Forty Years Later, the Clash Between the Black Panthers and Santa Ana P.D. Still Influences OC Life

Photo by John Gilhooley

Murder was the Case
Forty years later, the clash between the Black Panthers and Santa Ana police continues to influence county life

By Gabriel San Roman and Gustavo Arellano

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.

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.

“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 heNd 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.

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’s Orange 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.”

*     *     *

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.

Two bomb threats delayed the start. A rally outside the Orange County courthouse before the trial drew hundreds, with Lynem telling them, “We’ll change the courts ourselves. We’ll take it into the streets. If there’s no justice, we’ll protest and demonstrate.” A Panther newsletter called League a “field warrior” and the Tice brothers “20th-century house slaves” and referred to Sasscer as “Rookie Pig of the Year.”

A source told the SAPD near the trial’s opening statements, “I don’t think [blacks] are going to burn the city down, but I do think they’re going to do something violent.” Nothing like that ever happened, but police and FBI monitoring of county African-Americans and their supporters intensified.

“I had an FBI agent come out because I was chairing the Fair Housing Council,” says Bob Johnson, author of A Different Shade of Orange: Voices of Orange County, California, Black Pioneers. “The FBI guy says to me, ‘So, what do you know about the Black Panthers? If you learn some things about them, give me a phone call.’ The last thing I needed to do was be an informant informing the FBI about the Black Panthers.”

Defense attorneys Robert Green (who also became a Superior Court judge) and Michael Gerbosi tried to declare the trial unconstitutional before its start, claiming the all-white jury was biased and that the Register’s sensationalistic media coverage (at one point, it printed a front-page cartoon showing a black family killing a pig dressed as a cop) guaranteed an unfair trial. Judge Samuel Dreizen refused, and the trial began on April 1, 1970.

Green’s strategy was to cast doubt on the prosecution’s three main witnesses—Bodiford and the Tice brothers, all of whom were granted immunity. Bodiford testified he was there when League stole the .38, even though the original police reports never placed him alongside Grimes and Lynem. He also revealed that officers beat him. Steve Tice had said League shot Sasscer only because the officer had reached for his gun, but under cross-examination, he also admitted that Dickey threatened him with a 14-year prison sentence if he didn’t testify on behalf of the prosecution. Ricky Tice acknowledged he changed his story before the grand jury three times, finally going with the version implicating League after investigators threatened to charge him with murder.

In a bizarre twist, Ricky filed a lawsuit in federal court against the SAPD during the trial, accusing them of false imprisonment, assault and battery, and subornation of perjury. “By reason of fear of [police] threats, plaintiff did return immediately to the grand jury, retract and changed his testimony, and testified falsely in accordance with the officers’ demands,” the lawsuit read.

Other witnesses testified only that they saw two young black men at the scene of Sasscer’s shooting; none could get a clear look. Green produced witnesses who said League was in the Bodiford garage when the slaying occurred. League claimed he left the Bodiford house by himself after the murder and had given the .38 to Ricky Tice, who left before him. He confessed to hiding from police but only because Bodiford told him they would shoot him on sight.

In their closing arguments, Gerbosi and Green called the Tice brothers and Bodiford “pathological liars,” but they also argued that if League did shoot Sasscer, it wasn’t first-degree murder. More than 150 protesters tried to attend the closing statements; most were denied entry.

After deliberating for nine days, the jury reached a verdict: guilty of second-degree murder, with no premeditation behind League’s deed despite the Panthers’ anti-cops beliefs. Dickey expressed his disappointment, while Allen blasted the decision, asking the Register, “How . . . can such a vicious crime be anything less than first-degree murder?” League appealed the decision, but a state court rejected it in 1972. That same year, a federal judge awarded Ricky Tice $2,000 in his suit against the SAPD. League served seven years of a five-years-to-life sentence. He returned to Santa Ana after his release, met with Lynem once, then moved to the Bay Area and never lived in Orange County again.

*     *     *

Paul Walters was still in the Air Force when Sasscer was murdered, but he entered Santa Ana’s police academy during the League trial. He remembers a department “that was still hurting emotionally” and going through convulsions as internal and external politics threatened its ability to serve.

Former Chief Allen “had a motto: ‘Be good, or be gone,’” says Walters, Santa Ana’s top cop since 1988. “The policing ideas in those days were old-school, good-ol’-boy tradition—lock ’em up and throw away the key.” That approach “certainly created difficult challenges” for the department in maintaining a good relationship with Santa Ana’s black and Latino communities.

Community furor over the SAPDNs investigation of the Sasscer murder contributed to Allen’s retirement in 1972. Following him was Ray Davis, who instituted the then-revolutionary concept of community policing, which encourages officers to maintain close ties to city residents. Other local departments emulated Santa Ana, and Walters has earned national praise for continuing and expanding the strategy.

A new police culture wasn’t the only positive change that resulted from Sasscer’s death. The 1969 grand jury issued a special report recommending the county create a Human Relations Commission to mitigate the bad blood between police and minorities in Santa Ana. “If no attempt is made to resolve these difference, the potential danger can have tragic repercussions for all of Orange County,” the report stated.

