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
The death of Sasscer—a Vietnam War veteran who was the SAPD’s 1968 rookie of the year—set off a law-enforcement frenzy to find and prosecute the killers. District Attorney Cecil Hicks charged Grimes, League and Lynem two days after the murder; a grand jury indicted the trio on June 16. Officers stormed Santa Ana’s African-American neighborhoods looking for League and Grimes. They pointed shotguns at grandmothers, interrogated any black man they encountered and kicked doors in with nary an apology.
The city’s emerging black leadership was furious. The Reverend Melvin Williams, director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’sOrange County chapter, told the Los Angeles Times that “the police have no right to carry their investigation to the point of intimidating and harassing people just because they’re black. This must stop.”
Santa Ana Police Chief Edward Allen dismissed the harassment reports as Panther propaganda, telling the Times,“They try to divert attention from the crime itself.” And during a town-hall meeting, he responded to criticism that officers used derogatory terms against African-Americans by remarking that they should be happy the department had recently “stop[ped] using another relatively mild term you object to—‘boy.’”
But years later, SAPD Captain Joe Brann told the authors of The New Blue Line: Police Innovation In Six American Cities that his superior told him in the search for Lynem, “If that’s really our man, we don’t bring him back alive.”
Racial tension exploded on June 30, when more than 400 Mexican and black youths rioted after a black girl was kicked out of the Broadway Theater. She’d complained after a white teen yelled, “Why don’t you black niggers keep quiet?” Teens threw bottles and bricks at police, set fires, and even took batons away from officers and beat them with the sticks. A week later, another mob of youths took over a Jack In the Box.
Jail guards put Lynem in isolation but didn’t touch him. Hundreds of supporters attended rallies and organized a Panther defense committee based at Anaheim’s Unitarian Universalist Church. Both the FBI and the SAPD used sources and infiltrators to track Panthers supporters, shooting clandestine photos and creating charts with names, addresses and numbers. In the most hilarious incident, they assigned a Long Beach police officer to pose as an alt-weekly reporter to interview activists.
In a surprise move on July 1, the DA dropped all charges against Lynem and Grimes. But Grimes and League were still at large, eventually arrested at the home of actor Donald Sutherland, whose wife allowed them refuge. Prosecuting DA Everett Dickey (who became a Superior Court judge and, in a jaw-dropping coincidence, granted Pratt his freedom in 1997) wouldn’t reveal why he dropped charges against Lynem and Grimes lest he compromise the case against League.
The Santa Ana Black Panther Party effectively died with Sasscer’s murder, and Lynem moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1969 to help the Panthers there. Within weeks, he tired of them. “I became disillusioned,” he says. “It was all about violence, setting up situations and confrontations with the police. I didn’t necessarily mind it, but I cared more about doing community work.”
The day after Lynem decided to quit, the LAPD unleashed a SWAT team to raid Panthers headquarters. Lynem was staying at a cousin’s house in Los Angeles when the raid went down. An uncle called to tell him that tough-looking black men had surrounded his mother’s house. “They peeked inside the windows and waited for an hour,” he says. “I always wondered if those guys were from the Party and were looking for me, thinking I gave up info.”
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As the DA prepared for trial against League, Lynem discovered why he was arrested in the first place.
Bodiford had told the grand jury and investigators that Lynem, Grimes and League had spoken about “offing a pig” the night of Sasscer’s murder. But Bodiford later admitted he made that story up. The Tice brothers had also assisted the prosecution—Ricky told an investigator League had bragged, “That’s one pig for me,” while Steve swore he was present when League shot Sasscer. But before the grand jury, the two wouldn’t confirm their police statements. Superior Court Judge Paul Mast held them in jail for two months because Dickey claimed the Black Panthers wanted them dead.
It soon emerged that police had barged into the Tice home without a warrant, arrested Ricky with a shotgun to the head, then took him back to the police station, where they beat out a confession that Tice had hidden under his mattress the .38 used to kill Sasscer. Mast didn’t believe the physical-abuse charge but nevertheless struck Tice’s police statements and disallowed as evidence the murder weapon police had taken from Tice’s bedroom.
From jail, League rallied supporters. “I’m talking about revolution, insurrection, a change, and this fascist action that’s coming down, we have to put a halt to it, and we can’t put a halt to it with words,” he wrote in a letter to supporters, signing off, “All Power to the People, Signed Arthur League, Political Prisoner.” He entered an innocent plea in late November 1969, but the trial wouldn’t begin until months later.