Every day, New York building concierge Charles Parham would show up for work after the building superintendent, Jose Antonio Cortijo, opened the building for business.
For the 10 years that Jose had worked as the building super, the two men had the same routine. Jose would unlock the front door and activate the passenger elevator, signaling that the office tower was open for business.
On December 12, 1977, shortly before his shift was slated to begin, Parham walked by the building’s side entrance and noticed that the freight elevator shaft cover was open and the lift was stopped at the ground floor. He considered this extremely unusual and at first assumed that Jose had mistakenly brought the elevator up from the sub-basement and then locked himself out of the building.
Parham set out to investigate.
The front entrance was unlocked, which meant that Jose had already started his day. Parham took the passenger elevator to the sub-basement, another indicator that Jose had been at work.
As soon as he left the elevator, Parham suspected something was wrong. The radio in Jose’s workshop was blasting disco music and there was a smell of something unusual in the air.
At the end of the corridor leading to Jose’s shop, Parham saw what he thought to be a pile of clothes. As he drew nearer, he saw that it was, in fact, Jose’s body.
Suspecting that the superintendent had suffered a heart attack, he knelt down and shook his friend.
It was then that he noticed part of Jose’s head was missing and he realized that the smell in the air was burnt gunpowder. The responding police found that Jose had been shot in the back of the head and was still carrying his keys.
In his workshop the officers found two shotguns and an inoperable pistol. Also in the workshop was a beige trench coat, later identified as belonging to Jose, and a leather jacket, belonging to Jose’s son, Eleutorio Cortijo.
The autopsy found that Jose was killed by a single shotgun blast to the back of his head fired from no further away than two feet. The pellets and wadding were consistent with a 16-gauge shotgun, which meant that neither of the two 12-gauge weapons found in the workshop had been the murder weapon. Despite a search of the grounds and the public areas of the building, the shotgun used to kill the super was never found.
One of the early suspects in the case was Eleutorio, who had at best a stormy relationship with his father.
A product of Jose’s first marriage, Eleutorio had been living through much of his life with his mother and three siblings in Puerto Rico, but had spent the last few years being shuffled back and forth between his mother on the island and his father in the city.
When he was was 17, in 1977, Eleutorio was staying New York City. However, his relationship with his father’s second family (the blended family had four children), was strained and he was not allowed to live with them. Instead, Eleutorio lived on the 15th floor in a single room and visited his father’s family on occasion.
In the days leading up to Jose’s death, he had argued with his son and the two of them had come to blows when Jose threatened to send his son back to Puerto Rico. Witnesses reported that Jose had taken a $10 roll of quarters and bloodied his son’s face with the makeshift brass knuckles in one fight. On another occasion, Parham told police, he had heard Jose “kicking his son’s ass” in his basement workshop.
Prior to his murder, Jose told Parham that he intended to send Eleutorio back to Puerto Rico before Christmas despite the teen’s desire to stay in New York.
Eleutorio was known to be violent and had suffered from nightmares and episodes of psychosis, witnesses would report. He also reported hearing voices from time to time. Despite the evidence of a bad relationship and a possible motive, police felt there wasn’t enough to charge Eleutorio with the murder and it remained unsolved for many years.
Some members of the Cortijo family knew what was what, however.
In 1986, Richard Cortijo, Eleutorio’s half-brother, was visited by his sibling after Eleutorio was released from serving a term in Attica. Eleutorio told Richard he wanted to speak to him in private. At that time, Eleutorio admitted his deed.
“I did it, I killed Popi [the name by which Jose was known to his children],” he reportedly said. “He wasn’t a good father anyway.”
He declined to repeat the statement and Richard, who had a criminal past of his own, said nothing to anyone.
In 1995, Eleutorio finally told the wrong person and implicated himself in the killing. The larger question was whether or not Eleutorio’s extensive history of mental illness made the confession meaningless.
Convicted of drug dealing, he was being interviewed for a presentence investigation report by probation officer Urania Vullo.
A presentence investigation requires the State to interview the defendant — who is under no obligation to cooperate in any way — for a statement about the offense for which he or she was convicted, and about his or her history and background. Because the defendants are not asked to talk about any open cases they are not usually given a Miranda warning.
In the 100 Centre Street holding cells on April 11, 1995, Vullo and Eleutorio sat down to talk. Answering what are known as “pedigree questions,” Eluetorio spoke freely about growing up in Puerto Rico. Then Vullo asked Eleutorio about his father.
