Tag Archive for injustice

God the Avenger

There are few crimes in the Malefactor’s Register that rival the murders of Nancy and Mitch Morgan by Cliff Morgan and his hired killers for sheer horror; there are wife killers and husband killers, children who kill their parents and more than a few parents who kill their children. But something about the Morgan murders is particularly heinous. The murders of Nancy and Mitch is something one might expect in a particularly bleak Shakespearean tragedy, not something that happens in a quiet neighborhood.
 
Somewhere around January 1981, Morgan, 47, began to think about what life would be like if he did not have his wife and son around. He also began wondering what it would be like if they were not around and he was rich. Weighing the possible outcomes in his mind and deciding that it would be worth the risk if he could collect close to $1 million, he began putting a plan into action.
 
In early 1981 he took out suspiciously large policies on 44-year-old Nancy and their son, Mitchell. If Nancy and Mitch died, Cliff stood to collect $850,000. The policies were a burden on the family; the premiums of about $10,000 were about a quarter of his annual take-home pay. No matter, Cliff did not plan on paying them for long — the policies were set to expire June 1, 1981.
 
Cliff had a friend named Mark Reilly, who he met while the two men were training to be car salesmen. In return for his help in the murder plot, Cliff promised to open a bar for Reilly to manage, and allow Reilly to live in his home. There was also some talk about a $25,000 payout. For himself, Cliff wanted to use his proceeds to become a partner in a trucking firm. Reilly was instructed to find an accomplice.
 
Reilly told his girlfriend, Debbie Sportsman, that he knew a kick-boxer who was allegedly connected to the mafia. In reality the kick-boxer was just a bouncer in a local bar. Morgan gave the bouncer $2,000, a coin collection, and a diamond ring.
 
Rather than look for a mob hitman, the guy simply pocketed the money and ring and sent the coins off to his mother to sell. Then he told Cliff and Reilly that his buddy in the mob had been rubbed out and the money had been lost. They became suspicious so the bouncer made a late-night call to Reilly and, disguising his voice, pretended to be a wiseguy who told the men to knock it off and not ask any questions.
 
A second attempt to find a partner reportedly failed when Calvin Boyd refused to do the job unless he was paid upfront.
 
Reilly got a friend, believed to be James Hardy, to do the job with him.
 
However, in 2007 the California Supreme Court issued an opinion that Hardy’s trial attorney failed to present evidence that Calvin Boyd went in his place. Boyd’s family gave him an alibi for the night of the murder (he was passed out drunk), and he was given immunity to testify against Reilly and Hardy.
 
In his appeals Hardy also claimed that Cliff Morgan was present.
 
On May 20, 1981, Reilly and an accomplice, long believed to Hardy, along with 18-year-old Debbie Sportsman and another woman, Collette Mitchell, spent the evening drinking and drugging together. Debbie later testified that the men left the apartment about 10 p.m. Collette, testifying under immunity, said she passed out and did not wake up until 11 a.m. the next morning, so she had no idea if or when the men left the flat.
 
On May 21, 1981, Jack Parsons was awakened by a ringing phone. Cliff Morgan was on the other end of the line. He was living in Carson City, Nevada, at the time for business reasons — although the police later surmised it might have been just to establish an alibi — and was worried because no one was answering the phone at his house across the street. Cliff asked his neighbor to check on his wife and son.
 
Parsons did so and although no one responded to his pounding on the door, saw nothing amiss. He reported this to Cliff, who then instructed Parsons to lift open a certain back window, reach inside, unlock the back door, and check the inside of the house. When Parsons returned he told Morgan, “You got to hang up right now. I got to call the police.”
 
The Van Nuys police arrived within minutes and discovered that someone had broken into the house through the front door, cutting the security chain with bolt cutters.
 
In the master bedroom of the home the cops found a bloodbath. Mitch had been sleeping along side his mother and had been stabbed more than 20 times. Nancy was dead beside him and had received more than 45 stab wounds all above the waist, indicating that someone was holding her legs while another person did the stabbing.
 
