Dies the Victim, Dies the City
The legendary reporter shines a light on murders largely ignored by the city in 1976.
They were walking alone in the empty grey afternoon, three of them, Allen Burnett, Aaron Freeman, and Billy Mabry, Burnett the eldest at 17, walking up Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn and singing out Mohammed Ali rhymes into the chill air. As the reached the corner of Kosciusko Street, it was Allen Burnett’s turn to give his Ali rhyme: “AJB is the latest. And he is the greatest.”
“Who is AJB?” one of them said.
“Allen J. Burnett.” They were laughing at this as they turned the corner onto Kosciusko Street. The three wore coats against the cold. Burnett was in a brown trench coat; Freeman, a three quarter burgundy leather; and Mabry, a three-quarter beige corduroy with a fox collar. A white paint stain was on the bottom at the back of Mabry’s coat. Mabry, walking on the outside was suddenly shoved forward.
“Keep on walking straight,” somebody behind him said.
Billy Mabry turned his head. Behind him was this little guy of maybe 18, wearing a red sweater, dark pants, and black gun. Aaron Freeman, walking next to Mabry, says he saw two others besides the gunman. The three boys kept walking, although Mabry thought the guy in the red sweater had a play gun.
“Give me the money.”
“I don’t have any money,” Allen Burnett said.
The guy with the gun shot Allen Burnett in the back of the head. Burnett pitched into the wall of an apartment house and went down on his back, dead.
The gunman stood with Allen Burnett’s body at his feet and said now he wanted coats. Billy Mabry handed back the corduroy with the paint stain. Freeman took off his burgundy leather. The gunman told the two boys to start running. “You don’t look back!” Billy Mabry and Aaron Freeman run up Kosciusko Street, past charred buildings with tin nailed over the windows expecting to be shot in the back. People came onto the street and the guy in the red sweater waved his gun at them. The people dived into doorways. He stuffed the gun into his belt and ran up Bedford Avenue, ran away with his new coats. Some saw one other young guy with him. Others saw two.
It was another of last week’s murders that went almost unnoticed. Allen Burnett was young. People in the city were concentrating all week on the murders of elderly people. Next week you can dwell on murders of the young, and then the killing of the old won’t seem as important.
Allen Burnett’s murder went into the hands of the Thirteenth Homicide Squad, situated on the second floor of a new police building on Utica Avenue. The outdoor payphone in front of the precinct house has been ripped out. The lunchette across the street is empty and fire-blackened. At first, a detective upstairs felt the interest was in a man who had just beaten his 22-month-old child to death with a rotting crop. That was unusual. Allen Burnett was just another homicide. Assured that Burnett was the subject, the detective pointed to Harold Ruger, who sat at a desk going through a new manila folder with Burnett’s name on it. Ruger is a blue-eyed man with wavy dark brown hair that is white at the temples. The 24 years he has spent on the job have left him with a melancholy face and a soft voice underlined with pleasant sarcasm: “They got two coats. Helluva way to go shopping. Looks like there was three of them. That leaves one guy out there without a coat. I’ll look now for somebody who gets taken off for a coat tonight, tomorrow night, the next few days.”
In a city that seems virtually ungoverned, Harold Ruger forms the only municipal presence with any relationship to what is happening on the streets where people live. Politicians attend dinners at hotels with contractors. Bankers discussed interest rates at lunch. Harold Ruger goes into a manila folder on his desk and takes out a picture of Allen Burnett, a young face covered with blood staring from a morgue table. In Allen Burnett’s hand there is a piece of the veins of the City of New York.
Dies the victim, dies the city. Nobody flees New York because of accounting malpractice. People run from murder and fire. Those who remain express their fear in words of anger.
“Kill him for nothing, that’s life—that’s what it is today,” his sister Sadie was saying. A large impressive family had gathered in the meat frame house at 30 Van Buren Street. “He was going into the Army in January and they kill him for nothing. That’s the leniency of the law. Without capital punishment they do what they want. There’s no respect for human life.”
Horace Jones, an uncle said, “The bleeding hearts years ago cut out the electric chair. When the only way to stop all this is by having the electric chair.
“We looked at mug shots all last night,” Sadie said. “None of them was under 16. If the boy who shot Allen is under 16, there won’t be any picture of him. How do you find him if he’s under 16? Minors should get treated the same as everybody else. Equal treatment.”
“Electric chair for anybody who kills, don’t talk to me about ages,” Horace Jones said.
The dead boy’s mother, Lillian Burnett, sat with her head down and her hands folded in her lap.
“Do you think there should be an electric chair?” she was asked.
“I sure do,” she said, eyes closed, head nodding. “Won’t bring back my son, but I sure do want it. They tied up three old women and killed them. If they had the electric chair I believe they would rob the three women, but I don’t believe they’d kill them.”
The funeral was held two days later at the Brown Memorial Baptist Church on Washington Avenue. A crowd of 300 of Allen Burnett’s family and friends walked two by two into church. Walked erectly, solemnly, with the special dignity of those to whom suffering is a bitter familiarity. Seeing them, workmen in the street shut off pneumatic drills. Inside the church the light comes through the doorway gleamed on the dark, polished wood of the benches. The doors were closed, an organ sounded, and the people faced the brutality of a funeral service; a baby cried, a woman rocked and screamed, a boy sobbed, a woman fainted, heads were cradled in arms. The mother screamed through a black veil, “My baby’s gone!”
An aunt, Mabel Mabry, walked out of the church with lips trembling and arms hugging her shaking body. “My little nephew’s dead,” she said loudly. “They find the ones who killed him. I’m telling you, they got to kill them too, for my nephew.”
The city government, Harold Ruger, just wants to find the killer. Ruger was not at the funeral. “I got stuck in an 80-floor elevator,” he said when he came to work yesterday. “I was going around seeing people. We’ll leave the number, maybe they’ll call us. That’s how it happens a lot. They call.” He nodded toward a younger detective at the next desk. “He had one, an old man killed by a kid. Information came on a phone call, isn’t that right, Al?”
“Stabbed eight times, skull fractured,” the younger detective said.
Harold Ruger said, “What does it look like you have? Nothing. And he gets a phone call. See what I mean? The answering is out there and it will come.” His finger tapped the file he was keeping on the murder of Allen Burnett.