Justice's scales derailed
In "The Geometry of Jane Brewster" (The Ecphorizer, April 1984), I said that the story was
true but that the names had been changed. I also said that the last chapter remained to be written. This is not the last chapter, just the next one.
[quoteright]Jane Brewster disappeared from Ivytown International Airport on the Thanksgiving weekend of 1981. She is presumed dead, but her remains have never turned up. Her suitcase appeared at the bus station and her purse showed up in a marsh several miles north of Ivytown, where she went to school. A local fishmonger named Salvatore "The Lobster" Ragusa has been identified in the press as her murderer, but he has not been charged with the crime. The only evidence linking Ragusa with Brewster is a confession that he supposedly made to two fellow prisoners. Both the informants and Ragusa have taken polygraph tests, and everyone has passed even though there were two conflicting stories involved. As I pointed out in "Geometry," sociological considerations argue against the Ragusa theory: the victim was upper class; he was not even a high-school graduate and was a fish peddler to boot. He is not the kind of person from whom the victim would have accepted a ride home from the airport, let alone a midnight cruise on a fishing boat, as the reported confession would have it.
Even though the authorities do not have sufficient evidence to bring charges against Ragusa in the Brewster case, they have tried and convicted him of the rape and murder of another young woman, named Maria Ionesco. The outcome of the Ionesco case is crucial to further developments in the Brewster case. Here is what happened.
Maria Ionesco was a pretty twenty-year-old with a luscious figure. She lived with a boyfriend named Donald Daley, who does a lot of drugs. Maria was herself apt to get a little rowdy. On the last evening of her life, she was at a party, very drunk. She had a fight with Daley over her flirting with other men. They had been having a running row over her infidelity. Daley had left her in a rage. Maria was wearing a red leotard with black tights and a red wraparound skirt. Her attire showed her figure to very good advantage. She was the center of attention. When she was obviously in no condition to get home by herself, the host asked Ragusa, who was there with his girlfriend, to take her home. He drove her, at her request, to a bar near the apartment she shared with Daley; she did not want, she said, to go home to him. Accounts about what happened then are confused and conflicting, but it appears that Ragusa came back and left the bar with her later.
The next day, her body was found out in a marsh north of Ivytown. She had been strangled with her own scarf, which had left deep grooves in her throat. The spot where she was found was only a stone's throw from where Ragusa worked.
This is the evidence that convicted Ragusa of the Ionesco murder: he had been seen by witnesses leaving the bar with her; her body was found hear his place of employment; and the two prisoners testified to hearing Ragusa incriminate himself.
The witnesses to the confession were "Death Row Danny" Genovese and Pete Kinney. Genovese had been sentenced to death for the shooting of a guard at an armory. Kinney was in prison on his second murder conviction. The last time around, he had stabbed his own girlfriend. Both had excellent reasons for wanting to alter their circumstances. "Death Row Danny" had been studying law in prison and wanted to hang out his shingle as an attorney. But since convicted felons are prohibited from practicing law, he had to do something to get his record clean. Kinney was bothered by the fact that the brother-in-law of his latest murder victim was a felon, too, and had been sentenced to do time in the same prison. Kinney feared a reprisal for the slain relative if he stayed where he was. Perhaps there is no causal relationship involved here, but the fact remains that after they volunteered their damaging testimony about the supposed confession, "Death Row Danny" got his death sentence commuted, and then his charges were reduced to manslaughter; and at last report, he was supremely confident for some reason of being exonerated altogether of the charges that had induced a jury to condemn him to die. For his part, Kinney was immediately moved to an undisclosed facility, and the authorities began work on getting his sentence reduced, too.