The police figure that Mitch was killed first because there were two assailants. One had to be holding Nancy while the other was killing her child. Not only did she know what was going to happen to her, she got to watch it happening to her son first.
 
Cliff arrived home about six hours after his conversation with Parsons. Although distraught, he managed to inform police that several guns had been stolen, as well as a coin collection that had been on top of a cabinet. Investigating officers, however, noticed that the cabinet was covered with a heavy layer of dust and there was no indication that any type of container had been on the cabinet recently. Cliff later told police he had discovered a diamond ring was also missing.
 
Outside the house was a large pile of vomit.
 
The case unraveled quickly.
 
The day after the murders police received a call from the parents of Debbie Sportsman. Because he was dating his daughter, Reilly was a frequent guest in their home. Mr. Sportsman recalled remarks Reilly made in April 1981 to the effect that he had a friend named Morgan who wanted to have his wife killed in order to collect on some insurance policies. Mrs. Sportsman, Debbie’s mother, recalled that Reilly said he would receive $25,000 if he could find a “hit man” to do the job. At the time, Mrs. Sportsman thought it was “just talk.”
 
Meanwhile, when Debbie read about the murders in the newspaper the next day, she became hysterical and went to Reilly’s apartment. She found him there with Hardy; Reilly was calm and both were laughing and drinking. Reilly told her to relax so people would not be suspicious. Without revealing the identity of his partner in crime, Reilly admitted to her that he had gone with another person to Morgan’s home and entered the house.
 
Reilly then blamed the other man for the killings.
 
Reilly said that when he heard Nancy Morgan pleading for her life, he went outside and became sick. His partner, who did the stabbing, emerged and told him that Nancy “just wouldn’t die.”
 
He encouraged Debbie to speak to Hardy and Colette to shore up their alibi stories and gave her a few $100 bills that he had received from Morgan.
 
Debbie went to work the next day but was too upset and left before noon. When she arrived at her house, Van Nuys detectives were waiting for her. During questioning she told them about Cliff’s desire to kill his wife but did not reveal her boyfriend’s role in the crime. After the interview, she told Reilly of the police inquiry.
He became upset and they went to a local park to talk. When she revealed that she told the police about Cliff, Reilly became livid.
 
“Debbie, you don’t understand,” he said. “If Cliff goes down, I go down.”
 
Reilly was questioned by police, but when they did not have enough to hold him, they let him go. Later he met with Debbie one last time and between gulps from a scotch bottle and through his tears, gave her the gruesome details of the crime.
 
The night of the killings, Reilly spoke with Morgan on the telephone and asked him if he wanted to go through with it. Morgan answered that he did. When Reilly asked what to do with Mitchell, Morgan said that if it was necessary, his son must also be killed.
 
Reilly admitted that he used bolt cutters to cut the chain. He said he stayed in the hallway while his co-killer entered the bedroom and stabbed Nancy with a fish knife. Reilly said he could hear Nancy crying and saying, “Please don’t kill me.” When the man emerged, he described how hard it was to kill her.
 
“The bitch wouldn’t die,” Hardy said.
 
Reilly said he became sick again. When Debbie asked about the slaying of Mitchell, Reilly admitted the boy was killed first. He demonstrated to his horrified girlfriend how Hardy grabbed the boy, kissed him on the forehead, said, “I’m sorry” and then began to stab him repeatedly with the stiletto.
 
Reilly then contradicted himself and implicated himself further by revealing that he was present when Nancy was butchered. As if he was seeking some sort of sympathy, Reilly told her, “you don’t know what it’s like to stab someone.”
 
Debbie’s feelings for Reilly quickly soured and she eventually went to police and told them everything she knew. Reilly was arrested and the booking officer noticed what appeared to be a bloodstain on the tip of Reilly’s shoe. He said it was blood that had leaked from a package of meat he had purchased. Later tests showed the stain was human blood.
 
