Sunday, April 21, 1985

THE VIGILANTE


You Magazine (Daily Mail) out of London, England April 21 1985


This is the story of a man’s personal fight against the people who burgled his home. It happened to Englishman Fred Wehner in the commuter town of Van Cortlandtville outside New York. The burglary could – and does – apply to tens of thousands of people here at home, but the difference of country and culture made what happened thereafter unique. Wehner appointed himself a vigilante. He sought vengeance.
He takes up his story at a low point in his life: with his family he had left New York to escape city crime, but the move did not help his marriage. His daughter was beaten and bullied at her new school. His house and car were vandalised and the family’s two dogs were stoned by neighbours. This was finally too much for Wehner’s wife. She filed for divorce and moved out, taking all their possessions. His daughter stayed part time, but materially he was left with his record and video collection as his sole solace. Now read on:
= = =
My antidote to this depressing state of affairs was to spend £7,000 on two TV sets, video recorder and hi-fi equipment. At least my leisure time would be filled. Then I was robbed. Investigator Anthony Cavallo from the State Police in Annsville took lots of notes, but shook his head. There was just too much crime and too few cops, he said. He didn’t think the thieves would be apprehended or that I would ever see my stuff again.
Which of the local youths had come to my door in the past, he asked. I gave him the names as I knew them: Steven Grant, Joe, Donald, Frank. I also gave descriptions. Oh, and Joe had once brought along a Tony Marinelli who wanted to sell me his car, but I had bought only the radio out of it.
“Anthony!” exclaimed Cavallo. “Is he out?” That must mean he’s been “in”. it wouldn’t happen to be for housebreaking, would it? “He was put away for a year for burglarizing more than 200 houses in these parts.” So he was most probably our man, yet Cavallo proposed visiting Marinelli only tomorrow or the next day. Why not immediately, before the booty had been dispersed? There were other cases the police were working on. All in good time.
That evening I went looking for Joe, a 25-year-old who had taken my Mercedes to repair and who was on my list of suspects. I was sent to his brother-in-law’s home. But when Billy De Matteis answered the door he made a mistake. “Joe’s been in New Jersey for the last few days,” he volunteered. I hadn’t asked for an alibi, so why was he providing one so prematurely? Joe went to the top of my suspects’ list.
The next day I saw Joe driving past my house. When I stopped him, he said he might be able to discover the thieves’ identities for me. And at his home an hour later he and his cousin Steven Grant told me they suspected Tony Marinelli, 24, and his brother Chris, 21. So I drove the mile and a half to the Marinelli house. It was now less than 48 hours after the robbery. Both Marinellis and a friend were in the street, working on a car. When I tackled them they became abusive and violent and Christopher Marinelli picked up an eight-foot iron pole and lashed out at me. He missed. I struggled with him and the pole was dropped. He didn’t pick it up again.
An hour later at my home trooper R.A. Nau said the Marinelli boys had made a complaint of harassment against me and I was under arrest. I called the stationhouse and Cavallo reserved the arrest but warned me: “Stay clear of the Marinelli property.”
That evening I went back, noting down the registration numbers of the family’s five cars and those of their friends. I was using the only power I had: persistence. At random times the following day and night I drove over the hill to stake out the Marinellis. I shone my headlights onto the house. I wanted them to know I was “around”. I took photographs, quite openly, of people coming and going, and of the house.
My plan was to confuse and panic them, which is what did happen. After two days of this Anthony Marinelli called me over. He no longer threatened violence. He now wanted to talk.
He had an offer: he would try to identify the thieves if I stopped staking out his home and stopped talking to his neighbours. In between surveillance I had resorted to an old Fleet Street investigator’s practice – doorknocking.
The Marinelli family had been forced to watch in horror as I talked to all their neighbours. Asking about suspicious movements. We would often point at the house. Almost every resident in the area had been robbed and they all strongly suspected the Marinelli brothers of being behind those break-ins.
I now gave Marinelli 24 hours’ grace and spent that time concentrating on Steven Grant and “Joe” whose real name I now knew to be Brian Heady. I had told the Marinelli brothers that Grant and Heady had named them as the culprits, so now I told the story the other way around to Grant and Heady. I hid a small radio transmitter in the Heady house and listened in on the FM of my car radio. Reception was poor, but good enough for me to realise they knew much more than they let on.
I was feeding all this information to the police detectives as I got it. That evening I went back to the Marinelli house and parked outside with the lights off. Suddenly, Christopher Marinelli drove up in his old, battered Plymouth Duster. I switched on my lights and he drove off at speed. I gave chase. Three times Christopher Marinelli circled past his home, beeping his horn for help from the family, who came spilling out into the street.
At one point our two cars were running neck and neck and Christopher finally lost his nerve, careering off he road, almost hitting a tree and coming to a halt in a neighbour’s garden.
His family screeched at me with rage. His older brother Anthony screamed for me to hit him in my car. As I drove towards him he moved easily out of the way, but managed to bang his knee into the side of the vehicle - in order to have a visible grievance against me.
“He hit me, Dad, he hit me,” Anthony yelled. That, and the sound of the car chase minutes earlier, were all recorded on a portable tape machine I was carrying. Detectives arrived to arrest me, changed their minds on hearing the tape, but warned that the police could not protect me. That night I realised I might have totally underestimated the Marinelli family with their claims to Mafia connections.
And that night I wrote out my will for the first time in my life. Next day I was back talking to the locals on their doorsteps. In the midst of this I was approached by three men who felt I was “just the right guy” to join them in what they had planned. We met later that evening and I was dumbfounded to hear that what was in their minds was... murder.
