– The tattooed man had drowned in the sand. Or so it seemed. When police found the body of the athletic young white male on the gray morning of October, 1996, he was partially buried on a public beach. The colors on the silvery body were startling. There was red, sure, but New York City detectives are used to seeing blood. This body was inked, ripped, and scattered like pages from a comic book.
The black eyes on a two-foot-long tattoo, a neck-to-belly shrouded apparition with perfect fingernails, seemed to follow Robert DeLeon, a practiced Queens detective, as he circled the riddle. The right arm had been dyed with a green dragon, its tail wrapped neatly around a fiercelooking biceps. Cops and the morgue-wagon boys argued whether the character holding the scythe on the man’s punctuated chest was the grim reaper or the angel of death. One homicide detective, who had handled some occult murders, said he recognized a red-eyed skull on the left shoulder as a screaming demon. Among the tumbleweed kids who blew through the beach community, satanic chic was now considered casual wear.
“Great,” Detective DeLeon announced. “We got a dead warlock.”
The deceased was about six foot two and 190 pounds. They found a parole officer’s business card in his black jeans, which made sense, because the guy still had his jail muscles. He was a collection of rivets and earrings, with a harsh mustache, a sunken Irish chin, and a sandy goatee. His mouth and nostrils were stuffed with sand. His head had been partially severed at the neck. His hazel-eyed, unshaven face was frozen in a pale gasp. The corpse looked quite surprised to be dead.
They threw a sheet over the skull on his left shoulder and bagged him.
The Brooklyn and Queens beaches, once known as New York City’s Irish Riviera, had become a catch basin for nomadic kids with problems. Many lived under the creaking wooden boardwalks and spent their days reeking of creosote and pot. DeLeon figured drugs and booze played a role in the savage killing, maybe satanism, and certainly a jail tale. Maybe even sex and a little kickass skinhead outburst, too. As he measured and poked his fresh puzzle, DeLeon recognized one truth: The killer or killers were in a raw, bloody rage. The warlock murder was not a thinking crime.
By then, detectives had fished a New York State driver’s license out of the dead man’s black-dungaree pocket. They quickly put a signature on the unsigned canvas. The shredded painting was named James Winston, aged twenty-four.
In a letter the kid had written home to his mother from prison, Winston foreshadowed his death at the end of a historical drama: “Your negative past can haunt you just as much as your positive future, leaving you trapped between heaven and hell.”
A few hours after identifying Winston’s tattooed corpse, the city cops stood under a fluttering holstein-cow flag hanging from a cape home in Suffolk County, fifty miles distant. Robert DeLeon, holding Winston’s driver’s license and his mug shot, knocked on the door of Louise Smith. Louise opened the door and shuddered. DeLeon handed her the license, and as soon as she felt it, she said she knew. “It’s so warm,” she said. “You are here to tell me my son is dead.”
Louise was fifty, with blond hair, attractive in a leathery, last-call sort of way. The cops noticed the tattoo on her left arm, a blue-and-white butterfly flying through broken glass. “My friends call me Papillon,” Louise explained. “I just flutter through the bad shit.” She told the cops that her son was a surfer kid who was living in Long Beach.
A faded ocean resort about fifteen miles from the Queens strand where Winston’s body was found, Long Beach advertises itself as the “City by the Sea” on flapping blue banners at every traffic light. The town is a two-mile-wide stretch that runs seven miles long on a barrier island off the southwestern tip of Long Island. Long Beach is seedy, like bad Florida. Once, it was a summer haven for wealthy vacationers. But as the fifties ended and state parkways improved, the richest of the Silent Generation discovered a more affluent quiet in the Hamptons. In the early 1970s, the city fell into disrepair and became home to large numbers of the impoverished, the old, and the mentally ill. Today, there are about thirty-five thousand people crowded into four sections of the city -lower- and middle-class Irish and Italians in the west, blacks in housing projects in the north, middle-income Jews and nursing-home residents in the south, middle- to upper-class Jews in the east. For kids like Winston and others before him, everything there was a high: the drugs, the waves, the sex, the violence.
Robert DeLeon and his colleagues headed back from the country to see the cops of Long Beach.
The town cops, part of a seventy-nine-officer department, worked about thirty-five hundred cases a year. Several of the detectives there had seen James Winston around. He was a surfer dude, they explained, a homeless kid who lived under the boardwalk in the summer. “He looked like Satan,” one cop told me, “but he was as sweet as Jesus.”
A few cops said there were rumors that Winston had tried to rob the Bagel Club, a town hangout about a block south of the Long Beach police station. It was an absurd crime. The kids -two of them- had climbed into a crawl space while the store was open. Wearing hoods, they fell through the ceiling near the cash register and a black-and-white autographed picture of Senator Al D’Amato. Although the store was open, no one gave chase, because they were all too busy laughing. One witness reported seeing a human tattoo rush out the door.
