JUSTICE’S LONG ROAD
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.”
‘WE WERE IN DENIAL JUST TO COPE WITH THE PAIN AND HURT’ —ALLEN’S SON MICHAEL
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.