There was quite a bit of testimony at the trial about and from the boyfriend of Maria Ionesco, Donald Daley. Daley had a reputation for violence and a very short fuse. In fact, just a month or so before Ionesco's death, Daley had tried to strangle her. He said that he had just put his hands around her throat, but witnesses said that he had been quite serious about it. Right after the Ionesco murder, Daley had had scratches on his face and hands. When interviewed by investigators from the state police, Daley said that he had been scratched by the family cat. When he testified before the grand jury, he attributed the scratches to a barroom brawl. And at the trial, he admitted that Ionesco had frequently scratched his face when they fought.
Three days after Ionesco's death, Daley bought an airline ticket to New Jersey and fled the state. He was trying to support himself by stealing luggage at the Newark Airport but was caught. When he was returned to Ivytown, he said that he had fled because the people in his neighborhood were pointing at him on the street and calling him a murderer. There had been, apparently, something in his past behavior with his girlfriend that led his neighbors to believe that he had been responsible for her death. And maybe the neighbors thought it more than coincidence that Maria's body had been found not far from the trash dump where Daley had been employed.
Another witness testified that a couple of years after the murder, Daley had confessed to him that he had killed Ionesco. After Daley learned that this witness had gone to the police with his story, Daley had attacked him with a length of pipe, knocking him senseless. When he came to, Daley was lifting him out of the trunk of his car somewhere in the boondocks. Once he was out of the trunk, Daley began beating him with the pipe again. He was saved by the intervention of passers-by. On other occasions, Daley had sicced vicious dogs on him and held a knife to his throat, threatening to kill him; and on these occasions, too, the witness said, he was saved by the timely intervention of third parties.
From the above information, you might well wonder why Daley was not charged with Ionesco's murder instead of Ragusa. Investigators ruled him out as a suspect, however, when they asked his mother about her son's whereabouts on the fatal night. For some reason, it did not occur to them to question her at all until more than a year after the murder. She said that he had been at home with her all evening, except for a while when he went out for a walk. Ragusa's girlfriend offered an alibi for him, too; but since she had been caught in inconsistencies in testimony stemming from some old fraud charges, she was not believed.
In order to make the murder charges credible, the prosecution had to allege some kind of motive. Ragusa's motive, they said, was plain old lust. He wanted Maria Ionesco's voluptuous young body, and the only way he could get it was by violence. In fact, as the defense pointed out, without the rape charge, there was no motive at all. But rape was kind of an afterthought. The medical examiner who looked over Ionesco's corpse could see no signs of violence other than the strangulation marks. There was none of the usual evidence of rape, no scratches or bruises on the genitalia or loins, no signs of resistance. The subject of rape was so far from the medical examiner's mind, in fact, that when he found semen in Ionesco's vagina, he did not test it to determine blood type, which would have been routine in a case where rape was even suspected. How did the prosecution deal with this difficulty? They alleged that Ionesco had been unconscious while the rape was in progress.
Then there was the leotard. Ioneseo's corpse was still clad in the red leotard when she was found out in the marsh. It did not have a snap closure in the crotch. Never mind, the prosecutor said; and he demonstrated to the jury how a woman can be raped even while wearing a leotard. Ragusa, he said, had strangled Ionesco until she was within an inch of death. Then he raped her. And after he had done raping her, he finished her off. And even though there was no evidence whatsoever of rape, the jury returned a verdict finding Ragusa guilty of that crime; and having established that there was a rape, there was a motive for murder, and so they found him guilty of that, too. He received two consecutive sentences for both crimes adding up to thirty-five years in prison, without possibility of parole.
Somewhere along the line, everybody forgot about the tights. When she was last seen in the bar, Maria Ionesco had been wearing black tights under her leotard. But when her lifeless corpse was found out in the marsh, she was wearing only the leotard and the red wraparound dress. Her shoes were missing, too. The prosecution alleged that the tights and shoes had been left in Ragusa's car. But who took the tights off - and how? In order to get a pair of tights off of someone who is wearing a leotard over them, without a snap closure in the crotch, it is necessary to take the leotard off completely before the tights can be removed.
