UpStairs Lounge: Big Arson Fire Kills 32 People

My last blog dealt with the case of Timothy McVeigh, the infamous Oklahoma City Bomber. This week’s case is also horrifying but has had much less publicity. It’s the case of the arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans.

UpStairs Lounge

It was 1974. Only four years earlier, in June 1969, the so-called “Stonewall Riots” first brought public attention to the issue of gay rights. Not a great deal of progress had been made in those four years. Yet many in the LGBTQIA+ community no longer hid their sexual orientation.

It was this community that the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) served. Founded in 1968 in Los Angeles, MCC was a pro-LGBTQIA+ protestant denomination. For a while in New Orleans, the MCC met in the theater of the UpStairs Lounge. The UpStairs Lounge itself was a gay bar. It occupied the second floor of an historic three-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iverville Streets.

Customers enjoying a good time at the UpStairs Lounge before the fire
Customers enjoying a good time at the UpStairs Lounge before the fire

UpStairs Lounge in Flames

Sunday, June 24, 1973, marked the end of nationwide Pride celebrations that were glaringly lacking in the Big Easy. That evening, the UpStairs Lounge held its usual “beer bust” between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Many MCC members were in attendance. After 7:00, the crowed thinned a bit but there were still between sixty and ninety customers in the lounge. They talked and listened to pianist George Steven “Bud” Matyi perform.

At 7:56, the downstairs door buzzer sounded. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen asked Luther Boggs to answer the door. When Boggs opened the door, he found the front staircase in flames. He also noticed the strong smell of lighter fluid.

The UpStairs Lounge burns
The UpStairs Lounge burns

A backdraft caused the fire to spread quickly. Bartender Rasmussen immediately led about twenty people to the roof, where they could access an adjacent building and climb down. Boggs tried to escape thorough one of the floor-to-ceiling windows but was severely burned in the process. He died on July 10, sixteen days later.

Aftermath of the fire
Aftermath of the fire

Firefighters from a nearby fire station found it difficult to reach the club as cars and pedestrians blocked their way. One engine tried to use the sidewalk but ended up colliding with a taxicab. When the fire department did manage to arrive on the scene, they quickly brought the blaze under control. It had been only sixteen minutes since Boggs first spotted the flames.

Epilogue

Thirty-two people died the UpStairs Lounge fire and eighteen suffered injuries. Police questioned a suspect, Roger Dale Nunez, but never developed enough evidence to charge him. Nunez, a gay man with a history of mental health issues, had been ejected from the club for fighting earlier in the evening. Nunez committed suicide in November 1974.

Firefighters attend to the injured
Firefighters attend to the injured

Local news outlets gave the fire prominent coverage but soft-pedaled the fact that LGBTQIA+ patrons comprised most of the victims. Editorials and right-wing talk show hosts made light of the tragedy.

The building at 604 Iberville Street in 2019 (Wikipedia/Deisenbe)
The building at 604 Iberville Street in 2019 (Wikipedia/Deisenbe)

You can read more about the UpStairs Lounge tragedy in Tinderbox by Robert W. Fieseler or The Up Stairs Lounge Arson by Clayton Delery-Edwards.

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Timothy McVeigh: USA’s Largest Domestic Terror Attack

In my last blog, we met Charles Schmid, the so-called “Pied Piper of Tucson.” This week, we look at the gut-wrenching case of Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh’s attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people, including 19 children.

Timothy McVeigh

Timothy McVeigh grew up in upstate New York, After his parents divorced when he was ten years old, he lived with his father. McVeigh claimed he was bullied at school, causing him to retreat into a fantasy world. In this world, he imagined extracted revenge against bullies.

In May 1988, when he was twenty, McVeigh enlisted in the United States Army and attended training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He showed an acute interest in weapons, sniper tactics, and explosives. Promoted to sergeant, he exhibited overt hostility to the Black soldiers in his unit.