The manager of the store, Mark Langerman, was an amended drug addict turned Jesus freak who wore a large silver cross around his neck and ran a ministry on the side. Mark was a bit loopy and fit in perfectly with the collection of surfers, dirt bikers, weight lifters, and flailing moshpit dancers who hung at the Bagel Club. “Maybe you can’t walk on my ceiling,” Mark preached to his bagel-chomping congregation, “but if you believe in Christ, you can walk on water.” He told the city cops that one of the kids who fell onto his floor was Michael Blum, who used to work at the Bagel Club. Blum was a decent, even soft kid with solid parents. Before DeLeon went to see them, he learned that Blum was picked up on the night of the murder by someone driving a loud red Chevy Nova. So when he went to the Blums’ house, he knew to ask the kid’s mother, “Which one of Michael’s friends has the loud car?”
“Joey LaMarca,” Mrs. Blum replied.
When DeLeon went back to the Long Beach police station and mentioned LaMarca to the detectives there, they scowled. He was a handsome weight lifter with a drug problem, they explained. Then one old-timer stepped forward.
“His father was a cop here,” he told DeLeon. “Sergeant Vincent A. LaMarca. He was our supervisor.”
“Tell him the whole story” someone said.
“Did you ever hear of the Weinberger kidnapping?” an other cop asked. “Happened in 1956. A baby snatch. They caught the guy and executed him in Sing. He was one of the last men electrocuted before Rockefeller came in.” “So?” DeLeon said.
“Angelo was the father of our sergeant, Vincent 42, LaMarca, who used to be married to the stepdaughter of the Long Beach police commissioner. The wife, Linda, left Vinnie for another man, and the marriage died. Vinnie stayed here for another ten years, but the wife wouldn’t let him get near the kids. Your suspect, Joey LaMarca, is the grandson of the notorious kidnapper. His father, Vincent, the son of public enemy number one, became a cop. He served twenty years and then retired. The public never knew.”
Vincent LaMarca lives in Florida now. “The only murder dumber than my father’s,” he says, “is my son’s.”
Much later-several months after I had begun to follow the case, after I’d learned of this forty-year generational saga-I went to see Vincent LaMarca, the hero cop whose life is poised between two murders. He now lives in a Punta Corda, Florida, retirement community with his second wife, who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Long Beach. They share the kind of mobile home that Floridians call a side-by-side trailer. I was surprised by how comfortable the place was. His parents’ wedding picture was on one wall, just across from a picture of Joey.
We were standing in Vincent LaMarca’s kitchen. His first police-memo book, badge, and pair of handcuffs were in a little wood-framed box near the refrigerator. Vigorous, slightly balding, with a precise mustache, Vinnie is a measured man. When he spoke, I noticed later, he argued about fortune and bad luck with his hands out, palms up to the heavens. He believes in responsibility. Still. He believes in the death penalty. Still.
I showed him a term in the dictionary that fit his family’s story. Vincent LaMarca told me that he later went back to study the word. It is atavism. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines it this way: “In medicine, the recurrence in a descendant of any abnormality or disease of an ancestor.”
The Weinberger kidnapping on July 4, 1956, 5 remembered because it was agonizing: the stealing of a baby for ransom. But the abduction of and search for little Peter Howard Weinberger, just thirty-three days old, are remembered also because the crime changed the way we lived. It made suburban America feel vulnerable. No parent could ever again leave a baby alone in a stroller. Young mothers locked their doors -just as their parents had in the cities their children had fled. Worry-that was the LaMarca family legacy to the suburbs.
Angelo LaMarca was an army veteran from East New York, Brooklyn, who had no job and no place to live after World War II. He arrived in England two months after D-day and drove a supply truck. He was court-martialed in 1944 after going AWOL. He never dated until he met Donna, then sixteen, whom he married on June 9, 1946. They waited for America’s housing boom in a Quonset hut. Levittown, the nation’s first community of assembly-line homes, wouldn’t accept them. Finally, ten years after they got married, Angelo, Donna, and their two young children moved to a $14,700 house in a new development in Plainview. The town, located in Nassau County about twenty miles from the Queens border, was being hammered into place like a picket fence around urban crime.
Angelo was a taxi dispatcher and also worked for $1.8o an hour at North American Van Lines. But he couldn’t afford the $116 monthly mortgage payment, and he was $1,800 in debt, including $900 owed on a freezer, $500 for storm windows, and $400 to a loan shark. Desperate, Angelo found himself, that holiday Wednesday, driving through Westbury, a new middle-class town about seven miles southwest of Plainview, in his beat-up green 1951 Plymouth. He believed there was money to be made in this neighborhood. Three years earlier, a Brooklyn department-store owner, Eugene Ferkauf, thought the same thing. Ferkauf saw the new homes and, realizing there was no place nearby to shop, understood the commercial potential of catering to the middle class. He built the first suburban E. J. Korvette’s -a ninety-thousand-square-foot department store with a vast parking lot.
