John Eugene Eklund terrorized the black community in Washington in the 1940s

Mildred Washington18, had a bad feeling about the person following her and her boyfriend, Hylan McClaine17, as they crossed Rock Creek Park on the K Street Bridge in the early morning of October 15, 1940.

She had reason to be afraid. The newspapers were full of stories about a gunman terrorizing the black community in Washington. The press had dubbed him the “sniper” for the way he appeared and disappeared with ease. “Oh, you’re crazy,” McClaine said. “This man does not think of us.”

This man was. He raised a .38 caliber pistol and fired three rounds at McClaine, killing him. Mildred saw the assailant by the light of a street lamp and was able to describe him to the police: a white man in his twenties wearing a brown suit and no hat.

This description was printed in all the newspapers. Only one, the African American from Washington, commissioned a cartoon likeness of the attacker. The Afro had been following the case from the start, how on October 6, Theodore Goffney and Sam Banks were shot while sitting on a bench in front of 2600 I Street NW. How Jack Sharkey was shot on September 2 but survived.

“I’m not afraid of anything I can see,” Sharkey told the Afro reporter. Sam Lacy. “But when something comes out of the darkness behind me, silently, and ignites with a gun, there’s nothing I can do.”

Two Afro staff members – a photographer and a company reporter returning to their car after covering a party – believed they had been followed by the shooter, who turned and fled only when he heard one of them say, “I think that’s the sniper.

Among those obsessed with the cover of Afro was an unexpected reader, a 25-year-old white man named John Eugene Eklund. He was a George Washington University dropout and former Hot Shoppes waiter. Eklund’s mother lived in Washington but he lived in Baltimore, where he worked in an aircraft factory.

A named acquaintance Herbert Ray told police that Eklund had filled his room with clippings about the sniper, including those from the Afro. The friend noticed that Eklund had stopped wearing his brown suit and started wearing a hat. Eklund had a .38 caliber pistol but got rid of it. And Ray said Eklund was gathering tools to take to a wooded area near the Virginia side of the 14th Street Bridge to extract bullets from a tree stump he had used as a target.

Fearing for his own life, Ray turned Eklund into authorities. Police arrived at the tree stump before Eklund and said the bullets found were from the same gun that killed the three black men.

Prosecutors alleged that “intense racial hatred” motivated Eklund to stalk his victims. Eklund maintained his innocence. On June 23, 1941, an all-white jury found him guilty of the first degree murder of McClaine. There was only one penalty: death by electrocution. Afro noted that this was the first time in the district that a white man had been sentenced to death for the murder of a black man.

Eklund’s lawyers appealed, and when it turned out that Ray, the witness, had perjured himself – he claimed to have no criminal record despite having served time for burglary and perjury – Eklund was granted a new trial.

Eklund’s plea was the same, not guilty, as was much of the testimony. This time, however, police said they had the murder weapon, unearthed in a Baltimore park on the tip of a jailhouse informant with whom Eklund had shared a cell.

On July 10, 1942, the case went before the jury. That evening, when he got out of the U.S. Marshals van to take him back to the District Jail, a handcuffed Eklund fled. He evaded the police for nearly two days before being arrested.

The Brief Inspired Episode Scott Hart of the Washington Post to rave: “He did not say where he wandered in his short harassed freedom, why he chose to wander with priceless but ruinous audacity in a city where the cry of every siren of police motorcycle must have burned his eardrums like hot wires.

The captured Eklund told reporters, “I was trying to beat a bum rap.”

While Eklund was at large, the jury returned a verdict: guilty of second degree murder. Eklund was spared from the chair and sentenced to 15 years to life.

The National Archives shared some of the documents related to Eklund’s incarceration. He was first sent to prison in Atlanta, where he assaulted other inmates and was considered an escape risk. In 1949, he was transferred to Alcatraz. After four years at Alcatraz, he was sent to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he spent a year before returning to Atlanta. He was later transferred to the borough of Lewisburg in Pennsylvania.

Some sources suggest that Eklund was paroled in the 1960s. On June 1, 1996, he died in Polk County, Florida. Later generations of Washingtonians would have their own snipers to deal with.

About Bradley J. Bridges

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