Political murder of the day

Syrian President Husni al-Za’im, front.

Aug. 14, 1949: The president and prime minister of Syria were shot and killed as part of a coup by a military junta.

President Husni al-Za’im and Prime Minister Muhsin al-Barazi were both arrested by military officers led by Sami al-Hinnawi. Both leaders were executed the same day.

Al-Za’im had led the Syrian Army in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. He had taken power in his own military coup earlier in the year, in April 1949, when he was Army chief of staff. He reportedly was aided by the U.S. Embassy in Syria and the Central Intelligence Agency.

One possible reason for U.S. involvement was that al-Za’im immediately made deals with U.S. oil companies to build and open the Syrian portion of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, which had been closed during the administration of the previous democratically elected Syrian president, Shukri al-Kuwatli. Al-Kuwatli was briefly arrested but then sent into exile in Egypt.

During his short rule, al-Za’im attempted several reforms and other changes in Syria, but few were well received. He tried secularization, suggesting that women be given the right to vote and that they stop wearing veils.

Not surprisingly, these actions produced a negative reaction among Muslim religious leaders. He also tried to convince men to stop wearing fezzes, saying they were reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire. He angered businessmen by trying to raise taxes and Arab nationalists for signing a cease-fire with Israel.

Al-Za’im’s lack of popular support made the August coup easier for the military.


Miss a murder? Here are past ones

Bill Gwatney

Aug. 13, 2008: Arkansas Democratic Party State Chair Bill Gwatney was shot and fatally wounded at state Democratic Party headquarters in Little Rock.

Timothy Dale Johnson entered headquarters and said he wanted to volunteer, but shot Gwatney instead. He ran out and drove away in his truck. Police chased Johnson, and he was killed in a shootout with police after a 30-mile car chase. Gwatney was taken to a hospital but died later that day.

Gwatney had been a state senator for 10 years. He also owned three car dealerships. The motive for Gwatney’s killing remains unclear to this day. Johnson, who owned 16 guns, had just been fired from his job at a Target store and was taking antidepressant medication. At Johnson’s home, police found a Post-It note with the name “Gwatney” written on it and two sets of keys belonging to a car dealership Gwatney owned.

Several right-wing websites developed conspiracy theories tying Gwatney’s death to either President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton, or former Sen. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but those theories have as much credibility as Donald Trump‘s claims about wind turbines causing cancer.


Memorials to Heather Heyer filled Charlottesville after her death.

Aug. 12, 2017: A woman protesting a white supremacist event died during violence at a two-day, neo-Nazi “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a white supremacist participant rammed her with his car.

The rally included several far-right groups, including members of the so-called alt-right, neo-Confederates, Klansmen, various right-wing militia groups, and other white supremacist organizations. The stated goals of the rally were to unify the U.S. white nationalist movement and oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville park.

During an evening march on Aug. 11, a few hundred rally members marched through the town, carrying tiki torches and Nazi flags and shouting white supremacist slogans, such as “Jews will never replace us” and “White lives matter.” The marchers clashed with a small group of counter-protestors, sometimes throwing their tiki torches. Several people were injured before Virginia State Police broke up the disturbance.

The next morning, Aug. 12, some 500 white supremacists faced off against approximately 1,000 counter-protestors. The white nationalist group often shouted neo-Nazi slogans like “Race war now” and other anti-Semitic sayings. Many of the supremacists were armed, some with semi-automatic weapons, which presented a challenge for police at the scene.

As the disturbance became more violent, white supremacists and counter-protestors were filmed kicking, punching, hurling water bottles, setting off smoke bombs, and deploying chemical sprays against one another. The city of Charlottesville and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency in an attempt to break up the violence, and the rally was canceled, although some of the white supremacists moved to another park a few miles away to hear the scheduled speakers.

In the early afternoon, a man plowed his car into a group of counter-protestors, hitting several other cars and many people before he reversed the car and fled the scene. Protestor Heather Heyer was fatally injured, pronounced dead at a hospital hours later, and 19 people were injured in the attack.

The driver was identified as James Alex Fields Jr., who had traveled to the rally from Ohio and had expressed sympathy for Nazis while in high school. Fields was charged with second-degree murder and malicious wounding.

