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Edgar Smith, with William F. Buckley Jr. blithely playing his stooge, wrote his way to freedom from the Death House in Trenton State Prison in 1971, becoming the most famous death-row prisoner of his time. Fourteen and-a-half years earlier, Smith -- at age 23 -- had bludgeoned to death 15-year-old Vickie Zielinski in Mahwah, N.J. Less than five years after his release from prison, Smith kidnapped a petite but scrappy young mother who miraculously managed to escape from Smith's car with a knife stuck in her side.
by Lona Manning
Sixty-nine year-old Edgar Smith lives an anonymous existence as one of almost 160,000 inmates in the California penal system. At one time, however, he was the most famous prisoner in the United States. His story begins on the other side of the country and almost half a century ago, in the peaceful town of Mahwah, N.J. In 1957, Smith was sentenced to die in the electric chair for the murder of Vickie Zielinski, a pretty young cheerleader whose savagely bludgeoned body was found in a sandpit. The crime and the trial drew national attention. Smith claimed he was innocent and named another man as the killer, but he was found guilty and sent to the Death House in Trenton State Prison. From his prison cell, Smith managed to stave off execution with a series of appeals, and even wrote a book giving his version of the case. He began to correspond with columnist William F. Buckley Jr., who helped him overturn his conviction and negotiate a plea bargain instead of a second trial. At the time of his release in December 1971, he was the longest-serving prisoner on death row in the United States.
Smith's successful transition to the world outside the 20-foot walls of Trenton State Prison lasted only as long as his fame. By 1976 he was in California, broke and drinking too much. That's when a woman named Lefteriya Ozbun discovered the real Edgar Smith, and miraculously lived to tell about it.
Our daughter is missing
One chilly morning in 1957, an anxious couple, man and wife, were slowly driving down a rural road in Mahwah Township. It was early March, and patches of crusty snow still hugged the ground. They were looking for their 15-year-old daughter Vickie, who had disappeared the night before. She had been studying at a friend's house, and had left there to walk home around 8:30 p.m. But she never arrived. Her parents called everyone they could think of, visited all her favorite hangouts, and notified the police. Their daughter was a fun-loving sociable girl, but she had never failed to come home before.
Now that it was light outside, Tony and Mary Zielinski resumed searching the neighborhood for some trace of her. Suddenly, Tony Zielinski hit the brakes. He spotted a shoe, a girl's penny loafer, at the side of the road. The couple jumped out of the car and started searching the side of the road. Almost immediately, they found a flowered headscarf. It was stiff with blood. "Call the police," Tony told his wife, who ran to the nearest house. Zielinski searched in the bushes and sparse woods, not yet in leaf, until Mary returned, but he found nothing more.
A few minutes later, Captain Ed Wickham of the Mahwah Police Department joined them. The three continued searching on foot along Fardale Avenue, which dead-ended at a sandpit. At the entrance to the sandpit, they found Vickie's red gloves. Then Tony saw rocks with blood on them. A whitish material, which he would later learn was his daughter's brains, was splattered in clumps over the rocks and sand and dirt.
Mary Zielinski later testified, "Then I looked over at my husband and he said, "There she is."
Their daughter lay crumpled on the banks of the sandpit. Her thick brown hair was matted with blood and caked onto what was left of her skull. Her face was destroyed, a bloody red pulp. Her sweater was pushed up around her neck and her bra was pulled down around her hips.
"And as a result of having seen your daughter at the sandpit," the prosecutor asked Mary Zielinski at the murder trial, "what did you do?"
"What would any mother do?" she answered, and began to cry.
In fact, she hadn't been able to do what any mother would do -- rush to touch and hold her child. Instead, her husband had put his arm around her and led her away. Their daughter was obviously dead, and they knew they shouldn't disturb the crime scene.
In the first book written about Victoria Zielinski's murder, the author argued that Vickie's parents bore some responsibility for the tragedy. They should have called the police as soon as their daughter Myrna reported her sister was missing, shortly after nine. "[Had] the police been notified..... Vickie might be alive today. But Mrs. Zielinski waited for three and a half hours [before searching for her], during which time her daughter's fate was sealed."
But the author knew for a fact that this wasn't true, that even if her parents had started searching right away, it was too late. He knew it wasn't true because the man who wrote those lines was the man who killed her. Before her mother even began to wonder where she was, Vickie was running for her life down an unlit country road, trying to get away from Edgar Smith. But he was a 23-year old man, and she was a young girl, only five feet two inches tall, and he caught her, struck her on the head with a baseball bat, and dragged her back to the sand pit. She was dead and discarded by 9 p.m.
|Detectives from the Bergen County prosecutor's office were on the scene by mid-morning, along with the local police, taking measurements, snapping pictures.|
The news of Vickie's murder spread quickly. Detectives from the Bergen County prosecutor's office were on the scene by mid-morning, along with the local police, taking measurements, snapping pictures. Vickie's body was carried away to the funeral parlor, where the medical examiner noted that her skull was completely "decerebrated" -- she had been hammered so savagely with a large rock that all of her brains had slipped out. He also found bite marks on her right breast, but no other signs of sexual assault. Vickie Zielinski died a virgin.
Within a day of the discovery of Vickie's body, an unemployed mechanic named Edgar Smith became a suspect.
Turned in by his buddies
Joe Gilroy lived in the neighboring town of Ramsey and was one of a group of young men who could often be found hanging around the Paramus Bowling Alley or the Amoco Gas Station. He drove a 1950 light blue Mercury convertible and was generous about loaning it to his buddy Eddie Smith. Eddie took Joe's car on the night of March 5th so he could pick up some heating fuel for his trailer. Sometime after 9 p.m. -- Joe remembered the time because when the phone rang he was watching I Love Lucy -- Eddie called and asked for another favor; he was coming to return the car to Joe, but could Joe please take him, and his wife and baby to the nearby town of Ridgewood? He couldn't get the furnace going in the trailer so they wanted to go to his mother-in-law's for the night. Sure, Eddie, said Joe, and Eddie came to pick him up. Earlier that night, the young men had arranged to get together to have a few beers, but Eddie told Joe he would have to beg off. "I've been sick," he told Joe, adding he'd vomited all over his trousers and had thrown them away.
By noon the next day, the news about a murder in Mahwah hit the radio. In that peaceful community, word of Vickie's brutal death hit like a seismic explosion. Murders might happen in nearby New York City, but not in that corner of Bergen County, where everyone knew each other. Joe Gilroy heard about Vickie's murder from his pal Don Hommell as they were driving to Ridgewood to pick up the Smiths to take them back home to the trailer park. Don was 21 and, like Eddie, had served a stint in the Marines. Don knew that Eddie had used Joe's car the night before. He was joking, sort of, when he told Eddie that the police were looking for a Mercury and they were going to check all the Mercurys in Bergen County. He noticed that Smith got "a startled look on his face." Joe later said Smith turned pale.
Naturally, on the drive back to the trailer park, the talk was about Vickie, whom they all knew. "Guess what," Don remarked, "When I was coming home from work last night I seen Vickie's sister walking up the road and I blew the horn at her." In the back seat, Eddie's wife Pat shivered and hugged her two-month-old baby closer. It was creepy to think that something like that could happen right in their neighborhood, a mile from their home. She would tell Eddie that they wouldn't spend the night in their trailer -- they should go back to her mother's, even though they had to sleep in a foldout army cot. It was just too scary to stay at the trailer court. But when they got home, Eddie told her he was going into town with the guys. He said he was going to get a haircut and he took the shoes he'd been wearing yesterday with him. "I'm going to get these re-soled," he told her. Pat didn't protest. Eddie was always leaving her alone at home while he went out with his friends; that was just the way things were.
Instead of going straight into town, Hommell detoured past the sandpit and drove slowly by. The three young men craned their necks to see what they could see of the most sensational story to hit the area in years. Half-a-dozen policemen were swarming around, searching the surrounding area and taking measurements. Hommell, Gilroy, and Smith waved at them. The policemen waved back.
"Boy, when they get this guy they're gonna hang him," said Don.