Debbie’s confession that Reilly and Morgan had plotted together was corroborated by numerous other people:
 
Hardy was arrested soon after Reilly and reportedly asked Collette to help in the post-crime coverup. James HardyShe testified that Hardy, who was in jail awaiting trial, told her to have his brother, John Hardy, retrieve an M-1 carbine rifle from a friend’s apartment and dispose of it. Hardy told Colette that he obtained the rifle from Reilly and that because the rifle was stolen, they should neither show it to anyone nor handle it with their bare hands. The M-1 was one of the items Morgan told police had been stolen.
 
Later, on hearing the police had discovered a footprint at the Morgan home, Hardy reportedly asked Colette to retrieve and destroy a certain pair of boots in his closet. She complied, throwing the boots in a garbage can.
 
At his preliminary hearing she told the court that Hardy had been with her the entire night. However, during the more than 60 visits Collette made to Hardy while he awaited trial, he gave her inconsistent stories about his involvement, blaming everything on Reilly and denying that he had ever entered the house.
 
Reilly, Hardy, and Morgan were tried together and convicted. Reilly and Hardy received the death penalty. Hardy was eventually removed from death row after the California Supreme Court found that post-conviction evidence that Boyd went in his place established a claim of actual innocence. Boyd was given immunity by the state from prosecution for aiding and abetting before the crime.
 
Before Morgan was officially sentenced in September 1983, he died of bone cancer.
 
The fact that Morgan was not officially pronounced guilty complicated the case even further. Under normal circumstances, due to what is known as the “slayer rule,” a person cannot collect on any insurance policy that is paid as a result of murder committed by that person. However, under California law a person is not considered “guilty” until the judge accepts the jury verdict and pronounces formal guilt on the defendant. Because Morgan died before that occurred, the insurance company was obligated to pay the claim.
 
A battle for the $875,000 began between Nancy Morgan’s family and Cliff Morgan’s ex-wife and his four daughters. Under California law the ex-wife and the children were first in line for the money.
 
When the case was brought before Judge Robert D. Fratianne, he pronounced judgment against Morgan, likely clearing the way for Nancy’s family to receive the proceeds.
 
“If the law is going to close its eyes to a conviction (for) a brutal double murder,” the judge told the attorney for the ex-wife, “then I’m going to take this robe off and leave this bench.”
 
Fratianne declined to formally sentence the dead man to life in prison without possibility of parole, citing no precedent for such an act.
 
“Sentence has already been imposed on Mr. Morgan,” he said. “God is the avenger in this case.”

A Fein Mess

Mark Fein

Here is another story for the spoiled-brat-throws-it-all-away file. Most of the cases in that bin are head-scratchers to begin with, but few rival that of tin can and cardboard packaging heir Mark Fein who had more than enough cash to settle with his bookie but apparently chose instead to pay off his debt in lead.
 
At least that is what the jury thought when it convicted him of second-degree murder in November 1964. The truth might not be so clear cut.
 
True, Fein did lose enough money on a bet to make even a millionaire wince, but even if Christmas would have been a bit lean that year for his three kids, he could still afford the gambling loss and had never welshed on a bet before. Actually, Christmas for the kids would not have even factored into Fein’s thinking; he was a regular attendee at temple and had been a participant in the Yom Kippur service a few weeks prior to the time the state of New York said he put four bullets into the body of his bookmaker.
 
On the other hand, although Fein had motive, means, and opportunity, there were a number of really bad ne’er-do-wells who had at least 24,000 reasons to make him the fall guy in a robbery.
 
Fein, 33, was the president of Fein Industries, which in 1963 was a leading manufacturer of containers, mostly tin cans and cardboard boxes. His father, Irving, built the company, and when Mark was old enough, he brought his son into the business. That is not to say that Mark was a privileged child who did not have any business acumen. He very well might have. What he did not have was self-control and luck, and that is what got him into trouble.
 
At the time he became a killer, Fein was supporting a wife, three young children (the oldest was 7 at the time), a nanny, and a housekeeper who all lived in a swank co-op apartment on the west side of Central Park in New York. The press liked to point out that the condo was worth $65,000 at the time and that Fein also drove a really nice white 1963 Lincoln Continental worth in excess of six grand. In today’s money, that’s nearly $500k for the apartment — not taking into account the ups and downs of real estate — and $45,000 for the Lincoln. But Fein was also a keeping sleazy red-headed prostitute on the side and was paying rent on a love nest across Central Park in the ritzy east side Lenox Hill area that he kept secret from his wife and family.
 
