Thursday, February 15, 2018

CRC Blog Analysis On Catherine Pelonero's ABSOLUTE MADNESS: "Torment In The Box"

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Catherine Pelonero’s
Absolute Madness: 
A True Story of a Serial Killer, Race, and A City Divided.
“Torment In The Box"
"Do you know how to drive a dog crazy? Put him in a box and beat the box with a stick every now and then. 
They tell me time is the healer of the mind.  I hope that is true.
If I do not know love, I'm nothing.
I'm nothing.
                           --Joseph Christopher,
                             letter to his mother, 1981.

       On November 7, 2017 Catherine Pelonero’s second crime nonfiction book Absolute Madness:  A True Story of a Serial Killer, Race, and a City Divided was published by Skyhorse Publishing.

The first page of the book begins on the night of September 22, 1980 with the sound of gunshots on Floss Avenue in Buffalo, New York where a resident ventures out of her house to see where the shots came from.

The movement came from a single person, a slight figure who suddenly darted through an opening in the fence that separated the parking lot from her street, Floss Avenue.  The man – she had the impression it was male – wore a dark hooded jacket.  As he emerged from the fence, he ran across Floss Avenue in her direction.  Veering to his left, he pulled the hood tighter around his head as he ran up Floss toward East Delevan Avenue disappearing past houses.
       It all happened very quickly.
       The witness, whose name was Barbara Wozniak, and who didn’t realize at the time that she was in fact a witness to something of importance, remained at her door for a moment longer, staring in the direction where the man had run.  Nothing happened.  There was no one around; all was quiet again.  Directly south of her home sat Genesee Street, a main thoroughfare that ran all the way from Buffalo through the east side of the city and out to the suburbs.  Even Genesee Street seemed unusually still.  Then again, it was 10:00 p.m. or close to it on a Monday night, a school night, and it had been raining on and off for hours.  Hardly the kind of weather for strolling or sitting on the porch. The peaceful stillness that had now returned was more typical than the odd popping sounds and the figure running off into the dark.
       Barbara assumed he was some kid who had set off firecrackers in the parking lot and she didn’t give it much thought, particularly with the silence that followed.  The rising crime rate around the neighborhood had made residents a bit more alert, but this seemed inconsequential.  She went back inside, closing her front door against the drizzle and the dark, and returned to watching Monday Night Football with her brother. 

It was later learned that the shots were not firecrackers but the shooting death of 14-year-old African American Glenn Dunn, (Left) who was shot while parked in a stolen car on Floss Avenue. 
The events of the next thirty-six hours would change the course of American legal history as well as the lives of Buffalo, Manhattan, Niagara Falls, and Rochester residents.
In the early afternoon of Tuesday, September 23, 1980 African American Harold Green (Right) was shot while eating lunch in his car at the Burger King parking lot on 1870 Walden Avenue in Buffalo’s suburb Cheektowaga.   He died from his injuries on September 28, 1980 at 7:45 p.m.  
On Tuesday, September 23, 1980 at 11:30 p.m. African American Emanuel Thomas (Left) was shot to death while walking on Zenner Street in Buffalo.  

On Wednesday, September 24, 1980, at 9 a.m. African American Joseph McCoy (Right) was shot to death in his Niagara Falls neighborhood on Cleveland Avenue.

The shooting crimes were attributed to the .22 Caliber Killer because all of the bullets were .22 Caliber and came from the same gun. 
       Then the shooting deaths in Buffalo ended and finally the people of Buffalo experienced what they thought was peace.

       As the sun set on Tuesday October 7, with the sudden, strange rash of murders now two weeks behind them, the people of Western New York perhaps slept a bit more peacefully beneath the waning crescent moon, never suspecting the worst was yet to come.

