Tuesday, March 14, 2023


July 22, 1962, was promising to be a pleasant day in Richmond with the temperature only rising into the 80s. Behind the worn frame houses and bungalows of Lakeview Avenue, the morning sun began to illuminate the alleys that ran east and west in the Randolph neighborhood. The shadows fell away, revealing the garages and chicken houses, the trash cans and junk cars, and the body of Andrew Mills. Mills was a 42-year-old Black man who lived at 1729 Jacquelin Street, but this morning lay face down in an alley a couple blocks away in the 1700 block of Lakeview Avenue. He had been shot three times in the back of the head and once in the heart. Around his body were scattered four empty 9mm pistol shells.

In the segregated city of Richmond, Mills’ body was taken to the “colored” hospital, St. Phillips, on East Marshall Street, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Also at St. Phillips that morning but not in the morgue were James Elam and James Towles, recovering from gunshot wounds they received the night before. They were ambushed by someone wielding a 9mm pistol behind the 1600 block of Lakeview Avenue, a block away from where Mills’ body was found. Elam had been grazed in the head and Towles was shot in the back, but they were expected to live.


Front page headline in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 13, 1963.


The firemen on duty at Fire Station 12 at Addison and Cary streets were startled to hear gunshots nearby on the morning of September 4. Rolling up a bay door, they found a man covered with blood on the sidewalk in front of their station. John Anderson, a 32-year-old laborer, and Korean War veteran, was badly wounded but still conscious enough to tell the police that he had been approached by a Black man on South Addison Street who shot him three times in the back. Anderson, who lived at 1919 Grayland Avenue, died of his wounds the next day. His death certificate, in the space for “Describe How Injury Occurred,” specified “Shot in back by unknown colored male assailant.” 

The former Richmond fire station at Cary and Addison streets where two wounded Sniper victims sought help in September 1962.


Later in the month on September 29, a Black World War II veteran named Joseph Ford was chatting at a kitchen table with friends, including his cousin Linwood Massie, at 2124 Cary Street. Abruptly, the open kitchen window was illuminated by the flash of gunfire. Ford went to the floor with three bullets in his chest and Massie was hit in the arm by one of the shots. Bleeding, Massie ran to get help a block away at the same fire station where Anderson had collapsed just a few weeks before. Rushing to the house on Cary Street, all the police found was Ford’s dead body and several 9mm pistol cartridges scattered on the ground outside.


Richmond police detectives were mystified by the series of killings. All of the victims were Black. So apparently was the shooter, who moved without notice or detection through the streets of the predominantly Black Randolph neighborhood. The cold-blooded malice and utter absence of a motive in the series of shootings was chillingly inexplicable, and the mystery made the killing spree even more frightening. “Veteran homicide detectives say frankly they are perplexed by the Sniper case, one of the most baffling in Richmond crime annals,” said the Times-Dispatch, the comments only adding to the fear of twilight in the Randolph neighborhood. 

2124 Cary Street, where Joseph Ford was shot and killed by the Richmond Sniper.


Joseph Ford seemed central to the story, but investigators could not determine how. His shooting was especially mysterious to investigators since Ford had been shot and wounded by someone a few months before on May 12 but refused to tell the police what happened or who he thought shot him. Elam and Towles, the two young men who were wounded in July, heard the shooter’s voice seconds before they were shot. “Do you know where Joe Ford lives?” asked the unseen gunman from the shadows. In addition, police discovered Ford, Mills, and Anderson all were acquainted and were sometimes seen together. The cops couldn’t make any sense out of the shooter’s pattern or motives, let alone his connection with his victims. The only common denominator was the 9mm pistol.


Joseph Ford also knew another Sniper victim, Floyd Morton, a 14-year-old kid who lived with his parents at 1810 Parkwood Avenue, across the street from Ford’s house. Like Andrew Mills, Morton was found in an alley, this time behind the 2200 block of Idlewood Avenue. A policeman heading to his shift stumbled over the body on the morning of December 1, 1962. Morton had been shot at close range behind the left ear with a 9mm pistol. His grieving family buried him in East End Cemetery two days later.


Somewhere in this alley behind the 2200 block of Idlewood Avenue the body of Floyd Morton was found on December 1, 1962.


The killer became known as “The Sniper” in the press, due to his chilling exactitude and technique of shooting from ambush. The Richmond News Leader confirmed, “The phantom killer is being called “The Sniper” by residents of the area northeast of Byrd Park…” The once-quiet Randolph neighborhood was becoming famous for random murder. A Georgia newspaper ran an article from the United Press about the string of murders in Richmond, where frightened residents of Randolph were quoted as saying they were scared to walk the sidewalks at night. “You don’t know who might be next.” The randomness of the shootings terrified many in Richmond.