Timothy McVeigh in the U.S. Army
Timothy McVeigh in the U.S. Army

After serving in the Gulf War, McVeigh tried to join the Army’s Special Forces. He joined the selection program but washed out on the second day of the 21-day program. Deciding to leave the army, he received an honorable discharge in 1991.

Timothy McVeigh Becomes a Radical

Frustrated with working long hours in dead-end jobs, McVeigh began expressing increasingly right-wing, anti-government views. He traveled to Waco, Texas during the siege of the Branch Davidian compound to show support. While he was there, he distributed pro-gun literature and bumper stickers. From there, in April 1993, he went to the Michigan farm where former roommate Terry Nichols lived. When he wasn’t watching continuing coverage of the Waco standoff, Nichols’ brother taught him how to make explosives from household chemicals.

When fire destroyed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, it enraged McVeigh. He began spouting increasingly radical, anti-government rhetoric. It was then he started selling Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) hats riddled with bullet holes. He also peddled a flare gun he claimed could shoot down an ATF helicopter.

Timothy McVeigh, Terrorist

McVeigh told a friend, Michael Fortier, that he planned to blow up a federal building, but Fortier refused to join the plot. He (Fortier) did tell his wife, however. About this time, McVeigh began telling friends that he’d progressed from the “propaganda” to the “action” phase.

At first, McVeigh considered assassinating federal officials. His hit list included Attorney General Janet Reno, Judge Walter S. Smith, Jr. of the Federal District Court, and Lon Honuchi. Smith was the judge that handled the Branch Davidian trial. Honuchi was a member of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team who shot and killed Vickie Weaver during a standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

Bombing the Murrah Federal Building

At a lakeside campground near McVeigh’s old army post, he and Nichols constructed a bomb. It was an ANFO (ammonium nitrate and fuel oil) device consisting of about 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and nitromethane. They mounted the device in the back of a rented Ryder truck.

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building before its destruction
The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building before its destruction

On the morning of April 19, 1995, McVeigh parked the truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He then lit a two-minute fuse and made his way to a parked getaway car. At 9:02 a.m., as the offices in the building were opening for the day, the bomb detonated. The explosion destroyed the north half of the building and killed 168 people. The dead included 19 children at a day care center on the second floor. Another 684 people suffered injuries in the blast.

The Murrah Federal Building after McVeigh's bomb destroyed it
The Murrah Federal Building after McVeigh’s bomb destroyed it

McVeigh later claimed he hadn’t known about the daycare center and might have chosen a different target if he had. Nichols told a different story. He said the pair did know about the daycare and didn’t care.

Oklahoma City fire Capt. Chris Fields carries 1-year-old Baylee Almon, in this file photo shot Wednesday, April, 19, 1995 at the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.  The child died of her injuries. (AP Photo/Charles H. Porter IV, File)
Oklahoma City fire Capt. Chris Fields carries 1-year-old Baylee Almon, in this file photo shot Wednesday, April, 19, 1995 at the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The child died of her injuries. (AP Photo/Charles H. Porter IV, File)

Arrest and Trial

The FBI quickly traced the truck by a vehicle identification number found on an axle in the wreckage. It had been rented in Junction City, Kansas by a man calling himself Robert Kling. Staff at the rental agency helped develop a sketch of “Kling.” The manager of the Dreamland Motel in Oklahoma City identified the sketch as McVeigh.

Timothy McVeigh in court
Timothy McVeigh in court

Not long after the blast, Oklahoma State Trooper Charles J. Hanger spotted McVeigh’s yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis about an hour north of Oklahoma City. Hanger stopped the car because he noticed it had no license plate. The trooper arrested McVeigh for driving without plates and possessing an illegal firearm. Three days later, McVeigh was identified as the subject of the nationwide manhunt for the bomber.