Two other victims on Aug. 12 were Virginia state troopers who died in a helicopter crash as they were en route to assist with security and public safety. Troopers H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates were among those on board.

In 2018, the U.S. Justice Department charged Fields with multiple federal hate crimes. He pleaded guilty to federal charges to avoid the death penalty and received a life sentence. In 2019, he also was found guilty by a Virginia jury and received an additional sentence of 419 years.


Unrest during the riots in Watts.

Aug. 11, 1965: This day was the beginning of the Watts Riots or the Watts Rebellion, six days of race riots that rocked the impoverished Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and remains one of the worst riots in U.S. history.

The racially fueled unrest resulted in 34 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries, nearly 3,500 arrests, and the damage or destruction of nearly 1,000 buildings. Estimates of property damage were as high as $200 million.

The riots started with a traffic incident on the evening of Aug. 11. African-American Marquette Frye was pulled over by a white California Highway Patrol officer, Lee Minikus, and charged with drunken driving. Frye’s brother, Ronald Frye, a passenger in Frye’s car, walked home to get their mother, Rena Price.

The situation escalated when police attacked both Fryes and Price, who were arrested, drawing an angry crowd when rumors spread that police had attacked Marquette Frye’s pregnant girlfriend. The crowd continued to grow, and by the time backup police arrived, the crowd greeted them by throwing rocks and concrete.

The next day, police met with community leaders to calm the situation, but the plan failed as rioting intensified. The police called for the assistance of the California National Guard; nearly 14,000 National Guardsmen would be helping police by Aug. 14.

The rioting crowds reached a peak of about 35,000 people and spread to a 46-square-mile section of Los Angeles as rioters burned cars and buildings, attacked white motorists, and looted stores. The slogan “Burn, baby, burn!” became the catchphrase of the riots.

Reports described the area hit by the riots as looking like a “combat zone.” Martial law was declared as National Guardsmen cordoned off large areas of South Central Los Angeles. Order was finally restored on Aug. 17.

An official investigation through the office of Calif. Gov. Pat Brown found that the riot was a result of the Watts community’s longstanding grievances and growing discontentment with high unemployment rates, substandard housing, police discrimination, and inadequate schools. Many watching the riots on their television screens merely saw the riots as a criminal act.

Fifty years later, there are still parallels in the situation, neighborhood, police actions, and crowd reactions in Los Angeles in 1965 and in cities across America today.


Protestors in Madagascar before being shot by palace guards.

Aug. 10, 1991: Up to 130 protestors were killed and several hundred were wounded when they were shot by palace guards in riots in Madagascar.

Roughly 400,000 people marched on the presidential palace outside the capital city of Antananarivo. In mass demonstrations and a two-week civil service strike that paralyzed the capital, people demanded the resignation of President Didier Ratsiraka, a military commander who had taken power in the country in 1975 but had become increasingly unpopular.

The most recent election in 1989 was marred by charges of election fraud by the Ratsiraka forces. By May 1991, there were general strikes all over the country, shutting down banks and businesses, and demonstrations intensified in July and August.

On Aug. 10, as demonstrators marched to the presidential palace, presidential guards responded with grenades and bullets. Estimates of the dead ranged from 31 to 130.

By October, Ratsiraka agreed to a process of democratic transition, rewriting the country’s constitution and calling for new elections. For a period, he kept the post of president but ceded power to Albert Zafy, head of the newly established High Authority of the State, who was elected president in 1993.

Ratsiraka regained the presidency in 1998, holding power until 2002, when he fled the country. He was convicted in absentia of stealing $8 million from the country’s treasury and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but never served time, as he was living in France.


Charles Manson

Aug. 9, 1969: Seven people were killed by members of a cult called the Manson Family over two nights in Los Angeles in brutal killings that shocked the nation and that tied together Beatles’ music, racial politics, and a bizarre theory about a coming apocalypse.

In the first killing, actress Sharon Tate, who was 8½ months pregnant and the wife of film director Roman Polanski, and friends Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Jay Sebring were all stabbed to death at the mansion Tate shared with Polanski. The word “PIG” was spelled out in Tate’s blood on the front door of the mansion. Also killed was Steven Parent, a friend of the estate’s caretaker, who was shot in his car.

