What possesses a guy to kill senselessly and en masse? The dark nihilist emptiness of Stephen Paddock’s pathetic life led him to open fire on a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, killing 58 and wounding another 422. His twisted motivations remain a mystery. In the case of Mark James Robert Essex, however, we find a hate-driven man bullied and abused who showed just how much carnage a single determined shooter with a rifle can wreak.
Jimmy Essex was the second of five children of a church-going African-American meat packer from Emporia, Kansas. He enlisted in the Navy in 1969 to avoid being drafted for combat in Vietnam. The Navy trained him as a dental technician.
Essex purportedly endured two years of racial abuse at the hands of his peers and superiors in the Navy. This was a different time, and our society then tolerated such stuff. This experience transformed Essex from a bright young church member into the seething embodiment of hate.
After receiving a General Discharge from the Navy for unspecified character and behavioral disorders, Essex sought out radical black activists and joined the New York Black Panthers. In 1972 he moved to New Orleans to learn vending machine repair. There had been some unfortunate police-involved shootings of young black men thereabouts, so he also resolved to murder white police officers. Armed with a Ruger Model 44 carbine purchased from Montgomery Ward along with a Colt .38 revolver, Essex began his hunt on New Year’s Eve.
Killing from Ambush
Essex waited hidden in a parking lot across the street from the crowded NOPD central lockup. Police cadet Alfred Harrell, a married 19-year-old black father, was the first to appear. Despite claiming that he would target “just honkies,” Essex shot and killed the young man from a range of 280 feet with his .44 Magnum rifle. He wounded LT Horace Perez as well before escaping across Interstate 10, deploying firecrackers as he ran as a diversion.
Entering Gert Town, a dreary bit of New Orleans known for its astronomical crime rate and hostility toward Law Enforcement, Essex broke into the Burkart Building, a combination warehouse and manufacturing facility. The building’s alarm system automatically alerted police, and two officers responded with a K9. Essex shot responding Officer Edwin Hosli in the back. Backup arrived in short order, but Essex escaped in the confusion. Officer Hosli died of his wounds the following month.
The Main Event
Jimmy Essex took the following week off from his cop-killing mayhem, but on January 7th he returned with a vengeance. First, he shot a random white grocer named Joe Perniciaro and carjacked a black man’s 1968 Chevelle, driving the stolen vehicle to the local Howard Johnson’s high-rise hotel. Abandoning the car he ran up the stairs, shaking locked fire doors as he went.
When finally he arrived at the top floor he found an open door and encountered three black members of the hotel staff. He reassured them, explaining that he was only there to kill white people. They fled and immediately notified the authorities.
Essex encountered 27-year-old Dr. Robert Steagall and his wife Betty in the hallway. The Steagalls were visiting from Virginia on their honeymoon. After a brief scuffle Essex shot and killed them both. He then made his way into their hotel room and set the drapes alight. Abandoning a Pan-African flag near the Steagall’s bodies, he headed downstairs.
Essex made his way down to the eleventh floor, setting fires as he went. There he shot and killed Frank Schneider and Walter Collins, two of the hotel managers. Essex then climbed onto the roof of the building where he had a commanding view of the surrounding city.
Two police officers attempted to enter the building via a fire truck ladder only to be fired upon by Essex from the roof. Essex promptly shot and killed Officers Paul Persigo and Phillip Coleman from his rooftop hide. He wounded Officer Ken Solis and shot Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo through the spine, killing him. A Tulane medical student named Lewis Townsend crossed an open field under fire to carry Sirgo to cover before returning to class. What a stud. At this point, the Law Enforcement response just went off the rails.
The Second Battle for New Orleans
Essex enjoyed a breathtaking vantage, and his steady peppering of the surrounding area shut down downtown New Orleans. As is so often the case in the fog of war, a persistent rumor arose about a second gunman. This was found to be unsubstantiated.
LTG Chuck Pittman, USMC, saw the event unfold on live television and offered the New Orleans cops use of a military CH46 Sea Knight helicopter. Over the next several hour’s police shooters aboard this helicopter supported by snipers on the roofs of nearby buildings took potshots at Essex as he fired from behind cover.