Oklahoma City National Memorial at the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Oklahoma City National Memorial at the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Because of publicity, McVeigh’s trial took place in Denver instead of Oklahoma City. On June 2, 1997, the jury found him guilty of all 11 charges in the Federal indictment. On June 13, the jury recommended a death sentence, and Judge Richard Paul Matsch obliged. Because he’d already received a death sentence from the federal court, Oklahoma declined to prosecute for 160 the civilian deaths.

Epilogue

On June 11, 2001 McVeigh died by lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. His body was cremated and his ashes given to his lawyer.

On Christmas Eve, 1997 a federal jury convicted Terry Nichols of conspiring with McVeigh after deliberating for 41 hours. Since the jury couldn’t unanimously agree on the death penalty, he received a sentence of life without parole. The State of Oklahoma then tried Nichols on state homicide charges but again the jury couldn’t agree on the death penalty. He received 161 consecutive sentences of life without parole.

Terry Nichols prison mugshot (Bureau of Prisons)
Terry Nichols prison mugshot (Bureau of Prisons)

Nichols now resides at the Federal Supermax prison (USP Florence ADMAX) near Florence, Colorado. The only way he’ll get out is in a pine box.

Numerous books discuss Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, including One of Ours by Richard A. Serrano, American Terrorist by Lou Michael and Dan Herbeck, and McVeigh: The Inside Story of the Oklahoma City Bombing by Ben Fenwick.

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Charles Schmid: Strange Misfit Makes for a Horrific Killer

Last week’s case of missing Pennsylvania mom Lori Ann Auker ended with her ex-husband’s conviction for murder. This week, we travel (virtually) to southern Arizona. There we meet Charles Schmid. The press dubbed him “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” This cutesy moniker belies the fact that Schmid killed three teenaged girls and buried them in the Arizona desert.

Charles Schmid

Charles and Katharine Schmidt adopted the baby born on July 8, 1942 when he was only one day old. They gave him his adoptive father’s name, Charles Howard Schmid, Jr. The couple owned and ran a nursing home in Tucson, Arizona. As a boy, Charles often butted heads with his father (his adoptive parents eventually divorced).

Charles Schmid in high school
Charles Schmid in high school

Intelligent and courteous, young Charles was nevertheless no standout as a student. But he did excel as an athlete, He led his high school team to a state championship in Gymnastics in 1960. He quit the team in the middle of his senior year, though. Shortly after that, the school suspended him for stealing tools from the school’s shop. Charles never went back and never graduated.

Charles Schmid, Attractive Misfit

With no job and no prospects, Schmid moved into his own place on his mother’s property. She eve gave him an allowance of $300 a month (equivalent to almost $3,000 in 2022 dollars). With that steady income and no need to work, he spent his time cruising the main street of Tucson trying to pick up girls or throwing wild parties at his place.

Charles Schmid
Charles Schmid

Schmid was vain and narcissistic. He dyed his hair jet black and often wore makeup to make himself look more like his idol, Elvis Presley. He attempted to compensate for his short (5’3”) height by wearing oversized cowboy boots stuffed with newspapers, rags, and flattened beer cans. As he moved from his teens into his early twenties, people his own age saw him as a creep. But 14- to 18-year-old kids admired him. By now in his early twenties, he was still hanging out with a high school crowd.

Charles Schmid Commits His First Murder

On May 31, 1964, Schmid, his girlfriend, Mary French, and another friend, John Saunders were hanging out and drinking. Schmid suddenly announced, “I want to kill a girl tonight. I think I can get away with it.” He chose 15-year-old Alleen Rowe as his victim. Alleen lived with her divorced mother and knew Mary French. Mary convinced Alleen to go on a “double date” with her, Schmid, and Saunders. Instead, they drove to an isolated spot in the desert where Schmid raped the girl and then beat her to death with a rock. French stayed in the car listening to the radio while Schmid and Saunders buried the body.

Alleen Rowe
Alleen Rowe

Alleen’s mother, Norma Rowe, reported her daughter missing but police simply assumed she was a runaway and put little, if any effort into finding her.

