National events echo 1969 Johnstown police shooting
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) — On a March night in 1969, long before the image of a death could be captured on a cellphone and instantly spread across the world, a 15-year-old Black male was shot in the back of the head by a white police officer in a Johnstown alley.
The incident was major news in the region at the time and remains an important event in the history of local race relations.
However, outside of the immediate area, the death of Timothy Perkins – who was born on June 29, 1953 – and the trials of Johnstown Police Department Officer Charles La Porta Jr. are all but unknown.
Nowadays, such a shooting, if it had been recorded, could have become an impetus for national demonstrations, similar to what has happened following the recent death of George Floyd – an unarmed Black man, who desperately pleaded “I can’t breathe,” while his neck was being pressed to the pavement under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
And the death of Rayshard Brooks, shot in the back as he attempted to flee police officers outside an Atlanta fast-food restaurant – the entire incident captured on video.
For Perkins’ family and friends, though, Floyd’s death and the protests – some of which have turned into riots – have evoked memories and rekindled emotions from the tragic events from a half-century ago and led to them thinking about race relations in Johnstown and the United States.
“I just wish we could all be at peace with each other,” said Daniel Perkins, Timothy’s older brother. “It’s hard enough living without having to have biased views. It blows my mind that you can hate somebody that you never, ever met, that you didn’t know anything about.
“That’s just insane to me, regardless of what color you are. I process a little differently. I just live and let live. I don’t ponder the past. I think that’s what helped me get through it – keep pushing.”
What happened that night?
Timothy Perkins was with some friends in an alley that runs from Main Street to Vine Street, behind a furniture company that was located on Franklin Street.
A patrolman, Thomas Ricci, called headquarters, asking for assistance dealing with several youths who were reportedly drinking alcohol, according to reports in The Tribune-Democrat.
La Porta, a 27-year-old officer who had been on the force for little more than a year, went to the scene.
“I’ve heard several stories,” Dan Perkins said.
“In talking to some of the guys that were there, they were all hanging out. Then they were on their way home and they took a shortcut through the alley, which is behind the bank and the furniture store there. What was heard was that somebody said that the guys back there were drinking. They called the police. I never heard anything more about alcohol. I didn’t hear anything about alcohol in the beginning.”
Minutes later, La Porta shot Perkins in the back of the head from about six inches away.
The teen was pronounced dead on arrival – at 9:30 p.m. on March 29, 1969 – at Lee Hospital.
Dan Perkins remembers coming to his home that night and seeing people from the Prospect neighborhood who told him to go upstairs to be with his mother, Marie Perkins.
“It was just an unbelievable situation,” he said.
“My head was just swimming. I was going in all different kind of directions. It was the pain point. It was just a pain point.”
The family received an outpouring of support – from Black and white, rich and poor – in the community, Perkins said.
A Black Panther also visited the home.
“I remember him telling my mother, ‘We’re going to burn this city down,’ ” Perkins recalled.
“And my mother said, ‘No, don’t do that. Enough bad has already happened. Don’t do that. Don’t do that.’
“He just looked at her and said, ‘Well, if you need anything, call us.’ And he put a number on the table. I remember that very vividly.”
Other pleas for peace came from the community.
The Rev. W.M. Cunningham, pastor at Cambria AME Zion Church, issued a statement soon after the shooting: “It is perhaps natural that human feelings are running at a near fever pitch as the result of this unfortunate death. But, we can only appeal and pray that there will be no needless violence because that would only compound an already tragic situation.”
‘Very bitter for a long time’
Dan Perkins did not attend La Porta’s trial and never met the officer who shot his brother, but he did have one chance encounter with Ricci, in recent years, when a few words were spoken between them.
His brother’s death, especially in the beginning, left him “very, very bitter for a long time.”
“I tried to work my way through it, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it,” said Perkins, one of six siblings. “I could have been rebellious, but, in those times and things being the way they were, I thought that wouldn’t be any good. … People showed me their heartfelt interest. I kind of felt like I kind of owed it to them to keep my personal calm. I think my brothers and sisters were the same way.”
Perkins did not get mired down in anger. Instead he eventually graduated from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown before joining the Marine Corps. He founded the Challenge Program, which mentors local children, and was inducted into the Cambria County Military Hall of Fame in 2017.
But, through the past half-century, he has always remembered the sadness, loss and anger from his brother’s death.
The night’s events also left a lasting impact on Ricci, according to his son, Paul Ricci. In 2017, when Paul Ricci ran for Johnstown City Council, he supported a plan for all police officers to wear body cameras, pointing to the incident in the alley as an example of how the devices could be beneficial.
“I do believe we could foster better relations between the police and the citizens by having body cameras for police,” Paul Ricci said during an interview with The Tribune-Democrat in October 2017. “My father was a policeman. In (1969), when he was a rookie policeman, his partner shot and killed a Black teenager. I think it was Timothy Perkins.
“He told the truth and had to take a lot of grief for it from his fellow policemen. It’s still a bitter subject for him. Having body cameras for the police could have saved him a lot of grief. It protects the honest cops and it helps protect the citizens.”
‘A tussle,’ then ‘a shot’
La Porta testified during his trial in Cambria County court, recalling what he saw when he arrived in a patrol car.