"No, he will probably plead insanity," said Eddie.
Their detour took them past the Zielinski house, where Vickie's heartbroken parents were making arrangements to take their daughter's body back to Pennsylvania, where the family came from, for burial in St. John's Roman Catholic cemetery in Honesdale.
Once in town, Edgar bought a newspaper and parted company with his friends. The papers reported that Bergen County Prosecutor Guy W. Calissi called Vickie's murder the "most vicious, most brutal and the most sadistic I have ever seen." The police were going to question soldiers at a nearby Army base, the article said, but Calissi believed that the killer must have been someone Vickie knew. The pretty young sophomore was nervous about walking home alone in the dark along the poorly lit rural road, which is why she had asked her younger sister to walk out from home and meet her. She was unlikely to have gone off with a total stranger.
Later that evening, 24 hours after the murder, Joe Gilroy noticed a speck -- could it be a drop of blood? -- on the front seat of his car. "I started to suspect [Edgar Smith]," he later testified. "I wasn't sure. I couldn't believe it." Feeling worried, feeling maybe a little foolish, he talked it over with his friends -- Tony, Willie, Rocky and Don. Don Hommell went to the pharmacy where he worked as a delivery boy and asked his boss if they had anything that could test for bloodstains. There is evidence that Gilroy and Hommell also searched around in the fields by the Pulis Street Bridge for Smith's trousers, where he told Gilroy he'd discarded them. But in the end, Gilroy decided he'd better take the car to the police and let them do the investigating. The police responded quickly to the tip and before midnight, Smith was picked up for questioning and taken to the Mahwah police station.
"Things turned sort of red and then black"
Edgar Smith, a good-looking, slender young man with dark blonde hair and light blue eyes, sat across from Cap. Carl DeMarco and Asst. Prosecutor Fred Galda. Smith later described himself as a "kid... [who] didn't know anything. Life was sitting in Tony Savarino's Amoco gas station and drinking $2-a-case beer and reading the New York Daily News. That was the world." Smith's articulate, precise manner of speaking belied his lack of education. He was a high-school dropout who had quit or been fired from at least five jobs since he was discharged from the Marines. In fact, he'd been fired the day before from the automotive place he'd worked at for only a week. He hadn't gotten around to telling his wife yet.
Questioned about his whereabouts on the night of the murder, Smith related how he had borrowed his friend's car to pick up kerosene for the trailer and how he couldn't get his furnace going. But from the very beginning, Smith's answers sharpened the detectives' interest in the young man. No matter how many times they went over his movements of the night before there was a little gap of time unaccounted for. He left his trailer at around 8:20, drove to the Secor gas station and bought five gallons of kerosene. He left the gas station around 8:30. He'd gotten back to his trailer around 9 p.m. So if it took him five minutes to drive to the gas station, and five minutes, give or take, to buy the kerosene, why did it take half an hour to drive back home?
Smith was asked for the clothes he'd worn that night. His shirt and jacket, well, he'd just washed those at his mother-in-law's place. What about his trousers? He didn't have those anymore. You see, he'd been sick with some kind of a virus and when he was driving home, he had to throw up. He had quickly pulled over in front of St. Luke's Church, jumped out of the car, and thrown up all over his pants. No, he couldn't show them the pants because he had thrown them away. Where? He'd tossed them out the car window. No, he didn't go home with just his underwear on. No, he'd gone home, changed his pants, gone out again to pick up Joe Gilroy, taken the pants with him and then tossed the pants out the car window.
The detectives took Smith so he could show them where he'd thrown up, and where he'd thrown the pants. They found nothing. And where were his shoes? Oh, he'd thrown them away too -- in town. Smith was hustled back into the police car. By that time, it was almost 3 a.m. The shoes were located in a garbage can in downtown Ramsey.
Yes, he could explain the blood on the shoes. It was because of his scraped and bloody knees. He was in the trailer, getting another pair of shoes from under the bed, and he'd kneeled on the shoes to avoid getting blood on the carpet and -- how did his knees get scraped? That was from when he quickly got out of the car to vomit. He'd tripped on the curb. The scrape on his hand was from when he was repairing a tail pipe.
Perhaps because Don Hommell had told him that the police had analyzed the tire tracks at the scene of the crime, Smith also offered that he had stopped the Mercury at the entrance to the sandpit. He had thrown up there, as well. He was taken to the sandpit and the police searched the entrance area with their flashlights. No sign of anyone being sick. Smith refused to go with them further into the sandpit. He said he had never been back there.
By this time, the reporters camping out at the police station sensed that the police had zeroed in a suspect. Over 30 men and boys had been questioned, anyone the police could think of who knew the Zielinskis or might have known Vickie, but it was Edgar Smith who was kept all night long and who was escorted, at 5:30 in the morning, to the prosecutor's office in Hackensack. Smith also realized that the detectives were focussing on him. "If you are looking for a fall guy, why don't you grab [Don] Hommell?" he suggested at one point during his lengthy interrogation. (Hommell was, in fact, questioned that night. He said that he'd been at his delivery job for a Ramsey pharmacy, and had gone out of town to pick up supplies from another drugstore. Thirteen-year-old Myrna Zielinski saw him speeding by her on his way back. After work he went to a tavern, where a number of people saw him.)
At 6:45 a.m., the Ramsey Police Department called to say that they had found a pair of khaki pants in the woods off of Oak Street. Confronted with the pants, Smith denied they were his. The police then brought in his wife Patricia, who identified them as belonging to her husband. The police folded the legs of the pants up before showing them to her, so she had no idea just how incriminating her identification was. The trousers weren't stained with vomit. They were stained with blood from the knees down. In the pants pockets, the police found a rolled-up pair of socks. One sock in particular was heavily soiled with blood and dirt.
Nothing gets a detective's attention better than catching a suspect in a lie. The detectives believed they had Smith cornered. They had a footprint impression taken from the sandpit. They had his shoes, his pants, his socks, and they wanted his confession.
By 10 a.m., Dets. Charles DeLisle and Walter Spahr were trying the "good cop/bad cop" approach with their suspect. Spahr found a spot of blood on the t-shirt Smith was wearing under his shirt and Smith admitted that he'd worn that t-shirt the night before. Spahr bored in on him. Don't give me that b-s about cutting yourself shaving, Smitty. You don't have a cut on your face. You're a smart guy, so you've got to know that we can test this blood. Your blood type is "A," Smitty, and heaven help you if the blood on your clothes matches the Zielinski kid's. We can even match the dirt on your sock to the sandpit.
DeLisle, the good cop, leaned forward confidingly and asked, "What did the girl do to you, Eddie?" Suddenly, Smith's confident demeanor disappeared and he answered plaintively, "She hit me!"
"Where did she hit you?"
"In the face," answered Edgar Smith, and burst out crying. He smoked a cigarette and the police let him regain his composure. Then he asked for a priest that he knew from his old high school.
By noon, Smith was giving a sworn statement, which was tape recorded and taken down by a court stenographer. He admitted that he had been with Vickie on the night of March 6th. He was driving back from the service station and passed Vickie on the road, walking home. She had waved at him, and he offered to give her a ride. She started talking about troubles she was having at school, and asked him to continue driving past her house because she didn't want anyone to see her in the car with him. They continued down the road, turned round the bend and ended up several miles away in the sandpit. Suddenly, and according to Smith, apropos of nothing, Vickie said, "I am going to get out and walk home. I am going to tell my father. I am going to tell him you are like the rest of the guys." She tried to leave the car, he grabbed her arm. She swung at him, he hit her back. The last thing he remembered was scuffling with Vickie, he said. After that, "things turned sort of red and then black," and "by the time I had gotten into the car I had completely forgotten about the whole thing. It wasn't in my mind at all. Just like it never happened."
Smith's lengthy statement was vague and ambiguous. It was not exactly a confession. He admitted to striking out at Vickie, but couldn't remember if he'd actually hit her. "I vaguely picture myself running or chasing somebody," he said, then later added, "I think I recollect running in the sand with my shoe off."