Two More Murders

Charles Schmid had an inexplicable ability to attract women despite his lack of prospects and dissipated lifestyle. One of those was 17-year-old Gretchen Fritz, daughter of a prominent heart surgeon and Tucson community leader. Schmid had told her about killing Alleen Rowe and, when he wanted to break up with Gretchen, she threatened to turn him in. Schmid bided his time. A few days later, on August 16, 1965, he strangled Gretchen and her 13-year-old sister, Wendy and dumped their bodies in the desert.

Murdered sisters Gretchen (L) and Wendy (R) Fritz
Murdered sisters Gretchen (L) and Wendy (R) Fritz

Despite his prominence, Dr. James Fritz had no better luck with the police than Norma Rowe had. Gretchen Fritz had been a difficult child, and one of her teachers once described her as “a psychopathic liar.” Police told the Fritzes their daughters were runaways.

Never content to keep his mouth shut, Schmid couldn’t resist telling his loner friend, Richard “Richie” Bruns about the murders. He took Bruns to see the bodies and enlisted his help in performing a hasty burial.

The Undoing of Charles Schmid

Richie Bruns didn’t say anything to authorities at first. But he’d taken a liking to Darlene Kirk, one of Schmid’s former girlfriends. Convinced that Darlene was going to be Schmid’s next victim, Richie began to hang out at her house. Darlene’s family finally called police and had Bruns arrested. He was ordered to leave town for three months, which he did, going to live with his grandmother in Columbus, Ohio. One night, he broke down and told his grandmother the whole story of the Fritz sisters’ murders. She convinced him to contact authorities in Arizona.

Richard "Richie" Bruns. In the foreground are oversized cowboy boots Charles Schmid had Bruns buy for him. Schmid stuffed the boots with rags, newspapers, and flattened beer cans to make himself appeartaller.
Richard “Richie” Bruns. In the foreground are oversized cowboy boots Charles Schmid had Bruns buy for him. Schmid stuffed the boots with rags, newspapers, and flattened beer cans to make himself appeartaller.

With Bruns’ information in hand, authorities quickly arrested Charles Schmid. On February 15, 1966, he went on trial for the murders of the Fritz sisters. The defendant was well-dressed and looked reasonably clean cut. Richie Bruns was the state’s star witness. Schmid’s attorney, William Tinney, attempted to place blame for the killings on Bruns. It didn’t work. It took the jury just over two hours to come back with a guilty verdict and a penalty of death.

Charles Schmid (R) with his lawyer, William Tinney
Charles Schmid (R) with his lawyer, William Tinney

Schmid still had to face trial for Alleen Rowe’s murder. After a postponement and involvement of high-profile attorney F. Lee Bailey, the trial began on May 10, 1967. On the second day of trial, Bailey was a no-show (he claimed to be ill). Tinney convinced Schmid to accept a plea deal and plead guilty to second degree murder. After some more legal maneuvering, Judge Roylston sentenced Schmid to fifty years to life.

Epilogue

In 1971, Arizona temporarily abolished the death penalty, which got Schmid off death row. He still had that sentence of fifty years to life though, so he tried to escape. More than once. He finally succeeded on November 11, 1972 when he and triple murderer Raymond Hudgens escaped from the Arizona State Prison in Florence. For a time, the pair held four hostages at a ranch near Tempe, Arizona before they split up. They were recaptures shortly thereafter.

Charles Schmid and Pima County Sheriff Waldon V. Burr searching for the desert grave of Alleen Rowe
Charles Schmid and Pima County Sheriff Waldon V. Burr searching for the desert grave of Alleen Rowe

Ever the narcissist, Schmid strutted around the prison with an attitude of superiority. This caught up with him on March 10, 1975 when two inmates attacked him with homemade shanks. Severely wounded, Schmid did not respond to surgery and died on March 30. His mother chose to have him buried in the prison cemetery, fearing his headstone in a public cemetery would attract vandals.

Legal bills for Schmid’s trials left his mother, Katharine, and her second husband virtually destitute. They ended up living in near poverty in Coolidge, Arizona.