       On Monday, December 22, 1980 at 11:30 am. African American John Adams, 25, was stabbed in the chest while exiting the subway at Fourteenth Street and Seventh Street in Manhattan. He survived.
       On Monday, December 22, 1980 at 1:30 p.m. African American Ivan Frazer, 32, was stabbed in the left hand while traveling on the E train from Queens to Manhattan.
       On Monday, December 22, 1980 at 3:30 p.m. dark skinned Hispanic Luis Rodriquez, 19, was robbed and stabbed in the chest while walking on Madison Avenue. He died at the hospital.
On Monday, December 22, 1980 at 6:47 p.m. African American Antoine Davis, 30, was stabbed in the chest at Thirty-Seventh Street in Manhattan. He died at the hospital.
On Monday, December 22, 1980, at 10:40 p.m., African American Richard Renner, 20, was stabbed in the chest at a candy store on 49th Street in Manhattan. He died at the hospital.
On Monday, December 22 1980, at 11 p.m. African American Carl Ramsey was stabbed in the chest on the subway at Thirty-Third Street in Manhattan. He died at the hospital.
On Monday, December 29, 1980, at 7:25 a.m., African-American Roger Adams, 31, was stabbed to death in the neck and chest on the outside of Sattler’s Department Store at 998 Broadway in Buffalo.
On the morning of Tuesday, December 30, 1980, African American Wendell Barnes, 27, was stabbed in the chest while waiting for his bus at 172 East Main Street in Rochester, New York. He died in the hospital.

On Wednesday, December 31 1980, at 4:04 p.m., African American Albert Menefee (Left) was stabbed in the chest outside the Main Utica Tobacco Shop at 1381 Main Street in Buffalo, New York.  He survived. 
       On Thursday, January 1, 1981 between 3:30 and 4 a.m., Kim Edmiston, 21, was attacked by a man at her apartment on Tonawanda Street in Buffalo.   She managed to escape by running into her apartment building and slamming the door, immediately calling the police.
       On Thursday, January 1, 1981 at 3 p.m. African American Calvin Crippen, 23, was attacked by a man with a knife on Niagara Street in Buffalo but managed to escape unharmed. 
       The knife deaths and assaults were attributed to the Midtown Slasher.  It would not be until April of 1981 that the authorities would realize that the Midtown Slasher and the .22-Caliber Killer were one and the same man – American Army soldier Private First Class Joseph Christopher.
Pelonero told journalist Gary Sweeney of The Line Up that as she was enjoying her success of her first crime nonfiction book Kitty Genovese A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences her younger sister suggested her next writing project should be focused on Joseph Christopher.

     She followed her sister’s suggestion and began her three-year journey of researching thousands of pages of documents, police reports, psychiatric records, court documents, newspaper articles, letters, and diary entries. 

I’ve researched a lot of crimes and homicides but I’d never come across a story that was so achingly tragic on every level imaginable.” Pelonero told Sweeney in an interview on December 8, 2017. 
       She spent two more years placing every single piece of information into chronological timeline order; then outlined what pieces of information would apply to each chapter; and started writing the 470 page book one sentence at a time, cross referencing with her notes and research materials to make sure every single detail was truthful, factual, and accurate.  
   The book is divided into five sections:  Part One:  The .22 Caliber Killer; Part Two:  The Midtown Slasher;  Part Three:  The Quiet Man; Part Four:  The Gauntlet; and Part Five:  The Box.

Part One:  The .22 Caliber
Killer and Part Two:  The Midtown Slasher detail the actual crimes, the victim’s histories, how the authorities responded, and how the community responded, which at the time was racially divided and literally threw the African American community into epic panic.
They, the police, and DA were convinced that a racist was on the loose and yet the only pieces of evidence they could find were dead bodies, caliber bullets, and eye witness testimony that produced composite sketches that all seemed to be the same face of a white man, with blonde hair – sometimes short sometimes long.  But still the police were at a loss of who it could be and even came across other homicides they suspected by the same killer but only learned later were committed by a different assailant. 

The Third Section:  The Quiet Man     It would take Christopher’s own words to his military superiors and doctors identifying him as the .22 Caliber Killer/Midtown Slasher.  Only then did the police come straight to his door. . .
Pelonero details Christopher’s first arrest by the military police for inflicting two knife wounds in the chest of fellow soldier Leonard Coles (Above Right.)  Christopher was arrested by the Military police and placed in the stockade waiting for a court martial.  
     Soon, due to self inflected wounds, he was placed in the psychiatric ward at the Martin Army Community Hospital (Above Left)  in Fort Benning, Georgia where he gave his first confession to Private First Class Corwin, who was assigned to guard the patient/prisoner named Joseph Christopher. . . (Above Right Christopher at the Martin Army Hospital photographed by the police in April of 1981)

He seemed to dwell in his own head, which based, on his behavior, appeared to be a very desolate place indeed.  When Joseph Christopher would go into whatever routine this was, the rocking and squeezing his head and calling “Christopher,” over and over again in despair, it was apparently his own name he invoked in that mournful chat.
So it came as a surprise to PFC Corwin when Christopher finally spoke to him.  Corwin was sitting dutifully in a chair by the side of the bed when he noticed that the patient was awake and looking directly at him. 
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Private First Class Christopher Corwin.”
There was a pause.
“PFC Corwin, do you realize I was a mass murderer in Buffalo?”
Corwin didn’t react.  This wasn’t the first time he’d heard a prisoner say something outrageous.  And this was, after all, the psychiatric ward.  When he finally responded, he said, “Christopher, I really don’t believe that.”
“Well, I was,” the prisoner/patient said.
“I refuse to believe that” Corwin said.
“It’s true.”  He spoke slowly, remotely.  “I killed seven people in Buffalo and I killed some people in New York.”