He confessed to disposing of her purse and schoolbooks in the woods, even to returning to the sandpit to retrieve one of his shoes. But he didn't know if he had struck her with a rock. When he heard about her murder the next day, "that's when it dawned on me that I had been with her the night before and something snapped in the back of my head that I did it and I know it in the back of my head."
The details of Smith's semi-confession were released instantly to the media, but by the time the statement was brought to him in his jail cell for his signature, several days later, he refused to sign it.
While awaiting trial, Smith had three psychiatric examinations, in which he repeated that he didn't remember exactly what had happened at the sandpit: One report noted: "He thinks he may have struck [Vickie] with his fist. He reported that at this time there was a flash in his eyes. He saw various colored lights and that he has a complete loss of memory for everything that happened until he was pulling into his driveway at home."
The doctors didn't buy the blackout story and reported that in their opinion, Smith was a liar and a sociopath: "Patient's expressed amnesia for the act for which he stands accused is not consistent and does not fit into any pattern of known illness in which amnesia may take place."
Prosecutor Guy Calissi learned that Smith had a prior conviction as a juvenile for attempted sexual assault on a 9-year-old girl. He'd received five years of probation for that offense. Lawyers for the Marine Corps also visited Bergen County and reviewed Smith's stint with the Army in California and Hawaii, checking to see if there was any connection between any unsolved crimes in those jurisdictions. For example, Smith had gone AWOL for five days when serving in Hawaii. But no charges were ever laid for any other crimes.
Justice moved swiftly in Bergen County in those days, and Smith was brought to trial within two months of the crime. But in that two months, he had time to try and think of ways to explain away all the incriminating things he'd said, and to explain why Vickie's blood was on his pants and shoes.
Edgar Smith was charged with first-degree murder, in that he "did willfully, feloniously and of his malice aforethought, kill and murder Victoria Zielinski, contrary to the provisions of [New Jersey law] and against the peace of this state, the government and dignity of the same."
The case was the biggest crime story of the year in New Jersey, and Prosecutor Calissi decided he'd better handle the trial himself. He had been present for part of the time when Smith was being questioned, and permitted Smith to go out to a restaurant for dinner, without handcuffs, with the detectives, after he was finished giving his statement. Smith ordered the lobster and had a cigar after dinner.
The first witness was Myrna Zielinski, Vickie's younger sister, who was supposed to walk with Vickie on her way back from her friend Barbara's place. Myrna described how she walked nearly a mile to Barbara Nixon's house without meeting up with her sister. Myrna cried as she identified her sister's varsity jacket and cardigan sweater, stiff with blood and spattered with gore.
Her mother and father followed her to the stand and described how they found her broken body lying on the bank of the sandpit. Fifteen-year-old Barbara Nixon then testified how Vickie had come over that night after supper and how they had worked on their bookkeeping homework together and listened to the radio. (In March of 1957, Elvis Presley had a big hit with Hound Dog. Another favorite was Tab Hunter, crooning Young Love.) Around 8:30 Vickie said she had to leave to meet up with her sister Myrna. Vickie asked Barbara if she could borrow a scarf to wear home. The black kerchief she was wearing belonged to her sister, who would be angry if she knew Vickie had borrowed it. Barbara lent her a gray kerchief with flowers on it. Barbara testified that she saw her friend to the door and watched as she walked down the driveway and past the white fence. She was the last person to see Vickie alive apart from her killer.
During the next few days of the trial, a string of detectives took the stand and testified how Smith's lies about vomiting on his pants fell apart when he was forced to confront the blood on his trousers, socks, and shoes.
It appears that when he gave his vague statement, Edgar Smith was trying to feign insanity, some kind of blackout or multiple personality disorder. When that didn't convince anyone, he changed tactics for the trial. Smith's defense was that yes, he had picked up Vickie and given her a ride and yes, that was her blood on his trousers, but there was an innocent explanation. He had lied during his interrogation, then given a vague statement that seemed like a confession, to protect his family from his buddy Don Hommell – the real killer.
The truth was, Smith testified, that on his way back from the gas station that night, he had seen Vickie walking along the road and she had waved at him to stop and told him she had something to tell him. She directed him to drive past her house, until they came to the sandpit. It turned out that the spiteful minx wanted to tell him about some nasty gossip concerning his wife Pat. Smith got angry at the girl and ordered her out of the car. He turned his head around to carefully back up the Mercury and when he looked back, Hommell's car was there and Hommell was with Vickie and she was crying and bleeding from a cut on the head. Smith had driven off and left them there. Later that night, he had run into Hommell in town and Hommell told him to be quiet if he valued the lives of his wife and child. He didn't understand what the threat meant, because at that point he didn't know that Vickie was dead. But when the police picked him up and started to question him, he realized that his family was in danger. That's why he didn't mention Hommell in his sworn statement. That's why he had made up that story about Vickie slapping him and saying she was going to tell her father. That's why he said he had vaguely remembered running in the sand, and that's why he had thrown Vickie's purse into the woods. He had lied and covered up his activities that night, not to hide his own guilt, but so he could buy time until he could figure out his next move and protect his family from Hommell.
But, Calissi asked Smith, when you were being questioned, you told a roomful of detectives "that if we wanted a fall guy we should get Don Hommell -- what was this fear that you talk about?"
"I explained that," Smith answered nonsensically. "I was afraid that my wife and child -- he would do the threats that he made."
"But you had already told us that we should arrest Hommell."
"I didn't tell you to arrest Hommell."
"You said, if you wanted a fall guy, get Hommell?"
"Is that right?"
Another angle Smith tried at trial, and at a subsequent appeal, was that because Vickie had cut her head just before he left the sandpit, he felt responsible. He should have taken her to the hospital, and when he first learned of her death, he assumed that she had bled to death from the cut on her head. That's why he had told the police: "Something snapped in the back of my head that I did it, but I couldn't convince myself." Because, you see, he only learned that her wounds were horrible -- far worse than a cut on the head -- after giving his strange statement to the police. It was only when he learned the details of her injuries after his arrest, that he realized something more must have happened after he left the sandpit.
But, asked Calissi, isn't it a fact that you read the newspaper on the day after the murder? (The article said that her skull had been crushed by a rock, and her nose and jaw broken.) So you knew her wounds were severe before the police picked you up.
Oh yes, said Smith, but "I never take a newspaper to be accurate."
Prosecutor Calissi patiently and methodically pursued Smith's corkscrewing lies.
Q. How did the blood get on [your] shoe, do you know?
A. I do not.
Q. Do you recall on the night of the 5th of March at Mahwah when you were being questioned... did you or did you not explain that the way the blood got on the shoe was by you kneeling on the shoe to get your other shoes?
A. I did.
Q. And could you tell us how you account for the difference in the statement that you make now?
A. I didn't want to make any definite statement at that time... and therefore I was evasive.
But Smith's statement about kneeling on the shoes was definite. It was his answer at trial that was evasive.
And the jury had already heard about how Smith first said he'd scraped his knees when he got out of the car to vomit, then he admitted to falling and scraping his knees in the sandpit when he was there with Vickie, and now at trial he was saying he scraped his knees when he fell off the fence beside his trailer. They knew he could change his story at the drop of a hat.
Smith's salvation depended on the jury finding him credible. But he didn't know how to win them over. The defendant said of himself that "I am by nature a transcendentally unemotional, matter-of-fact individual, the antithesis of what a man testifying in his own behalf, with his life at stake, should be." His descriptions of his actions were a little too precise at times. Where another man might have said, "I slipped off the fence railing when I tried to pour the kerosene into the tank," Edgar Smith said:
I poured the kerosene into the drum, some of it had spilled on the side of the drum, it was slippery. I leaned my hand against it and slipped. I couldn't land on my left foot because of the ankle being injured and by landing on my right foot my knees buckled and I fell on the gravel driveway next to my trailer.
