Monday 25 February 2008

Mass Slaughter in the Wealthy New York Suburb

By George Carpozi Jr
Master Detective
February 1980

IN ANOTHER era, the farmers tilling the soil of Bedford Hills were major suppliers of vegetables to the people of Westchester County and neighbouring New York City. These days, however, there are no more gentlemen farmers, for Bedford Hills is now just another suburban dormitory for America's greatest city.

The farms of the gaslight era which became the grand estates of the rich for the first half of this century have almost all been sold or donated to non-profit organizations - or divided by homebuilders into mini-estates occupying anywhere from an acre to four or more.

There are two homes that command our attention for this story - and they are situated virtually within shouting distance of each other in the wealthy and historic section of town known as Succabone Corners.

One of these residences, a huge 16 roomed Georgian Colonial, had been home for many happy years for Corydon and Arden Bondy Sperry and 85-year-old Nellie McCormack, the faithful family governess.

Nellie McCormack emigrated from Scotland when she was a young woman. She carried a thick Scottish burr that never left her for the more than 50 years she served as governess, first in the Bondy household raising, among others, Arden. Then she became nanny to the Sperrys' children, in the order of their birth: Corydon Jr., now 25, nicknamed Corky and an undergraduate at the University of Colorado; Mark, 22, who attends Denison College in Ohio; Christopher, 19, a student at the nearby state university at Purchase; and Cassandra (or Cassie), 17, a senior at the Ethel Walker School of Simsbury, Connecticut - an all-girls boarding school.

The Sperrys had everything going for them. They had a deep and abiding love for each other, their children and the nanny. Sperry himself was a Wall Street investment banker.

For their neighbours, Charles and Helen Frankel, life had real meaning in the seclusion and quiet of Bedford Hills, yet it was only the icing on a far richer existence for this 61-year-old philosopher who was President Lyndon B. Johnson's Assistant Secretary of State from 1965 to 1967. Dr. Frankel, who taught at Columbia University in New York City, was founder of the National Humanities Centre which opened in September, 1968, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The Frankels lived alone in a sprawling ranch home at 41 Bisbee Lane, about 400 yards down the road from the Sperry residence at the corner of Succabone and Broad Brook Roads.

Thursday, May 10th, 1979, dawned brightly, for the sun on that mid-spring day promised to do its utmost to hurry the blooms on the dogwood trees and azalea bushes that surrounded the Sperry home and the assortment of greenery under glass at the Frankel place.

At 8.30 that morning, a housekeeper left the caretaker's cottage she shared with her husband and walked up the driveway to the huge columned portico. She entered the Sperry house with her passkey. As she stood briefly in the high-ceilinged foyer, an unaccustomed silence greeted the housekeeper, giving her an eerie feeling.

As she climbed the stairs to the second floor, she expected at the least to hear the voice of Christopher Sperry, the only one of the children living at home because he was attending local college, or that of Nellie McCormack, the lifelong governess who was always up and about at that hour tending to Christopher's needs while his brothers and sister were away at their respective schools.

The housekeeper had no reason to expect to find Mr. and Mrs. Sperry at home because she knew they were spending the night in their Manhattan apartment. She'd been alerted to that plan the day before. The Sperrys intended to stay in the city after a benefit in New York for the Ethel Walker School, which their daughter Cassie attended.

In the deafening silence that greeted the housekeeper, it never intruded into her thinking even in the remotest sense to expect what she was about to discover…

First, as she made her rounds, she looked into young Sperry's bedroom. What she saw sent a bolt of shivers up her spine. The room was in disarray - dresser drawers were opened wide, the closet door was ajar and the floor was strewn with personal possessions and clothes, as though rejected by a selective burglar.

But most terrifying was the next sight the housekeeper's eyes took in. Young Christopher Sperry lay on the floor next to the bed in his nightclothes in a state of stillness that left the housekeeper in no doubt that he was dead. A sheet was twirled around his waist and legs, he was gagged - and the housekeeper saw blood on the pillow; later determined to have come from a bullet wound in the back of the head.

TREMBLING WITH shock and fear, the woman stumbled through the hall on her way to the phone to call the police. The she passed governess Nellie McCormick's room - and what she saw there added to her fright. Miss McCormack lay similarly bound and gagged on her bed. And, as authorities would later discover, she had also been shot in the head with a .32-calibre gun.

So terrified now and fearing that the killer or killers might still be in the house, the housekeeper fled screaming to the outdoors and made her way to the home of a neighbour, who promptly summoned the police.

Detective-Sergeant Ted Wyskida and a team of investigators responded to the call and proceeded to uncover evidence that gave them a picture of what had probably happened. They found several doors in the house forced open. It seemed obvious that a burglary was the motivation - and perhaps the victims attempted to resist.

