Friday, 14 December 2007

"I Killed 30 or 40 People Last Year"

By Peter Weston
Detective Dragnet
February 1980 (Volume 24, Number 1)

When the middle aged, dog-faced man walked into the West 100th Street Station in New York City, the desk sergeant yawned and demanded, "Well, what do you want, buddy?"

"I want to make a confession," the man replied. "I killed my wife yesterday. Stabbed her a dozen times and left her body on the bedroom floor. Up in Dutchess County."

The sergeant was jolted to full wakefulness. Maybe the man was one of those oddballs who confessed to anything just for attention. And maybe he wasn't. There is no alternative for police in those situations. The man has to be checked out.

"What's your name?"

"Joe Fischer - Joseph Fischer. I'm 50. I might as well tell you something else. I'm an ex-con. Got out of Rahway State Prison over in Jersey last year. Did a stretch for murder."

"Where did you kill your wife?"

"It was up in Dutchess County. A little town called Wassaic, outside of Poughkeepsie. I got a trailer in a trailer colony up there. My wife's name was Claudine. She used to be Claudine Eggers, and she was a lot older than me. She wrote me a lot of letters when I was in stir, and I wrote back to her. When I got out I married her. She was 78, and I was 50. That was the trouble. She was too old for me..."

This dramatic episode on June 27, 1979, was the beginning of a saga of coast-to-coast murder which, as it gradually unfolded, shocked and intrigued law enforcement officers all the way from Maine to California - one which promised to crack as many as 20 homicides which had been written off as "unsolved".

After extensive questioning in the 100th Street Precinct, the New York authorities notified police in Poughkeepsie, a pleasant river town some 70 Miles up the Hudson. The Poughkeepsie detectives came to New York City the following day and took Fischer in handcuffs to Poughkeepsie, the seat of Dutchess County, and lodged him in jail there.

Mrs. Claudine Eggers Fischer was slain by repeated stab wounds on the day before Fischer walked into the 100th Street Precinct and the body was found on the floor of the trailer the couple had occupied in Wassaic.

Fischer told Poughkeepsie detectives that he had slain his wife after they returned to Wassaic following a two-day trip to Cooperstown, N. Y.

Checking up on his record, the investigators found that the prisoner had set a pattern of murder for himself over the past 30 years.

His first crime was the mugging of soldier for $5 in his home town of Belleville, N. J. About this time he recommited himself to the Essex County Hospital Center in Cedar Grove, N. J., where he had already undergone half a year's treatment for an "emotional disorder". For the mugging, Fischer served a term of five years in New Jersey's Bordentown Reformatory.

Just two weeks after doing this stretch he killed a 16-year-old youth, Harry Powell 3rd, with a rock and took $2 off his body in Branch Brook Park in Belleville. He showed the police where he had concealed the body in a small gully. For this crime he was given a life sentence, but was paroled after spending 24 yeard behind bars.

It was 13 months following his parole that his elderly wife was stabbed to death.

"But that isn't the half of it," Fischer was quoted as saying. "Besides my wife, I killed more than 20 people from coast to coast."

Manuel Sanchez, a detective with Troop K of the New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, was skeptical. "Suppose you tell us all about it."

"Well," said the tattooed Fischer, "I told my wife I wanted to tour every state in the union, and she gave me the money to finance my trip. I went alone, and I was gone the last of 1978 and the first half of 1979..."

Sanchez could tell that Fischer was overwrought - he seemed to feel a great compulsion to relate his bloody history to the officers. He admitted that he had a drinking problem, and he said that most or all of his crimes were committed while he was under the influence of alcohol.

In the continued quizzing, Detective John Crodelle took a part. Fischer told him he had murdered a 26-year-old woman named Pamela Nolen of Ruidoso, N. M., on October 30, 1978. He pickup truck was found abandoned in a wooded area three miles from her home, but her body could not be discovered.