The following night, the group killed supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary LaBianca at their Los Angeles home.

In October 1969, Charles Manson and several of his followers were arrested at Barker Ranch inside Death Valley National Park for auto theft. One follower, Susan Atkins, told police that the Tate murders had been done at Manson’s instruction and that she had killed Tate “because we wanted to do a crime that would shock the world, that the world would have to stand up and take notice.”

The Manson trial began in June 1970. Manson appeared in court with an “X” carved into his forehead. His family members followed his example, carving X’s into their own foreheads. Manson shaved his head; so did his co-defendants.

Manson often disrupted the trial by shouting, giving an hour-long lecture when he was on the stand, and having his followers chant in Latin. At one point, he tried to attack the judge.

Manson’s theory and justification for the murders was that an apocalypse was coming, foretold in the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter.” Manson, a failed musician and ex-convict, told his followers that racial tension was growing between whites and blacks; that African Americans would rise up in rebellion; and that the Manson Family would survive in a secret city beneath Death Valley and then one day rule the world.

One family member, Linda Kasabian, who had acted as a lookout during the Tate murders, was given immunity for testifying against the other defendants. The family also was tied to an earlier killing, of Gary Hinman, in July 1969.

After a sensational and often raucous trial, five defendants — Manson, Atkins, Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie van Houten — were found guilty in January 1971 of the two killing sprees. All were sentenced to death, but California abolished the death penalty in 1972.

Most are still in prison and have been denied parole repeatedly. Atkins died in 2009. Charles Manson was denied parole 12 times before his death in 2017. He received more mail than any other inmate in California history and still was getting 35 letters a week at the time of his death.

Books, songs, and movies have been written and made about the Manson Family and the killings. One of the most thorough is Helter Skelter by attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted the killers. The murders also are part of a 2019 film directed by Quentin Tarantino, One Upon a Time In Hollywood.


John Roselli, aka “Handsome Johnny”

Aug. 8, 1976: The body of a Chicago mobster recruited by the CIA to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro was found in a steel drum floating near Miami.

John Roselli, born Filippo Sacco in Esperia, Italy, came to Chicago after committing a murder in Massachusetts and changing his name. He joined the Chicago Outfit and became known as “Handsome Johnny,” helping the mob control organized crime activities in Hollywood and in Las Vegas after serving a short prison term for racketeering.

In the early 1960s, Roselli was recruited to kill Castro by what he believed to be a group of international corporations, supposedly because of lost gambling operations. In truth, the ex-FBI agent who recruited Roselli, Robert Maheu, was representing the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA trained Roselli and two other Chicago mobsters, Sam Giancana and Santo Trafficante Jr., at a secret CIA base in the Florida Keys. The exercises included training teams of snipers and supplying the team with poison pills to slip into Castro’s food.

In 1975, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held hearings on the CIA plot to kill Castro, called Operation Mongoose. Shortly before Roselli was to testify before the Senate panel, Giancana was murdered in his home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. Roselli testified before the panel twice but, apparently spooked by Giancana’s murder, relocated to the Miami area.

Roselli was recalled to testify in the Mongoose hearings in 1976, but he went missing on July 28. Senators requested that the FBI investigate his disappearance, and his decomposing body was found floating in the steel drum in Dumfoundling Bay near Miami on Aug. 8.

The FBI investigated whether Roselli’s death was tied to his testimony on the CIA plot, but results were inconclusive. Another theory about Roselli’s death was that it was payback for skimming too much money from gambling profits.

After Roselli’s death, the journalistic team of Jack Anderson and Les Whitten published an investigative piece saying Roselli had been recruited for several hits: He was not only recruited by the CIA to kill Castro, but he also was recruited by other members of the Castro assassination squad to kill President John F. Kennedy.

Some conspiracy theories, including one in a mob memoir by Bill Bonanno, son of Cosa Nostra Mafia boss Joseph Bonanno, even placed Roselli in Dallas in November 1963, claiming that he fired one of the fatal shots.

5 Comments on “Political murder of the day”

  1. Pingback: Political murder is on a Rocky Mountain high | Political Murder

  2. Pingback: Political murder is headed to the cradle of democracy | Political Murder

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