He loved roses; if only he could have loved them longer.
Forty years ago today, 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 was 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 Back 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 number two 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. Persigo was a senior officer and much respected. It was said he was the sort of cop that others in 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 were not trained to handle. From the shooter’s roof top vantage point clusters of cops down on the street made easy targets. To Essex, Persigo's white police helmet was like a bulls 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 soul of the men he shot (Sirgo outspoken on the sociology of crime; Persigo fascinated with a thing of beauty), he may have seen past skin color.
Jan. 7 is the second day of the Carnival season. The timing raised questions about whether carnival parades should be held that year. At least one newspaper columnist suggested that all activities should be cancelled. Yet the parades were held and the city celebrated in peace. Without Carnival the city might not have healed as quickly. In 2006 Carnival would play the same role in the wake of Katrina.
There are those, and I am one of them, who believe that the victims have never been memorialized properly. They died trying to defend the city against a force that, as far as they knew, could have been massive.
Persigo is buried at Garden of Memories cemetery in Metairie. His grave marker has the star and crescent of the New Orleans department. There’s one more element: Above his name and on each of the bottom corners there are the images of roses.