Terror in New Orleans

He loved roses – if only he could have loved them longer.

This column, being the first of the year, should be joyous, and indeed there’s much to be joyous about – a new year and the Super Bowl coming, to down right in the middle of the parade season. Our cover story, which focuses on hotel bars, reflects the city’s good-times atmosphere.

Yet, 40 years ago the city faced one of its worst all-time disasters.

On Jan. 7, 1973, a sniper began firing from the top of what was then the Howard Johnson’s Hotel on Loyola Avenue. Before the day was over, he killed a total of nine people, including two hotel guests and five police officers. It would be learned that he had also been responsible for two other murders that had begun outside the police department’s Central Lockup on New Year’s Eve.

At first it seemed like there were several snipers. In the end it was one person, Mark Essex, who was ultimately felled by police sharpshooters in a Marine helicopter.

Subsequent investigations would reveal that Essex, a native of Kansas who had become disillusioned while in the Navy and who had aligned himself with the Black Panthers, was out to kill white policemen. His first victim, however, the one shot at Central Lockup, Alfred Harrell, was a young unarmed black man in training as a police cadet.

Louis Sirgo, at the time the No. 2 person in the police department, was the best-known victim. He was shot leading a group up the hotel’s stairway. In his career, Sirgo had spoken about the social inequities that lead people to lives of crime. Now he was a victim of it.

Every death was its own personal tragedy but the one that has especially moved me was that of Paul Persigo, a motorcycle policeman who hurried to the scene. Presigo was a senior officer and much respected. It was said he was the sort of cop that others on the force would turn to for leadership. There were no SWAT teams in those days, so the police had to figure how to deal with a problem that they weren’t trained to handle. From the shooter’s rooftop vantage point, clusters of cops down on the street made easy targets. To Essex, Persigo’s white police helmet was like a bull’s-eye. He took aim.

Besides being a cop, Persigo was an expert on roses and was even qualified to judge at national competitions. If only Essex could have seen into the souls of the men he shot (Sirgo, outspoken on the sociology of crime; Presigo, fascinated with a thing of beauty), he might have seen past skin color.

Persigo is buried at Garden of Memories cemetery in Metairie. His grave marker has the star and crescent of the New Orleans department. There is one more element: Above his name and on each of the bottom corners there are images of roses.

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