Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson Sniper
A Possible Trap
As they followed the track of .44-caliber bullets, several police officers and detectives began to suspect that the shooter had not dropped the ammunition accidentally. Many believed that the bullets had not been dropped at all, but had been laid down so that the police could find them and follow them.
The trail of .44 cartridges led about six blocks to 1208 South Lopez St., an old wood-framed house, which had been converted into the 1st New Saint Mark Baptist Church. A hand-printed cardboard sign taped to the door announced, CHICKEN DINNERS EVERY SUNDAY.
In describing the way the bullets were left, one detective says, "They were placed there. I think he was waiting for us in the church."
As they huddled outside in the cold air and planned how best to enter the church to search for the elusive sniper, the policemen got an unexpected radio call from headquarters. The dispatcher advised them that Chief of Police Clarence Giarrusso had called off the search.
Throughout the morning, the chief had received several complaints from Gert Town residents about the tactics the police were using to search for the killer. Doors had been kicked open and houses searched. The chief feared the officers would further alienate the already antagonistic neighborhood.
Outside the church, the police officers fumed. According to Hernon, some of them considered storming the church anyway, despite the direct order from the chief to terminate the search. But cooler heads prevailed and the policemen did as they were told. They went back to headquarters.
Had they not been ordered to pull back or had they decided to disobey the chief's order, it is very likely that the police would have found Mark Essex waiting for them inside the church.
At about 6 p.m., January 1, nine hours after Chief Giarrusso pulled his police officers out of Gert Town, Sylvester Williams, the pastor of Saint Mark Baptist Church, found the front door ajar. He crept inside and saw a young black man standing at the back of the church. The pastor ran to a neighbor's house and called the police. Minutes later, half a dozen New Orleans police officers fanned out around the small church. They searched the building and the grounds but the man was gone.