Algiers Motel deaths stirred racial tension of '67

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Three unarmed black teens lay dead on the floor inside a transient motel annex north of downtown Detroit on July 26, 1967.

Carl Cooper, 17, Fred Temple, 18, and Auburey Pollard, 19, were fatally shot. But why?

Three white police officers later accused in their killings would be exonerated following what initially appeared to be a mystery at the Algiers Motel and Manor on Woodward at Virginia Park.

Those deaths proved to be one of the high-profile moments during five days of violence sparked that week by a raid of a blind pig at nearby 12th Street and Clairmount.

At first, the three teens were listed as suspected snipers who had been gunned down at the annex by police or guardsmen, but the men who killed them didn’t wait around to identify themselves, according to Detroit News archives that would foreshadow the deaths as “one of the haunting tragedies of Michigan’s long history.”

A 26-year-old black witness, Robert Lee Greene, would later tell authorities the youths were slain in cold blood. No guns were found to substantiate the belief that any were snipers. It was believed by some a starter’s pistol was used at the motel, prompting fears of sniper fire. Greene and two white females, Juli Hysell and Karen Malloy, there that morning said the raiding party beat and threatened to kill them.

The FBI and local authorities would be tasked to find out by whom.

That answer and the events surrounding the Algiers Motel would be retold over five decades as urban legend and in books, dissertations and speeches, as well as portrayed in plays. Most famously, it was captured by John Hersey’s “The Algiers Motel” book. Now the story is a Hollywood film, “Detroit,” that will be released next week.

Charges, no convictions

It was the early hours of Wednesday, the fourth morning of widespread violence in Detroit.

Law enforcement officers, many working grueling 20-hour shifts, were summoned by radio about reports of sniper attacks at a well-known flophouse at 8301 Woodward with a call going out: “Army under heavy fire.” Detroit police, national guardsmen and state police dispatched.

Police knew the motel well for its drug dealers, prostitutes and criminal activity.

In their dispatch, a group of patrolmen raided the motel’s annex, a three-story brick building behind the main complex, where the bodies of Temple, Pollard and Cooper would be later found.

Days later, police officers Ronald August, then 28; Robert Paille, 31; and David Senak, 24, were suspended and eventually taken to court. Trials for the lawmen would take years and be followed by appeals by prosecutors.

Prosecutors claimed the officers had lined up the teens against a wall then took them one by one into separate rooms. A gunshot would be heard and an officer would come out alone, threatening the others to talk.

Eventually, prosecutors said, the police “game” got out of hand and the three teens were killed.

A Detroit News story published in May 1968 described the killings: “A deputy medical examiner testified early in the trial that all three youths were killed by shotgun pellets or slugs fired at close range.”

Their bodies weren’t reported during the initial raid. They would be discovered hours later by other officers.

August, Paille and Senak were accused of brutally beating other black men with rifle butts and stripping and beating Hysell and Malloy inside the motel in a concerted effort to find the alleged snipers.

A black, part-time private security guard, Melvin Dismukes, also was charged with assault for allegedly clubbing a person at the annex but later was found not guilty.

Paille was initially charged with first-degree murder in Temple’s death after he reportedly admitted shooting one of the teens to his superiors. That admission was later deemed inadmissible because Paille wasn’t yet informed of his Miranda rights.

“Some people just lose their heads,” Paille would later admit. “That’s all I can say.”

Paille’s case would later be dismissed.

Senak’s lawyer argued Temple was shot by another officer while Senak was preparing to handcuff the teen, explaining Temple grabbed Senak’s revolver.

Paille allegedly carried a rifle but Temple was shot with a shotgun, according to reports.

August would be charged in Pollard’s death, but he would later be acquitted after testifying the teen also had tried to grab his gun.

No one was ever charged with Cooper’s death. Some theorized his death was the result of surprising raiding officers as they entered the building.

Paille, Senak and Dismukes also would have state conspiracy charges dismissed over insufficient evidence.

Prosecutors then unsuccessfully argued Senak, Paille, August and Dismukes had violated the civil rights of eight black youths and the two white teens before an all-white jury at a federal conspiracy trial in Flint.

