Authors: Catherine Pelonero
Copyright © 2014 Catherine Pelonero
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.
Printed in the United States of America
NOTE TO THE READER
THE RE-CREATION OF
events in this true story was at all times done as accurately as possible, drawn from a wide variety of sources that were corroborated and cross-referenced to whatever extent possible. A list of sources and references is included at the end of the book.
In a few instances, pseudonyms have been used to preserve privacy. Some names, mainly those of surviving assault victims and certain others whose identities are not central to the story told here, have purposely been omitted.
FOR MY FRIEND,
JOE DE MAY
AND MY HUSBAND,
WITH MY LOVE AND GRATITUDE
Covered with ashes, tearing my hair, my face scored by clawing, but with piercing eyes, I stand before all humanity recapitulating my shames without losing sight of the effect I am producing, and saying: “I was the lowest of the low.” Then imperceptibly I pass from the “I” to the “we.” . . . I am like them, to be sure; we are in the soup together.
by Albert Camus
IT WAS THE
location, many later said, that gave a heightened sense of horror to what happened. Kew Gardens was not the type of place where anyone expected prolonged screams to shatter the middle-class serenity. It was not a neighborhood where anyone expected to find bloodstains on the sidewalk or bloody handprints on storefront windows, a macabre trail to the site of an unspeakably violent end.
Kew Gardens is in Queens, a borough of New York City that sits east of Manhattan and connects to it via bridges and tunnels. Queens is bordered by the waters of Long Island Sound on the north and Jamaica Bay to the south, and eastward lies the aptly named Long Island, a lengthy expanse of towns and villages that eventually shrinks to its end at the Atlantic Ocean.
Queens had steadily gained residents throughout the 1950s and into the next decade as the populations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx continued to decline. By 1964, Queens was not only the largest borough in land area at more than four times the size of Manhattan, but also had a population in excess of 1.8 million. Yet in spite of its prominence in size and populace, and the fact that Queens had been chosen as the site of the upcoming 1964 World’s Fair, the
New York Times
did not have a full-time reporter assigned there.
Queens had little to offer in terms of news value. It was simply a place where ordinary people lived unremarkable lives, officially part of New York City but actually a collection of distinct communities that operated somewhat like independent towns rather than neighborhoods in the nation’s most prominent urban behemoth. Of course, the
very factors that made it unappealing to a major news outlet had the opposite effect on regular people in search of a nice place to call home.
Kew Gardens was one of the jewels of the borough: an upscale neighborhood with low crime, gracious apartment buildings on its main streets, and impressive single-family homes—including several early twentieth century mansions—resting in classic splendor on its tree-lined side streets. In March of 1964, only four months after the assassination of President Kennedy, with crime on the rise and the tensions of the Civil Rights Movement threatening to erupt, Kew Gardens evoked a sheltered stability; a community still softly aglow with staid and demure charm, almost a rebuke to the rapid changes and sense of uncertainty ushered in with the new decade. Kew Gardens looked and felt like a good neighborhood with a slower pace, almost a throwback to a gentler time—one of the few such areas left for the middle class in New York City. It was the kind of place where people
This perception of safety and decency explains, in part, why a single murder on a cold winter night sparked a cataclysm in a city that had over five hundred homicides in the prior year. The
escalated the shock, but the reports of what was done—and not done—while the blood flowed and the screams echoed transformed another urban tragedy into a globally publicized gasp of horror. The chain of events, told and retold in various abridged versions in streams of front-page headlines and magazine articles, on television and radio, and eventually even in folk songs and plays, quickly came to symbolize not only the worst in human nature—and most distressingly, the apparent moral vacancy to be found in regular “good people”—but also became the launching pad for a new field of psychological study.
As for the community at the focal point, the collective cry of outrage rained down upon it with the sudden ferocity of a flash hurricane, catching them unprepared, unguarded, scrambling for shelter in wide-eyed disbelief, and further finding themselves trapped in a storm of pelting criticism that abated but never completely ceased, rising and ebbing like the piercing wail of the trains that thundered through its center day and night, year after year.
The questions arose, publicly and repeatedly. How could this terrible thing have happened? When had this awful change in society come about?
Why did decent people stand by doing nothing as an atrocity played out in front of them?
Experts in human behavior were at a loss to explain. So began a clinical quest for answers. Scholars and psychologists embarked on years-long studies with alchemistic zeal, stirring great cauldrons of research and experiments in an attempt to conjure the key to this strange, seemingly new phenomenon.