The prosecution's implicit reasoning seems to be that Ragusa, unable to get his way with the young woman's cooperation, resorted to violence. First, he strangled her into unconsciousness. Then he took off her shoes and skirt, then her leotard, and lastly her tights. Then he put the leotard and skirt back on her, after which he raped her. And all the while, she was unconscious and incapable of cooperating.
Alternatively, it would appear that Ionesco took off the leotard and tights herself. Her reason for doing so is fairly obvious: she wanted to have sexual relations with someone. It doesn't matter who it was. If it was Ragusa, there was no rape, and Ionesco dressed herself again afterward. If it was someone else, then Ragusa was not the last person to see her alive. And whoever it was that she had sexual relations with did not violate her.
The first scenario is absurd. Anyone who has ever tried dressing or undressing an invalid knows how difficult it is to get clothes on and off an uncooperating subject. And why, after removing the tights, would her murderer have put her leotard back on her? In the second scenario, there is obviously no rape, hence no motive for murder - for Ragusa, at any rate. But Daley had a motive. All he had to do was meet her at the door of their apartment as she walked in with her tights in her hand. It wouldn't take an Einstein to put two and two together. Ionesco had been flirting heavily at the party. She had gone somewhere with someone, then come home carrying her underpants. Daley had been demonstratively jealous with her earlier in the evening. He had a reputation for violence. He had attacked her before, and there were the mysterious scratches on his face and hands.
Why were the authorities so keen on prosecuting Ragusa? The obvious answer is that the two felons who implicated him in the Ionesco murder had also implicated him in the disappearance and presumed murder of Jane Brewster. The Brewster case was a celebrity story. Her parents were wealthy and powerful. She was upper crust and attractive. The police had invested thousands of man-hours in the Brewster investigation without coming up with anything commensurate with the publicity the case had generated. They needed somebody to take the fall, and Ragusa was an easy mark. He was already in jail. He had a history of scrapes with the law. He was lower class and without powerful friends.
The rape theory in the Ionesco case is patently flimsy. But rape was necessary as a motive in order to prove murder. And it was necessary to prove murder in order to validate the jail-cell confession that included the Brewster disappearance. Jane Brewster is what the Ionesco murder-rape trial was all about, even though evidence concerning her was specifically excluded by the judge in pre-trial hearings.
Evidence about Jane Brewster did not need to be introduced. The two big Ivytown dailies had already convicted Ragusa of her abduction and murder. If you ask anyone who lives in Ivytown or its environs about it, they will tell you in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred that Jane Brewster's murderer has been convicted; the popular consciousness has already transformed the verdict in the Ionesco trial into a Brewster verdict. Any jury panel drawn from within a fifty-mile radius of Ivytown would already be convinced that the defendant, if not guilty on the charges at hand, was guilty of another heinous crime that was not at issue and ought to be punished anyway.
And the prosecution knew that, too. They knew that they could put Ragusa on trial for anything from jaywalking to mopery and get a conviction on any kind of evidence or nonevidence. Their explicit intention was to get Ragusa for anything and everything they could, because every conviction would be a building block in the edifice of the Brewster case. Even if they could never bring charges over her disappearance, they could at least lock up the person they knew in their heart of hearts to be guilty and throw the key away. I do not make that assertion lightly. My informant is someone who is intimately connected with the Brewster case and who enjoyed the confidence of the prosecution in the Ionesco trial.
The long and the short of it is that Salvatore Ragusa was convicted of one murder because everyone was convinced that he was guilty of another one for which he could not be charged. There being no motive for his murdering Maria Ionesco, one had to be fabricated; to wit, the rape charge. Just how flimsy it is can be seen from the foregoing account. Ragusa has appealed his conviction and may introduce new evidence in order to get a retrial. He is no Boy Scout. But the outcome of his legal difficulties may be less of a comment on his character than it is on the state of justice in the United States of America. So far, his trial seems to prove that it can happen here.
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