Wyskida phoned Christopher's parents in Manhattan shortly after 9 am, but no mention was made to Mr. and Mrs. Sperry that their son Christopher was dead - only that Nellie McCormack had been murdered. It was shattering news for the couple, yet they maintained their composure.

Out of this preliminary contact with the parents of the slain youth, detectives learned that a 1976 BMW sedan had been parked in the driveway. But the cops hadn't seen the car. Could it have been stolen by the killer, or killers? Undoubtedly, Wyskida concluded. An alert for the missing car was broadcast throughout metropolitan New York.

Shortly before noon, Mr. and Mrs. Sperry arrived home in their blue station wagon. They pulled into the driveway and brought the car to a stop in one of the stalls on the parking apron. Mrs. Sperry was behind the wheel and the cops could see the grief written on both parents' faces.

But this was nothing compared to the shocker the Sperrys were about to be hit with. Wyskida walked to the car and, as the couple got out, he spoke to them in soft, muffled tones. Suddenly, Mrs. Sperry shrieked.

"Not my son!" she cried, lifting her arms in the air in a helpless gesture. Her husband clasped his arms tightly around his wife, her arms wrapped around his shoulders.

THE POLICEMAN escorted the couple to a guest cottage alongside the main house and they remained secluded there for most of the day. But, detectives went into the cottage from time to time to scrounge bits and pieces of information from the Sperrys.

Even as the entire Bedford Hills police force, plus investigators from Westchester County District Attorney Carl Vergari's staff, were digging into this crime, a second shock wave struck like a thunderbolt. It happened late that afternoon, when police received a call from 21-year-old Carl Frankel. He was phoning from New York City to report that his father, the renowned Columbia professor, and mother had failed to appear for a speaking engagement the doctor had promised to keep at the humanities centre he'd founded in North Carolina.

According to Carl Frankel, his parents were to have taken a 7.30 am flight at New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Raleigh. When the Frankels failed to show up, an associate phoned his Bedford Hills home. After he received no answer, he contacted young Frankel in New York City. Carl was immediately alarmed because of the reports he'd heard on radio about the murders of Christopher Sperry and governess Nellie McCormack.

After Carl Frankel's call, the green police cars and unmarked vehicles of the Bedform Hills police sped down the road to the ranch home at 41 Bisbee Lane. The time was a few minutes before 5 pm and only another minute or two was required to assess the situation.

Inside the house, police found the professor and his 61-year-old wife lying dead in separate bedrooms. Both were in their nightclothes and had been shot in the head and body - and bound in a fashion similar to the victims in the Sperry household murders. Mrs. Frankel had been shot once in the back of the head and her husband was hit with .32-calibre bullet wounds in the head, as well as the liver, chest and heart, an autopsy would later disclose.

"Why would a professional burglar kill four people?" asked acting DA Thomas Facelle, in place of his boss, DA Carl Vergari, who was visiting Israel with a group of American lawyers. Facelle was in an angry mood, because the reporters were hounding him with provocative questions about the twin double-killings that he could not answer.

"Let me tell you this," Facelle told the newsmen. "These execution-style murders are the most bizarre I've every witnessed. Among the things that have us stymied is the theft of a safe weighting at least a couple of hundred pounds was taken from the Sperry home…"

Bullets and shells of the same caliber were also recovered in both homes and "we have every indication from the crime scenes that we're dealing with the same people in both double-murders."

Even as Facelle was speaking, police in Brooklyn were beginning to weave the first strand of circumstantial evidence against the Bedford Hills killers.

Less than three hours after the bodies of Christopher Sperry and Nellie McCormack were found and the broadcast went out for the stolen BMW, Patrolman Michael McLaughlin, working out of the Sixth Avenue police station in Brooklyn, responded to a report from an anonymous caller about a "fancy car with the keys in the ignition" parked at the corner of Third Avenue and Warren Street, in the borough's Red Hook district.

McLaughlin later told your reported: "The car was in total disarray. We towed it to my precinct and went over it with a fine-tooth comb. We opened the trunk and found the safe from the Sperry house. It had been torched and burned open. We found a lot of credit cards in Sperry's name - maybe a dozen or more - and some jewellery alongside the safe. But whatever else was in the safe had been taken. The only other thing we found were two bank books showing deposits totaling $80,000 made by Nellie McCormack."

One of the many lawmen working on the investigation with Thomas Facelle, the acting DA, was Peter Liverzani, a New York state police captain. And, less than 24 hours after the four horrendous killings in Bedford Hills, Facelle and Liverzani, were beginning to feel that the probe was heading in the right derection.