Gloria KendalThere was not anything particularly kinky about Fein’s relationship with the woman who had more names than a phone book; he just wanted a little somethin’ somethin’ on the side. For the sake of this post we’ll call the 37-year-old hooker by the name she used in court, Gloria Kendal (just one l), although the New York Times preferred her flashier name, Carmela Lazarus. The Times also described her as “a prostitute, madam, and some-time lesbian whose own arrest record dated back to 1945.” Kendal’s police record listed 13 AKA’s. She was costing Fein somewhere between $600 to $700 a month including rent on the apartment. Trial testimony revealed that she was not living there; it was just the place that Fein and Kendal met for their trysts and those of others. It came out at the trial that he was also pimping Kendal out to his friends at the apartment. Basically it was a one-bedroom brothel.
 
“Mr. Fein rented and furnished the apartment to be used as a locale for the enjoyment of the extramarital pleasures offered by his friend, Gloria,” is how prosecutor Vincent J. Dermody would describe the arrangement. Pulling no punches before the jury, he continued: “She was a prostitute and a madam who offered her personal services and also supplied other girls for the sexual pleasure of a select and paying clientele.”
 
In perhaps one of the most colorful descriptions ever of a shady character, Dermody would later concede to the jury that Kendal had the “morals of an alley cat.”
 
In addition to cheating on his wife, Fein also liked to bet on sports. The record is not clear whether Fein was good at it or not; however, he backed the wrong team for his last wager and lost more than $7,000 (approximately $58k today).
 
Fein bet on the 1963 World Series which was a you-pick between the perennial powerhouse New York Yankees and their former cross-town rivals who had moved to sunnier climes, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Yankees were an aging team led by the M&Ms, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, and Mantle had been hobbled by injuries during the season. Still, the Yankees won their division by 10 1/2 games, and were two-time defending champions, with league MVP Elston Howard and pitcher Whitey Ford. The Dodgers, on the other hand, had a pitching staff made in heaven: Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Jonny Podres, and reliever Ron Perranoski.
 
Everyone expected the series to be close, and when the Dodgers swept the Yankees in four straight, no one could have been more surprised than Fein, who had put together a coalition of friends and laid more than $24,000 on the Yankees.
 
Fein should have had the cash on hand because his partners had given him the money up front. However, he obviously had expenses and might have been playing the float, figuring the Yankees were likely winners — or that at least the series would last more than 5 days and he would have a chance to replenish the cash.
 
Reuben (Ruby) Markowitz, 40, was a the Brooklyn bookmaker with whom Fein placed his ill-fated gamble. This was a big payday for Markowitz, who was not real high-rolling bookie, so he was anxious to collect his winnings from the Fein syndicate (OK, it was just 2 other guys).
 
According to the testimony of Gloria Kendal, Markowitz, who also had a wife and family, made arrangements to meet Fein at the 63rd Street love nest to collect the $24k he was owed on October 10, 1963. He bid goodbye to his wife and child and was never seen alive again.
 
Although Markowitz’s wife reported him missing almost immediately, it was not until November 8, 1963 that his body was discovered floating, bound hand and foot, in a murky canal near the Harlem River near 225th Street.
 
Traditional flat-footed detective work involving combing through receipts and telephone records eventually led detectives to Mark Fein and Gloria Kendal.
 
Fein committed the worst mistake a person involved in a murder investigation can make during his initial interview with the cops: he lied and denied that he ever knew Markowitz. That is a stupid thing to do, particularly when the police could show that Fein and Markowitz were at least phone friends. Eventually, Fein admitted knowing Markowitz, but said that all he ever did with him was “buy sporting tickets.” In further conversations Fein admitted meeting Markowitz that day and said he paid off the wager. The meeting, however, was not on 63rd Street, but was a few blocks south on First Avenue and 61st Street. As to who killed Markowitz, Fein said he had no idea.
 
