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Charles Pernasilice was the last living individual of the central participants involved with the 1971 Attica prison riot and massacre and its aftermath, the worst prison uprising in American history. Other key figures emerged from the riot and inmate trials but eight individuals were the constant in the public eye through the years following the ordeal. Charley and inmate John Hill (D. 2013) had been charged with the murder of 28-year-old Attica guard William Quinn during the early hours of the upheaval.

The other six were New York Gov., and future vice president, Nelson Rockefeller (D.1979) who issued the order for 600 state police officers to fire at will into the tear gas shrouded D-Yard enclosure where hostage prison guards and hundreds of inmates huddled to shelter from the ten-minute rain of more that 2,000 bullets (10 guards and 32 prisoners would die);New York Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald, who ignored complaints about abhorrent Attica living conditions (D. 1994); Warden Vincent Mancusi, who was overwhelmed by the teeming tensions (D, 2012); State Supreme Court Judge Gilbert King who presided over the Quinn murder trial (D.1991); Ramsey Clark, former U.S. Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson and son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark (D. 2021); and William Kunstler, anti-Vietnam War activist and attorney for the Chicago Seven (D. 1995).Clark represented Pernasilice and Kunstler was Hill’s lawyer.

Haunted & Tormented To The End

Charley lived his life haunted and tormented to the end by his Attica experience. When he died, there was no next of kin on record. His body was removed from a Washington, North Carolina hospice and quickly cremated. Only weeks later would his family learn of his passing through a Social Security Administration letter telling his former wife she would begin receiving his benefits. Charley’s daughter tried to recover his ashes but, like most Americans, the family lives paycheck to paycheck and they could not afford the more than $2.300 cremation costs required by the funeral home for release of the remains.

I first met Charley as a 15-year-old runaway from a dysfunctional home life. I was a reporter for the now defunct Baltimore News American at the time and had written about a runaway shelter and soup kitchen at a local church. The church rector subsequently phoned me asking a favor. Could I take a young man under my wing and persuade him to return home? He described Charley as a bright, precocious, curious youth who was too vulnerable to abuse on Baltimore’s streets. I accepted the challenge and succeeded in persuading him to return home after speaking with his mother and smoothing a path for return.

I thought I had heard the last of Charley when I put him on the bus but he began phoning and the calls became frequent, sometimes seeking advice but more often than not just wanting someone to speak with who understood him. With somewhat similar backgrounds —we both were products of a Catholic school education and both had been alter boys — we became friends over time. I felt more like a big brother.

Island Refuge Happiest Years

Charley had lived briefly in Baltimore after his family moved from Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks island chain off North Carolina. His stepfather, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, has been stationed in the island’s small village for years. Charley said those were the happiest years of his life, where he became wedded to the sea, and where, when he died, he wanted to be cremated and his ashes strewn from Ocracoke’s sunset pier.

Back in Camillus, New York, where the family had settled, Charley, intrigued by motorcycles, decided to take an early morning joyride on a neighbor’s motorcycle, without the neighbor’s knowledge or permission. When the neighbor awakened, he reported the bike stolen. Later in the day, a New York State Trooper saw a skinny kid on a big bike and, noting it was reported stolen, arrested Charley. The neighbor refused to press charges but the state trooper did and Charley, then 16, was soon packed off to serve two years at the New York Juvenile Detention Center in Coxsackie for his one legal mistake.‌

Awarded probation when he turned 18 in 1970, Charley refused to cope with his probation officer’s advances and he jumped supervision. He hit the road hitchhiking back and forth across the country, melding into the vast Love Generation youth diaspora, living in group houses, communes, homes of acquaintances, supporting himself with odd jobs. The fling of freedom lasted until the summer of 1971 when Charley was arrested in Utah for hitchhiking. Police learned of his probation violation and shipped Charley back to Coxsackie, NY. He never made it. There was no available space for him. The 19-year-old juvenile offender was ordered to be diverted to Attica.


January 28, 2024

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