2 Guilty in ‘69 Race Riot Death Get Prison
Two white men convicted in the fatal shooting of a young black woman during the city’s 1969 race riots were sentenced Wednesday to more than four years in prison.
Robert Messersmith, convicted of firing the bullet that killed 27-year-old Lillie Belle Allen, gave a 15-minute statement in which he blamed the killing on a man who committed suicide two years ago.
“Why didn’t you tell that before?” Allen’s daughter screamed at him. As family members and sheriff’s officers escorted her out, she yelled that Messersmith’s silence made him “just as guilty.”
Messersmith, 53, told the victim’s family members that he was sorry for their loss. He was sentenced to nine to 19 years in prison, while Gregory Neff was sentenced to 4 1/2 to 10 years.
“I am responsible for my actions of that day, and for my actions of that day I sincerely apologize,” Neff, 54, said. He was accused of shooting at the white Cadillac carrying Allen, her sister, brother-in-law and parents.
Both men were convicted of second-degree murder Oct. 19 by an all-white jury. The charge called for terms of 10 to 20 years.
Former York Mayor Charlie Robertson was acquitted by the same jury. Robertson, 68, had been a police officer at the time and was accused of inciting violence against blacks and offering ammunition to some of the youths who shot at Allen.
One witness at the trial testified that Messersmith was the first of the armed white gang members to shoot a bullet which he and another witness said appeared to hit Allen. A hail of bullets followed. Other witnesses testified Messersmith later bragged about the slaying.
Neff said during his grand jury testimony that he fired several times at Allen because he believed she was armed.
Many who testified for the defendants Wednesday cried. “I’m begging you, your honor, to please have mercy on my father,” Neff’s daughter, Tricia, said.
But a prosecutor said the men had lived on “borrowed time” for 33 years, while Debra Taylor said her mother was dead, not merely in prison.
“I’m sure none of the defendants would want to change places with her,” she said.
After Wednesday’s sentencing, lawyers for Allen’s family said they have told the city they are planning to sue unless the city offers a satisfactory settlement before Jan. 1.
Attorney Harold Goodman said the civil suit would allege that police on the street the night of the slaying failed to defuse the white mob.
Ten men were charged with murder in Allen’s death. Six, including Messersmith’s brother Arthur, pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and another man, Ezra Slick, is awaiting trial.