The Weinbergers lived at 17 Albemarle Road, in a $50,000 white-shuttered ranch in Westbury’s Wheatley Villa section, only a short distance from Korvette’s. Although their relatives were Democrats from the Gold Coast of Long Island, the Weinbergers weren’t rich and they weren’t famous.
Around 3:oo P.M., Beatrice Zeifman Weinberger put her month-old, nine-pound son, Peter, in a carriage on the patio to get some air. Peter was wearing a diaper and a yellow-and-white kimono and a peaked yellow cap, and he was wrapped in a yellow receiving blanket. His father, Morris, a thriving wholesale druggist, took their older son, Lewis, aged two, for a ride. Betty Weinberger pulled the mosquito netting over the carriage and went inside to put some baby gifts away.
She never noticed a bushy-haired man sitting in a green Plymouth. The guy held up a newspaper to hide his face as two kids walked past to play baseball.
Ten minutes later, Betty saw that the netting was open. She walked over to fix it and discovered an empty carriage. Beneath it, on the flagstones, lay a note written in green ink on a sheet of paper torn from a child’s schoolbook. The note read:
I’m sorry this had to happen, but I am in bad need of money, & couldn’t get it any other way. Don’t tell anyone or go to the police about this, because I am watching you closely. I am scared stiff, & will kill the baby at your first wrong move. Just put $2000 (two thousand) in small bills in a brown envelope, & place it next to the sign post at the corner of Albemarle Rd. and Park Ave. at exactly 10 o’clock tomorrow (Thursday) morning. If everything goes smooth, I will bring the baby back & leave him on the same corner “Safe & Happy” at exactly 12 noon. No excuses, I can’t wait! Your Baby sitter.
Edward Curran was the cop who led the greatest manhunt in the history of Long Island. “Frank Abramowitz was catching cases that day,” Curran, now gray and in his mid-seventies, recalled for me. “He came in and said, ‘They got a baby missing out in Westbury.’ To me, that was illogical. We had no serious crime. How the hell could a baby be missing in the new suburbia? We were a younger society with young children, and only rich babies were kidnapped. The Weinbergers weren’t the Lindberghs, so this middle-class kidnapping was scarier.”
Panicked the next morning by reporters who paraded around the drop-off point, LaMarca left Peter in the woods, face-down. Six days after the kidnapping, he made a second ransom demand by phone.
“Put the money in a blue cloth bag and take it to Exit 28. You’ll find a note, and it will tell you where to find the baby,” the kidnapper told Betty Weinberger.
“You’re only giving me half an hour,” she protested.
“That’s all. You can make it in fifteen minutes. I know. I already done it. I’ll be watching as you go by.”
The cops taped the call and later picked up a second note under some discarded car-seat covers belonging to a 1951 Plymouth. The FBI-which by law could not enter a kidnapping case until a week had elapsed-joined the case the following day.
“The notes were the biggest leads we had,” said Curran. “There was a distinctive characteristic in sixteen characters of the alphabet. His script M looked like a Z. We made up what we called ‘the Happy Birthday Letter,’ a note using all the letters. Everybody we arrested was asked to write the letter.”
The Weinberger kidnapping became a national sensation. Newspapers trumpeted false leads-a baby found in the Harlem River, a South Carolina man arrested for extortion. Fifty-five teams of federal agents and Nassau County cops worked without rivalry around the clock for weeks. When local cops ran out of money, the federal agents bought them dinner. In addition, eighty FBI graphologists, sent to New York by J. Edgar Hoover, taught a special course in spotting the handwriting peculiarities to policemen, who then began checking signatures on everything from court documents and car-license registrations to tax records and probation files.
Almost seven weeks after the kidnapping, a probation officer in Brooklyn told the FBI-Nassau County team that he had left three files on his secretary’s desk. One of the three belonged to a Plainview man who had just finished his probation after being caught with his father and brother building a still in Suffolk County. His name was Angelo LaMarca, and he tilted his M’s on their sides so they looked like Z’s.
A few days later, when Angelo came home with Donna after dropping their kids off at his parents’, cops and FBI agents were waiting at his doorstep.
“What do you want?” Angelo asked them.
They told him and displayed their warrants.
“What’s wrong? What’s happened?” Donna wanted to know.
“Don’t worry about anything,” the husband insisted.
At that point, the cooperation between the feds and the Nassau County cops broke down. The “package,” as they referred to LaMarca over the police radio, was whisked from Plainview to the old New York FBI headquarters on Manhattan’s East Side at 2:30 in the morning. When Curran arrived and asked to see his prisoner, he was refused and had to sit in a radio room. He finally demanded to see the local FBI chief, James J. Kelly. “You can’t arrest him,” Curran yelled at Kelly. “You have no jurisdiction. LaMarca never crossed a state line. You know it and I know it.”
