Marine pilot who ‘borrowed’ a helicopter to take out sniper after cops, civilians killed dies of cancer

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New Orleans, Louisiana – After a lengthy battle with cancer, heroic Marine Corps veteran Lt. General Charles “Chuck” Pitman Sr. passed away on February 13th, according to members of his family.

After nearly four decades serving in The Corps, this hero endured three combat tours in Vietnam and earned the Silver Stars for valor; Distinguished Flying Crosses; and a Purple Heart.

Yet, his most notable effort has been etched into the history of New Orleans, when he valiantly stopped a man on a murderous crime spree in 1973.

On December 31st, 1972, instead of New Orleans residents avidly celebrating the oncoming new year – they were dealing with the onset of a murderous sniper targeting police officers in two targeted attacks a week apart.

Mark James Robert Essex joined the Navy back in 1969, and was eventually given a general discharge for unsuitability on February 10, 1971, for “character and behavior disorders”.

Over time, he became bitter and enraged, likening all police officers to be racist – and decided to act on his pent-up aggression on New Year’s Eve 1972.

Armed with a 5-shot Ruger Model .44-caliber semi-automatic carbine, Essex positioned himself in a parking lot across from the central lockup facility at the New Orleans Police Department.

Hidden in the parking lot, he fatally shot Cadet Alfred Harrel and wounded Lt. Horace Perez. When fleeing from the scene, a K-9 unit led by Officer Edwin Hosli Sr. had tracked Essex down, and Essex shot Officer Holsi in the back. That officer later died two months after the attack due to complications from the sustained gunshot.

 

The violence by Essex’s hand didn’t end there.

On January 7th, he engaged in another targeted attack. Once again armed with his rifle, he created a trap to get first responders to report to the Downtown Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge hotel.

Essex entered the hotel and killed the general manager, its assistant manager, and a newlywed couple staying as guests – and began to set various hotel rooms on fire.

As expected, police and other first responders arrived on the scene of the fire, and Essex began to shoot them as they arrived while inside the hotel.

He killed NOPD Officers Phil Coleman, Paul Persigo and Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo and wounded several others.

Then 37-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Pitman was among the many seeing the horror unfold in his city that day, and he wasn’t going to stand idly by while police and civilians were getting killed.

Like a scene out of an action movie, and going against any sort of semblance of military guidelines – he assembled a group of volunteers that consisted of a co-pilot and two crew members.

At the time, Pitman was in charge of a Marine air unit station in Belle Chasse, and decided to carry out an operation to eliminate the threat in a “borrowed” CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter.

He flew the aircraft to a parking lot near where the hotel shooting was actively playing out, where numerous NOPD officers boarded the aircraft in tow with rifles.

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Pitman had flown over the rooftop of the building where Essex was firing, and at times Essex would expose himself to fire at the hovering chopper.

After having retreated several times to avoid catching oncoming fire, Pitman doubled back and directed the spotlight right at Essex.

Officers aboard the helicopter and on adjacent rooftops were now able to get a clear shot at Essex. Police began firing at him, where he fell dead after having been shot over 200 times reportedly.

Larry Preston Williams was one of the officers present during the hotel shootout on 1973, and acknowledged the critical role Pitman played in preventing more loss of life:

“If (Pitman’s involvement) would not have happened, we would have lost more people. He was instrumental … in taking out Mark Essex.” 

Despite Pitman’s heroic display, there was still the matter of him blatantly violating military code. He initially faced a possible court martial for deploying military personnel and resources without obtaining any kind of authorization.

However, New Orleans based U.S. Rep. F. Edward Hebert, who also happened to serve as the head of the House Armed Services Committee, injected himself into the matter and no disciplinary action was pursued.

The son of the now-deceased hero, Charles Pitman Jr., remembers his father’s sentiments regarding involving himself in the Essex massacre:

“The thing with him was, if you’re going to be a Marine, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. He was always happy he did what he did.” 

You’d be hard-pressed to find any police officer or first responder who would be displeased at what this decorated Marine did that day. The retired Marine lived to the age of 84, a long life by most accounts. But it’s still sad to lose one of the great heroes of our time – even if having lived a life fuller than what most could ever imagine.

 

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