Fischer gae the troopers and the Poughkeepsie detectives a photograph of Miss Nolen, and he supplied travel records that showed he had without doubt been in New Mexico. Later, the authorities of that state informed the New York police that the photo was, indeed, a likeness of Miss Nolen. The New Mexico police said they were anxious to question Fischer about this slaying.

"About the same time," Fischer declared in his rambling confession, "I killed another woman in New Mexico; I stabbed her several times until the stopped moving."

Then, in Moore, Okla., a suburb of Oklahoma City, Fischer declared, he was alone in a house with a 38-year-old woman whom he murdered. He stuffed her body into a closet and nailed the door shut. For this crime, the Oklahoma authorities promptly issued a warrant for the prisoner.

"Then there was a guy I met in the Salvation Army Center in San Francisco," Fischer went on. "We traveled together to Flagstaff, Ariz., and in a house there I beat him to death with my fists."

After a July 4th celebration last year, Fischer related, he picked up two prostitutes - he intended to get into bed with both of them - and it turned out that they wanted to rob him. So he murdered them.

The police chief of Norwalk, Conn., informed the New York investigators that such a double murder had, indeed, occurred, and he said he was anxious to question Fischer.

"Then there were three Bowery bums in New York," Fischer said. "I knocked them off one at a time in Arpil, May, and June of this year."

At the time he was on the trip upstate with his wife. Later on, the prisoner boasted, he was alone with a man in a rowboat on Otsego Lake. He beat the man unconscious and tossed him overboard. (Divers searched the bottom of the lake, but failed to find the body.)

Fischer told Detective Sanchez that he had a suitcase filled with newspaper clippings about his multiple crimes and with the possessions of some of his victims. He declared he left the suitcase in a beach bungalow he rented in Keansburg, N. J., In July, 1979, and in corroboration he showed a rent receipt. The bungalow was searched, but the suitcase was not found.

"Let's get back to the killing of your wife for a minute," said one of the Poughkeepsie detectives. "Didn't you feel terrible after you stabbed her and letf her on the floor of your trailer in Wassaic? After all, she had been very good to you. She wrote to you in prison - maybe she even visited you - and she gave you a large sum of money for your crosscountry trip."

Fischer shrugged and spread out his hands. "I felt O. K.," he said. "Nothing to feel bad about."

"Were you intimate with her?"

"A few times. But I used to go out and pick up a young whore, or maybe a couple of them. I used to like two girls."

"Didn't your wife suspect that you might kill her someday?"

"Oh, no. I didn't tell her anything about anything."

For three or four days in July of 1979, Fischer was in Portland, Me., and he intimated that he committed at least one murder there.

A further check on the mass-murder suspect's background disclosed that he had undergone some psychiatric observation and treatment during the years he was confined to prisons in New Jersey. The New York State Police sought to obtain the psychiatric findings and evaluation, but the New Jersey Correction Department refused to disclose it because "it is confidential medical information."

Before Fischer finally won release from prison in New Jersey in the summer of 1978 - he was released in the custody of the Salvation Army center in Paterson, N. J. - his applications for parole were turned down 13 times. A condition of his release was that he participate in Alcoholics Anonymous programs and receive "intensive supervision".

The quizzing of the prisoner, conducted by alternating teams of detectives headed by State Troopers Crodelle and Sanchez, went on day after day. And as it proceeded, it appeared that the death toll might be considerably higher that anticipated. Joseph Fischer claimed that he had stabbed, choked, shot, or beaten more than 30 people to death in his mad coast-to-coast rampage!

He added Oregon and Washington to the list of states in which the alleged murders occured. He recalled shooting a man in Oregon and slaying a woman in Seattle, Wash. Also, he claimed he murdered a total of six people in Oklahoma - four more that he previously had confessed to.

Furthermore, numerous documents in Fischer's possession - including airline tickets and other travel receipts - placed him in the vicinity of several of the killings at the time the homicides occurred, according to the investigators.

"Now how about that murder up in Oregon?" queried detective Sanchez.

"Oh, that one. It was somewhere near Bend. Out in the woods. I was drunk, and I stumbled on this man sleeping in one of those sleeping bags. There was a gun lying on the ground near him, so I just picked it up and sent a bullet through his head."