Curran was led into the room with LaMarca as the FBI guys watched through the two-way glass. “Angelo, my name is Ed Curran,” he said. “I am the only friend you have. I am Elmont-born. I live on the same street as your parents. These guys are looking to screw you. Start talking now, because if it’s up to J. Edgar Hoover, well, he’ll put you in the chair.”
Curran then led Donna LaMarca into the room. She was mortified to think her husband was involved. “Angelo!” Donna yelled. “Did you kidnap this child? Think of that baby’s mother, Angelo. If you did this and I was the mother, I would want to know where he is.”
“Get her out of here!,” the prisoner screamed. Then he began to confess.
They found a baby’s bones in the woods with a diaper pin. Little Peter had been dead almost from the start of the fifty-five-day manhunt, suffocated in a honeysuckle patch by Exit 37 of the Northern State Parkway. When Angelo’s brother Anthony heard the news, he remarked, “If I’da known it was him, I woulda killed him myself.”
Nassau County district attorney Frank Gulotta personally tried the case with his assistant, Hank DeVine. Gulotta had spent a lot of time at the Weinberger house. A Republican, he was the first Italian elected to countywide office and was determined to prove he was worthy. When one of her Democratic relatives had suggested that the police could be doing more, Betty Weinberger, a schoolteacher on maternity leave, snapped, “Oh, stop it. Republicans look just as hard for Democratic babies as they do Republican babies.”
At the trial, LaMarca put a psychiatrist on the stand. Dr. Thomas Cusack testified that the accused had “a diseased mind.” But the all-male jury -ten fathers and two grandfathers- wasn’t convinced that dunning letters from creditors could drive a man to murder. As his wife and mother fainted, Angelo John LaMarca was sentenced to the chair.
Frank Gulotta-boosted by the LaMarca prosecution went on to become a state Supreme Court justice and a chief judge of New York’s appellate division. His son, Thomas Gulotta, is the Nassau County executive, perhaps the third-most-important elected official in New York State, after the governor and the New York City mayor. Edward Curran eventually became Nassau County’s first deputy police commissioner before retiring some twenty years ago. When Curran’s own son was born, the Weinbergers-whose two other boys, one born before and the other after the kidnapping, became dentists- attended the baptism. The elder Weinbergers later moved to Pompano Beach, Florida, where they both died. Before he passed away, Morris Weinberger, then seventy-nine, told a Long Island newspaper, “I don’t think about the kidnapping, because there is no sense in crying over spilled milk. You have to live life the way it was presented.”
“This was the crime that changed us,” Frank Gulotta said before he died in 1989. “Nothing like it had ever happened before in the suburbs.”
Edward Curran ran the investigation that led to the arrest, conviction and execution of LaMarca.
A Queens detective, Richie Sica, went to the Bagel Club and talked to Mark Langerman, the born-again manager. Mark claimed that Joey LaMarca had come to him after smoking angel dust for a week and begun talking about salvation. “I want to walk with Jesus,” Joey told Mark.
Mostly, Joey wanted help with his drug problem. He had been in and out of mental institutions for years. Mark promised to make the Jesus introductions, and in return Joey promised to find the guys who’d fallen out of Mark’s ceiling. Joey found Blum and brought him back, and after an apology Mark said all was forgiven. Joey said he would find the other guy that night. He seemed drugged and obsessed. The next day, Joey came back and said the second guy who’d fallen through the roof wouldn’t be returning. Mark asked if he’d killed the guy. Joey didn’t answer but asked for money. Mark sent him away empty-handed. The whole thing seemed pretty crazy to him.
Joey LaMarca lived in a two-bedroom apartment a block from the beach with his girlfriend, Jannie Glavin. When the cops talked to her, she reported that Joey had come home the night of the murder with a cut hand. He was with a friend who had a knife wound in his left shoulder. She patched them both up with gauze, but they needed stitches, so in the morning they went to see a veterinarian in Island Park, who sewed them up. No one could figure out how the two had got cut, and the guys really weren’t talking.
Joey borrowed some money, fled Long Beach, and headed by bus to North Carolina. His mother, Linda LaMarca, had no idea where her son had gone. She called the Long Beach police to file a missing-person’s report. A Long Beach cop was in her living room three days after James Winston’s murder, filling out the report, when the phone rang. It was Joey. Linda invited the cop to pick up and listen in.
“Where are you, Joey?”
“I had to leave town, Mom.”
“Well, I had to kill a guy the other night in the Rockaways.”
Linda, the daughter and former wife of police officers, knew the routine. “Don’t say nothing more, Joey, because a cop is on the phone.”
