By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Murder was the Case
Forty years later, the clash between the Black Panthers and Santa Ana police continues to influence county life
Louis Martinez Jr. woke as a gunshot echoed through his Santa Ana neighborhood. It was near midnight on June 4, 1969, and the part-time ambulance driver peeked through his living-room window, saw a man down and sprinted outside.
Just minutes earlier, Santa Ana police officer Nelson Sasscer had alerted his superiors that he was going to stop two pedestrians on the corner of Third and Raitt streets. Now, Martinez was using Sasscer’s radio to let headquarters know someone had gunned down the officer.
Patrolmen sped to the scene and found Sasscer in front of his car, weapon still holstered, a single bullet wound in his abdomen. They rushed him to the hospital, but the 24-year-old died within half an hour.
Detectives couldn’t find any witnesses to the murder. Only a few people in Santa Ana had ever publicly professed their wishes to kill a cop, and the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) knew where to find them.
Squad cars raced toward the home of Daniel Michael Lynem the following morning. Minutes before, the SAPD had called Lynem to let him know they were going to arrest him for murdering Sasscer. Lynem was innocent, but no matter. A cousin offered to help him escape, but Lynem sent the cousin away.
The 22-year-old head of the Santa Ana chapter of the Black Panther Party ran to the arsenal. He strapped on two Colt .45 pistols, wrapped bandoliers across his chest, grabbed a pump-action shotgun and crept near the front door to wait.
The police finally arrived. They banged on the door and demanded Lynem’s surrender. “Do you have a warrant?” he yelled back.
“We don’t need one,” an officer sneered.
Ka-chik. Lynem racked his shotgun. The police ran.
As the cops radioed for backup, Lynem arranged tables, chairs and sofas to form barricades. “I was going for the dramatic,” Lynem says with a laugh 40 years later. “I had my entire escape route thought out, and if that didn’t work, I’d die trying.”
Sirens wailed. Tires screeched. At least a dozen officers positioned themselves outside. And then Lynem thought of his mother, thought of the struggles their family endured to buy that house and live the Orange County dream. He thought of the bullet holes and bloodstains on carpets and walls his parents would find if a shootout ensued.
Lynem surrendered without a shot. Santa Ana’s two black officers entered the house to arrest him. “Good, now I won’t be mistreated,” Lynem thought.
They punched him in the face.
He’s now 62, a grandfather, retired and living in Anaheim. Lean, with gray hair and slightly bald, Lynem still vividly recalls the chaos that followed Sasscer’s death: his arrest and jailing, the subsequent protests and riots, unlawful police break-ins, the eventual conviction of his friend Arthur League for murder in a trial that still raises questions decades later.
But Lynem likes to remember the unlikely good that came from the tragedy: the remaking of the SAPD, the creation of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, and his ultimate redemption.
“I think people want to forget this,” he says. “If they could wipe it from the history books, they would. And for the most part, they have.”
* * *
In 1969, Orange County seemed under siege. Student protests roiled Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine. Activists fought police with bottles and rocks in Huntington Beach and Fullerton’s Hillcrest Park, while high schools staged walkouts to protest the Vietnam War.
Yet few groups terrified county residents more than the Black Panthers. To have “unruly Negroes,” as the then-Santa Ana Register described them, besmirch conservative Orange County was too much for law enforcement. Upstanding citizens feared the Panthers, their fiery rhetoric against seemingly everything white, their constant wielding of weaponry for the ostensible purpose of self-defense, the violent yang to the civil-rights movement’s yin. And by that year, the paramilitary organization had grown so much nationally, with chapters in every major city possessing a significant African-American population, that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover designated it “the most dangerous threat to the internal security of the country.” He followed that warning by enlisting the infamous Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to destroy the Panthers.
The Santa Ana branch was tiny, never more than five to six committed members and about 20 to 30 associates. That didn’t stop the FBI and Santa Ana police from aggressively monitoring them, so when Sasscer was murdered, they didn’t think twice about a suspect.
Lynem was born in Santa Ana in 1947, a time when black World War II veterans were moving into the city just like their white counterparts. But the natives didn’t take kindly to these dark newcomers. While attending Wilson Elementary School, Lynem got in a fight with a classmate. “When I stepped into the principal’s office, he gave me a dirty look and asked why was I there,” he recalls. “When I told him that a number of students had been calling me a nigger, he looked at me and said, ‘Well, you are a nigger,’ then grabbed me behind the neck, lifted me up in the air, and carried me from his office across the playground and slammed me on a bench.” The principal warned Lynem never to cross his path again.