Today, Tuesday, April 13, 2010, is the 35th anniversary of a killing spree in Wheaton, Maryland. My girlfriend and I were on our way home from Young Frankenstein when we drove right through the middle of it.
Michael Edward Pearch shot seven people, all African-American, killing two and wounding the rest. There were indications, police said, that the shooting were racially motivated. All the victims were black and the gunman was white. He passed up at least one car with whites, said police, as he walked down a highway looking for another target.
There were at least two such cars. One of them was mine.
Here’s the story.
Pearch, an unemployed carpenter living with his mother in Silver Spring, Maryland, left home about 7:30p on Sunday, April 13, 1975, and drove to the nearby Wheaton Plaza shopping mall. He was wearing his Army fatigues, a knapsack with 250 rounds of ammunition, and a machete strapped to his chest. He carried a .45 caliber automatic pistol.
He walked to the traffic light at the entrance ot the mall, where he shot and killed John L. Sligh, 43, of Rockville, Maryland, and wounded his wife, Laureen D. Sligh, 40, in both legs. He walked to the next car and fired at Dr. Ralph C. Gomes, also of Rockville, but missed. Gomes swerved, crashing his car into another. He suffered minor injuries.
The panic started at once. “Some witnesses ducked for cover. Others just stood there and watched in disbelieving shock,” said police captain Miles Daniels. One particularly brave man (I don’t know his name) called the police and began following the gunman.
We were on our way home from the movies. It was a warm spring evening. The car windows were open. As I neared the intersection of Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard (a major intersection), I heard what I thought at first were gunshots.
But gunshots on a lazy Sunday evening on a busy suburban street? Surely, I must be imagining things. Then I saw the man who had followed the gunman. He was ducking behind cars. Well, if there wasn’t any gunfire, then surely the man was just playing some sort of game.
The light turned green. I pulled forward. As I reached the intersection, I saw two men in the left turn lane on the other side of the street. One man was standing. He was white. One man was face down. He was black. In his right hand, he was carrying a brown paper bag.
If there wasn’t any gunfire, and the man ducking behind cars was playing some sort of game, then I figured I was looking at some drunks, with one of them (clutching his booze in a brown paper bag) passed out in the street.
As I drove through the intersection, I passed within five feet of Michael Edward Pearch, the shooter, and his most recent victim, Harold S. Navy, Jr., 17 years old and a freshman at the University of Maryland. Navy was working as a busboy at the Anchor Inn, right on the corner of Georgia and University. He had been sent across the street to a supermarket to buy a jar of applesauce, the contents of that brown paper bag. He was wounded in the abdomen, but survived.
There was a police station about a mile north of the intersection, right on our way home, so I pulled in. “There’s a drunk passed out in the left turn lane at Georgia and University,” I told the officer at the desk.
“Wait here,” the officer said.
Moments later three plainclothes officers came out of the back room. “Are those the eyewitnesses to the murders?” one of the officers asked.
It was not until that moment that I had any idea what I had seen.
We spent the rest of the evening in a room with an increasing number of witnesses. It wasn't until afterward that I learned the rest of the story.
Walking up Georgia Avenue, the gunman shot and killed Connie L. Stanley, 42, of Washington, DC, and then shot and wounded Rosalyn Stanley, 26, of Annapolis, who was in the next car.
Two policemen spotted the shooting and ordered Pearch to halt. He turned, looked at the officers, then walked to the next car with African-Americans and fired again, wounding Bryant Lamont Williams, 20, of Rockville. The two officers opened fire with a shotgun and a pistol, and killed Pearch.
“He was smiling. I thought he had been shooting blanks,” said William Painter, one of the 40-50 witnesses.
* * *
Some of my interest in cognitive biases and perceptual distortions stems from this incident. Eyewitness testimony, experts know, is not particularly reliable, especially from people not trained in the art. I was within five feet of the murderer, but couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup on a bet. I had no idea what was going on. I am still ashamed.
Selective perception underlies a lot of cognitive biases. We adjust and filter the world around us according to our sense of what the world should be, and therefore miss a lot about what the world really is.
I’ve been trying to get the details of this story for a long time, but even in a Google world, it’s hard to find. Perhaps it’s the small number of victims, but this particular incident doesn’t show up on any list of racial violence I can find. There’s a United Press article that appeared in various papers, ranging from the Fort Scott (Kansas) Tribune to the St. Petersburg (Florida) Evening Independent.
Michael Edward Pearch is mentioned as a potential suspect in the Wheaton abduction of the Lyon sisters, but there’s no evidence other than his killing spree to link him to the murders, and the Lyons were white. He’s also mentioned on at least one white supremicist site, where he’s a hero.
On the anniversary of this terrible event, I remember the victims, and remember also the lessons of my own failure to perceive what was going on all around me.