Thirty-five years ago today:

Thirty years before a pair of serial snipers terrorized Washington, D.C., Mark Essex prowled the streets of New Orleans with a .44-caliber Magnum rifle. During a weeklong reign of terror, he launched a series of surprise attacks against the city’s police department, its citizens, and its visitors.

Mark Essex HoJo sniper warning letterEssex’s background was not unusual or violent. He grew up in a middle class family, and there are no accounts of abuse or trouble at home. Although he served in the Navy during Vietnam, he saw no combat – he served in San Diego at a Navy dental clinic. He did not complete his tour of duty. He was courtmartialed and discharged after going AWOL. He got involved with the Black Panthers in New York, and later moved to New Orleans where a friend from the Navy lived and attended a black mosque. The Black Panthers were active in New Orleans, taking over areas of the Desire housing project and engaging in shoot outs with police.

It’s unknown what, if anything, specifically triggered the series of attacks which resulted in Essex’ gunning down 19 people, including 10 police officers, but he did send a warning letter to a local TV station. His apartment was covered with racist graffiti, and contained Islamic and Black Panther literature, as well as a map and plan for the attack.

What is certain is that Mark Essex was angry at the world, and he chose to vent that anger through the barrel of a gun.

Essex’s tactics suggest that he studied and learned from the techniques of criminal snipers before him: Lee Harvey Oswald, who left behind an assassinated president and a dead policeman; and Charles Whitman, who crawled to the top of a Texas tower and gunned down more than two dozen innocent people.

Recent events also suggest that Essex left behind a tactical blueprint and a legacy of hate for others to follow. Growing up in nearby Baton Rouge, John Allen Williams, who later converted to Islam and took the name John Allen Muhammad, would have heard time and again about Essex and the Howard Johnson’s shooting. In 2002, after a month-long sniping spree centered in Washington, D.C., Muhammad and his young partner left 10 people dead.

While no one is likely to ever uncover the extent to which Essex’s actions influenced Muhammad, it is impossible to deny the similarities. Armed with high-powered rifles, both men shot and killed their victims from long range, they moved quickly, and they taunted their pursuers. Both were ex-military men, both filled with rage, and each wrote a page in our nation’s history in blood.

Laura Curtis blogs at Pursuing Holiness

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