"We may by dealing with professionals," Facelle suggested. "There are reports that phone and burglar-alarm wires connected to the Frankels' home were cut. The question confronting us is: Do we go out and round up the usual suspects? I don't think so. We know our burglars and this doesn't look like their work."

Facelle and Liverzani had decided immediately that Bedford Hills' 30-man police force didn't have enough experience to handle such a complicated investigation as the Succabone Corners killings. The last homicide investigated by local officers was back in 1972. Thus a request was made to the Westchester County sheriff's office and the state police for assistance.

In the days that followed the killings, it was suggested that drug-crazed members of the Rastafarian cult were possible suspects in the robbery-massacre in Bedford Hills, particularly as the Sperrys' car had been found a mere few blocks from the sect's headquarters in Brooklyn.

The Rastafarians were known to be militantly anti-white, especially against the rich. Some members were known to use and deal in ritualistic marijuana smoking and other narcotics activity.

Meanwhile, memorial services were held for Christopher Richard Sperry. More than 600 relatives, friends and classmates past and present filled the pews, balcony, rear corridor and side aisles of the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco as the Rev. Jack Silvey Miller eulogized the dead young man:

"We do not gather in sanctuary to escape reality, but rather to accept both the evil and the good of the human condition," he said in his sermon.

The memorial service was a bittersweet occasion for many of the congregation who had known the young man and the aged governess. Rev. Miller affectionately recalled their different lives as members of a family that, he said, was as close as any he'd known.

Next day, more than 150 people attended a memorial service for Dr. Frankel at the humanities centre he had directed near Raleigh, North Carolina. Professor William E. Leuchtenburg, who teaches history at Columbia, reminded the mourners about Dr. Frankel's experience with violence, as a member of the Marine Corps for four years during World War II - as well as his membership on a university committee that studied campus unrest in the 1960s.

"He always approached violence and disruption with calm reason," said Professor Leuchtenburg. "It was cruel irony the way he died."

Meanwhile, back in Bedford Hills, a by now very uptight acting DA Thomas Facelle ordered a lid on information to the press about the progress authorities were making into the murders.

"We can't answer all the questions or give all the details!" Facelle snapped. "When we get a suspect, we want to make sure he's the right one. If some nutcase comes in to confess and starts spewing all the details that he has read in the papers, how can we tell if he was really there?"

A fingerprint found in the stolen BMW was trumpeted by police as a "hot clue" and was viewed as a step towards moving in on a suspect. But the suspect "didn't pan out," authorities said later. That prompted another blast from Facelle: "I just wish the police would learn to keep their mouths shut!"

The night of Saturday, May 26th and the early morning hours of Sunday, May 27th, were not memorable for any progress on the investigation into the murders, so far as Bedford Hills was concerned. Yet fate was beginning to shape what would very soon be an electric development in the case.

Again, as when the BMW was found, Brooklyn was to figure in the ultimate outcome of the four murders. But it had the most improbable beginning…

ABOUT 50 revellers had gathered in an apartment at 730 Linden Boulevard, in Brooklyn, to celebrate a birthday. Suddenly, the door flew open and four armed thugs herded the party goers against the walls. Shots were fired and one of the guests was wounded.

"Everybody undress!" one of the gunmen barked.

"Now start handling over money, watches, rings and any jewellery you got on you - and move it!"

Another shot was fired into the ceiling to emphasize that order and underline the urgency the bandits attached to their demands.

Everyone obeyed - and the bandits fled with about $15,000 worth of loot. One of the victims phoned the police and soon detectives were on top of the case like locusts. The victims had vivid memories of their assailants and provided the officers with excellent descriptions.

But that wasn't too necessary because other cops had already seen three men running down the street suspiciously. Alerted to the shoot-'em-up robbery on Linden Boulevard, the police officers seized the three men and brought them to the 67th Precinct in East Flatbush, where they identified themselves as Junius Gray, 40, of Crystal Street, Brooklyn; Jimmy Alen, 40; and Jeffrey Davis, 25, both of Plainfield, New Jersey.

Credit for this collar went to Sergeant John Curry and Patrolmen George Jackson and Al Vitkus, who made what was to be a most significant recovery among an arsenal of five guns the suspects were carrying - a .32-calibre automatic and a sawn-off shotgun.

For the time being, not much thought was given to the weapons, although there was to be a routine follow-up - the weapons would be sent to the police lab. For firing and testing to determine whether they had been used in other crimes, principally unsolved killings.

With Gray, Allen and Davis in custody, the 6 o'clock news went out on TV on the evening of Monday, May 28th. A number of the 100 policemen comprising the murder task force in Bedford Hills were at home watching it. Because it had been a spectacular robbery, the TV cameras had gone to the scene and later to the 67th Precinct, where the cameras focused on the five weapons recovered by Sergeant Curry and Patrolmen Jackson and Vitkus.