That did not square with the story that Kendal was telling police. In her version she laid the killing right at the feet of Fein, adding that while she was not there at the time of the murder, she aided and abetted the clean up.
 
According to Kendal, on the night of October 10 she received a panicked phone call from Fein, who insisted that she come up to the flat immediately. She agreed.
When she arrived at 63rd Street she said Fein was sitting on a couch across from a large steamer trunk.
 
“What do you think is in that trunk,” Kendal said Fein asked.
 
“I’m sure I have no idea,” she said she replied.
 
“It’s the body of a dead man,” he said. “it’s my bookie, Ruby Markowitz.”
 
She went on to say that Fein asked her to call some friends to dispose of the trunk; he had other obligations that could not be avoided, according to her statement.
 
Her admission was good enough for city’s finest and in a New York minute Fein was under arrest. With a story like this there was no way to avoid the perp walk, and the five newspapers then in circulation in the Big Apple were more than happy to cover this scandal.
 
When Fein arrived in arraignment court and was literally crying on his father’s shoulder, every reporter made note of that in his story. They were even more delighted when Kendal’s status was downgraded from “statuesque, red-headed divorcee” to “prostitute.” Most downplayed the lesbian angle because in those days things like that were considered a mental illness and that kind of insanity did not make for good copy.
 
The grand jury indictment soon followed while the high-priced defense lawyers licked their chops and angled for a chance at the case. The story dropped off the front pages over the spring except when Fein managed to make bail after prosecutors said they were not quite ready for a speedy trial.
 
There was good reason for the delay. All the state had to go on was Kendal’s story. And what a story it was.
 
After Fein left the apartment, Kendal said she called two friends, David Brody and a woman who went by the name Jerry Boxer, to help her dispose of the trunk. They rented a station wagon and took the trunk down the freight elevator.
 
Nancy FeinKendal said the trio drove north, looking for an isolated place to dump the body into the East River. When that proved unsuccessful, they opted to drop the trunk into the Harlem River. But each time they tried to find a place, Kendal said, a police prowl car would cruise by and they had to move on. Eventually, between somewhere between 178th and 185th streets they pulled into Highbridge Park, dumped the trunk into the frigid water, and watched it sink.
 
That was Kendal’s story, but it did not jibe with how the body was found. When the body emerged from beneath the murky water the next month, it was found three miles north of the dump site. That is unusual, because the Harlem River is not really a river, but is actually a link between two other rivers — the Hudson and the East. As a result, it does not have much of a current, which means that things do not normally drift far from where they are dumped.
 
Most peculiarly, the body was not found in a trunk, and no trunk was ever found or linked to Fein. The police report said the body was “tied to pilings.”
 
No gun was ever found, but that is easy to explain and does not help Fein’s case much. However, the defense was not allowed to inspect the bullets taken from Markowitz’s body before Fein’s trial.
 
Later, in one of the appeals, the defense led by A-list attorney Louis Nizer tested the bullets and asserted that they were fired from two different guns, which means in all liklihood there were two different killers.
 
Another thing that did not come out at Fein’s trial was that the District Attorney’s office found at least three people who would testify in contradiction to Kendal’s statement, but never bothered to tell the defense.
 
markfeinprisonA year after the murder, jurors buying Kendal’s story convicted Fein of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Despite the evidence of a tainted case, no appeals court would grant Fein a new trial, although one judge chastised the district attorney’s office for withholding evidence and wrote that jurors might have been “persuaded to reach a different verdict” had they known about it.
 
Although Fein’s wife eventually left him, his father never deserted his son and apparently became his best investigator. According to a New York Times retrospective in 1973, Irving Fein located a TV repairman who said in an affidavit that he saw Markowitz at about the same time Fein was allegedly committing the murder, and Kendal’s maid who would have testified against her former boss.
 
Fein did 13 years of his 30-year sentence, still maintaining his innocence when he was paroled in 1977. Nobody knows whatever happened to Gloria Kendal, but the Register is willing to bet that her end — assuming it has already come — was not pretty.