Desperate to neutralize the threat, officers raked the roof of this popular downtown hotel with automatic weapons fire. Amateur video of the exchange can be found on YouTube. It is pretty impressive.
There was a concrete blockhouse of sorts on the roof of the hotel, and Essex took refuge within it as darkness fell. By this time Law Enforcement officers had begun advancing toward his position. Essex emerged from his bunker and fired at the helicopter, striking it in its transmission. At this point everybody with a gun cut loose, chewing Jimmy Essex literally to pieces. When the dust settled his 23-year-old body bore more than 200 bullet wounds.
Hamstrung by a lack of reliable comms, officers advanced upon Essex’s position from several directions. In the final fusillade, several police officers were injured from friendly fire. Firing into the middle of a circle violates every rule of small-unit combat, but these were the days before SWAT. In 1973 only New York and Los Angeles maintained dedicated tactical teams. The New Orleans cops were simply not prepared for violence on this scale.
The Perpetrator’s Rifle
The Ruger Model 44 .44 Magnum autoloading rifle is a powerful mid-range deer gun pure and simple. Bearing an esoteric similarity to the M1 Carbine, the Model 44 is a gas-operated semiautomatic carbine that feeds from an internal four-round tubular magazine. Introduced in 1961, the Model 44 was called the “Deerstalker” until a lawsuit brought by Ithaca over trademark infringement forced Ruger to remove the name. The Model 44 strongly influenced the ubiquitous 10/22 that was launched three years later.
The Model 44 featured a rotating bolt and stained walnut stock. The front sight included a gold bead, while the rear sight was a simple folding leaf. The receiver came from the factory drilled and tapped for an optical sight. The Model 44 loaded through a gate underneath the action in the manner of a pump shotgun. The safety was a simple pushbutton located within the trigger guard. The Model 44 remained in production until 1985.
I killed my first deer with my mom’s Ruger Model 44 when I was eight years old. This handy little rifle was indeed lightweight and maneuverable. Recoil was manageable, and the gun was plenty accurate, especially with a scope installed. Particularly when fired from a rifle barrel those heavy .44-caliber bullets were simply devastating downrange. That first big doe I shot with mom’s gun dropped like a sack of cement.
The Rest of the Story
Between the advancing officers, the several snipers firing from nearby rooftops, and police machine gunners onboard the Sea Knight, the New Orleans cops chewed the roof of that hotel to pieces. The concrete edifice within which Essex hid was absolutely pulverized. It was a legitimate miracle they didn’t kill innocent bystanders all over the city.
The terrifying bit is simply that Mark Essex had no formal tactical training, and he wielded an inexpensive pistol-caliber carbine that held a mere five shots in a cumbersome internal magazine. Despite this, he ultimately killed nine and injured thirteen. A serious operator armed with a more efficient weapon could have wrought so much more carnage.
Considering Essex apparently had not planned out the details of his final operation in advance, he demonstrated exceptional tactical acumen. He consistently employed violence as a diversion to cover his movements and effectively eluded the police on a couple of occasions. When it came time for his Alamo moment Essex seized the high ground while maximizing his use of cover and concealment.
The seething racial vitriol that drove Mark James Robert Essex to blast the holy crap out of downtown New Orleans continues to drive headlines today. Within this sordid tale, however, there resides any number of legitimate tactical lessons. Law Enforcement tactics nationwide evolved markedly as a result.
The New Orleans Howard Johnson is a Holiday Inn today. I’ve stayed there. There are no obvious markers anywhere I could find to commemorate the building’s nefarious history. In the dark days of January 1973, however, this nondescript hotel played host to its own little war.
Ruger Model 44 Carbine
Caliber .44 Magnum
Barrel Length 18.5 inches
Overall Length 37 inches
Weight 6 pounds
Action Gas-Operated, Rotating Bolt
Feed System 4-Round Tubular Magazine
Sights Gold Bead Front, Folding Leaf Rear