Smith's worst failing as a witness for himself is that he didn't seem to have any conception of decent human behavior. He told the jury that he, a married man, took a 15-year-old girl to a sandpit -- to talk, only to talk -- and left her there in the dark and the cold when she angered him, and refused to let her back into his car even when she begged him, and clung on to his legs, crying and bleeding freely from a cut on the head. He testified that she pleaded with him "don't let him [that is, Hommell] do it again," but that he had driven off and left her there because, well, she was Don's girlfriend, wasn't she, and it was best not to interfere.
(The blood on the pants legs, type "O" blood, Vickie's blood, was splashed on the pants, not smeared).
In addition to his disgust over the murder itself, Calissi was angered at Smith's calculated efforts to cast the blame on Don Hommell, who was in effect put on trial by Smith and his attorney. Hommell had to take the stand and testify to his movements that night. He denied having seen Vickie or threatening Smith to keep quiet. He'd been out of town, picking up medicine from another pharmacy and got back to town just as his shift ended at 9 p.m. Yes, he acknowledged that within minutes of the time that Vickie had disappeared while walking down Wyckoff Avenue, he had driven down the same road. Hommell also testified that he had dated Vickie "casually," but her parents reported that she had no steady boyfriend.
Calissi called detectives to establish that Hommell's car and clothing had been checked the day after the murder and had come up clean. In his summation, Calissi said, "this has been a horrible, despicable attempt on the part of the defendant himself to create a doubt by concocting and by fabricating, by inventing this terrible story about a friend in order that he might save himself from the punishment which he deserves."
Calissi reminded that jury that Smith had testified that when he had supposedly seen Hommell with the crying, bleeding, Vickie, "he was definite it was Hommell's car" at the sandpit. But, Calissi pointed out, the owner of the pharmacy had testified that young Hommell drove the pharmacy station wagon, not his own car, when he made deliveries.
Calissi's son, Ron, 10 years old at the time, was in the courtroom that day. " I can remember being in the courtroom and seeing how the defense lawyer threw up his hands at that point. That blew the case, [Smith] had absolutely no credibility after that."
The prosecutor described Smith as "cool as a cucumber," a man who was completely unmoved by the story of Victoria Zielinski's brutal murder as it unfolded in the courtroom. "We are dealing here," Calissi concluded, "with a very cunning man who sits here before this jury and this court for over two weeks, doesn't bat an eyelash, shows absolutely no sign of sympathy or remorse and believes that this is just one of those things.
"My stomach and my heart, well -- it feels the way I know it feels and I know there are others in this courtroom that feel the same. The only person that seemed unconcerned [about Vickie Zielinski] in this court was Smith himself. He is the only one that didn't think this was anything of great importance, the only one."
The jury deliberated only two-and-a-half hours, including a lunch break, and found Smith guilty as charged. They concluded that this seemingly intelligent, controlled man had dark furies within him that led him to punish a 15-year-old girl who rejected him, to bash her face with a large rock until she had no face left. Judge Arthur O'Dea told them, "I want to commend you on your verdict. If it had been the court's decision without a jury I would have found the same as you found... you as jurors should feel no responsibility for the sentence which.... is mandatory, the death penalty."
Smith commented to Prosecutor Calissi upon leaving the courtroom, "I'll fry in July."
The Death House
At that time, New Jersey's death-row inmates were kept in a separate building in the yard of Trenton State Prison. Tommy Trantino, sent to the Death House in 1964 for the brutal murder of two policemen, recalls: "It only held 18 men. There were nine cells to a tier, two tiers in a shoebox shaped building, at the end of which was the electric chair behind a big green steel door. Edgar Smith was in the last cell and was right next to that door."
"I would not see the sky for nine and a half years," Smith later wrote. "I would spend [those] years in a small, sparsely furnished solitary confinement cell, getting out only fifteen minutes each Friday for a quick cold-water shower." Prisoners ate, slept, and waited in their cells -- no exercise in the yard, no work details.
The condemned could hear but not see each other, because all the cells lined one side of the building and faced a plain green brick wall. Three men made the trip through the green metal door to the electric chair during Smith's years there, but he never developed close ties to any of them. Even after 14 years on Death Row, he described them as "guys I knew, not friends." The feeling was mutual, recalls Trantino: "Actually nobody really liked him at the time." Smith thought he was superior, Trantino explained, and "took an elitist position on the other guys," and for that matter, toward "the world," not just his fellow prisoners.
This assessment is echoed by long-time Trenton prison guard Harry Camisa, who wrote in his memoirs that Smith, although clearly intelligent, was "an arrogant, mean-spirited lowlife... who talked down to everyone he met. He seemed to believe he was some kind of superior being." Most of the other inmates "hated his guts."
By his own telling, however, Smith was humbled by being in the Death House and used the endless hours to take stock of himself. " He claims he deeply regretted the fact that up until the night of his arrest, he had basically loafed through life. "I was no longer a free, screw-the-world 23-year-old hanging around gas stations, drinking with other guys like myself, doing what I wanted when I wanted whether anyone liked it or not."
To pass the time, he did jigsaw puzzles, worked out baseball statistics, painted, took correspondence courses, joined MENSA (the organization for people with high IQs) and read everything he could get his hands on, all while orchestrating a series of appeals.
His wife Pat remained loyal for almost five years. Perhaps if he'd been executed, she would have stayed by him until he went through the green door. But his skill in staying alive meant that she existed in limbo. In 1962, she told him that she needed to get on with her life. She remarried, took their daughter, and moved away.
By 1964, his mother couldn't afford to pay any more legal bills, so Smith became his own jailhouse lawyer. "It is incredible what one can do when one's life is at stake," he later wrote. He laboriously hand-printed his legal briefs because he wasn't allowed to have a typewriter. His appeals attacked Hommell's alibi, and argued that the statement he'd made under oath but never signed, should have been inadmissible. Smith also made much of the fact that the medical examiner estimated the time of death as being around midnight. (In fact, fixing the time of death was complicated by the fact that it was very cold that night, causing rigor mortis to set in earlier than it would otherwise. The examiner didn't analyze Vickie's stomach contents to help settle the question of the time of death).
His appeals were dismissed as nitpicking. "Defendant's conduct and general demeanor," wrote one justice, "reflected a noticeable consciousness of guilt.... Why did Smith inform Gilroy that he had vomited on his trousers... Would a clear conscience have dictated an attempt to conceal Victoria's books and handbag and his own bloodstained socks and trousers in the woods? Normal conduct would have been to drop the socks and trousers into the garbage can outside the trailer and to return the books and pocketbook [to Vickie's house] at a later date."
When his appeals failed, he appealed the appeals. His case came before the New Jersey Supreme Court four times. In 1959 he had one of many close calls. He was scheduled to be executed just a few days after the New Jersey legislature was going to vote on abolishing the death penalty. The bill was defeated, but Smith survived, winning another appeal of his sentence in the nick of time.
Unlike other famous prisoners, like the Trenton Six or Sacco and Vanzetti, there were no political overtones to Smith's case. He wasn't a persecuted minority. He was a white male, about to become, in a phrase not yet coined, a Dead White Male. If there was to be any public interest in his case, he had to dredge it up for himself. But Smith had an extraordinary stroke of luck in 1962. A staffer on the National Review, Donald Coxe, saw a newspaper article about Smith, which mentioned that he was a faithful reader of the magazine. Smith was offered a complimentary subscription, (with a bit of gallows humor, it was called a "lifetime" subscription). The prisoner began corresponding with Coxe and then with William F. Buckley, the magazine's founder. Both soon took an interest in the details of the case, especially after Smith told them that a private investigator was working for free, trying to find new evidence that would prove his innocence.
In 1963, Coxe wrote in the National Review that he had read and re-read the trial transcript. "The jury's verdict was not clearly perverse, nor was the trial obviously rigged." In fact, he conceded, "[t]here is much evidence against Smith," but Coxe and Buckley came to believe that there were many "unanswered problems" in the state's case.
