As racial vi­o­lence erupted on the streets of York, Pa., in July 1969, a young black mother of 2 was mur­dered. In­side her fam­ily’s 33-year fight for an­swers


Lil­lie Belle Allen was killed in race ri­ots in 1969. In­side her fam­ily’s 33-year search for an­swers

Ev­ery sum­mer, Lil­lie Belle Allen and her kids De­bra and Michael would drive from their home in Aiken, S.C., to York, Pa., to visit her sis­ter be­fore head­ing to see other rel­a­tives in New York. The 27-year-old di­vorced work­ing mom rev­eled in the fam­ily gath­er­ings—the chil­dren playing tag and hop­scotch while the adults cooked and sat to­gether on the front porch. “She was 5'2" and full of life,” her daugh­ter De­bra Grier re­calls. “She was the life of the party.” But on the evening of July 21, 1969, the Allen fam­ily’s an­nual visit turned to tragedy. Allen and her par­ents and sis­ter had piled into the fam­ily car and were headed to the store to pick up sup­plies for their road trip to New York when they took a wrong turn and found them­selves on the wrong side of a po­lice bar­ri­cade. A white 22-year-old York po­lice of­fi­cer, Henry Schaad, had been shot three days ear­lier, and the city’s long-sim­mer­ing racial ten­sions were erupt­ing in ri­ots. Sud­denly the fam­ily Cadil­lac was sur­rounded by white men with loaded guns. Allen stepped out of the car, raised her hands and said, “Don’t shoot.” But a hail of bul­lets ex­ploded, shat­ter­ing the car win­dows and leav­ing Allen fa­tally wounded. Back home, her chil­dren De­bra, 11, and Michael, 9, were playing in front of the tele­vi­sion wait­ing for their mother’s re­turn. “I was lis­ten­ing to what I thought was fire­works,” De­bra says. “It was ac­tu­ally the gun­shots.”

Allen’s chil­dren and fam­ily waited for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and some­thing re­sem­bling jus­tice. But it would be three decades be­fore any­one even looked into the mur­der. Then in 1999 news­pa­per reports about the 30th an­niver­sary of the ri­ots prompted the York County dis­trict at­tor­ney

to delve into Allen’s case as well as the mur­der of Of­fi­cer Schaad. The re­sults, ex­plored in the lat­est episode of Peo­ple Mag­a­zine In­ves­ti­gates, jolted the tight-knit town: In 2001 po­lice ar­rested 10 white men, in­clud­ing York mayor Charles Robert­son, a for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer who some wit­nesses said had in­cited lo­cal all-white gangs to avenge the mur­der of Of­fi­cer Schaad. Robert­son was ac­quit­ted in a 2002 trial, but Gre­gory H. Neff and Robert N. Messer­smith, for­mer gang mem­bers, were found guilty of second-de­gree mur­der; seven oth­ers reached plea agree­ments. Two black men—stephen Free­land and Leon Wright—were con­victed of killing Schaad. “My fam­ily was caught up in a sit­u­a­tion of be­ing in the wrong place at the wrong time be­cause of some­thing that was already fes­ter­ing in that neigh­bor­hood,” says Allen’s son Michael, now 59. “They were wait­ing to am­bush some­body. My fam­ily

just hap­pened to be the one.”

For the Allen chil­dren, who were raised by their grand­par­ents, hav­ing their mother’s killers be­hind bars has brought some sense of peace, but her ab­sence from their lives con­tin­ues to cause pain. As a teen, De­bra some­times pre­tended that her mom was just away at work. “I used to make up these things in my head that she was on as­sign­ment some­where do­ing grown-up stuff,” says De­bra, now 60 and a mother with a grown son. Michael, a grand­fa­ther of six, says he spent a lot of his life in de­nial. “An­other morn­ing comes,” he says, “and you’re hop­ing you wake up and your mother ap­pears.”

The years that went by with­out an­swers are ones they say they can never get back. “Jus­tice should never be de­layed,” Michael says. “If good peo­ple would speak out when they see in­jus­tice done, the world would be a bet­ter place.”


1 3 2 “She was a peo­ple per­son,” De­bra says of her mom (1960s).

Allen’s fam­ily: daugh­ter De­bra, sis­ter Hat­tie Dick­son and son Michael (after the ar­rests in 2001). Be­low, the fam­ily leaves court in 2002.

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