Gradually, an image took shape: But the observers found themselves staring at something that looked less like a phenomenon and more like the reflection of a mirror. The specter that emerged resembled not a black-and-white portrait of uncommon evil, but a kaleidoscope of human instincts and reflexes, prejudices and fears, callousness and cruelty; startling not because they were foreign, but so familiar.
FEAR OF THE STRANGER
I was seven years old when it happened. There was a patch of grass in the rear of the buildings alongside the train tracks where we would play ball and a big bush where numerous intercepted catches and foul balls ended up. For years afterward, no kid wanted to fetch a ball that had found its way into that bush. We “knew” there was a murdered girl in there. She had—I have no idea where we got this number from but we all knew it—38 wounds in her body. She was waiting there to get us. We used to ask why. The answers varied between, “That’s a long story,” and “Because you didn’t save her . . .”
Of course, the fact that it happened in this “idyllic” neighborhood had a lot to do with it. If it had happened in the South Bronx, I don’t think it would’ve even made page 15 of the
—Peter Mueller, former resident of Kew Gardens
FRIDAY, MARCH 13, 1964
IF SHE HAD
walked out onto Jamaica Avenue a minute sooner or a minute later, he would never have seen her. They would have missed each other entirely.
But he did see her.
He saw a young woman getting into her car, alone.
He had been searching for her for more than an hour. Not this woman specifically; he had never seen her before, and that also was key. The other keys were “woman” and “alone.”
The woman, when at last he found her, had been easy to spot since there was no one else around and very little traffic at this time of night, at least not here in Queens. Streets in Manhattan may still have been busy at 3:00 a.m. but he wouldn’t know, since he never did this kind of thing in Manhattan; only in Queens. He felt more secure in Queens, especially around this area, since he lived nearby.
And that was another key—sticking fairly close to home, because at some point after the thing was done, he had to get home and check his dogs and his kids, and get some sleep so he could be ready for work in the morning. He always showed up at the office on time, no matter how late he had been out the night before.
Nothing in particular about this woman had caught his eye, other than the feminine shape and the skirt she wore, both of which assured him that the figure stepping out into the darkness was female, and she looked young.
He slowed his car and watched as she stepped off the curb and walked around to the driver’s side of a red sports car. Perhaps he held his breath as he waited to see if anyone would join her, or his heart beat faster when he looked in his rearview mirror and saw that no one had, that she was definitely in the car alone, now pulling away from the curb; but it was just as likely that he remained steady and calm, because control was something he
maintained. Control and discipline. Equally important to him were preparation and organization, traits he showed in both his career and home life, and in situations like this one now. The gloves he wore tonight were not just to protect his hands from the biting cold, nor was the purpose of the stocking cap he wore solely to keep his head warm. He also had another hat with him—a dark brimmed fedora—and he wore a three-quarter length overcoat that looked indistinct, a bland and common color, with a pocket deep enough to hold a long bladed hunting knife.
He made a U-turn as the little red sports car shot ahead down Jamaica Avenue and turned the corner onto 188th Street. She drove fast and he had to pick up his speed to keep up with her—and that
exciting, chasing her like this, because he had never had to do that before. She drove on to the Grand Central Parkway and he followed at a safe distance until she exited at Queens Boulevard. Now they were driving on side streets, first one and then another, the little red sports car and a white Chevy Corvair making all the same turns. The last street onto which they turned was still and silent, its boundaries lined with tall trees, bare of leaves now in the final grip of winter. The street was called Austin, though the man did not know it at the time, as he was not familiar with this neighborhood. But he thought it looked just right, exactly the kind of place to which he hoped she would lead him.
The red car made a final turn into a parking lot. The white car crept ahead on Austin Street and stopped on the street in front of a bus stop. Quickly he shut off the engine, stepped out, and closed the door, careful not to slam it.
The woman was still in her car as he stood some yards away in the shadows, facing toward her, waiting. Standing at the edge of the
parking lot, he vaguely noticed it was a Long Island Railroad station. A few other parked cars sat dark and empty, windows frosted from the night air. Off to the extreme right sat a small commuter train depot, deserted at this hour. Directly ahead stood a pale, two-story building, a Tudor-style structure, unlit and noiseless. No one was around. No one at all, except himself and the young woman who now stepped out of her car and into the cold and silent darkness.