Buckley decided the prosecution case was "inherently implausible." Smith was supposed to have come across Vickie as she walked home, invited her into the car, driven two miles to the sandpit, and made sexual advances to her. She then escaped from the car and tried to get away. He pursued her, caught her, dragged her back and killed her in a savage fashion. A few minutes later he was back at his trailer a mile from the death scene, calling from the bedroom to the kitchen, asking his wife to throw him a clean pair of pants. She didn't notice anything unusual in his manner. And this had all happened in half an hour. Perhaps it was physically possible to do all that, but it was hard to conceive of someone engaging in an impulsive crime which climaxed in savage hatred toward his victim, and cooling down enough to plot his cover story and dispose of his bloody pants, in the time allotted. The Smith that Buckley knew through his letters wasn't violent or even excitable, not even in the shadow of the chair. As Buckley wrote: "Doesn't it strain the bounds of credibility that an essentially phlegmatic young man, of nonviolent habits, would so far lose control of himself, in the space of a minute or two, as to murder under such circumstances a 15-year-old girl he hardly knew?"
Adding to their sympathy for Smith was their resentment that the trial judge would not permit them to visit him in the Death House because they were neither family nor legal counsel. Their relationship was carried on by correspondence. Buckley was eventually allowed to visit Smith, but in accordance with the rules, he had to sit five feet away from Smith's cell with a wire screen placed between them, while a guard listened in on the conversation. (These visiting restrictions also applied to Smith's relatives. According to the Death House prison guards, Smith ordered Patricia to not wear any panties when she came to visit him, and she had to sit with her legs spread and her skirt hiked up so he could glimpse her pudenda through the mesh screen. The prison guards were repulsed by Smith's callous attitude toward his pretty young wife, and -- as Harry Camisa wrote in his memoirs -- figured that Smith was a "sleaze" who had pulled a "con job" on Buckley.)
Though Buckley thought the State's case was problematic, he also recognized that Smith's version, or versions, lacked the ring of truth. Why, for example, would Vickie ask him for a ride, when she knew that her younger sister was walking up the road to meet her? "Surely Vickie would get into greater trouble at home," Buckley wrote, "by letting [her sister] Myrna walk all the way to the Nixons and back without Vickie, than by letting her sister see her in a car?"
It was possible, Buckley surmised, that Smith killed Vickie in a rage. Smith had testified that he'd gotten angry at Vickie because she told him that his wife was fooling around on him. Therefore, wrote Buckley, perhaps Smith did lose control and kill the Zielinski girl, but that did not warrant the death sentence: "If a gentleman tries to seduce a lady, and she declines to go along, that is not a provocation which justifies him in killing her other than at the risk of conviction for a premeditated murder. If, however, the lady suggests the gentleman has been cuckolded, that is a provocative statement, and any lethal reply by the gentleman -- in a fit of blind rage -- may be classified as murder in the second degree." In which case, Buckley concluded, Smith should have received a life sentence for second-degree murder, not the chair.
Buckley wouldn't have taken such an interest in this prisoner, out of all the prisoners who claim innocence, if it hadn't been for Smith's intelligence as revealed in his letters, all printed in an even, controlled hand. "[Smith] was by turns mordant, judicious, inquisitive, impudent, amused," Buckley later wrote, "but what was distinctive was his sense of detachment, which he combined with a kind of gallows wit, that left some readers mysteriously but deeply moved." The high-school dropout succeeded in capturing and holding the attention of one of America's foremost intellectuals. Buckley thought so highly of Smith's writing that he offered to buy the literary rights to Smith's letters, for possible publication. By this time, however, Smith was working on a book about his case, and he declined the offer.
Smith's case came to national attention when Buckley wrote a lengthy article for Esquire magazine, which was published in November of 1965. In it, Buckley detailed his doubts about the plausibility of the state's case, but he also repeated some of Smith's claims: he wrote that Smith's juvenile conviction for sexual molestation was as a result of a false accusation from a girl who frequently made false accusations. And he repeated Smith's contention that Don Hommell was the real killer:
Smith said he told Hommell during their brief conversation... on the night of the murder just where he had discarded his pants. The woman who occupies property across the road from which Smith claimed to have thrown the pants... swore at the trial that she had seen Hommell rummaging there the day after the murder. The pants were later found [by the police] near a well-traveled road... Did Hommell find them, and leave them in the other location, thinking to discredit Smith's story, and make sure they would turn up?"
Hommell was exonerated by the Bergen County jury, only to find himself re-accused by a famous writer in a prominent magazine. The insinuations dogged him for years. He left New Jersey sometime after Smith's trial and found employment as a prison guard at a juvenile facility in Delaware. In 1964, some of the boys accused him of assault, but he was exonerated after an investigation.
In 1968, Hommell was again tried in the media when Smith's book, Brief Against Death, was published. Don Hommell "went through hell and never recovered from it," recalled Bergen County prosecutor Edward Fitzpatrick. "He had to move away from this area, the area where he grew up and where his family lived." Fitzpatrick concluded that Hommell was "another victim of Smith."
Brief Against Death
Brief Against Death came out to good reviews. "[Smith's] presentation of the evidence is convincing, superbly argued, coolly reasoned," said Newsweek. In it, Smith repeated the story which had failed to impress the jury -- that when police questioned him, he had lied because Don Hommell, the real killer, had threatened him. Actually, Smith presented two conflicting arguments. One, he gave his strange confession because he was sleep-deprived, feeling sick, and was browbeaten for 21 hours straight by the detectives. He hardly knew what he was saying. He would have confessed to being on the grassy knoll and shooting JFK, if they'd asked him. Or, alternatively, when he gave his confession, he chose his words with cunning and care, because of the threats of Don Hommell. "I made up my mind to give the police a misleading, ambiguous statement, to try to outsmart them." In fact, he deliberately threw in false details about his movements that night because "I was hoping to confuse things a bit."
Just as he gave several explanations for his sworn statement, Smith provided more than one substitute villain. In addition to pointing the finger at the hapless Don Hommell, Smith also hints that Vickie's father, Tony Zielinski, was some kind of pervert and that she was terrified of him. In his first statement to police, Smith told them that Vickie said, "I am going to tell my father -- you are like all the other guys." In Brief Against Death, Smith wrote that Vickie said, "I am going to tell all the guys that you are like my father."
In addition, Smith quotes his lawyer as making the pointless, repellent accusation that the 15-year-old virgin "engaged in abnormal sexual practices," but that he "would never raise that issue." In his opening paragraph, Smith suggested that his victim was a tease:
"Five foot two, 120 pounds, with brown eyes and dark brown shoulder-length hair, she was an exceptionally well-developed 15-year-old, with a figure that belied her age -- a fact she knew, was proud of, and made no effort to conceal. To the contrary, her favorite clothes were tight, form-revealing sweaters and blue jeans."
The single most damning piece of evidence against Smith was his bloody trousers, found tossed in the woods. In his sworn statement he admitted that the tan khaki trousers were his. But he retracted that for his book, and claimed the detectives confused and tricked him into saying that the pants were his. But, he wrote, his own pants were gray and weren't so bloody. The police must have faked this evidence or Hommell must have planted them where they could be found.
What he didn't mention is that when he was on the stand at his trial, he admitted to Prosecutor Calissi that the bloody pants were his.
In fact, Smith barely mentions his lengthy and devastating cross-examination in his book.
Ironically, though Brief Against Death became a best seller and convinced a lot of people that an innocent man sat on New Jersey's death row, the book had the opposite effect on Smith's defense lawyer, John Selser. Selser had argued strongly at trial that Don Hommell was the true killer, but when he read the book, he noticed how Smith "found it so easy to distort the facts."
Justice is a moving target
Smith's final and successful appeal in 1971, his 19th, wasn't about his guilt or innocence but about whether he had received a fair trial. It centered on the statement he'd given to police on March 6th, 1957.
For years, he had protested that his confession was obtained under duress, and that the police had kept him from seeing a lawyer. In fact, he was never even told when he stopped being just one of the many people the police were questioning about the Zielinski murder, and when he started to become the chief suspect. He wrote:
[O]nce the police have fixed upon a prime suspect, once they begin seeking evidence to convict that suspect, rather than seeking general information to help solve the crime, that suspect becomes in fact a criminal defendant and a whole new ballgame begins; all sorts of legal protections come into the game, including prompt arraignment before a magistrate and warnings as to the suspect's rights..... [The] police had a good enough case against me to arraign me long before they did so, long before they allowed a magistrate to advise me of my rights, and that that delay resulted not from an attempt to solve the crime, but rather from an effort to build a better case by continuing my interrogation until I made incriminating statements.
