Remember Howard Johnson's

Police take aim at the sniper on the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, Jan. 7, 1973.

Former Orleans Parish School Board member Elliot “Doc” Willard steps briskly out of the Martin Luther King Day parade near City Hall.

He joins two other men who are looking up at a hotel on Loyola Avenue.
Thirty-five years ago, on Jan. 7, 1973, the high-rise was a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, the climactic scene of a sniper’s rampage that left 10 people dead – including five New Orleans police officers and the gunman. Ten other people were wounded. Tens of millions of dollars in property were destroyed.

Armed with a .44 caliber, semiautomatic rifle, self-styled black militant Mark J. Essex kept hundreds of police at bay for 10 hours. He set diversionary fires on the upper floors of the hotel and shot responding firefighters and cops.

People below scrambled for cover at City Hall, the old Louisiana Supreme Court building and the surrounding plazas.

Downtown New Orleans was paralyzed. A stunned city watched the drama unfold on live television. Afterwards, racial tensions remained elevated for months.

Willard expresses surprise that police didn’t observe the 35th anniversary of “one of the greatest tragedies to ever befall the New Orleans Police Department,” according to the department’s online history. “Somebody should have brought that up,” Willard says.

A police spokesperson blamed “major damage” from Hurricane Katrina. The NOPD hasn’t observed the anniversary since January 2005.

“Time goes by and people forget,” says lawyer Harry Tervalon, a former NOPD officer who was posted at Charity Hospital when a sniper’s bullet whizzed by his head. “A lot of the guys on the force now were not even born then.”

David Kent, a crime victims’ rights advocate who retired as a NOPD deputy chief in 1982, says: “Family survivors of officers killed in the line of duty should at least warrant a ceremony in the public domain.”

Janet Johnson, a clinical psychiatrist at Tulane University Medical Center says that the “long-ago tragedy” of Howard Johnson’s for the NOPD has been “eclipsed” by the “ongoing tragedy” of Katrina. “The police department has been very hard hit and they are still having a very tough time,” says Johnson, whose clients don’t include cops. Many officers lost their homes; family and loved ones have moved away.
Two years after a hurricane, it’s easier to observe celebrations than a 1973 massacre.

In 2008, Jan. 7th belonged exclusively to the locally hosted BCS college football championship – sandwiched between dates for Mayor Ray Nagin’s Carnival kickoff party and the 193rd anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans.

Doc Willard is right. New Orleans must remember Howard Johnson’s.
First, the dead – and the surviving wounded – must not be forgotten, especially those who served the city.

Second, New Orleans is a city where the past is often prologue. For example, NOPD brass didn’t invoke the memory of Howard Johnson’s when informing the City Council of recent acquisitions, including two armored personnel carriers for SWAT team deployments and 100 assault rifles.

Not surprisingly, the NOPD drew criticism from activists representing Central City, a high-crime neighborhood, where complaints of over-policing and under-protection are not uncommon. “I’m afraid of you – especially with [assault rifles],” said Ursula Price of Safe Streets/Strong Communities.

Cops and activists of the Howard Johnson’s era can help ease tensions. Times and attitudes have changed since then.

For example, Larry Jones, a fiery activist in the St. Bernard housing project at the time, today expresses sorrow for the police families who lost their loved ones at Howard Johnson’s. Years after the tragedy Jones said, “I had a brother killed in a packed nightclub, shot in the back five times. Nobody wanted to come forward. That is the kind of stuff we have to work toward as a society.”

Conversely, some NOPD veterans of the shoot-out currently share activists’ concern over the post-9/11 “militarization” of American policing and the proliferation of high-powered weapons in the hands of drug gangs.

Missed anniversaries at the NOPD occur when the department is distressed, distracted or both. But Howard Johnson’s was a disaster for the entire city – not just police. It’s up to New Orleans’ elders to remind future generations of the continuing lessons of all our city’s tragedies – not just Katrina.

Doc Willard did his part.

A former principal at St. Augustine High, Willard proudly recalls that Alfred Harrell Jr. – one of the five NOPD officers killed at Howard Johnson’s – graduated from the Catholic school for black males. Harrell was a good student, gregarious, with “lots of personality,” Willard says.

