I grew up in a small suburban community (a former potato farm) on Long Island (New York) graduating from high school in 1970. Even then, the universe was conspiring to make me a mystery writer. Those of you who are old enough to remember 1970 or young enough to have studied it in school will know that 1970 was not an easy year to leave high school. Some of my classmates were on their way to Vietnam. And many of us were off to college, but one month after Kent State, after the National Guard killed student demonstrators at Kent State University... well, let's just say that college seemed to carry it's own special risks in 1970.
Anyway (for reasons that are not germane to our story) I was giving one of the speeches at commencement. And, it seemed important to me not to ignore the dangerous world that we were graduating into. You're going to have to trust me on this, but I didn't say anything extreme, offensive or even controversial. In fact, my father made it very clear that he would need to see the speech in advance, would have to sign off, as it were, on every single word. Just to make sure.
So I give my speech and I sit down when it's over and the graduation ceremony continues just as always. And then there comes a point in the ceremony where a representative of the Board of Education gets up and congratulates the graduating class. It's pretty standard, boilerplate remarks... you've all heard it before. But this time, it's different. The representative from the Board of Education launches into a lecture. How I was glorifying people like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (in truth I had mentioned neither of them). How I should be looking not to these enemies of America as my role models, but rather to people like he himself, volunteering his time as a member of the Board of Education for the benefit of his community (I kid you not).
By now, if I'm telling my story effectively, you've almost forgotten that I began by telling you this story has something to do with murder mysteries. And it does.
Later that summer, I learned that this fine upstanding pillar of the community, this role model, was suspected of hiring a hit man to murder his wife.
AND THAT'S ALL I KNEW UNTIL TODAY
Today, I stumbled upon a document on facebook. It was someone's elementary school graduation program from 1969 from the town where I grew up. There was a Board of Education name in the program that looked familiar. So I did a quick google search.
A NY Times story, from November, 1970 was picked up by UPI and was printed in The Bulletin, a newspaper serving Bend, Deschutes County, Oregon, on November 11, 1970. A copy of The Bulletin popped up when I did my google search. It seems that this pillar of the community who served on our local Board of Ed, was employed at the time as a school principal in Brooklyn. It also seems that he was having an affair with one of the teachers at the Brooklyn school, a woman seventeen years his junior (fifteen years younger than his wife when she died of chloroform poisoning). According to the newspaper account, the principal and his mistress, also known as the divorcee, "made several contacts with underworld figures and discussed having the woman murdered. 'Chloroform, posion pills, or force' were suggested as possible methods and sums of from $10,000 to $20,000 were offered." (The Bulletin, November 11, 1970).
Then I stumbled upon another website, this one detailing a court decision in which this fine upstanding gentleman, by that time known as the defendant, successfully petitioned the courts to suppress the evidence of some 60 telephone conversations obtained by wire tap. And I began to wonder whether this pillar of the community had ever been convicted of the crime. Had I perhaps, all these years, unfairly judged my accuser?
That led me to a story from September 24, 2000, in the NY Daily News. Dr. Lukash, the Nassau County chief medical examiner, on the occasion of his retirement, was reminiscing about his fifty year career "unraveling the mysteries of death." It turns out that this elderly gentleman had been the medical examiner on the very case I was interested in. The cause of death was chloroform intoxication. And on the basis of the work of the medical examiner and the local police this "role model" from my local Board of Ed and his mistress were convicted of conspiring to have the man's wife murdered.
"'There's an old saying: You may try to get away with murder, but dead bodies tell tales,' Lukash said. 'Dead bodies do tell tales.'" (New York Daily News, September 24, 2000)
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