Bare Bones Conviction

Robert Marra, FBI informant and murderer.

When police started looking into Thomas Marra, Jr.’s multinational car-theft operation, the one-time FBI informant decided it was time to tie up a few loose ends. The result was murder.
 
One of the loose ends was 15-year-old Alex Palmieri — a young man whose plans to become an opera singer were subsumed by the excitement of stealing cars. Alex was nabbed by police and Marra suspected he had become an informant. Marra directed two associates, Nicky Byers and Frank Spetrino, to bring Alex to his home on February 6, 1984 for a talk.
 
They did so, and Alex was never seen alive again. The only hard evidence to his fate was a tennis shoe and foot bones that washed up on a Bridgeport, Connecticut beach. Based on that slim forensic evidence and the testimony of Byers and Spetrino, Marra was convicted of the teen’s killing and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
 
“Marra was like Fagin and Alex was his Oliver Twist,” prosecutor Robert A. Lacobelle told a Connecticut newspaper. “Alex looked up to Marra, and Marra took advantage of that, making Alex commit crimes for him.”
 
Marra had previously worked for the FBI as an undercover informant in a messed-up sting operation designed to nab Bridgeport officials who were suspected of taking bribes. The sting blew up in the FBI’s face when Bridgeport police arrested Marra for attempting to bribe the head of the city’s police department. The local cops donated the feds’ money used to solicit the bribe to charity and the red-faced agents were forced to ask that the charges against their de facto agent be dropped. However, the sting-gone-bad drew the local authorities to Marra’s stolen-car operation like flies to garbage and put him in a very precarious position.
 
While Alex’s girlfriend waited in the car, Byers, Spetrino and Alex went into Marra’s garage to discuss Alex’s future with the car-theft ring.
 
Marra told Alex he wanted the teen to disappear for a while and offerred to send him to Italy. Alex refused and the discussion got heated. Marra gave Spetrino an aluminum bat and whispered to him not to let Alex leave the garage. As Alex tried to leave, Spetrino swung the bat, hitting the boy in the head. He dealt two or three more blows.
 
“Let’s get him in the refrigerator,” Spetrino recalled that Marra ordered.
 
They dragged the semi-conscious victim toward the cooler and Alex began mumbling “Boss! Boss!” Spetrino testified at Marra’s trial.
 
“Shut up, Alex,” Marra said. “You didn’t go to Italy.”
 
Marra proceeded to beat Alex with the bat until he quieted down — the 15 to 20 blows reportedly split open his skull, exposing his brain. They put his body in the refrigerator and padlocked the door.
 
Byers testified against Marra, telling the jury that after they dumped the refrigerator, Marra told him that if he talked, “there was a barrel big enough for him.” He also testified that Alex was still semi-conscious after they padlocked the refrigerator and that the men could hear him talking.
 
Later, in a rented van, the men drove to where the Pequonnock River empties into the Bridgeport harbor and after chopping a few holes in the refrigerator to make it sink, dumped the cooler into the water. Spetrino testified that he watched the refrigerator for a “short time” and he noticed that it did not sink, but floated.
 
Alex’s family filed a missing person report and by October 1985, the police investigation concluded that Marra had probably killed the young man.
 
Authorities executed a search warrant of Marra’s home on October 7, 1985. They took 16 wood and soil samples that passed presumptive tests for blood. However, more in-depth tests were never conducted because sometime between 1985 and 1990, the samples were lost.
 
During Marra’s trial, the state was allowed to introduce the reports about the lost evidence, but the jury was also given a lengthy instruction that “if the state did not produce the evidence that it would ordinarily be expected to produce, the jury could infer that the evidence was unfavorable to the state.”
 
The only physical evidence in this case was discovered by a woman and her son who were walking along the shore about two miles from where Spetrino helped Marra dump the refrigerator. The mother and son came across a Pro Champs sneaker and a sock containing what appeared to be a human foot.
 
A forensic anthropologist testified at Marra’s trial that the bones were consistent with a Caucasian male between the ages of 14 and 50. The appearance of barnacles on the sneaker indicated that it had been in the water for some time. Alex’s girlfriend, his mother and Spetrino all identified the tennis shoe as the same type that Alex was wearing the day he disappeared.
 
Marra’s defense consisted of arguing that the state had not proved Alex was dead. Instead, he tried to establish that Alex had fled to Argentina, where he had relatives. The defense introduced evidence that Alex had been present at a travel agency five days after Marra was alleged to have killed him.
 
Marra also had a witness who purchased Marra’s home afer the disappearance and who testified that a refrigerator similar to the one described by Spetrino was still in the house.
 
Finally, Marra’s attorney asked why police divers searched for five months for the refrigerator in a relatively small area but were unable to find it.
 
In the end, with just a tiny amount of physical evidence linking him to the crime, Marra was convicted of Alex’s murder.