A few days later, DeLeon got the name of Joey’s suspected accomplice, a black kid named Willie Davis, who also had a drug problem. Davis, twenty-five, had a seventeen-year-old girlfriend who wanted no part of the murder. She had just finished saying she had no idea how to find Willie when her beeper sounded. It was Willie. The girl agreed to help the cops capture him peacefully at a subway station in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, later that day, October 16, 1996.
Willie then gave DeLeon a signed five-page confession:
I met Joey LaMarca in 1995 after I got out of jail. In June or July I started dealing drugs with him. On Oct. 8 … Joey came to me …. He said we were going to get somebody … He said he was going to tell the kid that they were going to rob a drug dealer … Joey said he had to get the guy for Mark from the bagel store …. They came back about 10:30 p.m…. and they had the kid with them. Joey took me aside and told me we were going to fuck this kid up. He told me he was going to hit me off with a couple of gee’s, he was going to take care of me …. The kid came out and got in the back seat …. We drove to Rockaway … As we were walking on the beach Joey just stabbed the kid in the back. The kid swung around and said What are you doing Joey. Joey didn’t say anything and the kid started running away. Joey yelled to me to grab him …. I tackled the kid by the pipes …. Joey came up and jumped on us. He stabbed the kid a few more times and then stabbed me in the back by accident …. The kid was swinging wild with his hands …. I had a good hold on him and then Joey cut his throat. The kid went wild …. I hit him against the pipe and knocked the wind out of him. Joey got on the kid’s chest and was stabbing him. The kid was trying to say fuck and spit up blood on Joey. Joey put sand in the kid’s mouth …. I went down by the water and washed myself off. Joey came into the water and washed himself off.
They finally found Joey near Houston, in Buffalo, Texas, in a house with some people he’d met at the bus station. DeLeon had enlisted the help of the Texas Rangers to find him. The cops discovered Joey lying in bed, unarmed. He had just finished writing his suicide note.
The rangers liked Joey. He regaled them with tales of his grandfather and the Weinberger kidnapping; he had collected a briefcase full of newspaper history on the case, which he carried with him. Even in Texas, where they were just getting warmed to execute sixteen convicted murderers in May and June, police were captivated by the tale of the LaMarcas. “I can’t remember a case where we executed the grandson of someone we executed,” said Jeff Cook, the Texas Ranger who helped DeLeon.
Vincent Anthony LaMarca, named after his grandfather Vincenzo, is fifty now. But he still bumps into the memory of his last visit with his father. Vinnie was eleven and had just spent several hours riding the train from Grand Central Station to Ossining, New York. He can see his father, gray and fading in Sing Sings condemned cell. Angelo had melted since his arrest twenty-three months earlier. He had never talked about God before, but he whispered and wrote about him all the time now.
Angelo’s letters were remarkable. The envelopes, addressed to the LaMarcas’ new home in Point Lookout, just east of Long Beach and about twenty miles south of Plainview, were marked CONDEMNED CELLS in red, with a return address of 354 Hunter Street, Ossining, New York. Each letter from Sing Sing carried a circular stamp that read CORRESPONDENCE DEPARTMENT CENSOR.
Angelo called the chamber next to Old Sparky “the Dance Hall.” When Vinnie read that, it made him wince. His father was allowed to write three letters a day. Angelo’s looping handwriting steadied as death approached. Writing seemed to calm him, and he began to compose poetry, too. One poem was called “A Love Stronger than Steel.” “I am trapped in a web of cold iron and steel,” it began, ‘for something I did when my mind wasn’t right.
The old man also learned to draw in jail and made sketches with a draftsman’s detail. He sent his relatives pencil drawings of the Holy Family. His daughter, Vivian, three years younger than Vinnie, got a sketch of a fawn on her birthday. Angelo wasn’t able to take Vinnie fishing, so he drew an intricate cartoon of a dozing hobo fishing with his bare feet on an island. The caption read, “Do you like to fish like this?”
Dear Vinnie and Vivian,
Gosh I was happy to see both of you & enjoyed your visit very much. Did you? Say Vince, didn’t our two beautiful girls (Mother & Vivian) look sweet all dressed up in yellow today? Boy, bet you were proud to be walking with them & everybody that sees them says how lovely they look. You know I am glad to see you dressed as a handsome little gentleman escorting our two beautiful ladies. Say, I hope you are watching all the wolves around nowadays, before one of them steals their love from us. No, I’m sure you wouldn’t let them-right? Bless you! That reminds me … I thought you were on my side, but when you say it’s okay for Mother to miss a visit, you are going against me son. It is up to you to make sure I see all of you as often as possible & not let me miss any visits…
Your ever loving dad,
During the winter of 1957, ten-year-old Vinnie came to two sudden and scary realizations: There was no Santa Claus, and his father really did kidnap and murder the Weinberger baby. Vinnie can remember asking his dad about the murder. Angelo never said he did it but never said he didn’t do it, either. The last letter that Angelo wrote was the only one the prison censor wouldn’t mail. It was addressed to Donna but was really meant for the mother of the kidnapped baby. In it Angelo asked for forgiveness. “How could I do such a thing when I got two children of my own to think about?” Angelo wrote.
