Lynem’s parents noticed bloody scratches on the back of their son’s neck. His father, an Army veteran who worked at the post office, barged into the principal’s office the next day. “When the principal saw my dad, I thought he would piss and shit on himself,” Lynem says. “He broke out in a sweat and jumped behind his chair as my dad came behind his desk. My dad told him that if he ever put his hands on me again, he was going to shove his foot so far up his ass that major surgery wouldn’t get it out.”

Racism plagued the Lynems through the 1950s and 1960s. They had to sue for the right to move into an all-white Santa Ana neighborhood; within a year, the area turned nearly all black and Mexican. By the time Lynem entered Santa Ana High School, he was a prime Black Panther recruit. “I have always had a real strong sense of justice and fairness and want to fight for what’s right,” Lynem says. “The Party was something I wanted to be involved in.”

He began hanging out with Tommy Crockett, who ran a record store and claimed that the Southern California chapter of the Panthers had authorized him to create a Santa Ana branch. The group opened a storefront in 1968 on First and Raitt streets, where they held classes on Marxism and black history. But a problem arose: Crockett lied. Black Panther leadership never authorized him to establish anything.

Santa Ana Officer Nelson Sasscer, pictured in a department ID shot
Santa Ana Officer Nelson Sasscer, pictured in a department ID shot
Protests were held outside the OC Courthouse in support of League
Protests were held outside the OC Courthouse in support of League

“One day, some Panthers came to Santa Ana,” Lynem recalls. In the group was Geronimo Pratt, the SoCal chapter’s deputy minister of defense who later spent nearly 30 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. “They took Crockett to breakfast, then ordered the rest of us to meet at the office.” For hours, the Los Angeles Panthers grilled their Santa Ana counterparts about party activities. “Finally, they put us in a circle, put Crockett in the middle of it and pistol-whipped him. After that, they announced I was the official leader of the Santa Ana chapter.”

Under Lynem, the Panthers began patrolling black neighborhoods to monitor police brutality and created a breakfast program for children. They moved to larger headquarters on Fourth and Bristol and marched through neighborhoods dressed in berets, black leather jackets and gloves. Lynem wrote newsletters and recruited any young African-American he could find.

They also stockpiled weapons. “I’m not a violent type, but I believed in self-defense,” Lynem says. “If that meant you had to use guns, you had to use guns.”

In May 1969, Lynem drove to a gun store along with two other Panthers, Nathaniel Odis Grimes and a 20-year-old bank teller named Arthur Dewitt League. While Lynem filled out paperwork with the store owner so he could buy two Colt .45 pistols, Grimes stole a new .38 revolver.

“I was furious,” Lynem says. “I yelled at him—the gun-store owner was nice enough to open his store on a Sunday for us, and that’s how we treated him?”

But no one returned the gun.

The night Sasscer was murdered, the Black Panthers gathered at the garage of member Ernest Bodiford. Lynem taught the group how to disassemble a gun and also played Malcolm X speeches on a turntable. League handled the stolen .38 but accidentally discharged it, much to everyone’s mirth. One attendee, 15-year-old Carl Steve Tice (known as Steve), told everyone he wanted to leave. Lynem offered to accompany him home, but League volunteered instead.

Lynem stayed the night at the Bodiford garage. At about 3 in the morning, someone woke him to say an officer had been killed. “I thought it was Odis” who did it, he says. “He was more of a street tough. League was middle-class.” But the crime didn’t surprise Lynem. About a month before the Sasscer killing, police had arrested him, Grimes and other Panthers for disturbing the peace. While in jail, Grimes vowed to Sasscer that he’d kill him one day.

“I’d give speeches all over—in front of the Orange County Courthouse, at Cal State Fullerton—and it was always the same chant: ‘Off the pigs! Kill the police!’” Lynem admits. “We created that atmosphere, and I thought one of us probably did it.”

Lynem and Tice’s older brother, Ricky, spent the morning of June 5 trying to locate Grimes. Eventually, Lynem returned to his parents’ house. League passed by, and Lynem asked if he knew who did it. “Arthur didn’t answer and said he was leaving [for] Los Angeles.”

Soon after, the police called.

*     *     *

More than a thousand uniformed officers attended Sasscer’s funeral at Garden Grove Community Church, and the Reverend Robert Schuller presided over the ceremony, remarking that “this death inspires all citizens to look again at the police who protect them and the sacrifices they make.”

A Santa Ana Register editorial was less diplomatic. “We can’t help but think of all the apologies that will probably come from that element of society which sees fit to excuse crime and violence on our streets today as a proper reaction of the ‘oppressed,’” it read.

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