Over the years, the New Jersey courts had ruled that Smith had not been mistreated and that the transcript of his statement indicated that he was speaking freely and willingly. One dissenting judge, however, expresses Smith's position in a nutshell:
[F]rom 8 a.m. on the morning of March 5, 1957 until 3:45 p.m. on March 6, 1957 -- almost 32 hours -- [Smith] had no sleep with the exception of a couple of hours before he was taken from his bed and placed in custody at 11:30 p.m. on March 5; [then] he was interrogated in relays by prosecutors and their aides, local police and county detectives, as many as seven seen being present at one time, all through the night, relieved only by his being taken to various places in freezing weather... [to look for the pants and shoes].. and questioned repeatedly until 10 a.m. on March 6 when he broke down completely and cried and asked for a Catholic priest....
Smiths' interrogation and confession was obtained eight years before the famous Supreme Court Miranda decision, which guaranteed that all suspects be informed of their rights: ("You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney...). Standards and expectations for the treatment of suspects had evolved since 1957. Smith had the added advantage of being famous. He'd published two best-selling books, Brief Against Death and a crime novel about a man who is wrongfully convicted of murdering a girl. He had attracted the best appeal lawyers available. He was famous, his case discussed in the pages of Esquire and National Review, Time and Newsweek.
Smith had argued this point before in the appeal courts, but had lost. In 1971, Smith won the right to discuss the whole thing in court again, before U.S. Federal Judge John J. Gibbons in U.S. District Court.
Edward Fitzpatrick appeared for the State of New Jersey. (Guy Calissi was no longer prosecutor at this time and was in private practice.) Fitzpatrick argued that Smith had been treated with elaborate courtesy. A doctor had examined him midway through the questioning. The assistant prosecutor personally lit his cigarettes. In fact, the record showed that Smith told his interrogators that he had been treated "better than I expected."
But this time, the prosecution lost the argument. In June 1971, Judge Gibbons ruled that Smith's statement had been unfairly obtained, and ordered that the State of New Jersey either release him or re-try him in 60 days. And this time around, they wouldn't be able to use the statement, which Calissi had used with such devastating effect to show the jury what a fluent, if not always persuasive, liar Smith was. The state appealed the decision but lost.
In public at least, Smith was insisting that he wanted nothing more than a fair trial and that he would never waver in proclaiming his innocence. Behind the scenes, his lawyers were negotiating a deal. "And that is how the game is played," Smith wrote in his second book about his case. "You say one thing in public, another in the back room."
Bergen County offered to release him if he would plead non vult (no contest) to second- degree murder. He had served 14 and-a-half years and he could be released on parole. Smith decided to accept the offer. Neither side particularly wanted to go through another trial, prosecution witnesses had died or moved away, and the outcome couldn't be certain. As Smith recalled: "Bill Buckley and I discussed [what to do] at great length over a period of months, and I found that he fully shared my confidence that if I were to make a deal with the state, a deal the result of which I would be required to plead guilty in order to obtain my immediate freedom, those who believed in me, who believed me innocent, would understand that what I had done had been a strategic necessity, a charade performed to get me OUT."
On December 6, 1971, Edgar Smith stood before New Jersey Superior Court Judge Morris Pashman and confessed to the murder of Vickie Zielinski.
"Did you, on the night of March 4, 1957, pick up Victoria Zielinski?"
"Did you kill Victoria Zielinski?"
"I did," the defendant answered quietly.
"Did you kill her by yourself?" (undoubtedly a question on behalf of Don Hommell).
"Was there anyone else present?"
Smith also acknowledged that he had been wearing the tan khaki pants and that he'd discarded them near Oak Street, where they were found.
Pashman noted that viewed objectively, the murder of Vicki Zielinski, though gruesome and savage, was not necessarily a premeditated murder. Pashman told Smith that, in his opinion, the only reason that Smith was found guilty of first-degree murder was because Smith was such an obnoxious defendant -- the jury reacted strongly to his many lies and his cold-blooded attempt to pin the murder on another man.
Pashman also took comfort in the assurances of the state-appointed psychiatric experts who declared Smith to be rehabilitated. One psychiatrist wrote that there were: "No manifest disturbances in either his emotional make-up or his mental processes. It is quite evident that the defendant examined today is a different man than the one who entered the death house 15 years ago." Three psychiatrists had examined him before the trial and declared him to be a sociopath, but sane. But the current court-appointed expert reported, "this defendant may be returned to the community without posing a danger to the public... The overall picture looks quite promising and the prospects for the future are good."
|His first destination after Judge Pashman's court room was via limousine to the set of William F. Buckley's television show, Firing Line.|
The Edgar H. Smith who emerged from prison was 37 years old and starting to look a little jowly, a world-weary man as opposed to the attractive boy he once was. He'd gone to death row in 1957, the era of Elvis, duck tail haircuts, and Ozzie & Harriet. He emerged in the era of Archie Bunker, long sideburns, and Vietnam. (Thanks to his supporters, he had fashionable new threads for his court appearance.) His first destination after Judge Pashman's court room was via limousine to the set of William F. Buckley's television show, Firing Line, where he fielded questions from his host and the audience and explained that what had just gone on in Pashman's courtroom was "theater." "I said what I was requested to say... something I had to do to get free."
After Smith's conviction, Guy Calissi had said, "I would stake my own life that Edgar Smith is guilty." Now, the man he had sent to death row was not only being released, but regarded as a symbol of justice gone wrong.
Ron Calissi, Guy Calissi's son, found the whole thing very hard to bear. The 25-year-old civil servant remembered the night in 1957 when his father came home, grave and silent, after arresting Smith. Seeing Vickie's killer held up as a "national hero," offended the younger Calissi's sense of justice and decency. On a more personal level, Calissi deeply respected his father and Smith's book charged that Guy Calissi had put an innocent man on death row. People would ask him, "so, do you think Smith was innocent after all?" and Calissi thought: What you're asking me is whether my father is a murderer. "There was no doubt in my father's mind that Smith was guilty... he never would have asked for the death sentence if there had been any doubt."
Ron Calissi decided to fight back against the favorable publicity wave for America's favorite ex-con. He interviewed many of the witnesses such as Joe Gilroy and Don Hommell. He compiled the court documents -- transcripts, psychiatrist reports, summaries of Smith's many failed appeals. It came to over a thousand pages. He had it published as a book he called Counterpoint. Calissi refrained from analyzing or synthesizing the information. The reader could read the trial transcripts, compare them to Brief Against Death and judge for themselves how Smith "distorted the facts, fabricated outright lies, used half-truths and arrogantly held law officials and the courts up to ridicule..."
Counterpoint, published in 1972, a few months after Smith's release from prison, showed that Smith's version of the case was in fact quite distorted. Calissi reprinted the entire text of Smith's March 6th statement to police, the disputed confession. Smith had printed a highly edited version in Brief Against Death. For example, the transcript of the confession contains this passage about Vickie's attempted escape from Smith after she told him that she was going to "tell her father:"
Q: Did [Vickie] get back into the car with you?
A: No, no, then that time whatever happened in between is just vague to me. I don't know exactly what it is.
Q: Did you chase her at any time?
A: I have a feeling of running somewhere.
Q. What was the condition of the ground at that time?
In Brief Against Death, Smith omits the damaging remarks about running, and wrote that Asst. Prosecutor Fred Galda asked "Did she get back in the car with you?" and then, "changing the subject," asked about the "condition of the ground."
Smith also left out his admission that he threw Vickie's pocketbook and schoolbooks into a wooded area near the sandpit, that he swung his fist at Vickie "as hard as I could," and his admission that he knew his pants were covered with blood. He cut out the portions which demonstrated that when he gave his statement, he was probably trying to convince the detectives, or himself, that he was temporarily insane. He edited out phrases like, "that's where somebody pulled the switch," and "things turned sort of red and then black." He also edited out the occasions where his questioner said "please," "thank you," "take your time," or "would you like a cup of coffee?," making his interrogation sound far more brusque than it actually was.