None of the officers returned to the police department.

Debate raged whether the deaths were fueled by racist police behavior or just a matter of police doing their jobs amid widespread chaos, violence and shootings.

A tribunal’s examination

Fifty years ago, two Metro Detroit men who lived through the Algiers incident sought justice in vastly different ways.

“I was devastated when I heard about what happened at the motel,” the Rev. Dan Aldridge, 75, of Detroit told The Detroit News.

The Harlem transplant and civil rights activist moved to Detroit in 1965 and lived on Glendale, not far from where the uprising began.

“It is frightening to think of police with that kind of power, who can take life and nothing happens,” he said. “Definitely, my feelings are still raw.”

Following the Algiers deaths, Aldridge would convene a tribunal, or mock trial, that sought, he said, to educate his community on what happened inside the motel. Civil rights icon Rosa Parks was among those who served on the jury.

It was held at the Shrine of the Black Madonna church to provide the community with its own semblance of deferred justice before the end of the official trials.

Aldridge found out about the Algiers Motel incident when the mother and stepfather of slain Carl Cooper called his wife, Dorothy Dewberry-Aldridge, to tell her. Cooper’s grandmother had attended Garfield Elementary School with Dewberry-Aldridge’s mother, and they were lifelong friends.

“I immediately said we need to investigate this so I called Ken Cockrel Sr., who had just finished law school at Wayne State University (he later served on Detroit’s City Council), and Lonnie Peek (a longtime activist), and we went over to the Cooper’s house and they told us what they knew,” Aldridge said.

Carefully holding a 50-year old, black-and-white photo taken during the tribunal showing Cooper’s mother seated in the front row, Aldridge said it drew thousands inside and outside the church, and ultimately found the three police officers guilty.

But Aldridge knew the tribunal would have no impact on the actual verdicts.

“We used it as a community education tool, not because we had any notion that the three police officers would be convicted of killing three black teenagers,” he said.

Norman Lippitt, who was a lawyer in private practice at the time, was living in Detroit near Eight Mile and Lahser in 1967.

Just a few months before the Detroit uprising, he was hired by the Detroit Police Officers Association to succeed Robert Colombo as its attorney for about $50 an hour.

“Without tooting my own horn, I apparently earned and obtained a reputation for being a successful and effective jury trial lawyer,” he said.

He would be tasked with defending the officers.

Lippitt, now 81, still practices law in his Birmingham office. He recently reflected on his life experiences concerning the Algiers Motel case.

“From my perspective, my initial gut reaction was to win the case and obtain a complete exoneration for my clients,” he said.

Lippitt said his job was never to determine guilt or innocence.

“Any criminal defense attorney will tell you that his or her job is to establish that the people or the government is unable to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “It’s the foundation of our system of justice.”

Changing times

No evidence remains today of the bloodshed that occurred in that spot 50 years ago. No historical markers. No plaques.

Bulldozers flattened the remains of the motel in 1979 after it changed its name to the Desert Inn.

Instead, a serene manicured park with antique light poles and towering trees exists at the end of a cul-de-sac near the historic Boston-Edison District.

But William Thibodeau doesn’t need a marker to remember the motel. He worked there as a night watchman from 1960-61 while attending the University of Detroit. The retired teacher, now 78 and living in Saginaw, said the three young men who were killed inside the motel’s annex would not even have been inside while he worked there.

“The motel owner did not rent rooms to African-Americans in 1960, and it was deliberate,” he said. “The owner was a white man, and he didn’t feel that having African-Americans on the property would be good for business.”

Thibodeau, who is white, added: “It was pure racism, no ifs, ands or buts.”

He said much of the trade came from General Motors, then located on West Grand Boulevard.

“The executives would come in, and when they would bring prostitutes, I was instructed to call the police,” he said.

Thibodeau said the motel became black-owned about two years before 1967’s uprising.

“When this happened, it was so tragic. I thought the police department acted poorly and none of the guys were found guilty,” he said.

(313) 222-2296