All of the kids in his Long Beach elementary school knew that Vinnie was spending his weekends with his dad on death row. They tormented him, saying, “Your old man is gonna fry for what he done to that poor baby.” During one visit, on August 5, 1958, Angelo hugged and kissed Vinnie and picked a speck of lint off his shirt. The adults decided to spare Vinnie a scene and didn’t tell him that the last of his old man’s six appeals had failed.
Death row had a sour scent of unclean men. Vinnie still smelled of stale disinfectant when he got home. Like shame, the prison musk never seemed to wash away. Two days later, on August 7, 1958, Vinnie went swimming. It was his father’s execution day. “I never knew it was the last visit,” Vincent LaMarca said. So he really never got to say the last goodbye and grew up feeling stained and culpable.
Ten years after the execution, Vinnie got all the letters and his mother’s correspondence, too. Vinnie knew his parents better than most kids know theirs because he read their most intimate thoughts about each other. Vinnie kept the death-row letters in a Cherokee shoe box in a crawl space above his bed for twenty years. That couldn’t have eased the nightmares.
Sometimes, long after the execution, Vinnie felt so tormented that, like his father, he wrote his own poetry. One poem was titled “The Truth We Choose.” It was about free will. Vincent A. LaMarca explained, ‘All actions or reactions should pass the test of being reasonable to most.”
Even before the execution, an amazing thing started to happen, something that probably could not happen now. New York and the nation realized that Angelo LaMarca wasn’t much of a monster. After reading about the destitute kidnapper’s family, people began to send them anonymous gifts, including cash. “I am sending you five dollars in memory of my daughter Alice, who was here last Christmas but has since passed away,” one note read. “I wish you would buy a dress for your daughter in memory of my Alice.” Young Vincent and Vivian posed for a photograph in the New York Daily News, which showed them praying over a bed of gifts that included clothing, toys, games, cakes, breads, puddings, several turkeys, eight chickens, and an infant doll in a baby carriage much like Peter Weinberger’s.
The LaMarcas were virtually adopted by the Nassau County Police Department. When her kids got sick, Donna called the local precinct, and the police surgeon rushed over. “The cops did not want the children to suffer for the sins of the father,” Vincent said thirty-five years later. “I was shamed and embarrassed. The kindness of the cops and strangers was astounding.”
Vinnie was in a seminary before entering the police academy. “I guess I wanted to become a cop to clean up my family name,” he told me. “My mother was so proud at the graduation. I can still see her crying. We could never be vindicated, but it lessened the shame. I remember Vincenzo LaMarca, my grandfather -Angelo’s father-came to the graduation ceremony, too. Later, in Long Beach, my grandfather couldn’t believe he could walk into a precinct and see me working. The cops he met didn’t want to talk about Angelo. The cops were taking orders from the son of a kidnapper.”
There was another ceremony, in which Vincent LaMarca was sworn in as a member of the Long Beach Police Department. The scheduled speaker was Edward Curran, the cop who had led the manhunt that had nabbed Vinnie LaMarca’s father. “Someone came up to me and said, ‘Angelo LaMarca’s kid is in the front row,'” Curran recalled years later. “I sent someone to ask him if he would be uncomfortable if I spoke. I didn’t want some cop saying to him, ‘Hey, that’s the guy that fried your old man.’ That would have happened, too. I was proud for the kid,” Cumin said. “The son of the most notorious figure in the history of our police department was in our police academy. I sent someone else to speak to the class in my place.”
The same cops and prosecutors who had captured Angelo and seen him executed were happy to teach his son. None of them ever picked up a phone and dimed him out to a newspaper as the son of a baby killer. They hid him behind a blue wall of decency, where, protected, he grew to become a great cop.
Vinnie’s honesty was legendary. When he pulled over the new town judge for a traffic violation, he refused to back down, seeing the case through to conviction with a substitute judge. But his greatest arrest came on a strip of the same beach that prosecutor Frank Gulotta had told a jury of husbands Angelo LaMarca used to sneak off to with sweater girls. Vincent was driving along the boardwalk one night when he heard screams in the dark. Four men were gang-raping a woman beneath the boardwalk after beating her boyfriend. Officer LaMarca sneaked up behind them, wrestled one to the ground, and knocked another cold. He fired a warning shot into the sand, the only time he fired his gun, and the other two guys froze. It was a heroic act. The rapists, who were from South America, were deported. They had attacked three other couples under the boardwalk.