One of those off-duty investigators jumped when he saw the .32-automatic with the home-made silencer. He dashed to the phone, spoke to Captain Liverzani, heading the task force - and that was immediately followed by a call to the 67th Precinct.

"We'd like to run a check on that gun," Liverzani said. "It looks like it could be the .32 used up here…"

As the wheels went into motion to test-fire the .32-automatic for comparison with bullets taken from the Bedford Hills victims' bodies, there was more action on the Brooklyn front. New York police were about to have another shining hour, thanks to a tipster who phoned the 67th to report: "If you want Levi Moore, you can find him in his basement apartment… 913 Martense Street. He's got a gun…"

The phone went dead. The 29-year-old Levi Moore was wanted as the fourth member of the shoot-'em-up holdup team."

In minutes, Sergeant Thomas Anderson and Patrolman James Mulligan were outside the door of that basement apartment. Patrolmen Kenneth Monahan and Patrick Adams posted themselves behind the building. Good thing, too - for the instant Anderson rapped on the door, a man leaped out of the window. As the cops moved in, he scrambled to his feet and raced along an alley leading to the street.

"My, my, fella - why are you in such a hurry?" Anderson smiled as he held out his arms to grab the fugitive. There was absolutely no resistance, because Levi Moore felt a chill up and down his spine from the cold steel of the sergeant's revolver pressed against his forehead.

EVEN AS Moore was being brought in, task force detectives from Bedford Hills, armed with search warrants, were swarming over Allen's and Davis' apartments in Plainfield, while other teams were going through Junius Gray's Brooklyn digs for clues.

Nothing much was found in any of those three targets of the searches. But a warrant to examine Gray's gold-coloured Cadillac struck the right note. For, in the trunk, the searchers allegedly found a .35-millimetre Pentax camera, soon identified by its serial numbers as one of the items stolen from the Sperry home.

Later that night, Gray's wife, who was behind the wheel of the 1970 Caddy when the cops intercepted it, was charged with possession of stolen property.

The lode of rich discoveries didn't end there. The detectives made more significant finds when they entered Levi Moore's apartment and gave it a thoroughly going-over. They allegedly uncovered other loot from the Bedford Hills homes, including a stereo, jewellery, silver-ware and a guitar taken from the Frankel home.

The clincher came next day when the ballistics tests were concluded and the experts submitted their findings to Captain Liverzani. The .32-calibre automatic with the silencer was the weapon used in the Bedford Hills murders!

BY NOW, DA Vergari had rushed back from his overseas jaunt and had taken charge of the investigation. He indicated no plan of action to bring charges against any of the suspects - just yet.

"They are suspects. Prime suspects, if you want to use that word," Vergari told reporters. "We're not eliminating anyone who may have been involved in the Brooklyn case. But since the suspects in that robbery are being held in high bail, I see no rush to charge them with the Bedford Hills murders."

After a further six weeks of silence, Carl Vergari finally broke it. He summoned reporters to a press conference in White Plains, the Westchester County seat, and made it known that the grand jury had indicated Junius Gray and Jimmy Lee Allen for the four killings. Both were also charged with possession of the .32 automatic, the alleged death weapon.

Later that day, Gray and Allen were brought in chains from Brooklyn to the Westchester County courtroom.

"It's the same thing as in Mississippi!" cried Allen to reporters. "All they wanted from Day One was someone black! They needed niggers!"

Both men stood in silence before the bench and, with a heavy guard posted behind them, were remanded to their Brooklyn lockup until they could bring lawyers with them to court for their arrangement.

There were many raised eyebrows because Levi Moore, the third suspect, had not been indicted. Could he have decided to give evidence against Gray and Allen at their trial?

"No comment…" DA Vergari said. "We are satisfied that the Bedford Hills crimes were committed by only two persons."

Finally, on August 24th, 1979, Junius Gray and Jimmy Allen appeared before Justice Isaac Rubin in White Plains. Allen stunned the courtroom when he told the judge: "I want you to appoint a female Jewish attorney for me in this case."

"I don't classify attorneys in that way," said the judge.

"I would only accept a female Jewish attorney," retorted Allen. "I'm the defendant. I know who's involved and what's involved. I want someone I can be comfortable with."

When the judge indicated that he would merely appoint a competent lawyer from a pre-determined list of approved volunteers, Allen said that, if his request was denied, he'd go pro se, the legal term meaning he would defend himself.

The two defendants were again returned to Brooklyn, where they must stand trial with Levi Moore and Jeffry Davis for the shoot-'em-up robbery. Then, no matter what the outcome there, they'll be returned to White Plains to stand trial for the Bedford Hills murders.

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