Despite at least half a dozen teenagers knowing about the murders of Alleen Rowe and the Fritz sisters, no one came forward until Richie Bruns’ grandmother convinced him to call Tucson authorities. Bruns remained conflicted about turning in his erstwhile friend. He titled his book about his experiences I, a Squealer.

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Lori Ann Auker: New CSI Breakthrough Catches a Killer

Welcome to the hundredth post in the Old Crime is New Again blog! Last week, I reported the case of Corey Parker, a young Florida coed murdered by an obsessive stalker. This week, we look at the death of Lori Ann Auker, a young Pennsylvania mother killed by her ex-husband. It took sophisticated technology—and her cat—to solve her murder.

Lori Ann Auker

Lori Ann Auker was only 19 but she had a child and an ex-husband. She told friends and coworkers that her ex, Robert “Bob” Auker was stalking her. This became significant on May 24, 1989. That day, Lori Ann didn’t show up for work at a pet shop in the Susquehanna Valley Mall. Her parents found her 1976 Pontiac Le Mans in the mall parking lot and alarmed, reported her missing to police.

Lori Ann Auker
Lori Ann Auker

Three weeks later, on June 12, a woman walking along a dirt road to her grandparents’ house discovered a body. Despite severe decomposition, dental records identified the body as that of Lori Ann Auker.

Ex-husband Robert Auker was naturally a suspect. For one thing, he had a shaky alibi. Also, witnesses saw him meticulously scrubbing his 1984 Chevrolet Celebrity on the evening of May 24. He traded in the car three days later. And if that weren’t enough to raise suspicions, Auker took out an accidental death and dismemberment policy on Lori Ann. He took out the policy even though the couple been divorced for six months. But police lacked hard evidence to link him to Lori Ann’s death.

Robert Donald Auker in 1989
Robert Donald Auker in 1989

Who Killed Lori Ann Auker?

In 1989, video surveillance cameras were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are today. But one place that did have cameras was bank Automated Teller Machines (ATMs). And it was a bank ATM camera that captured a telling image. It was Auker’s Celebrity pulling in front of Lori Ann as she tried to walk from her car to her job. When his car drove away, Lori Ann was gone.

Unfortunately, in 1989, surveillance cameras recorded their images on video tape, recording over old images with new ones. The tape in this ATM was almost worn out. But with help from NASA, they had enhanced images to work with. Unfortunately, the license plate was still not readable. But automotive experts identified the car in the picture as the back end of a 1983 or 1984 Chevrolet Celebrity.

Entrance to the Susquehanna Valley Mall where Lori Ann worked at a pet shop
Entrance to the Susquehanna Valley Mall where Lori Ann worked at a pet shop

Even though Auker had sold the car immediately after the murder, investigators tracked it down. They were able to locate the car and prove it was the car in the bank ATM video.

Technicians also recovered several hairs that were “similar” to Lori Ann’s (decomposition prevented establishing an exact match). Moreover, three cat hairs found in the Celebrity’s trunk proved to be an exact match for Lori Ann’s cat.

Epilogue

Robert Donald Auker went on trial on October 26, 1995. The video of Lori Ann disappearing into his car destroyed his alibi. The cat hairs proved Lori Ann’s body had been in his trunk. And a forensic entomologist testified that insect activity on the body proved death had occurred very close to May 24, the day Lori Ann disappeared.

Robert Auker in a 2021 prison photo (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections)
Robert Auker in a 2021 prison photo (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections)

The jury found Auker guilty of murder. He was sentenced to death for murder plus a consecutive sentence of ten to twenty years for kidnapping. On July 31, 1996, an appeals court vacated the death sentence, but Robert Auker will spend the rest of his life in prison. He currently (2022) resides in State Correctional Institute Phoenix in Collegeville, Pennsylvania.

SCI Phoenix in Collegeville, Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections)
SCI Phoenix in Collegeville, Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections)

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