Harrell graduated in 1971. He enrolled as a student at Loyola University while working as a police cadet.

On New Year’s Eve, 1972, Mark J. Essex staged a one-man ambush at Central Lock-Up, vividly retold in Peter Hernon’s book, A Terrible Thunder (Doubleday, 1978).
 Harrell, 19, was the first to die. A husband, father of a newborn son, and a nephew of famed chef Austin Leslie, the cadet stepped into the sally-port area of the jail. He was shot in the chest.    

Lt. Kenny Dupaquier knelt over Harrell and picked up his left hand to check for a pulse. The dying cadet’s wedding ring fell off into a pool of his own blood. In a small, but heroic gesture of compassion, Dupaquier “gently picked up the ring and slid it back on Harrell’s finger,” according to A Terrible Thunder.

“I just reacted,” Dupaquier recalled later. Today, he remembers Harrell for his enthusiastic approach to the college education he never lived to finish.

Harrell’s wife, Angele, later committed suicide. Their 9-month-old son, Alfred Harrell III, was adopted by the slain cadet’s twin brother. “Little Alfred” grew up to become a minister.

Looking up at the hotel, Willard also remembers Deputy Police Superintendent Louis Sirgo, who was killed leading an assault on the Howard Johnson’s sniper.

A white, 17-year veteran of the NOPD, Sirgo led the department’s battles with the Black Panthers in the early 1970s. But he insisted the most effective way to eliminate political extremism was to end the social conditions that nourished social discontent, such as housing and educational inequities. He also saw a “vindictive system” of crime and punishment at work. And he deplored public indifference to poverty, which he believed fueled urban crime.

“As citizens of the United States, we are guilty of malfeasance in office,” Sirgo told a group of civic leaders. He warned that police forces could not keep a lid on urban social ills for long.

After his death, The Washington Post published Sirgo’s address in its entirety. He was survived by his wife, Joyce and two daughters.

Each year, Mrs. Sirgo presents the Louis Sirgo Memorial Award to the top-graduating recruit of the NOPD academy.

The five officers killed at Howard Johnson’s are etched in several police memorials: Sirgo, Harrell, patrolmen Paul Persigo and Philip Coleman, and K-9 Sgt. Edwin Hosli.

The hotel is now a Holiday Inn.

In the parking lot, a historic sign (dedicated in 1996) notes that the downtown neighborhood is “one of the birthplaces of jazz.”

But there is no plaque for those who bled for the city, nothing to inspire the youths marching in the Martin Luther King Day parade to aspire to public service – and no reason to remember Howard Johnson’s.

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Reader Comments:
May 30, 2009 03:44 am
 Posted by  kenjr1_2000



I was one of the first people he shot at that day. I came from Gulfport Mississippi Va Hosp. And I was coming from New Orleans Va
after dropping off a Vet there. We had to take and park the Ambulance on the street because the Va. Hosp. had a drive spot for you to come up to but you couldn't park there. So we had to park on the street. This was before any Police where there or anything I heard loud pop and at the same time a round went past my head.
I new right away what it was I had a few rounds come at me in Vietnam after flying a UH-1H Helicopter with 4000 hours combat time
they couldn't of got a guy with more time on the job of having bullets coming at him.

I called into the Police from our unit. Feb. 5th 1972 would of marked my two year mark returning from Vietnam. The Police had one hell of a time getting him off there. He kept popping off round down at us and going into I called it the ice house at that time the Police didn't want anything to do with going up there. I told one of the Police Man that we where first there well hell give me a gun I'll go up there and take care of him because he put me in my Vietnam mad mode because one of the first rounds that came off there was at me.

Ken Nuse

Gulfport Ambulance Company
Bolixi Mississippi
Now living in Sacramento, Ca.

Oct 11, 2009 08:23 pm
 Posted by  CorvetteZ06

On January 7, 1973 I was a student at the University of Southern Mississippi and we had gone to Mobile that Saturday for the Senior Bowl game. After the game we headed off to New Orleans to have an evening in the French Quarter. After a while we heard an announcement on the radio that all Interstate Highways going in and out of New Orleans were shut down. Seemed a bit strange and the reason was not immediately given. A bit later they reported that a sniper was in the Howard Johnson Hotel setting fires and shooting people.

