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36 Years Later: Remembering Virgil Payne Who Was Killed In Hoopa

“My friend Virgil Payne was killed by Humboldt County Sheriffs in Hoopa Valley in 1981. I hope I am not the only one who remembers this fine person and the suspicious circumstances in which he was killed.”

What happened to Virgil Payne, a Black-man who also attended Humboldt State University? Depending on who you ask, the story differs.

There are major discrepancies between testimony from the officers vs. alleged witnesses and those close to Payne.

According to police officers and initial newspaper reports, Payne was high on PCP and had just robbed a gas station, prompting a police chase that ended with Payne being killed.

The officers testified that Virgil wrestled with one of them for his pistol, and was shot in the struggle. Witnesses said Virgil ran from the car he was driving and was shot in the back from thirty or so feet away.

According to friends of Payne, “ballistics tests that could have confirmed either story were apparently not done. If they were done, results were not released. Witnesses’ testimony was not considered in the investigation. This incident was never adequately investigated, which caused long-lasting damage to the credibility of our law enforcement and court systems.”

Last semester, I was handed a typed, two-page paper by a former Black student at HSU. She relayed that an older African-American man had dropped the paper off at HSU’s African-American Center For Academic Excellence.

“In front of HSU’s library I found a copy of El Lenador with a picture of a Black student on the front page. David Josiah Lawson was murdered on April 15, 2017. Next to him was a picture with a question mark of another Black student who died in 2001.

“Four HSU students have been murdered in the last 40 years. Two were African-American men. Both cases remain unsolved.”

“Oh my God, I know him!” I thought to myself. But the Black student I know was killed on July 25th 1982. I looked at the article on the inside and found out that indeed they were speaking about another Black man named Corey Clark who was murdered in Eureka in 2001.

Virgil Payne, a 31-year old Black and Blackfoot native community activist was killed by Humboldt County law enforcement on the Hoopa reservation. According to John Ross, author of “Murdered by Capitalism” and The War Against Oblivion: The Zapata Chronicles, the killing under the guns of Hoopa substation deputies Tim McCollister and Dan Bessette “….is an example of the way justice operated on the Hoopa reservation.” “Despite four secret investigations,” he continues, “the D.A’s office, the coroner and the Grand Jury, the only details released to the public…were contained in two separate press releases issued by Sheriff-elect Dave Renner, officer in Charge of the Hoopa substation.”

1.) The public was informed of events leading to a struggle with the deputies in which Payne allegedly gained control of McCollister’s gun and had to be shot twice because lives were endangered.”

2.) The second press release conceded that Payne had been shot three times.

The rumor mill stated (to John Ross) that Payne was shot because he once filled depositions detailing acts of police brutality by the substation deputies against the local citizens and he had been monitoring payoffs from upcountry pot growers to substation personnel. Eyewitnesses had seen Payne shot without provocation, handcuffed, kicked and then shot again, and that the two had shaken hands in triumph….

The writer continues that he decided to leave Humboldt County two years before Payne was murdered and loaded by backpack.

“After I returned to Humboldt in the spring of ’82 Virgil asked me how I was doing. He had obviously heard something about what happened before I left. I told him I was doing fine and he asked me why I was wearing a cast on my left arm.

I had taken a white girl I knew out on a date in Eureka. After I took her home I walked back to Loleta, about 8 miles south down 101. On the road just before the first King Salmon exit, I was hit by either a car or a bat and fell unconscious. When I came to the car was gone. In the Hard-Times later I read an article warning that leaflets were being handed out around the Arcata Plaza threatening Black men seen out in the presence of white women. An incident which the local police chief declined to investigate.

A few days before the death of Virgil Payne I was walking south through Eureka in the rain headed home to Loleta and was stopped by 10 police cars and questioned for an hour out in the drizzling rain. I don’t remember being asked any questions about Virgil, though.

After the death of Virgil Payne, I felt the NAACP was highly ineffective. They came to Humboldt with good intentions and nice suits, but with all they had they got absolutely nothing done. I did to make it to the NAACP led demonstrations in front of the Eureka Courthouse.”

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One comment

  1. John Ross! Great work Tina! I may have a recorded interview with people involved.

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