When Vinnie went to see the district attorney on the case, he wound up speaking to Hank DeVine, the prosecutor who, along with Frank Gulotta, had talked a jury into executing his father.
“You have the right name and are about the right age,” Hank DeVine said. “Are you related to Angelo LaMarca?”
“He was my father,” Vincent said. Hank DeVine asked him back to his office and took the kid through the old case files. Vinnie read every transcript. DeVine picked up the phone and called Frank Gulotta, who by then was on the bench.
“I just met Angelo LaMarca’s boy,” Hank DeVine said. “He’s on our team now.”
Vincent got married to a local girl, Linda Crisci, the daughter of a police matron and the stepdaughter of the Long Beach police commissioner. He named his first son John Angelo because he was too ashamed to name him after his own father. Three years later, a second son, Joseph, was born.
By the mid-seventies, Vinnie’s marriage was falling apart. He caught Linda with another man and moved out for good. When his wife’s affair ended, she wanted him back, but he couldn’t see it -a terrible career decision, he knew, because his father-in-law was his police commissioner. He was passed over for three promotions. He sued successfully, citing a civil rights violation, and won a jury verdict that required the town to promote him to lieutenant with $16,666 in back pay.
In 1977, after divorcing Linda, he married Susan Weinstein; their wedding ceremony was performed by the judge Vinnie had once ticketed. Linda grew embittered. For years, she fought Vincent to keep custody of their two sons but couldn’t stop the younger, Joey, from doing drugs in the house. Vinnie tried to get custody but failed. He tried to stay close to his sons but maintains that his former wife poisoned their relationship. Finally, in 1989, he decided to retire, at the age of forty-two. His older son moved near him in Florida, but Joseph stayed with his mother in Long Beach.
As Vinnie and I were speaking several months ago in his Florida kitchen, I noticed a gold retirement plaque on the wall, congratulating him on twenty heroic years of service to the people of Long Beach. It was signed by Nassau County executive Thomas Gulotta, the son of the prosecutor who had persuaded a jury to sentence LaMarca’s father to death.
“Thomas Gulotta came to my retirement party, too,” Vincent said.
“Did you talk about your fathers?” I asked.
“Gulotta had the grace not to mention it,” Vinnie said. “You know, I would have voted for him.”
We discussed the meaning of the word atavistic again. Vincent LaMarca doesn’t believe his family was condemned by its gene pool. “I always took the attitude,” he said, “that you are responsible for your actions.”
Joey’s suicide note is remarkable. It describes what the Texans who captured him recognized as a brand on the LaMarcas, which is fitting, because in the Sicilian dialect the name LaMarca means “the Mark.”
“My name is Joseph A. LaMarca. I am 24 years of age. I was born in Aug. 1972. My father was a police officer and my mother worked hard. I have one older brother who’s 27 years old. He was always quiet and never spoke to anyone, which I was always sad about. I never met my father’s parents because his mother died and his father, my grandfather was convicted of kidnapping and murder and given the Electric Chair in 1958. I feel he deserved what his punishment was, but I always missed not meeting them …. My grandfather pleaded insanity when he kidnapped the baby but was refused, which I believe runs in our family. My parents divorced when I was four years old. By the time I was 12 years old I knew something was different with me. Everyone pictured me as this happy boy, smiling and running around, but inside I was so unhappy, depressed and I knew something was wrong. I had no father to play ball with, to talk to, no brother to hang out with, I was alone with my mother who I loved and love so much. We both lost someone, her husband, my father, and we were both depressed already. I started doing bad things like stealing her car, I started using drugs and I don’t know why… By the time I was 13 years old I knew something was really wrong. I would cry before I went to sleep, and have to kick my legs for an hour to get tired to fall asleep. And when I would wake up in the morning I would be crying again, and I don’t know why. I was just sad. Around 15 years old I was smoking crack everyday. I was placed in a group home, and the Westbury Children’s Shelter for 6 months. From there I would go to Hawthorne Cedar Knolls School in Hawthorne N. Y. where I spent 18 months and only became worse! … I was arrested for an assault on a Long Beach police officer …. I spent a few days in jail and was sent to South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, Long Island, where I stayed for 9 months. I was given around 10 different medications until I was placed on lithium for bipolar disorder, manic depressive …. Then I started using drugs again …. I feel I’m to blame but I know I would never do these things if I was in the right frame of mind…I’m scared, I’m hungry, and I’m running for something that I didn’t mean to do. I felt I had to, the drugs and my mind fucked me up …. Don’t ever forget me! Good bye. Tell my brother I love him and I’m sorry. Jo Fish. Joseph A. LaMarca.”
Joey had a crime theory all worked out. He explained it to me during a call seven months after James Winston’s murder. He was telephoning from the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center near Goshen, New York. Although he’d been ruled temporarily unfit to stand trial, he sounded reasonable.