“I killed my father,” Eleutorio said.
Thinking she had misunderstood what he said, she repeated the question.
“I killed my father,” he replied again. Then, he quickly backtracked. “No, I didn’t kill him, somebody else did.” Vullo followed up by asking what happened to the person who killed Jose and Eleutorio said, “I don’t know.”
According to the probation officer, he paused again, and then said, “No, I killed my father.”
Having conducted some 1,800 of these interviews, Vullo knew when to press and when not to. She moved on and asked about Eleutorio’s mental health. He told her that he had had suicidal thoughts and was currently taking an antipsychotic medicine.
What Vullo did not know was that officials at Rikers Island, where he was being held prior to sentencing, had noted that “Cortijo was hearing voices, actively hallucinating, and seeing a powerful light coming from behind him.”
Vullo reported the confession to NYPD detective Frank Colaianni, who headed upstate to interview Eleutorio at the Fishkill Correctional Facility. Colaianni and two other officers were ushered into an interrogation room where they met with their suspect. After introducing themselves and telling Eleutorio that they were investigating his father’s murder — and before they could ask any questions, Eleutorio again stated that “he was hearing voices that said he shot his father and he heard a loud noise.”
After he said this, the officers Mirandized him and asked if he was willing to talk. Eleutorio declined to answer their questions, but did say that “he had been sleeping on the subway on the day that his father was killed,” according to the detective’s testimony.
The case would languish for another two years before another set of detectives would revisit Eleutorio, who had since been moved to Sing Sing prison to serve his sentence for another crime. This time, he appeared a bit more lucid.
“We are here to ask you about why you killed your father in 1977,” the detective said after Eleutorio was read his rights and signed a waiver. According to witnesses, Eleutorio stood up, placed both hands on the table, and said in a raised voice, “Yeah, I killed him, so what.”
He then stated, “What the fuck are you guys going to do about it. You are the second guys to come up here and break my balls about this. I killed him. If I get taken to court I’ll say the same thing. I killed him because I felt like it.”
Armed with the confession, authorities charged Eleutorio with his father’s murder.
At trial, Eleutorio opted not to try an insanity defense, but simply put his psychiatrists on the stand who testified that he was a paranoid schizophrenic and had no idea what he was confessing to.
The defense psychiatrist stated that “in light of Cortijo’s contentious relationship with his father and in light of the fact that Cortijo was only 17 years old when his father died, Cortijo would have been experiencing feelings of guilt, a sense of responsibility in having perhaps at times wished his father dead, and a sense of ambivalence over the loss of his father on the one hand and increased independence on the other,” a U.S. magistrate judge later wrote about the case.
This, coupled with his fragile mental state would lead him to believe that he killed his father — or at least to be confused about whether he did or didn’t.
The defense, through the testimony of Dr. Robert Berger, a board-certified psychiatrist and the director of forensic psychiatry at Bellevue Hospital, presented Eleutorio’s long history of mental illness and hospitalizations as well as significant evidence that his grasp of reality was tenuous at best. In his closing argument, defense counsel pointed out that the prosecution was basing its case almost entirely on the confessions of a man who had been diagnosed by experts on both sides as schizophrenic, delusional, psychotic, and paranoid.
“This case always comes back to the exact same issue, the statements of that mental patient, the mental patient, are they truthful and [has the prosecution] proved that his statements are truthful?” counsel argued. “The answer is no, not now, not ever. It cannot be done.”
In return, the prosecution pointed out that no one else had any motive to kill Jose Cortijo, the angle of the fatal wound was consistent with the heights of Jose and Eleutorio, and that Jose was unlikely to turn his back on anyone else besides his son.
“The most important powerful persuasive argument of all,” the prosecutor argued was that none of the defense experts could say Eleutorio wasn’t being truthful when he confessed.
What is Eleutorio’s diagnosis from Dr. Berger and from everyone else’s treatment? He’s a paranoid schizophrenic. Absolutely true. Does that prevent him from being truthful? No. Dr. Berger said so. Does that prevent him from being accurate? No, Dr. Berger said so. Is there any evidence whatsoever that the defendant is more or less likely to be truthful, to be accurate? No, none whatsoever. There is no single piece of evidence in the record that indicates that the defendant because he is a paranoid schizophrenic is any more likely or less likely to be truthful or accurate.
In the end, the jury agreed with the prosecution and Eleutorio Cortijo was convicted of killing his father.