He was asked why he would shoot and kill a total stranger as he slept.

"I guess I just said, 'The hell with it, '" he replied. "I had knocked over so many already, what difference did one more make?"

"What time of the year were you around Bend?"

"It must have been in the spring or summer, because I remember it wasn't cold. All I was wearing at the time was a heavy jacket."

Three New York City detectives, led by Deputy Inspector Gene Martinez, arrived in Poughkeepsie to question the suspect. For once, Fischer cited a logical motive for murder. "I killed those bums," he said, "right after they got their welfare checks. I forged the names on the checks and was able to cash them without any difficulty."

After the quizzing Deputy Inspector Martinez said he believed the suspect's story. "He gave us mor than the average person would have known about the murders," the investigator declared.

"Some of those cases got into the newspapers, but others did not. Only the killer could have known the details. The guy's accounts are a bit hazy at times because he admitted he had been drinking heavily at the time he committed the crimes."

Other investigators who came to Poughkeepsie to question Fischer included detectives from the Maine State Police, and from San Francisco and Oklahoma City.

A good picture of the alledged mass-murderer was given by a reprter for the Poughkeepsie Journal, who interviewed him with the consent of the court:

"Mass murder suspect Joseph Fischer was dog-tired. Sitting in the stuffy chapel of the Dutchess County jail, a bleary-eyed Fischer rubbed his temples as he explained how he had at through six hours of interviews, telling his story over and over agian until, he said, he sounded like a broken record."

(These interviews were conducted by tow television stations, the U. P. I., The New York Daily News, the Newark Ledger, and the Poughkeepsie Journal.)

"Traffic in the jail was heavy as reporters and camera crews stalked the halls waiting for their chance to interview the man who claims to have murdered more that 25 people in a cross-country killing spree."

"I feel much better," he said after unburdening himself to the media. "When I die and got to Claudine, I'll go to her clean. She will accept me when the truth is out."

"Later, Fischer broke into tears briefly as he said he sometimes feels his wife is watching over him. On more than one occasion Fischer has referred ominously to his own death and to meeting Claudine once again..."

The police declared that Joseph Fischer matched a "psychological profile" made of the killer of the two prostitutes in Norwalk, Conn., who were stabbed 100 times in the face and the breasts and then dumped in a wooded area. That profile also fit the description of the slayer of the Bowery bums in New York.

According to the profile, the killer of the prostitutes had probably committed murder before and probably would again and had never been caught.

Fischer was arraigned on a charge of murder before Judge Raymond Aldrich in Poughkeepsie and held for trial without bail.

"I've been living with this for a long time," he told the judge, "and I am anxious to get it off my chest."

An indication of how the suspect hoped to die so that he could join his slain wife was given in an interview to a reporter for the New York Daily News.

"I believe firmly in the death penalty," he said, "and I want to be prosecuted in a state where I will face the death penalty... All of this (his alleged multiple murders) would never have happened if I had just been executed after I killed that boy in Newark in 1953. If more kids knew that they had the death penalty it would stop a whole lot of what is going on today."

The prisoner revealed, in the interview, a possible motivation for his slaying spree.

"A lot of my female victims looked like my mother who was a whore - that's why I had to kill them - and a lot of my male victims looked like the guys who used to pay my mother. Also, the girls I killed looked just like my mother when they asked me to give them money."

Fischer said sometimes his mother copulated with "Johns" while he was a witness. Sometimes he even was in the same bed with them.

Present during many of Fischer's jailhouse interviews were his lawyer, James R. Brown Jr., and William L. Paroli, chief investigator for the Dutchess County public defender's office, which was representing the suspect.

Fischer related that he grew up in Belleville, N. J., the son of a laborer. His father, he said, left his mother after the boy told him he had seen the mother in bed with other men. (One of the detectives suggested that Fischer's bloody crime spree would have been a fit subject for Freud, the famous psychoanalyst who tied human emotional ills to childhood traumas.)