“I got out and closed the door,” he said. “I said: ‘What are you boys doing here?’ I realized that Officer Ricci and I were in danger. I was surprised and scared. There weren’t three boys like he (Ricci) had told me. There was a gang.
“I recognized one known to be a violent person. I pushed on the car lights. I had the gun out and put it in my right hand.
“When I closed the door I could smell the booze and I could see the bottle.
“I didn’t know what would happen. They were standing over me, looking down at me. Then they came off that ramp, pushing me and shoving me around. The gang went in all different directions. I told them to ‘hold it’ before they left the ramp.
“I spotted Timothy Perkins on the ramp and I said: ‘Hold it, Perkins, you’re under arrest.’
“I went for him and he kicked me. I blocked it with my left arm. He came down off the ramp toward Main Street and I went out after him. I grabbed hold of his jacket or shirt.
“We were running and struggling. He was swinging and hitting me with his elbows. I was trying to get him to stop. I grabbed him. We were still running and he was swinging with his elbows.
“I got a hold on him and turned him around. He took a swing at me, knocking my hat off, and we got into a tussle.”
La Porta testified the gun went off unintentionally.
Ricci said La Porta chased after Perkins before they wrestled, but he did not see the fatal shot because he had returned to the cruiser to radio for more help.
“I went back to the car and opened the door on the passenger side to get to the radio,” Ricci said then. “I heard a shot. I immediately looked up. I saw Officer La Porta and Timothy Perkins.
“Perkins was lying on his back and Officer La Porta was standing off to the side.”
Daniel Perkins has been told a different version of the incident from witnesses over the years. He was told one of the officers used a racial slur.
“What I heard – and I’m only giving you what I heard – the cops pulled up in the car and they jumped out and they said, ‘What are you doing back here?’ ” Perkins said. “They said, ‘We aren’t doing anything.’ Somebody said that.”
Perkins said the teens were told to “get out of the alley.” They started walking, then were told to run.
So they did, Perkins said, “except my brother. He kept walking and he said, ‘I’m not running. I didn’t do anything.’ And they reported that then the cop pulled his gun out, and aimed at the back of his head and shot him.”
No reports in The Tribune-Democrat clip archives mention the dozen or so youths being told to run away, or La Porta aiming at Perkins.
Testimony was also given by at least five witnesses who said they did not recall any threats being made toward La Porta or Ricci.
Guilty verdict, then overturned
La Porta was originally found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, sentenced to three to 23 months in jail and dismissed from the police force.
His supporters considered the shooting to be a tragic accident that occurred in the line of duty.
At the time of his sentencing, Carmen Abood, one of La Porta’s defense attorneys, said that a policeman’s life “is sometimes a difficult one, confronted with difficult decisions.” Abood continued: “I am sure that this will be ranked among the most difficult (choices) Charles La Porta ever had to make. I hope that he will never be confronted with that decision again, or any other policeman.”
The State Superior Court in Philadelphia eventually overturned the guilty verdict, ruling La Porta was justified in pulling his weapon that accidentally went off.
Famed attorney F. Lee Bailey handled La Porta’s appeal. Throughout his career, Bailey represented several high-profile clients, including O.J. Simpson, Patty Hearst and Sam Sheppard.
“I feel marvelous,” Bailey told The Tribune-Democrat after the superior court’s decision in September 1970. “I think the reversal is correct. I handled this case with a great deal of feeling. I want to add, however, that I was very much impressed with the way the prosecution handled this case. They had a very difficult job to do and they did it very well.”
Upon learning about the reversal, La Porta told The Tribune-Democrat, “I feel like a million dollars. These past months have been pure hell.”
He added: “We proved we were right. I owe a lot to the people who helped me.”
La Porta was reinstated to the police force.
Bailey was paid, in part, with money raised locally by the Citizens Committee for Police Officer Charles La Porta Jr.
Daniel Perkins recalls going into a store and seeing a jar where customers could leave contributions to the fund, calling it a moment “that really did shake me.”
Earlier this month, during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in downtown Johnstown and at other moments in recent weeks, Timothy Perkins was on the minds of several members of the black community who were alive in 1969.
“I grew up in a period of time, also, when Johnstown historically had issues,” Jeffrey Wilson, a deacon at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, said. “In the 1960s and ’70s, there were actually riots that occurred in the city. I remember Timmy Perkins, who was 15 years old and shot by the police here in the city of Johnstown. I recall one detective ... who, in our neighborhoods, seemed to be bent on making sure that as many African American males as possible received a criminal record.”
Jackie Gunby, a lifelong Johnstown resident except when she lived in Philadelphia from 1967-70, also recalled racist attitudes in the city.
“Johnstown has always been sort of a racist town,” she said. “But it’s been very subtle. One thing I can positively say about Johnstown is, growing up, I had a good solid education whenever I went to grade school. By the time we reached high school, things were a little bit different and we became aware of it.”
After the death of Floyd, Gunby was reminded of when she learned the news about the Perkins shooting.
“It was heartbreaking,” Gunby said. “And it was not only heartbreaking for me. I knew the family, and it was heartbreaking.”
And, now, she and the Perkins family will remember Timothy Perkins once again on Monday, his birthday – when, Gunby said, “He’s never more than 15 years old.”
Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, http://www.tribune-democrat.com