In February 1971, the Board of Supervisors approved the commission, but only as a one-year pilot project. “The only staff that we could have was a meagerly paid executive director,” recalls Amin David, longtime head of the Latino civil-rights group Los Amigos and the commission’s first chairman. “We occupied a vacant county-building office without any desks or chairs.”

Despite challenges and perennial threats by subsequent supervisors to revoke its funding, the commission continues to this day. Rusty Kennedy, who joined in 1976 and became its executive director in 1981, has seen a welcome trajectory between police and his organization over the decades.

“There’s been a dramatic shift in the attitude of Orange County law-enforcement leaders toward the Human Relations Commission. When the commission was created, the Police Chiefs Association came down and testified that it shouldn’t be created,” he recalls. “Transitioning through the years from the days when the police complaints were considered a hostile thing and treated very poorly, we’ve come to a day when they are seen as important tools in managing liability and recognizing officers that may be going off the deep end before they become really problematic.”

*     *     *

After the League trial, Lynem tried to live a normal life. He worked for the county in mental health but fell into cocaine and heroin and turned to robberies to support his habit. He eventually spent four years in state prison, where he struck up an improbable friendship with his main antagonist on the force.

“I can’t stress enough how much I hated that man,” admits Bob Stebbens, who worked at the SAPD for 32 years before retiring as a captain in 1989. The Huntington Beach resident worked on community relations when Sasscer passed away. “The African-American community in Santa Ana was good. We’d get militants from Los Angeles to try and stir things up, but most locals would say, ‘Leave us alone. Things are fine.’

“The more miserable I could make it for the Panthers, the more I could enjoy it,” he adds with a chuckle. Stebbins remembers two encounters he had with Lynem before Sasscer’s murder. “One time, I walked into [Panther] headquarters in uniform to burn Michael. I asked to see him, and in front of everyone, I said, ‘Thanks, Mike, for the info to make the others think he was an informant. Another time, he came into my office, and Michael told me in effect that we cops better change or the Panthers would burn the city down. I told him he better have a lot of gas because we’re going to blow you off the face of the Earth.”

The two wouldn’t speak again until 1978, when Santa Ana Mayor Loren Griset—who had helped Lynem find Christ—called Stebbins and said he had a letter from someone in his past. It was Lynem writing from prison, with Griset’s encouragement, to amend for his wrongs. Stebbins wrote back to Lynem, not expecting a reply. Days later, he received one, along with a Scripture verse, Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The two continued their correspondence during Lynem’s prison stint. Once Lynem was released, the two told their story before congregations and Christian businessmen’s meetings. They still speak regularly.

“I knew that God would have me be friends with Michael,” Stebbins says. “It wasn’t something I asked for, but all that hatred passed away. We still talk about how we came together—even for us, it still blows our minds.”

But the friendship wasn’t popular among Santa Ana officers. “I could understand their feelings, but the reality was that we were brothers in Christ,” Stebbins says. “Michael was my friend, and that was the way it was going to be. Some thought I was a traitor. What else could they think? They couldn’t possibly understand.”

League continued the activist life outside of prison. He has worked with All of Us or None, a group centered on incarcerated and released prisoners and felons. A 2005 Workers World article quoted League as saying, “When people fight back, this place is set up to make the most extreme examples of them. . . . If you’ve been convicted of a felony, you’re a legal slave in the United States.”

HeNs also active in the campaign to free Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, a Black Panther convicted of murdering a security guard in 1969. “I’m proud of Arthur [League]—he’s done a lot of good for himself,” Lynem says. They recently talked for the first time since 1977. Neither mentioned Sasscer.

Now living in the Bay Area, League declined the Weekly’s numerous requests for an interview but has maintained his innocence.

*     *     *

Nelson A. Sasscer Park is a small oasis in Santa Ana’s downtown civic center, a triangle of trees and walkways squeezed between local, state and federal government offices. It’s not the most accessible public space, sitting at the meeting point of four major streets. But Sasscer Park is popular, especially during hot days, when its ample shade, massive fountain and sloping canals draw people looking to cool down.

A tiered marquee displays the park’s name to the commuters who zip by. But there is no plaque dedicated to Sasscer, who left behind a 21-year-old widow and is buried in Maryland, his home state. His only other public monument is outside the SAPD station a couple of blocks down, a bas-relief of the young officer looking downward but smiling.

Every May, his name is read in the roll call at the Plaza of the Flags naming of every Orange County law-enforcement official killed in the line of duty. A Santa Ana policemen dresses as Sasscer, down to his badge number: 112.

“You pay tribute to them at the time they pass away, then it becomes a memory,” Walters says. “Unfortunately, as time fades, the memory fades.”

Lynem doesn’t want this tragic episode forgotten, but for different reasons. He regrets fostering the anti-police sentiments that led to the officer’s murder. “I wish it never happened,” he says. But “it’s part of [Orange County’s] total black experience. It’s the truth. It’s what happened. Sasscer’s murder is painful to talk about. But it affected a lot of people. It is what it is.”


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