Fischer said that his father forged some papers to get him into the Marines when he was only 15, and that he saw combat on Guadalcanal, Guam, and other Pacific battlefields during World War II.

Fischer, who is about 5-feet-9 and weighs 170 pounds, wore a maroon T-shirt, khaki pants, and moccasins. Jail doctors said he was constantly under medication.

"After I was sprung from prison in '78," Fischer said, "I was scared to death. I couldn't cope with nothing... Now it's bugging me that a lot of people don't seem to believe what I tell them. I'm not a liar. Telling the truth is about the only thing I've got left... I don't want to be free again - I want to be with my wife."

At a hearing in Dutchess County court to determine Fischer's fitness to stand trial, two pychiatrists told Judge Aldrich that the suspect "does not lack the capacity to understand the proceedings against him or to assist in his defence."

Fischer was subdued in court. He seemed to understand his serious predicament. At a previous court hearing he had stood up and angrily demanded that he be given permission to grant jailhouse interviews. After hearing the psychiatrists' statements, the judge granted him this permission.

The prisoner told the authorities and reporters that he had begun drinking heavily about the age of 12 or 13, spent "most of my life drunk," and drank heavily behind bars in New Jersey on smuggled and homemade booze. He accused state police of having plied him with beer and never warning him of his rights during his interrogation.

On one of his murder rampages, he said, he had a companion. This was the slaying of the two prostitutes in Norwalk, Conn. He said he and his friend picked up the ladies-for-hire in a bar. He simply meant to copulate with them, but when one of them reached into his pocket for money he grabbed his knife and killed them both.

Fischer refused to disclose his companion's name. "What do you think I am?" he said. "I'm no stoolie."

On his cross-country murder jaunt Fischer often took odd jobs in towns he visited. He was a maintenance man in a motel, a landscaper, and a painter. Meanwhile, he was drinking heavily - as much as two quarts of Canadian Club whisky a day - and frequently suffered blackouts.

"In Oklahoma City," he recalled, "I worked as a pizza cook for two weeks without even knowing I was working there. Finally I talked to a waitress at the restaurant when I sobered up a little. I asked her how long I had worked there, and she said two weeks."

Fischer told reporters that he was treated well in the Dutchess County jail. But he was afraid of the other prisoners because he thought they wanted to kill him in reprisal for all the murders he had committed.

Police in Cooperstown, N. Y., the home of the baseball hall of fame, checked motel records and found that he had stayed there on the dates he specified. And in Portland, me., the local authorities similarly discovered that he had stayed in a motel there from July 18 to 20, 1979. During that period he allegedly committed at least one murder.

In the Moore, Okla. murder, where Fischer killed a woman and then stuffed her body into a closet and nailed the door shut, police identified the victim as Betty JoGibson, her body was not found until a month after the crime had taken place. The body had been horribly bludgeoned.

In Hartford, Conn., the two prostitutes slain were identified as Ronnie Tassiello, 18, and Alaine Hapeman, 19. Their bodies had been carried into a wooded area.

In Newark, N. J., police said that the woman bludgeoned to death was JoAnne E. Franklin, 18, of East Orange. She was killed near the Branch Brook Park.

The Dutchess County jail physician, Dr. George Brown, who is also a psychiatrist, examined Fischer and found that he was suffering from alcoholism and auditory hallucinations. He prescribed sedation for him.

In practically all the cities and towns where Fischer's alleged murders occurred during his long rampage, indictments were voted against him on charges of murder. There were enough charges filed, in fact, so that it appeared he would never agian enjoy freedom.

The court machinery of Dutchess County, meanwhile, clanked into action for a trial of Fischer on the charge that he killed his 78-year-old wife, Claudine Eggers Fischer. As yet, no date for the trial has been set.

At this writing, Joseph Fischer sits in his jail cell in Poughkeepsie and awaits his fate. It will of course, be up to a judge and jury to determine the truth or falsity of his mass-murder claims.

He keeps a scrapbook of all the newspaper stories about his case and often reads and re-reads them.

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