Originally created 10/15/02

Race riot trial painful for victim's family



YORK, Pa. -- From the time Lillie Belle Allen was born on Christmas Day 1941, the daughter of a preacher, relatives were not surprised to see her grow into an independent woman who watched over her seven brothers and sisters and raised her two children alone.

"When someone's born on Christmas Day, you look at them a little differently," said her brother, Benjamin Mosley, of Columbia, S.C. "She was special."

In her family's eyes, Allen was also a martyr: Her short life ended July 21, 1969, in a hail of gunfire while trying to save four relatives from a mob of armed white gang members during York's race riots.

Now, 33 years later, Mosley and six other relatives, including Allen's two children, are attending the trial of York's former mayor and two other white men charged with murder in her death.

Her relatives, five of whom live in South Carolina, brought with them a range of emotions: There is forgiveness for those who they believe have told what they know about the "uneasy alliance" prosecutors say existed between white police officers and white gang members to kill blacks.

And there is bitterness and sorrow over those who they believe have hidden the truth of Allen's slaying, which at least a dozen witnesses have rendered during testimony.

"It amazes me how people can still have hate in their hearts and go through what they did without changing," said Allen's son, Michael, of North Augusta, S.C.

The attack on Allen was one of scores during the 10-day riots that left two people dead, about 60 wounded and whole city blocks torched before about 400 state troopers and National Guardsmen came to town with tanks and rifles to quell violence between blacks and whites.

Lillie Belle's children, Debra Taylor and Michael Allen, said they were young adults before they made peace with their mother's death, using their closely held religion as a roadmap. Hate and vengefulness gave way to forgiveness, they said.

Still, despite the long years since their mother's slaying, the trial has been "very difficult after coming to grips with it and making my peace with it, only to have it stirred up," said Taylor, who is raising a 13-year-old son in Aiken, S.C.

The hardest part has been listening to rationalizations for Allen's killing - defense attorneys contend that Allen's death is the tragic result of white residents acting in self-defense - or arguments that charges should not have been brought after all these years, they say.

Saying new information surfaced, prosecutors reopened an investigation in December 1999. Jury selection and testimony so far have taken three weeks, and the trial is expected to last at least another week.

Sheriff's officers escort the family members each morning from their hotel down the block to the courthouse and then back at the end of the day.

Most days, they sit in the courtroom's steel folding chairs right across the aisle from family members of the three men facing life in prison if convicted.

Those men are Charlie Robertson, a police officer in 1969 who went on to become York's two-term mayor, and two other white men whom prosecutors say were members of the white gangs that ambushed Allen and unleashed a barrage of gunfire that kept Allen's sister, brother-in-law and parents pinned down in their Cadillac until police arrived.

Robertson, 68, is accused of inciting white gangs to violence against blacks and handing out ammunition to gang members in an effort to even the score for the shooting of white patrolman Henry Schaad on July 18, 1969, in a black neighborhood.

Some testimony has been graphic. Racial epithets were used liberally to quote gang members. Other witnesses explained how Allen's chest was torn open by the lead shotgun slug.

Taylor, who was 11 the night of her mother's death, invariably puts her head in her hands when those details are recounted.

She remembers hearing the sustained gunfire several blocks away and "trying to imagine how big of a bag of fireworks someone must have had," she said during her testimony.

Taylor's cheeks were wet after listening to her brother, who was 9 that night, testify about waiting for his mother to return, even the next morning, from what was supposed to be a quick trip to a grocery store.

Robertson, the first officer on the scene, and three other officers with him did not disarm the gang members, take statements or file a report on the incident.

Robertson's lawyers deny that a conspiracy existed and assert his innocence, even though he has admitted shouting "white power" at a white gang rally the day before Allen was killed.

Allen's relatives find relief from the trial in talking about the woman named after a grandmother and aunt.

They recall her deep dimples, blackberry pies, and a drawing of "The Last Supper" she made as a young teen that hung in their Sunday school in Aiken for years afterward.

"She was my sister and my best friend," said Jennie Settles, of Charleston, S.C., born two years after Lillie Belle. "I loved her very much."