“Do you know about my grandfather?” Joey asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “How did you first learn about it?”
“When I was about ten, someone in the school library showed me a book on the FBI and another book named The Encyclopedia of American Crime. The name Angelo John LaMarca was listed under famous American kidnappers. The kid said, ‘Hey, is this your grandfather? It says they fried him for killing a baby’ I saw the LaMarca name and understood. The Mark. I talked about it with my father. He told me everything.”
I wondered if the knowledge had been a brooding burden.
“I grew up knowing that I could kill people,” Joey LaMarca said. “Don’t you see? I was born with the murder gene. You are born with it, like a cancer gene.” Some people could become killers, Joey explained. They could get angry or kill for profit. Those are damaged people, too, but damaged by choice rather than birth. His problem worked the other way around.
“The disease is in my mind,” Joey told me. “My grandfather had it, too. It just lays there, waiting to develop and take over your body. I never read the death-row letters. But I would have liked to. Maybe I could have understood my mental illness better.”
Joey apologized and hung up, saying he was late for his medication.
Cops certainly understand Joey’s theory about the murder gene. They lock up plenty of kids who follow their fathers into lives of crime. In Howard Beach, Robert DeLeon could argue that the Gottis, father and son, shared the gangster gene. Ken Griffey and his son share the baseball gene. And the cops in New York all heard the father of a murdered police officer say his son was born with what he called the badge gene. But to find a good cop wedged between a killer grandfather and a murderous grandson was unsettling to them.
Yet maybe there is something to it. It is eerie to compare the letters of Angelo and Joey LaMarca, two confessed killers, from jail. Joey, too, signs his last name with an M that looks like a Z. Grandfather and grandson look like twins in their mug shots. They even used some of the same sentences. “Dear Treasure,” both wrote to loved ones, “I pray that you are well.”
Several months after the warlock murder, I sat in Vincent LaMarca’s dining room and showed him his younger son’s murder confession. It runs eight pages. Joey had just called his father, and Vinnie told him, “You killed a man. You must pay a price.” Only then did Vinnie learn of Joey’s obsession with the case of Angelo LaMarca and with madness.
Vinnie read Joey’s statement with his back to a dead pond. The cop in Vincent LaMarca realized his son was doomed to jail, possibly for life. Maybe, the father reasoned, Joey could be released from a mental hospital, but the cop knew that would be unfair. He showed me a photo, taken years earlier, of the two of them riding together in a motorboat. They looked happy and perfect. His eyes were misty.
Vinnie works in a bank now. A few months ago, his coworkers threw him a surprise fiftieth-birthday party. They wrapped the bank in black bunting and put up signs mourning the loss of Vincent LaMarca’s youth. But he never really had one.
I told Vinnie what Joey said about the murder gene, but he believes his son and his father both made conscious choices:
“I hate to say this about my own son, but he just seems to be making excuses about genes. Society as a whole seems to find an excuse. ‘Genes are responsible. There is a malfunction in the genes. Poverty is responsible. Or parents.’ But you have free will. On the job, I was surrounded by a lot of alcoholics. You see them on both sides of the badge. You may be genetically inclined to become an alcoholic. But you decide to take the drink. I think Joey was working on this excuse the whole time. The more I find out, the more I think this.”
Vincent LaMarca and I exchange some e-mail now. He is a modest and remarkably controlled man. Not long ago, after wading through his parents’ death-row letters, he sent me a message.
“It might sound strange, then again maybe it doesn’t, but I remember as a kid wondering if what my father did was my fault. In the years just prior to my father’s crime I had been real ill with polio & spent months in the hospital & almost a year in bed after that. The bills must have been enough to wipe out anything my family might have had, and I thought maybe he never would have done what he did if I had not been sick. The time did come when I realized there was no logic to that thinking, my father did what he did and I couldn’t blame me or anyone else for that matter. Having accepted that a long time ago, I now can’t blame me, and again no one else, for what Joey has done. He’s responsible, I may love him and it would be easy to look for excuses, but the bottom line is that he did what he did. Was it the drugs, you can believe I hope it was; but no one drugged him, he did that himself. Does he have other problems, sure does, however he still made choices. That being said, I now have to try to understand why I have a son that I love but I can’t find myself in his corner making excuses for what he did. I don’t know, but maybe I’ve developed a self-defense thinking that makes logic the top priority. Well, I hope I haven’t sounded too cold, I know I’m not, I’m just looking at the choices I have and I’ve had.”
Joey LaMarca will probably never get out of a hospital or jail. But his older brother, John Angelo, is getting married this summer. Vincent LaMarca is looking forward to it.
“I would like,” Vinnie told me, “to be a good grandfather.”
– Mike McAlary