By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
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.
Assuming there is some element of truth in the story, if I were the principal of that school, I would lynch the parent who threatened me with violence, and his son who bullied other students would get thrown out of school.
My mother was one of the original 12 jurors in the League trial. She was eventually excused because of medical issues. But she has always maintained that she believed League was set up and that one of the Tice brothers was the trigger man. I remember, as a 13 year old, going to the trial and watching the proceedings. It was a fascinating introduction into the criminal legal system.
As someone who was involved in this incident allow me to say this story is about 90% BS and the rest,the names of those involved, is correct. I think many of those mentioned in the story "Have visions of Grandeur". Many of the statements mentioned are inaccurate and some must have injured themselves while patting their own back. To those reading this story be assured it is fiction much like a dime novel. The facts in this story have three things correct. 1. Sasscer was the victim, 2. League was the shooter. 3. Santa Ana was the city. After that well it was in 1969. Maybe that is # 4.
Great story. My parents were on that Human Relations Commission and I remember, even though I was 4 at the time, them discussing all the unrest going on. It's nice to be able to read this as an adult and get a better grasp as to what was really going on.
This article was really interesting. I am glad I have always been surround by GOOD people who grounded me with TRUTH.
Very, very well done piece. I've lived in Santa Ana for about 13 years now and have never heard of this story. Good perspective...good writing...very much appreciated. I'd love to have a historical piece on Santa Ana on a monthly basis or something. I think a lot of people would find it very interesting.
Great job on this story. This little piece of Santa Ana history has been all but forgotten. It was almost surreal to read that Everett Dickey was the prosecuting DA on this case.
I was at the courthouse the day Judge Dickey ordered Geronimo Pratt released. It is still one of my fondest memories and happiest days.
Thanks again for writing this piece.
Great insightful article. I just love reading about local history and you have a knack on how to do that, Gustavo.
HALLELUIAH, AMEN BROTHER PRAISE TO GOD ALMIGHTY WELL DONE IS WHAT WE ALL WISH TO HEAR AT THE END OF THIS LIFE. BUT THE MORTAL LIFE IS FOREVER. JESUS IS THE REASON FOR LIVING LIVE IT UP YOH. WHATS UP