The emergency entrance to the nearby hospital was only a block or so away from the Howard Johnson Hotel and it was reported that the gunman was firing on the ambulances delivering victims of his shooting. Strange, indeed!

We made our way back to Hattiesburg and every TV channel had live coverage even through the night. The next morning I recall vividly the scene on the rooftop. A lifeless body lay on the roof and police officers were closing in on the concrete/brick housing on the roof. There were officers on each side of the door to the structure. They coordinated their attack shooting into the doorway. An officer went down in the hail of bullets. Fellow officers pulled him aside. They attacked the structure a second time and soon realized that they were being hit by their own ricochets. It was surreal to watch.

After that incident the police continued to look for several more hours in the air conditioning ducts and any other place someone might hide. The thought at the time was that there was too much shooting, too many fires, etc. for only one man to be involved and there must be a second gunman. Later, as I recall, it was determined that he had planned the attack and had stashed weapons and ammo throughout the Hotel.

The next week we rode by the hotel. It looked like I would envision a war zone with broken windows, many flame-charred areas on its bullet-riddled walls.

The police and emergency workers are heroes!

Nov 12, 2009 01:42 am
 Posted by  eddiethekid

It's amazing how these incidents often go unheard of by the public.
I'm 64 years old and just about this after John Muhammed, the Washington sniper, was put to death. That's when it leaked out that Mr. Muhammed had been a 12 year old in New Orleans when Mr.
Essex went on his one-man (or some say 2-man, the other, if he
existed was never caught) war against the New Orleans Police Dept.
Although he was supposedly out to kill "honkies" and did kill some
white citizens, his primary target was the police, as evidenced by
his first victim, who was a black policeman. It was really the
arm of force of white society that he declared war upon. As a white man, I understand why he did so. There are many white people, as well as blacks and other groups, who understand the danger of the gestapo police, who are really a society of supermen.

Jun 6, 2010 04:29 pm
 Posted by  missouri

a friend invited me to go to new orleans in the early 70's .we stayed at the howard johnson hotel.
we were on the 8th floor.what happened to the hotel after the shootings and how many floors did that hotel have ?

Jan 5, 2011 01:06 pm
 Posted by  Colleen [lilcoco] G.

I remember that day all too well. like it was just yesterday. of course i was only 9yrs old at the time. ''But'', The main reason i will always remember that day .Jan. 7,1973. is because that was also the day my father was murdered at Charile's SteakHouse on Dryades St. in NewOrleans. by a cold hearted coward for no apparent reason.[He was only 42 yrs.old]. leaving behind a wife and six children.ages ranging from21 to 6 yrs old.and leaving us[his his family] w/ no closure and no justice for my father [or my family]. Which keeps us wondering to this day. [and probably for the rest of our lives] why no arrests were made? and why did the New Orleans Police close the case soo soon ,before it was solved?Why wasmy father treated like another casualty? as if he had no purpose or meaning in life. Probably because they were too busy focusing on what was going on at the Howard Johnson's at the time w/ the sniper and all. and i understand that and over the years i've kept the families of the victims in my thoughts and prayers.Because on that tragic day.innocent lives were taken,and lives were changed forever. I just want my father to be remembered as well. I mean no disrespect....''God Bless'' !

Mar 27, 2011 06:09 pm
 Posted by  dlhunter

I was there that day. We had gone up on the interstate to get a better view of the shootings. We just pulled over to the side of the highway and got out of the car, to watch what was unfolding before our very eyes. The police came to us and said for us to leave because the sniper could very well have shot us from where he was.

Sep 11, 2011 12:21 pm
 Posted by  ronrichards

does anyone here know ronald richards? some people called him ronnie or ron he was a policemen with nopd during the howard johnson shootout he was also a detective with the robbery division

Aug 3, 2012 10:30 pm
 Posted by  bmatt

My husband Keith Mattern is the one shown on the video driving the army truck right up to the Howard Johnson to deliver guns to the officer's. He was in the Marine Corp.

Aug 3, 2012 10:32 pm
 Posted by  bmatt

And bullet proof vest to the police

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