On January 12, 1983, on a cluttered street in Memphis, Tennessee, an off-duty police officer happened upon a purse snatching. Unable to apprehend the criminal, the officer did, however, recognize the suspect. The cop subsequently drove to the man’s home in the company of two other patrolmen. Finding the house empty the officers actually contacted the suspect but were unable to understand him on the phone. They subsequently gave up, filed a report, and called it a day.
At the time the suspect in the purse snatching was at another house in North Memphis along with thirteen other African American males. These men had spent the day smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. They were all members of a nameless religious cult led by a 49-year-old mental patient named Lindberg Sanders.
Lindbergh Sanders described himself as “Black Jesus,” and his was an odd theology indeed. His Rastafarian rites forbade his acolytes from eating pork, drinking water, or wearing hats. He had informed his followers that the world would end on January 10th, two days prior. When he was proved wrong he found himself in a foul mood.
Amongst a bewildering array of nonsensical practices, Sanders also vehemently denigrated the police as tools of Satan. The relatively benign purse snatching query from police catalyzed Sanders’ toxic milieu. The subsequent conflagration was an epic bloodbath.
Sanders had the original suspect anonymously call the police to his North Memphis house ostensibly to discuss the purse snatching. 34-year-old Vietnam veteran Patrolman Bobby Hester and his partner Ray Schwill answered the call. Once they entered the house the two white police officers realized they were both surrounded and outnumbered.
Hester radioed for backup, and the two officers attempted to extricate themselves. The cultists gained control of Officer Schwill’s gun and shot him in the face with it. Schwill nonetheless made it to the door and safety. Patrolman Hester was taken captive. Several members of the cult fled the house and were eventually apprehended.
The first responding officer immediately attempted to enter the home only to be thrown bodily off the porch. The second went in shooting, exiting the house to reload several times. Despite his efforts, they were nonetheless unable to reach Patrolman Hester.
Memphis Police quickly surrounded the house and began negotiations with Sanders. Sanders and his followers had Officer Hester’s radio and used it to communicate with authorities. Sanders announced his intent to murder Officer Hester live over a Memphis radio station. He stated that he held a gun to the patrolman’s head and that any effort to approach the house would end in the lawman’s death. Neighbors and the escaped cult members all claimed the suspects were heavily armed.
What happened next is disputed. Sanders activated the radio as his followers beat and tortured Patrolman Hester. Hester’s pleas could be heard clearly by officers outside the dwelling. His comrades pressed for permission to attempt a rescue. Concerned about Sanders’ earlier threat and still holding out hope for a peaceful solution, administrators dragged out their discourse with Sanders for some thirty hours. This fateful decision has been second-guessed countless times since.
At 0300 on January 13th everything went quiet. Sanders refused to communicate, and Hester could no longer be heard. Microphones pointed at the house detected, “My daddy is dead. My brother is dead. The devil is dead.” Police administrators finally gave the go-ahead for a dynamic entry.
The six-man Memphis TACT team deployed tear gas and flash-bang grenades before storming the house. They carried M16A1 rifles and 12-gauge shotguns. The entire operation took some twenty minutes. The tactical team was met with gunfire in the first room they entered. Patrolman Hester’s body had been placed near the front door in a vain effort at slowing their progress.
In the ensuing firefight, the tactical team fired a total of eighty rounds. Sanders and his remaining followers were killed to a man, all but one shot in the head. The suspects fired a total of twelve rounds from the two .38 revolvers taken from Hester and Schwill. These were the only two firearms recovered at the scene. Crime scene diagrams and photographs depicted the dead cult members lined up on the floor in a bedroom.
The tactical team found Hester handcuffed to a chair and beaten to death. He had been viciously tortured with a variety of implements. At the time of the assault, Hester had been dead between twelve and twenty-four hours.
The tactical team carried selective-fire M16A1 rifles and short-barreled Remington 870 pump-action shotguns. I was seventeen years old and living about an hour south of Memphis at the time of this tragedy. I recall seeing news reports of the event.
As the combat inside the house would inevitably be close range, dark, and pitiless, news reports showed that the SWAT officers had secured powerful D-cell police flashlights to the triangular forends of their weapons with tape. Observers outside the house reported hearing automatic weapons fire during the assault.
The M16A1 is a lightweight and maneuverable assault rifle well suited for combat in close quarters. Nowadays everybody mounts tactical lights on the forends of their weapons. In 1983, however, the use of onboard weapon lights was groundbreaking stuff indeed.
The M16A1 was a product-improved version of the original Stoner-inspired AR15. In 1958 the US military first conducted trials of these small-caliber 5.56mm rifles alongside the heavier .30-caliber M14. Initial reports were overwhelmingly positive.
As a result, in 1963 the first batch of redesignated M16 rifles was shipped to Vietnam for combat trials with South Vietnamese Army units and US Army Special Forces.
Soon thereafter the weapon was updated to include an enclosed birdcage flash suppressor, a forward bolt assist device, and a redesigned buttstock with a rigid sling swivel and storage compartment for a cleaning kit. This improved rifle was designated the M16A1 and soldiered on until replaced by the heavier M16A2 in the 1980s.
The Remington 870 slide action shotgun first saw service in 1950 and has remained in constant production until the present day. More than 11 million copies have been manufactured. The 870 is a bottom-loading, side-ejecting slide-action design that feeds from an under-barrel tubular magazine. Literally countless stock, magazine, and barrel options have made the 870 the most accessorized and customized shotgun ever contrived.
The shotguns used in the Shannon Street assault sported wooden stocks, shortened 12-inch barrels, and accessory ammunition carriers. In competent hands and at close quarters this weapon would offer overwhelming firepower combined with respectable maneuverability.
This operation represented a very early example of the tactical use of onboard weapon lights. The trend has subsequently circled the globe.
The Rest of the Story…
Repercussions from the Shannon Street Massacre, as it has come to be called, resonate even today. The decision to delay the assault in favor of negotiations ultimately sealed Officer Hester’s fate. Nowadays Memphis PD tactical doctrine mandates an assault the moment there is evidence of harm to an officer or citizen.
Lindberg Sanders’ family paints an entirely different picture of the events that led up to the bloody nighttime assault at 2239 Shannon Street. They claim that the initial phone call to the police was intended to clear up a misunderstanding over the purse snatching. They say that things spiraled out of control only after Officer Schwill began goading Lindberg and his followers with a faux black accent, something he was apparently wont to do.
Sanders’ surviving children point out that six of the seven cult members were killed with shots to the head despite possessing only the two captured police weapons among them. This observation combined with the orientation of the bodies at the crime scene led them to claim that the suspects were killed execution-style. The pathology report did state, however, that there were no powder burns on the bodies. This would imply that they were all shot from a modest distance.
Most of the sources I could find referred to the seven dead suspects as victims. Given that they tortured a police officer to death I struggle with that characterization. However, in the final analysis, little of it really matters.
Self-serving politicians, a ghoulish media, and our nation’s affinity for remaining perpetually offended continue to fuel tension between the black community and Law Enforcement. According to those who knew him, Lindberg Sanders hated cops no matter their race, age, or gender. In 1983 eight people lost their lives in the early salvoes of a self-sustaining cycle of hatred and violence that persists today.