The use of a 9mm weapon was unusual enough for news articles to describe victims shot with a “high-power pistol,” because of the caliber. At the time, 9mm firearms were not used by the American military but had been popular in Europe since World War I. Today its use is a sadly common occurrence, but the appearance of spent 9mm pistol cartridges on the streets of Richmond in 1963 was quite uncommon. It indicates the murder weapon was probably one of the thousands of guns of this caliber brought home from Europe by returning GIs after World War II. 

A map helpfully provided by the Richmond Times-Dispatch plots the location of the Sniper shootings as the count of dead and wounded stood in January 1963.


Restaurants were empty at night and church attendance began to fall because of the shootings. The pastors of eight local African American churches known as the West End Ministers Fellowship Association recognized the rising fear in their congregations and banded together to collect reward money for information about the murderer operating in their neighborhood. Dr. R. S. Anderson, pastor of Fifth Baptist Church on Parkwood Avenue, said local churches had raised $1000. He stated, “Rarely have people in the area – spreading from Main Street to the river area, between Lombardy Street and Davis Avenue – co-operated closer with police.’ Dr. Anderson cautioned Richmonders that, “This Sniper – we feel like he could cross the line and kill anybody; this isn’t a race problem.”


As community apprehension skyrocketed, police patrols were increased in Randolph, especially those of Richmond’s so-called “Phantom Squad” of undercover policemen. One cop noted, “Look at all those window shades pulled shut in this block….I can remember when a lot of these houses didn’t even have shades on the windows.” One family described covering the windows tightly and watching TV while sitting on the floor. Despite Dr. Anderson’s faith in community cooperation, “A lot of them are afraid to talk to us,” one cop said. “They’re afraid the Sniper will see them with us and come back later and shoot them.”


The last of the shootings blamed on Richmond’s Sniper took place outside the usual setting in Randolph. On March 23, 1963, James Howard entered the back room of a house at 7 West Marshall Street he shared with Virginia Mills and turned on a light. Immediately four shots were fired into the room through the window, three of which ripped through Howard’s chest, killing him instantly. Shocked, all Mills could say about the shooting was, “It looked like someone just crouched out there waiting for him to come home.” The distinctive calling card of the Sniper was found on the ground outside the window: four 9mm shells.


By the end of 1963, Richmond’s Sniper shooter had killed five and wounded seven people. The police knew the robbery was not a motive for the killings but weren’t sure what motivated the random murderers. “Did the man who did the shootings, known as the Sniper, chart a course to mow down a choice few, and has he completed the job? Or did he aim his gun at random?” speculated the Times-Dispatch in an end-of-year summary of crime in Richmond. “Some policemen believe the Sniper may already be in police custody, arrested on some other far-removed charge, and that his role in the shootings has gone undetected…”


While Richmond cops worked these and other unsolved murders, the trail went cold. The unknown shooter was either dead, locked up or simply moved on to some other city with his secrets safe. If he was still here in Richmond, his dark agenda was fulfilled, and he ceased his patrol of Richmond at night. In January 1965, Richmond Bureau Inspector Frank Duling and Sergeant Joseph Brooks were assigned to compile and revisit Richmond’s cold cases, one of which dated back to 1940 (see the Shockoe Examiner’s exploration of that unsolved murder of a Richmond cop here.)The police said there was always a possibility of developing new information, but nothing more was heard of the Sniper.


With time, residents of Randolph emerged from their homes and once again socialized in the evenings, feeling like there was less chance the killer was still among them. While the shadowed alleys and vacant lots of Richmond were still dangerous, the thought of this determined and implacable killer who had gripped the city in fear faded. Years, and decades passed, and the mysterious man who once moved through alleys and quietly watched illuminated rooms was largely forgotten. The Sniper now lived only in newspaper clippings, police files, and the memories of those who were inexplicably wounded or had lost a family member.


That man who once held that pistol would be eighty years old by now, and if he’s still alive, somewhere in his mind he has compartmentalized some terrible memories. Likewise, buried in the woods, or deep in the James River, or in somebody’s sock drawer is a 9mm semi-automatic pistol with a dark history. With the ever-increasing distance that separates us from sniper shootings, the chance of ever solving these slayings is impossible. The rage or insanity or whatever it was that drove the man known as the Sniper to stalk Richmonders in the early 1960s has been forever lost to time.






Anonymous said...

That same fire station on Cary is being torn down as I type!

Anonymous said...

The “high power pistol” comments from the press are likely a reference to the popular Browning Hi-power pistol: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Browning_Hi-Power

Selden said...

The fact the name of the Browning pistol got muddled up in the press with the cartridge it shoots demonstrates how unusual the caliber was in the 1960s. In addition, the Browning was used by both England and Germany in World War II so a "High Power" could easily have been among those guns brought back by returning GIs.