGES

1973: Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson's sniper

It's been forty years today that sniper Mark Essex laid siege at a Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge in downtown New Orleans for about 11 hours, killing seven people before he himself was slain by sharpshooters.

FROM NOLA.COM

Mark Essex's campaign of terror against the New Orleans police climaxed on Jan. 7 in an 11-hour rampage at the Howard Johnson's hotel on Loyola Avenue, where he killed seven people, including three police officers, and wounded eight.

Mark James Robert Essex was born in Emporia, Kansas. Kicked out of the Navy after two years with a general discharge for unsuitability for "character and behavior disorders," the 23-year-old took up radical Black Panther politics and developed an intense hatred for the police. He came to the city to meet up with a friend who shared his politics.

In late December 1972, Essex mailed a note to WWL-TV warning about a Dec. 31 attack on the New Orleans Police Department. The note wasn't opened until the day before the hotel attack. And indeed, On New Year's Eve, he gunned down a police cadet and another officer who chased him to Gert Town. He eluded police for a week until he wounded a Gert Town grocer and then headed for the Howard Johnson's.

In front of room 1829, Essex shot to death Dr. Robert Steagall and his wife Betty Steagall. He soaked telephone books with lighter fluid and set them ablaze under the curtains of the Steagalls' room. On the 11th floor, Essex shot his way into rooms and set more fires. He killed Frank Schneider, the hotel's assistant manager, and shot Walter Collins, the hotel's general manager.

As dusk approached, Essex was trapped in a block house on the hotel roof. The U.S. Marines volunteered a helicopter to get to him. During passes over the roof, officers poured gunfire at the block house while Essex popped out sporadically to fire back.

For hours after they killed him, police searched vainly for a second sniper who they erroneously believed was on the loose. In the days before SWAT squads, the police response was chaotic.

Braving fire from Essex on a hotel balcony, Times-Picayune photographer G.E. Arnold took this iconic image as officer Philip Coleman died of a head wound in Duncan Plaza while his partner checked his pulse. Wounded officer Ken Solis lies against a tree while other police and bystanders take cover. The officers were trying to push pedestrians to safety when they were hit. Two officers were killed on the street and in the hotel, including Deputy Chief Louis Sirgo. The other dead included hotel guests and staff.

Essex's shooting spree ended on the roof of the hotel, where he died with 200 gunshot wounds. The hotel is still open, as a Holiday Inn.

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