Pursued by the Past
06/04/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
Gladys Oden last saw Lillie Belle Allen alive on July 21, 1969. That was the day the two sisters from Aiken, S.C., arrived to visit family in York, Pa., only to find the city torn by racial violence. As Allen, a black 27-year-old mother of two, rode home that night from a trip to the grocery store with relatives, their car stalled in a neighborhood crowded with white rioters, many of whom were armed. "Don't shoot," Allen pleaded, jumping from the car and waving her arms while another sister, Hattie Dickson, panicked at the wheel. But shots rang out and Allen caught a rifle bullet in the chest. She died within minutes, and for decades her murder went unsolved—and largely uninvestigated—until it was all but forgotten, at least by many citizens of York. Says Oden, 45, a nursing home caregiver: "It was like nobody wanted to do anything about it."
Until now. In the last two months six former members of all-white York street gangs and two other men were arrested for the 32-year-old slaying. Even more surprising was the arrest of a ninth suspect—Charles Robertson, 67, the city's popular mayor. Currently seeking a third four-year term, Robertson, a York policeman at the time of the riots, allegedly supplied some of the ammunition used in the attack on Lillie Belle Allen. "Murder is the charge," Robertson tearfully said at a City Hall press conference on May 16, the day before he surrendered to York County prosecutors. "And to this, I maintain my innocence."
The mayor, however, does admit he shouted, "White power!" at a rally the night before Allen's murder, which capped five days of rioting sparked when a black teenager was shot and wounded. A white rookie cop was killed in apparent retaliation. News of Robertson's impending indictment this spring nearly derailed his campaign for the Democratic mayoral nomination. But he still won the May 15 primary narrowly over an African-American, Ray Crenshaw, less than 48 hours before his arrest. He apparently convinced enough voters in the city of 40,000—40 percent of whom are minorities—that he is a changed man who no longer holds racist views. "That's 32 years ago," Robertson told NBC's Today after his release on $50,000 bail.
In fact, it was local newspaper stories marking the 30th anniversary of the unsolved Allen killing that prompted prosecutors to reopen the case. By then, Robertson, born and raised in York, was a longtime public servant admired as much for his role in promoting local sports teams as for his successful efforts to revitalize York's downtown business district. "He was a coach and a referee," says York City Council member Toni Smith, Robertson's friend of 30 years. "He gave all his life for this city, for goodness sake."
But even Robertson admits he was a different sort of person on July 20, 1969, when he appeared in his police uniform at an impromptu all-white rally held in a York park. According to the recent grand jury testimony of Fred Flickinger, 52, a former member of the Newberry Street Boys gang, Robertson announced that day, after the shooting of patrolman Henry Schaad, 22, that "if I weren't a cop, I would be leading commando raids against n——-s." Rick Knouse, 48, arrested for his part in the attack on Lillie Belle Allen, testified that Robertson gave him bullets for the rifle he later fired at the car in which Allen was riding. Robertson denies both allegations, insisting not only that he was the first police officer to arrive at the murder scene but also that he helped protect Allen's sister and parents, who were also in the car, from further violence.
Though they escaped physical harm, Allen's family walked away that night with deep emotional wounds. Lillie Belle's late father, Baptist minister James P. Mosely, said the punishment of her killers lay in God's hands. His wife, Beatrice, a housekeeper, died in 1995 still hungry for justice in York. "My mom wanted something done about it," says Gladys Oden. The day may have arrived when her wish will be granted.
Matt Birkbeck in York