The trial transcript, reproduced in full in Calissi's book, included Smith's testimony that he had asked for a Catholic priest before giving his confession, whereas in his book he accused the police of foisting a priest on him when "[t]he only thing I've asked for is to see either my wife or my lawyer."
Despite the younger Calissi's efforts, Edgar Smith remained the most famous and widely quoted ex-convict in the country.
Life after prison
"Edgar's very first year out of prison was dreamlike," William F. Buckley wrote. "He was a considerable celebrity. He earned a thousand dollars at a clip lecturing at colleges... [a]ppearing on.... hundreds of local television and radio shows." Fortunately, his release coincided with an upsurge of public interest in penal reform and the rise of the radical prison movement. The following June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, which provided more opportunities for Smith to hold forth on the subject of the wrongs done to him.
But his celebrity soon waned. Even though he marketed himself as an expert on justice and penal reform, he really didn't have much of substance to say. Basically, he argued that prisons are unpleasant places. But really, he was interested in penal reform, or any topic for that matter, only insofar as it affected him personally. He wrote a book about the behind-the-scenes negotiations of his release, called Getting Out. It was vintage Smith, that cool, detached voice going over the facts, the courtroom visits, what kind of sandwich he ate, detailed to the point of tedium. Buckley, again: "He became, slowly, bored -- and then boring."
Smith had once written, "There is perhaps nothing more frightening to me than the prospect of finding myself stuck for the rest of my life in some dreary small town, working in some gas station or hardware store for $60 a week." By 1974, he was broke and worse, he was yesterday's news. He moved to La Jolla, Calif., where he briefly found work as a security guard. He was fired.
As he entered his 40s, Smith was unemployed, in debt, and drinking heavily. He was remarried, to a much younger woman. When Paige Smith first met her future husband, he was driving a gold-colored Cadillac, hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, and writing for The New York Times. Most of his money came from his involvement with the drug trade, she later claimed, and the glamorous people that she met through him turned out to be drug dealers. If so, then this career fizzled out like all the others. By the time they moved to California, Paige was urging him to take a job, any job, like driving a taxi, until he found a career that was suitable for his talents. While she worked full time and went to nursing school at night, he was loafing around doing nothing, a dead weight in their marriage. The bills mounted up. They argued.
The second assault
Lefteriya Lisa Ozbun was a 33-year-old immigrant who worked as a seamstress at a clothing factory. A petite brunette, she was waiting in the company parking lot for her husband to pick her up one October afternoon in 1976. As a working mother of three, spare time was a precious commodity for her and she had just enjoyed a few relaxing hours of window shopping. But she'd resisted the temptation to buy anything and her paycheck was still in her purse.
A car slid up behind her, so close that she instinctually moved away from the sound. Suddenly a strange man grabbed her throat with one hand, and held a knife under her chin with the other. As she recalled, "He put [the knife] at my throat and he squeezed it real tight and he said, 'Don't make a move and don't scream or I'm going to cut your throat right here!'"
The man hustled Mrs. Ozbun into the car and taped her wrists together. "Where are you taking me? What are you going to do to me?" She demanded.
"I'm going to take your damn money and I'm going to stick that knife in you," he answered.
She believed him. "I could see it in his eyes," she said. "I'd never seen eyes like that. They were so cold and filled with hate. I knew if I didn't fight I'd never see my kids again."
So, as her captor sped along the freeway, she fought back. She was wearing the platform shoes fashionable at the time, and they turned out to be handy battering rams for punching the front windshield. Smith (for it was, of course, Edgar Smith) flailed out with one arm, grabbed her head, pushed her down on the seat and sat on her as he tried to keep the car in motion. In her desperate determination, Mrs. Ozbun tore and twisted the tape off her hands. Smith kept steering with one hand as he stabbed a six-inch knife in her side, barely missing her heart. "I looked down and the knife was in me, with his hand still on it. I tried to pull the knife out but couldn't." Still she fought back, fighting her abductor for control of the brake pedal, the steering wheel, and the horn. Smith finally lost control of the car and swerved to an exit ramp. He nearly plunged them down a steep embankment but managed to stop the car in time.
Luckily, there was a young man at the side of the highway, selling flowers. He saw Mrs. Ozbun roll out of the car with the knife still embedded in her side. He ran up to her. She asked weakly, "Will you please get my purse?"
Unable to fully comprehend what was going on, the young man did as he was asked. He walked over to the car, and politely asked Edgar Smith for the lady's purse. Smith too, was stunned by the turn of events. He handed out the purse and then, recollecting himself, drove away at full speed. But some other witnesses got the make of the car and the license plate. The Pontiac was registered to a Paige Smith.
Smith fled San Diego and disappeared. Two weeks later, he called William F. Buckley's office, saying he was hiding out at a Las Vegas hotel, and asked Buckley's secretary to help him. Buckley promptly turned him in to the FBI. Smith was 42 and had been out of prison not quite five years.
Diagnosis: Sane but deadly
As news of the crime and the capture spread, journalists understandably turned to Bergen County for their reaction, and questioned how an intelligent man like William F. Buckley could have been hood-winked for so long by a high-school dropout. Buckley wrote, "[t]he former assistant prosecutor [Edward Fitzpatrick] did not suppress his glee, giving statements to the press and addressing an open letter to me all but accusing me of knifing Mrs. Ozbun myself."
Others who had championed Smith were also angry and amazed. John Selser, Smith's original attorney, bitterly remarked, "He made a damn fool out of me."
Smith's second attack proved to be another embarrassment for the predictive abilities of psychiatrists, who had assured Judge Pashman that Smith "may be returned to the community without posing a danger to the public." Even so, Smith's court-appointed attorney, Thomas Ryan, asked for more psychiatric examinations for his client. Ryan felt Smith's only chance lay in pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, because the evidence against him was overwhelming.
But Ryan had to abandon that strategy because the psychiatrists reported that Smith was rational and intelligent. He was not psychotic or delusional and so he couldn't be judged as insane.
The case was assigned to Deputy D.A. Richard Neely, who was in charge of the Major Violators Unit in the San Diego County D.A's Office. Neely did not know at first that Edgar Smith was a celebrity. "I had never heard of that guy before... a few days later, that's when I first found out that Edgar Smith was more than the ordinary, run-of-the-mill crook."
Leftiyera Ozbun survived the knife attacked and lived to testify against her assailant. Neely admires her courage: "He picked the wrong victim. He really did. She was a very slight woman, and I think he saw the back of her and thought he had an easy mark, and that was far from the truth."
Since Smith and his attorney had to abandon the insanity defense, they turned to a strategy that was even more desperate and surprising: Smith pleaded that he was an emotionally disturbed sex offender. This was because the penalty in California at that time for kidnapping for purposes of robbery was a life sentence, if the victim was injured. Kidnapping for the purpose of sexual assault meant a shorter sentence. Thus, Smith denied that he kidnapped Mrs. Ozbun with the intention to rob her. He testified he was planning to rape her, in hopes of receiving the lesser penalty.
To buttress his claim that he was a sex pervert, he pointed to his past -- he confessed to assaulting a girl when he was a teenager (a charge he denied in Brief Against Death, when he said that the girl had a habit of making false accusations) and affirmed that his attack on Vickie Zielinski was sexually motivated.
Before, when it suited him to lie, he lied. Both his lies and his confession were weapons in his campaign to get out and stay out of prison. Truth, lies, it didn't matter and it was all the same to Smith. Just words, really.
