The day after the June 4, 1969 murder of Santa Ana policeman Nelson Sasscer, Daniel Michael Lynem faced two choices when officers arrived at his home to arrest him. The leader of the Santa Ana branch of the Black Panther Party could either go out in glorious blaze of bullets or surrender. An innocent Lynem laid down his arms. Two black Santa Ana policeman cuffed the 22-year-old, but not before punching him in the face.
Lynem spent a month in jail before the Orange County District Attorney’s office dropped murder charges against him. “People still are interested, want to hear and are fascinated about my story,” he says. “It’s opened some doors for me to able to share and speak into people’s lives.”
In “Murder Was the Case,” a Sept. 2009 cover story, the Weekly revisited Lynem’s history, the Black Panther Party’s presence in Santa Ana, and the controversial Sasscer trial that ended with the second-degree murder conviction of Arthur League, a fellow Santa Ana panther.
A decade later, the story still resonates.
Young Santa Ana activists unofficially rechristen Sasscer Park in downtown as “Black Panther Park” whenever marches and rallies for all sorts of radical causes end up there. “I have mixed feelings about it because I don’t regret my days as a Black Panther,” Lynem says, “but at the same time, as a Christian, knowing that man lost his life is not something I can rejoice in. That grieves me.”
But just how did Lynem find himself involved in a group that notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once deemed the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States? It’s an intriguing tale that gains him invitations to speak on his path from panther to pastor, as he will this evening to close out the Heritage Museum of Orange County’s Black History Month programming.
Born in 1947, Lynem faced much anti-black racism during his youthful days in Santa Ana. It baptized a sense of injustice that later attracted him to the Black Panthers. Tommy Crockett set up a field office on First and Raitt Street, only the Los Angeles chapter of the party never authorized the Santa Ana branch. LA Panthers like Geronimo Pratt came down to set things straight, pistol whipping Crockett while making Lynem the official branch’s new leader.
But the Sasscer murder dealt a blow to the Santa Ana panthers, who never recovered. Odis Grimes and League went into hiding with Orange County district attorney Cecil Hicks charging them in the young policeman’s death alongside Lynem. The duo hid out in the home of actor Donald Sutherland before authorities arrested them. “Panther Lynem Freed” read the front page headline of the July 4, 1969 issue of Santa Ana Register. Charges against Grimes were also dropped. With the Santa Ana panthers in shambles, Lynem continued with the Los Angeles chapter but quit a day before the infamous Dec. 8, 1969 siege at the panther’s headquarters where Los Angeles police SWAT officers engaged in an hours-long shoot out with the black militant group.
All the while, the dubious League trial continued until a jury could only convict him of second degree murder for which he spent seven years in jail. While writing “Murder Was the Case” in 2009, League and Lynem connected by phone for the first time since 1977. “I have not seen or talked to him since then,” Lynem says. “Maybe I’ll get a chance to see him one day. It’d be good to do that.”
For now, the 72-year-old retiree lives in Orange and is still very involved in church life. “A lot of my focus has to do with the church because I’m a Christian and my values are very conservative,” Lynem says. He’s happy to still be living to tell his tale while remembering those who aren’t. Two people featured in the cover story, Amin David and Robert “Bob” Stebbens, have since passed on, both due to cancer. Lynem and Stebbens, a former Santa Ana police captain, forged an unlikely friendship. Lynem fell into drugs and stints in prison for robberies committed to support his addiction during life after the panthers. He found Christ and, alongside Stebbens, shared the story of how the former archenemies came together, proving that, in faith, all things are possible.
“I have a lot of respect for Bob,” Lynem reflects. “He put his career on the line.” The two once did an event years back where Stebbens not only called Lynem his “Brother in Christ” but one of his best friends in front of an audience of local politicos. “No doubt about it, he was going to be the next chief of police in Santa Ana but that killed that whole thing right there for him,” Lynem says.
In these times, racism is something still very much on Lynem’s mind. He just finished reading Jamer Tisby’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. In his estimation, race relations have changed since his time as a 60’s black militant, but not for the better. “The kind of racism that’s coming out, especially from the right, is something that’s always been there,” Lynem says. “What they’re exposing in their conversations is what’s always been in their heart.”
Lynem calls himself very biblical in his thinking. These days he preaches sobriety at a local HisPlace church to addicts struggling to find their way. It’s part of an arc in life that included a stint with the Black Panthers, a time and a place in history that he doesn’t regret at all.
“I have fond memories of people I developed relationship with like Elaine Brown,” he says of the first (and only) chairwoman of the party. “Geronimo Pratt got out of prison and reached out to me. We were going to do lunch, but never got a chance to do that.” In a twist of irony, Everett Dickey, the prosecutor in the League case later became an Orange County superior court judge and ordered Pratt’s release in 1997 for a murder he didn’t commit.
“My heart was there,” he says of the struggle. “I don’t look back at that as a terrible time in my life.”
Reflections from a Black Panther: Daniel Michael Lynem at Heritage Museum of Orange County, 3101 W. Harvard St., Santa Ana. Tonight, 7 p.m. Free.
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!