Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson Sniper

The First Attack

Mark Essex Navy photo. Getty Images.
Mark Essex Navy photo. Getty Images.

When Mark Essex was in the Navy, he said he wanted to become a dentist. Two years later he gunned down 19 people, including 10 police officers.

Thirty years before a pair of serial snipers terrorized Washington, D.C., Mark Essex prowled the streets of New Orleans with a .44-caliber Magnum rifle. During a weeklong reign of terror, he launched a series of surprise attacks against the city's police department, its citizens, and its visitors.

Essex's rampage ended in the bloodiest shootout in New Orleans history and the deadliest day ever for its police department.

As the events of that day were broadcast live on television, 12-year-old John Allen Williams, who would later change his name to John Allen Muhammad and become one of the beltway snipers, lived less than 70 miles away.

New Year's Eve 1972 fell on a Sunday. It was a busy night in New Orleans. Downtown, the French Quarter was packed with drunken revelers. Uptown at Tulane Stadium, Oklahoma was putting the finishing touches on their 14-0 Sugar Bowl thrashing of Penn State.

Just before 11 p.m., 23-year-old Mark Essex parked his blue 1963 Chevrolet two-door in the 2800 block of Perdido Street, a block from New Orleans Police Department Headquarters. He left the keys in the ignition.

Central Lockup — where prisoners are booked, fingerprinted, and photographed — was at the intersection of Perdido and South White streets, on the ground floor of police headquarters. On New Year's Eve, Central Lockup was probably one of the best places in the city to find a crowd of policemen, especially at the 11 o'clock shift change.  

Lt. Horace Perez, wounded.
Lt. Horace Perez, wounded.
When Essex stepped out of his car he was ready for war. He carried with him a Colt .38-caliber revolver with the serial number filed off, a gas mask, a couple of strings of firecrackers, a roll of electrical wire, two cans of lighter fluid, a flashlight, a pair of cloth work gloves, plenty of ammunition, and a Ruger .44 Magnum carbine rifle. He wore a long-sleeved, tan corduroy shirt for protection against the cold, damp January air.

Essex crept down Perdido Street, sticking as much as possible to the shadows cast by the streetlights. As he passed the blue and white police cars parked haphazardly along the narrow street, he kept the rifle down by his leg.

Cadet Alfred Harrell, killed.
Cadet Alfred Harrell, killed.
At the corner of Perdido and South White, Essex turned right. Ahead of him, the street was nothing more than a dead-end dirt road. It ran southwest for a half-block until it butted up against a triple set of railroad tracks, a chain link fence, and the I-10 expressway. The main entrance into lockup was a sally port gate — a thick wire mesh grill that rolled up into the ceiling of the first floor like a garage door. The gate faced Perdido. Directly across from the sally port was a vacant lot, which the police used for parking.

After strolling along South White for about 100 feet, Essex angled into the dark vacant lot across from Central Lockup. The cars parked at the edge of Perdido Street provided good cover and concealment. Just short of 100 yards from the sally port gate, and with a clear line of sight, Essex hunkered down in the grass and swung his .44 carbine out in front of him into a firing position.

Across Perdido Street it was the middle of shift change. Several cops were milling around just inside the sally port. Alfred Harrell, a 19-year-old, unarmed police cadet, sat in the glass-enclosed gatehouse. It was his job to open the sally port and let in police cars carrying prisoners. Harrell had five minutes left of his shift. He had less than that left of his life.

Lieutenants Kenneth Dupaquier and Horace Perez were in the middle of the sally port. Dupaquier was just coming on as commander of the third watch, relieving Perez, who commanded the second watch.

Cadet Bruce Weatherford, another 19-year-old waiting to be old enough to enter the police academy, had just parked his car and was walking across Perdido toward the main gate. He was scheduled to relieve Cadet Harrell in the gatehouse.

Just minutes before 11 o'clock, Essex started firing into the sally port gate. The sonic boom of his .44 Magnum crashed against the headquarters complex and shook its windows a fraction of a second after his bullet cracked past Weatherford's head. The heavy recoil of the carbine rattled Essex and kicked up dust in front of the muzzle. After a second or two, Essex reacquired his target — Cadet Weatherford — and fired again.

Weatherford thought the first couple of shots were just loud firecrackers — it was only one hour before the New Year — but then he saw cement chips flying off of the building in front of him. Weatherford ran through the main gate toward the doorway that led into the booking area. The two police lieutenants started moving that way too. Once Cadet Harrell realized they were under attack, he sprang out of the gatehouse and dashed across the sally port toward the door to the booking room.

Essex's third or fourth shot punched right through Harrell's chest and ripped open his heart. The bullet ricocheted off of something inside the cement sally port and hit Lt. Perez in the ankle, toppling him to the ground.

Essex' s Ruger carbine held only five shots. After firing four of them, he sprang to his feet and scrambled farther back into the darkness of the vacant lot, in the direction of the expressway. He dropped his Colt .38 revolver, probably without realizing it, and left it behind. After covering nearly 200 feet of open ground, Essex turned, reloaded, and fired the powerful Ruger twice more. This time he missed.

Cadet Harrell was dead on arrival at Charity Hospital.

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