“Only one way to be sure we’re rid of that kind of scum,” I was told. “We kill those two [the Marinelli boys].” Our discussion was to go no further than ourselves, they insisted. I was incredulous. If we were to commit murder, I said, it would make us worse criminals than the two we would be ridding the neighbourhood of. I wanted no part of it.
Amazingly, this was not the only time I had been advised that the only effective way to deal with these two would be to kill them. And, even more incredibly, on the other two occasions that this was prescribed, those who advocated murder were policemen. One had been a trooper, the other a detective. “Take my advice,” the uniformed man had said. “Pick a dark night and [pointing his finger like a gun and pulling the imaginary trigger]...”
“You’re a policeman and you’re telling me to murder someone?” I remember asking at the time. “How can you?”
The detective’s advice was more circumspect but the same. “Doing this all nice and legal will get you nowhere,” he reasoned. “It’s still a frontier here – rough justice is best.”
Then, when matters had reached this desperate stage, I got my break. My daughter, then 12, staked out the Marinelli house with me and we noticed two sacks of rubbish and a full dustbin on the edge of their property. The family had forgotten that on Columbus Day, a public holiday in the USA, rubbish is not collected. But that day it was collected – by Louise and myself. We drove two rubbish bags back to my house where Louise, gloves on, sifted through most of it. What she found was like gold – valid credit cards, railroad passes, personal effects that would normally be carried in wallets.
All the items had other people’s names on them. “That’s Gary,” yelled Louise when she recognised our neighbour’s surname. A minute later she proved it with his picture rail pass, That was Gary Caliendo. A quick telephone call. Had he been robbed? He had and he was on his way round to inspect his stuff.
When he saw it he was hopping mad. He said he’d come with Louise and myself to collect the dustbin we left behind. We found more evidence – some broken medical instruments, more credit cards and passes. I telephoned a Ron Boccadoro, a fireman who lived 50 miles away in Rye. Had he been robbed? Yes. I had his credit card in my hand. What the hell was I doing with it? I explained. Then we called the police. Armed with our evidence, they raided the Marinelli house the following morning. By afternoon they were handcuffing Billy De Matteis, thanks to “information received.”
De Matteis is aged 30, short and squat. The six detectives were toting shotguns and handguns. Investigator David Shepard gave me a big wink; Tony Cavallo grinned through his unlit cigar stub and motioned his head towards my property in the backs of the police vehicles. I identified the lot. I also saw Christopher Marinelli and De Matteis in the police barracks being booked.
Then they both bargained with the law, implicating Anthony Marinelli and Brian Heady as the main culprits in order to win clemency for themselves. Heady went on the run and was caught 60 miles further upstate, across the Hudson River. Anthony Marinelli fled to Long Island, 100 miles to the south, but was captured when he returned one night to visit his parents.
I sat in Judge Daniel McCarthy’s little court at Croton-on-the-Hudson when Anthony Marinelli was remanded for a grand jury trial. His bail was set at £25,000. Later it was reduced to £4,000 and he fled again. Six months later I learned by pure accident that Heady’s trial had already taken place in a town 40 miles away, White Plains.
When I telephoned the court I was told he was due for sentencing in less than a week’s time. I tracked down the probation officer, Mr Drenga. He explained that he found Heady an affable and honest fellow. In a half-hour telephone talk I propounded the opposite viewpoint.
“In case you forget, Mr Drenga, I shall be sending you this in writing,” I said. “And in case you mislay my letter you’ll find a copy of it with the trial judge.” A day before Heady’s sentencing I received a call from Judge Aldo Nastasi in White Plains. Would I care to attend court? Certainly.
Case number four was Heady who swaggered in wearing his best pullover and a knife-edge crease in his blue jeans. Heady, I was later to learn, had expected six months’; probation. Instead he got a severe shock. Judge Nastasi ordered that Heady be jailed for six months with four-and-a-half years’ probation to follow. In his chambers straight after the case he told me: “I could have given this guy a year in the state pen, but that would have been the end of it. This way he gets six months behind bars but for five whole years he’s mine!”
He expressed appreciation that a victim would follow through, saying it was highly unusual.
Six months after that I gave evidence at the grand jury hearing that indicted Anthony Marinelli. But in September 1983 I was putting Louise into school in England when George Johanson, Chief of Detectives in Annsville phoned. “We need one of your letters,” he said. “Anthony Marinelli has just walked out of court a free man He argued that when you and your daughter picked up his garbage you were acting as agents of the police.” I wrote back immediately. When I returned a month later District Attorney Carl Vergari informed me that the letter had worked. The earlier decision releasing Marinelli on that technicality had been overturned.
Once again, according tot Mr Johanson, Marinelli had vanished. “We’ll get him eventually,” he said. Brian Heady is out of prison and on probation. Christopher Marinelli is over his probation and Steven Grant has moved to Florida. My neighbours tell me there has been absolutely no crime since I became my own Philip Marlowe and Wyatt Earp. Today I’m angry. I’m mostly angry for the police who came through with shining colours when it mattered, only to see their whole case fritter away in a morass of technicalities.
I remember the shock, the revulsion I felt when those people advised me to murder my suspects. I remember the haunting thought that ordinary, decent people are being driven to commit greater crimes than the criminals – purely through the inefficiency and lackadaisical attitudes of the legal system here. But today I’m, haunted even more – by the thought that those two policemen and the would-be killers were probably right

ENDIT

Copyright © 1985. Fred Wehner is a former Fleet Street journalist from the London Daily Mail who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Georgia 21 years ago.