The Algiers Motel Murders
July 25-26, 1967
Notable: Incident of Police Abuse
Location: Detroit, Michigan, USA
In the early hours of the morning of July 25, 1967, three young men and two young women were among the guests at the Algiers Motel Annex. The Algiers was a cheap motel allegedly known in the area for drugs and prostitution. The 1967 Detroit Riot had begun two days earlier and in addition to the Michigan State Police, the National Guard and federal troops had been called in to help the Detroit Police Department (DPD) restore order.
Ted Thomas, a national guardsman, reported hearing shots fired. Members of the DPD, state police, and additional guardsmen responded. Some sources dispute that the attention of the authorities had been attracted by the sound of gunshots. Instead, it’s believed that the Black youths and White young women had gone to a nearby store to purchase snacks and beverages. They appeared to be interracial couples headed into a motel which displeased law enforcement.
Carl Cooper, Michael Clark, and Lee Forsythe, were the three young Black men in the company of Juli Hysell and Karen Molloy, two young White women who were in town from Ohio. The two women would later be found to have arrest records for prostitution. Hysell would later state that Cooper the youngest of the group was playing with a starter pistol which was small and looked fake, firing blanks. But Forsythe disputed her claim stating that Cooper was playing with a starter pistol but that had been earlier in the day.
Some accounts claim that after supposedly hearing the starter pistol and assuming it was a sniper the authorities opened fire on the motel and shot out nearby streetlights. But other accounts state that the guardsmen were among the first to respond and were already shooting before the DPD officers arrived and immediately began shooting. Startled by the sudden shooting from outside the hotel’s occupants sought cover.
All of the officers and guardsmen were White, had been nearby, and were the first to respond. Nobody was officially in charge nor was there a chain of command. During the riot, DPD protocols for clearing buildings of rioters or snipers were to use chemical agents such as tear gas to more safely force out occupants. Yet, DPD officers David Senak, Ronald August, and Robert Paille led a disorganized charge into the building.
Cooper (17) was dead shortly after the authorities entered. They would claim that he was already dead and was found lying on the ground in a room on the first floor when they entered the building. But it’s more likely that he’d been coming down the stairs or otherwise came into view of the officers while they were entering and had been shot. Some of the witnesses would later state that they’d heard Cooper say that he didn’t have a weapon. They next heard a gunshot and an officer believed to be Senak yelled that he’d killed someone.
Making their way through the motel, law enforcement ordered the remaining occupants out of their rooms and into the lobby where they had most of the teens stand against a wall. A Black private security guard, Melvin Dismukes, who was working in a nearby store entered the motel at this time. The police began aggressively interrogating everyone, savagely beating the teens with their rifle butts and forcing the women to strip. In addition to asking questions about guns and the supposed “sniper” they used racist language towards the males and called the women “n-word lovers”.
Next, they separated the guests, taking each male into a motel room supposedly for individual questioning. It was at this point that the state guards left most likely because they no longer wanted to be involved. In an attempt to intimidate the occupants, officers either beat or pretended to beat the males. The officers then began playing a “death game” where they fired shots into the ceiling of a room and then implied to the other teens that someone else had been killed.
When August was offered the opportunity to kill one of the Black people, he accepted. Not realizing that the other officers had been bluffing he took Aubrey Pollard (19) into Room A-3 where he killed him at close range with a shotgun. August would recount this sequence of events regarding Pollard but then later claimed self-defense. The coroner would report that Pollard had been either lying on the ground or in a kneeling position when he was executed.
The officers spoke among themselves and then ordered everyone else to leave. Fred Temple (18) was the road manager of an R&B group and was at the motel with at least one of the band’s members. Forsythe would later state that Temple asked if he could return to his room to get his shoes which the officers allowed. It’s unclear what exactly happened next but now separated from the other motel guests as he walked back to the room, Temple was also shot and killed. Paille would claim to have shot Temple in self-defense and that Senak also shot the teen mere seconds later. Pollard and Temple’s bodies were later found together in Room A-3 and the coroner ruled they had both been in non-threatening positions at their time of death.
At this point, the three DPD officers who had killed the teens left but not before warning the motel’s remaining guests to leave and forget about what they had seen. Some of the teens immediately ran to the homes of the teens who had been killed to inform their families. The bodies remained at the motel until an employee found them and contacted the Wayne County Morgue which then notified the Detroit Police Homicide Bureau.
The officers’ initial report made no mention of having fired their weapons or that three civilians had been killed. Four days later, the three DPD officers filed an official false report about the incident at the motel. They attempted to extricate themselves from the situation by claiming to have responded to the motel where they found civilians who had been shot and called an ambulance but left before it arrived. Within days their attempted coverup would fall apart as the officers implicated themselves and each other in the shootings during conversations with homicide detectives.
The DPD officers as well as Dismukes were arrested and charged with varying counts of assault, murder, and conspiracy to deny the motel’s guests their civil rights. Unfortunately but also unsurprisingly, none of the charges resulted in convictions. Some of the officers’ confessions were thrown out because they had not been read their rights. While some of the charges did make it to court the cases were moved to other counties because the murders and their cover-up received a lot of media attention. Detroit where the murders occurred is located in Wayne County which has a large Black population. The other counties had predominately White populations which resulted in the cases having all-White juries and they acquitted the officers and the security guard.
The families of the victims filed civil lawsuits and received relatively small settlements from the City of Detroit. The DPD officers had been fired after the murders came to light but August and Senak were rehired in 1971. In addition to their actions on the night of the murders, all three officers later made false statements but Paille was the only officer to not be rehired for those reasons. This was despite witnesses identifying Senak as being the most aggressive and him admitting to having killed two other Black people under suspicious circumstances during the same month as the murders at the Algiers. The riot and the murders increased Black local activism and played a role in Detroit electing Coleman Young as the city’s first Black mayor in 1973.
Shortly after the murders John Hersey, an investigative journalist, traveled to Detroit where he conducted interviews with survivors, law enforcement, and those otherwise involved with or affected by the raid and murders. He used his findings to write The Algiers Incident which was published in 1968 and offers one of the most detailed accounts of what took place. In 2017, Kathryn Bigelow produced and directed “Detroit”, a depiction of the Algiers Motel Murders.
- Brown, DeNeen L. 2017. “’Detroit’ and the Police Brutality That Left Three Black Teens Dead at the Algiers Motel.” The Washington Post. WP Company. August 4, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/08/04/detroit-and-the-police-brutality-that-left-three-black-teens-dead-at-the-algiers-motel/.
- Lewis, Shawn D. 2019. “Algiers Motel Deaths Stirred Racial Tension of ’67.” Detroitnews.com. The Detroit News. December 13, 2019.https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/detroit-city/2017/07/24/algiers-motel-raid/103945898/.
- Momodu, Samuel. 2020. “Algiers Motel Incident (1967).” Blackpast.org. January 11, 2020.https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/algiers-motel-incident-1967/.
- “Murder at Algiers Motel.” n.d. Detroit Under Fire. Policing and Social Justice HistoryLab. Accessed April 28, 2022.https://policing.umhistorylabs.lsa.umich.edu/s/detroitunderfire/page/algiers-motel.
- Vaughn, Jerome. 2017. “Detroit Police Officers Charged in 1967 after Algiers Motel Incident.” WDET 101.9 FM. WDET and Wayne State University. July 24, 2017. https://wdet.org/2017/07/24/detroit-police-officers-charged-in-1967-after-algiers-motel-incident/.
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