Pelonero details Christopher’s biography, his family history, the complex relationship he had with his father, his mother’s fight for her son, his romantic relationships with other women, his stint in the military, his mental condition,  how that mental illness helped catapult him into this murder frenzy, and his first indictment from Buffalo’s Erie County on April 30, 1981 for the first three murders of Glenn Dunn, Harold Green, and Emanuel Thomas.   (Above Left: Christopher's mugshot in Buffalo in May of 1981)

The Fourth Section:  The Gauntlet   is the smallest section of the book – only 21 pages long and details Joseph Christopher’s stay in the county jail while waiting for his first trial in Buffalo. (Left:  Christopher's Defense Attorney Kevin Dillon) 

The biggest surprise of this section is the action of Joseph Christopher 14 days before the 36-hour shooting murder spree began.  Pelonero details in her book how Assistant District Attorney Duane Stamp (Right) learned that Joseph Christopher visited the Buffalo Psychiatric Hospital on September 8, 1980 seeking help.  The Buffalo Psychiatric Hospital psychiatrist and social worker met with Christopher and deemed him not a danger to himself nor to others and told him to go home.  They called him a week later for a check up and he revealed to them that he had joined the army.  

The Fifth Section:  The Box
Pelonero details court battles between the prosecution and the defense playing Christopher like a ping pong ball – to determine if he was competent or legally sane to stand trial.  Psychiatrists for the defense said no and psychiatrists for the prosecution said yes.  The yes and no ping pong battle continued until it was deemed he was fit to stand trial.  Christopher’s first conviction for the Buffalo murders would be overturned and he would be retried and found guilty.  In addition to the guilty verdict for the Manhattan murder of Luis Rodriguez and the stabbing of Ivan Frazer, Christopher was sentenced to 58 years in prison.  
EPILOGUE     Pelonero aggressively investigated, researched and wrote the truth about Christopher’s mental state and ability to stand for trial with no pre conditioned notions and some readers might find her findings uncomfortable and inconvenient, but still her findings are based on facts.  She details her journey of writing this book; the people that helped her; and where the people who played a role in this book are now; including Joseph Christopher who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.    

PELONERO BARELY REMEMBERS Joseph Christopher.  At the time of the .22 Caliber Killer and the Midtown Slasher homicides and assaults, Pelonero was a 12-year-old living in Buffalo, where her father, Salvatore J. Pelonero (Left) worked for the Buffalo Police Department from 1968 to 2002.  Her father would tell her and her younger siblings ghost stories and police stories.  Pelonero gained inspiration from her father and begin writing her own stories and plays, which were performed in her hometown of Buffalo where she won the Artie Award for Best New Play in the 1990s.    

The major turning point in her writing career was when she met the legendary playwright Emanuel Fried (Right):  I’m grateful that Emanuel "Manny" Fried was my mentor. Manny is a legend around Western New York, and rightfully so. He gave me the single greatest piece of writing advice I have ever heard: “Never write about events, only write about people.” I've applied Manny's advice to everything I've written since: fiction, nonfiction, book, script. Character is key, whether I'm writing about real people or ones born in my imagination.”
This explains Pelonero’s exceptional gift and talent of infusing fiction techniques with emphasis on setting and character while still maintaining the facts, authenticities and ambience of every aspect from the tiniest to the grandest of the events and individuals she is writing about.  As a result the reader is either witnessing or experiencing the story itself without undermining or diminishing the facts no matter how infinitesimal the facts may be.

And every single word matters in Absolute Madness – invoking the factual and the truth that describe in great detail the events that horrified New York and the sad tragic biography of Joseph Christopher.

Absolute Madness Facebook Page

The Line Up Facebook Page

The Line Up Web Page

Catherine Pelonero’s Author Facebook Page

Catherine Pelonero’s web page

Skyhorse Publishing Press

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