Even when Smith finally told the truth, there remains the doubt that he would ever, could ever, honestly describe what happened during Vickie Zielinski's last few moments of life or show any awareness that he was speaking of another human being. She was walking home alone in the dark, watching for her sister to join her. Smith lured her into the car on some pretext. (It seems unlikely that it was she who asked him for a ride, especially since he was travelling the other way, back to the trailer court, when he passed her after she left the Nixon's house). He took her to the sandpit, where not much time could have elapsed before she realized the danger she was in and tried to get away. She ran down Fardale Avenue and was within 70 feet of Mr. Kromka's driveway (the same home her mother visited to phone the police after her shoe was found), when Smith caught up to her. Joe Gilroy had some baseball bats lying in the back seat of his car, and Smith had grabbed one and pursued her. "I hit her a couple of times with the bat. I didn't know how badly she was injured." He dragged her back to the sandpit. She may have still been struggling at this point, because one of her shoes, her scarf, bobbie pin, a hank of her hair and her gloves were found along the road. Once back at the sandpit, "I picked up a very large rock and struck her on the head with it."
Once he got home, Smith changed his clothes, which led to the first lie he told that night. He told Joe Gilroy that he'd been sick on his pants, probably because he was worried that Gilroy would wonder why he'd changed clothes that evening. Later, when the police found his trousers, splattered with blood, he had to make up a new lie to explain why he'd lied to Gilroy. He'd been telling lies ever since.
Smith tried to persuade the judge that he was confessing to the truth, not out of self-interest, but because his conscience troubled him: "For the first time in my life, I recognized that the devil I had been looking at the last 43 years was me," he said.
But Smith's delivery of the line probably lacked the necessary humility and remorse. Neely's recollection of Smith on the stand was that of "arrogance." "He's very cocksure of himself, thinks he's smarter than everyone else. That's the demeanor that I recall."
Smith was found guilty of kidnapping with intent to rob, and attempted murder. Mandatory life sentence. However, the following year, California's penal code was revised and Smith became eligible to apply for parole in 1982.
And so it began again. The quiet, persistent voice that refused to yield. His crimes had taken only moments, but he devoted years to arguing his way out of them.
In 1979, he sued his wife Paige for divorce on the grounds of her mental cruelty to him. In 1988, he filed suit for libel against Ron Calissi and Paige after they wrote to the parole board, advising against his release. His suit was tossed out of court. He appealed it. In 1990, he tried to get his conviction for slaying Vickie Zielinski overturned. The motion was denied.
At one point he even tried to convince a reporter for the Los Angeles Times that Lisa Ozbun's near-murder was not his fault. The New Jersey courts shouldn't have let him out, and since they did, what happened was their fault. Never mind that he had single-mindedly tried to get off of death row for 14 and-a-half years and had filed 18 appeals.
"Don't ask me why I did it," he wrote. "Ask those self-righteous public servants why they gave me the opportunity to do it. Ask them why they did that to Lisa Ozbun. And ask them why they did that to me. Those are the questions they aren't going to want to answer, but which need answering, which Lisa Ozbun and I need answered."
His greatest accomplishment in life was deceiving so many intelligent people for so long. It was a point of pride with Smith that he never said, point blank, that he was innocent of Vickie Zielinski's murder. (For example, in Brief Against Death, Smith wrote: "Did justice triumph? Is Edgar Smith guilty? If at this point the reader cannot respond with an emphatic 'yes,' then I shall consider this book a success.") As he told Neely, "I never denied the crime."
Not in so many words.
In 1980, in a rare moment of candor, he told a reporter, "I was caught in this terrible but wonderful lie. Terrible because I had to lie, and wonderful in the literal sense of the word because I used to sit and wonder how people could believe it. And then I started to believe it, and that was the scary part of it."
More recently, prison therapy has given Smith a whole new vocabulary of emotional cliches to add to his repertoire in front of the parole board: "Living with yourself.... is a prison in itself and that's the one I have to get rid of."
Dr. Robert D. Hare, one of North America's foremost experts on sociopaths, writes: "Most therapy programs do little more than provide psychopaths with new excuses and rationalizations for their behavior and new insights into human vulnerability. They may learn new and better ways of manipulating other people, but they make little effort to change their own views and attitudes or to understand that other people have needs, feelings and rights."
Ron Calissi is not interested in the fact that Smith has had months of counseling and therapy in prison. There's no cure for being Smith, he believes. "When are people going to finally realize Edgar Smith can't be trusted?"
Smith married a third time while in prison, which Neely notes, could also be regarded as part of his ongoing exit strategy. "It's not that uncommon for life offenders to marry while they're in prison and come to the board and say... 'Now look, I'married, I'm rehabilitated, I've got a parole plan, I've got a wife.'"
A life long smoker, Smith has had several heart attacks and is in failing health. So far, the parole board has turned Smith down. He is not eligible for mandatory parole. Every time Smith comes up for parole, the Bergen County prosecutor's office contacts the California parole board and reminds them about Vickie Zielinski, about how she ran for her life, how she was caught and dragged back to the sandpit. About how Smith bashed her head in and then dragged her over the rocks, as her brains spilled out. Dead for over 40 years, she hasn't been forgotten.
Smith's ex-wife Paige and Lefteriya Ozbun also tell the parole board that Smith should never be released: "He killed one girl, got a second chance and then tried to kill me," Ozbun told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't want him released. Ever. I don't want anybody else to go through what I went through."
"Edgar is a master at manipulating the system," Paige told a reporter. "He manipulated his way out off death row in New Jersey. He conned Bill Buckley. And now he's doing in California what he's always done. He's working the system, until the odds are in his favor for parole. But people should realize that his last victim is very lucky to be alive today. The next woman he goes after may not be so lucky."
Prosecutor Neely, who attended every parole hearing for Smith until his retirement in 1995, believes Smith should stay behind bars for life. "He's committed two horrendous crimes that speak for themselves.... How many chances do you get?"
Smith's next scheduled parole hearing, which was scheduled for February of 2004, was postponed at his own request, according to his ex-wife, Paige. Smith had the hearing postponed after failing to persuade the parole board to exclude the letters against his parole sent to it by his former wife and the Bergen County prosecutor's office. With those damning letters on file, the chance of his gaining parole would appear extremely slim.
In March of 2007, Eddie Smith came up for parole again for his attack on Lefteriya Ozbun. Smith is now 73 and in poor health, but he still has enough energy to "intensely [argue] legal technicalities," according to Jane Via, the deputy district attorney who represented San Diego County at the parole hearing. The Bergen County News reported that the parole hearing was cut short when Smith became argumentative with the parole board. Bergen County prosecutor William Galda pointed out that as long as Smith stays in prison, he'll receive free health care. Smith has hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and wears hearing aids.
Smith may be eligible to reapply for parole next year.
Reference: " Killer of Ramsey girl argues with board, parole denied", by Allison Pries, NorthJersey.com.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of Victoria Zielinski's murder.
The author wishes to thank Ron Calissi, now a member of the New Jersey Bar and executive associate dean at Fairleigh Dickinson University, for his generous assistance and for permission to reproduce photographs from his book, Counterpoint: the Edgar Smith case. Counterpoint is out of print but is available through used book dealers.
Some of the quotes used in this article originally appeared in magazine and newspaper accounts of this case, including articles by Miles Corwin for the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times, a February, 13, 1980 article by Ellen Dean Wilson for the North Jersey Herald & News, and various articles which appeared in the Bergen (County) Record.
William F. Buckley reflected on the case of Edgar Smith in an article available in the book, Right Reason.
Former Trenton prison guard Harry Camisa's memoirs, Inside Out, co-authored with Jim Franklin, is available through Windsor Publishing.
Dr. Robert Hare's book, Without Conscience: the disturbing world of the psychopaths among us, Guildford Press, 1999, lists the common features of psychopaths and uses many case studies to illustrate their utter selfishness and manipulation of others. Hare explains that those who use the term "psychopath" may incline to the view that these people are born without a conscience, while those who use the term "sociopath" believe that these people are a deviant product of society.
An online memorial for Vickie Zielinski has been established at the "Find A Grave" website.
William F. Buckley declined to be interviewed for this article on the grounds that he has nothing to add to what he has already written about the case.
Edgar Smith did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.
Smith was at one time the longest-serving inmate on death row in the U.S. His record -- 14 years -- has since been surpassed. The average length of time an inmate spends on death row today is around 10 years.
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