By John Ruzas
Life is a saga that we all get to live. Some live it long, and some live it short. Some are fortunate to live it well, while others live it miserably from their first breath to their last. And then there are those of who life simply gets out of the way while it records each blessing and folly ascribed to the "Lifer." This "Lifer" will let the reader decide.
The locale of this saga is the great State of New York, the "Empire State." In September of 1974, the wise men who enact the laws of government, bowed to the pressures exacted by New York's top executive and its law enforcement agencies with the passage of newly constructed capital punishment legislation. The cause of the pressure began with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 ruling in a death penalty case that arose out of the State of Georgia. The case was, Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, in which the Court‘s decision caused a moratorium on death penalty cases across the country.
Like a pebble thrown in a pond, the small ripples of judicial connection reached the coast of New York, where its highest Court of Appeals had before it the capital punishment case of Martin Fitzpatrick, (deceased). Fitzpatrick had been convicted in Oneida County for the slaying of a sheriff and his deputy in Sherill, N.Y. in 1970. Because the Supreme Court‘s Furman ruling rested on Georgia’s failure to establish guidelines that would assist the deliberating jury in their decision of who would live and who would die and because New York’s capital statutes (P.L.§§125.30;125.35) mirrored those of Georgia, The New Your Court of Appeals, in People v. Fitzpatrick, 32 NY2d 400, (June ’73) ruled New York's capital statutes unconstitutional. The ruling saved Martin Fitzpatrick from society‘s ultimate revenge, i.e., its planned execution.
The year was 1973, and the knowledge that Fitzpatrick was packing up his worldly goods consisting of those meager allowances the State provides for the condemned, and moving from Green Haven‘s "Penthouse Death Row" to begin serving multiple life sentences in general population, caused curses and swears from New York's highest executive, Nelson A. Rockefeller down to the youngest "cop on the beat." The collective response was immediate, and served as music to the ears of those "law and order" wise men in New York's Senate and Assembly. In a press conference held on June 20,'73, Gov. Rockefeller stated, "...I am deeply concerned that the deterrent provided by the death penalty for the murder of peace officers...has been undermined by a recent decision of the Court of Appeals..." Rockefeller went on to explain the State's intent to appeal the Fitzpatrick decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Should the decision be upheld, the Governor stated, "...I plan to offer legislation at the next session of the Legislature which would eliminate the discretionary nature of the death penalty and thus restore the penalty as to the murder of peace officers and prison guards." (Oelsner, "Governor to Seek Death Sentences," New York Times, June 21, 1973).
While the Governor and the Legislature‘s "law and order" politicians were juggling & jockeying for position in order to come up with death penalty legislation that would pass constitutional muster, this writer was oblivious to their shenanigans but for an occasional read in one of New York's daily newspapers. Like thousands of other "ex-cons" on parole, my days were spent in gainful employment since my release in Dec.11,‘72, and whether New York was a death penalty State or not held little interest to me. I had been the victim of my 1960’s addiction to heroin, and in 1968 I paid the price of seven years for two retail store robberies committed with an imitation pistol. My 4yr./8mth journey (in N.Y. a 7yr. sentence was satisfied by 4yrs./8mths., parole to follow) through the State
Prison system was broken up via transfers that saw me "hop-scotch" around the State from Sing ~ Sing to Clinton to Comstock to Attica back to Clinton and ending in Green Haven where I was released before Santa started his rounds in December 1972. A clean and healthy 29yr. old bachelor, I reapplied for membership in the Carpenter's Union, was accepted, and while the stranger, Martin Fitzpatrick was causing Rockefeller. et al, "political apoplexy," I was causing my hammer & saw to join in the construction of the Queens Mall.
Right about here I'm reminded of the old song, "Ce Sera Sera" (Whatever will Be Will Be) sung by Doris Day of film & record fame.
The life of a 30-year-old "envelope pushing parolee bachelor,” whose focus on the future never went beyond day-to-day, was the walking personification of "Ce Sera Sera." Not surprisingly, the focus that escaped this writer was present in abundance throughout the camps of those death penalty proponents who were determined to reverse the Fitzpatrick decision, or in the alternative, enact a new death penalty statute that would sanction State executions. On November 12, 1973, the latter process was required when the U.S. Supreme Court denied New York certiorari in Fitzpatrick (Olesner, "State Death Penalty Permanently voided," New York Times, Nov. 13, 1973, p.1).
Within a week of the certiorari denial the strategy to return capital punishment was up and running, in large part driven by upstate Republicans responding to their constituents, law enforcement, and their own powerful leader, Nelson A. Rockefeller. Through the negative demeanor of those still seething over the Fitzpatrick reprieve, the pro-death "Pols" went to work re-enacting the most politically driven statute in New York's Penal Law. (Clines, "Death Penalty-Seeking A Reprieve In Albany," New York Times, Nov.18, 1973).
It did not take long. Within a year of the New York Court of Appeals decision in, Fitzpatrick (June '73), the "politics of death" took center stage in the 1974 legislative session with the enactment of Penal Law §§ 125.27 & 60.06, effective Sept. 1, 1974. The law was a cold exacting expression of legislative outrage that fed off the cold exacting executions committed by Martin Fitzpatrick. Excluded from the statute was the customary bifurcation process that required a penalty hearing to determine penalty. The law called for a mandatory death penalty in the killing of police & peace officers, and prohibited the trial court (Judge) and jury from sentence involvement. If the jury found the defendant guilty of Murder in the First Degree, i.e., "intentional murder," the sentence was "Death.”
October 24, 1974, was a beautiful blue sky/puff clouds autumn day. It was also a day that marked 55 days since the newly enacted capital punishment statute had taken effect. But did I know that? How would I know? How many New Yorkers knew? Anyway, it didn‘t matter, and I make no excuse for my ignorance. "Ce sera sera"---again.
Driving down the New York Thruway with thousands in cash & jewelry in the car up ahead, helped make the sky bluer. Every revolution of the car‘s tires brought us closer to the "Big Apple" for a juicy bite, and further from the Syracuse jewelry outlet we had robbed 40 minutes earlier. I rode in a car driven by an old "tough guy" whose reputation took a "hit" when his last minute "cold feet" caused him to wait in the car. The occupants in the lead car were his girl friend; their German Shepard; and my robbery accomplice with all the outlet's plunder in the trunk. But, no matter how blue the sky seemed, I had relapsed into "loser mode," and the tragic proof was just minutes away.
After completion of the Queens Mall, I should have hauled my ass down to the Union Hall for another job, but my irresponsible bachelor side decided to take the summer off. I had a "comfy" two-room apartment: unemployment checks that covered rent and more; an Eldorado convertible in "mint" condition that still turned heads though 10 years old: and I was enjoying the affection of an attractive dark eyed divorcee with two youngsters. I met her over a double Dewars "on-the-rocks" that she poured as her job required. Her name was Gina, which would later turn to Joyce, and she tended bar in the cocktail lounge of a motel in my neighborhood. I had worked steadily since my release from prison 22 months ago, and had maintained a satisfactory parole record, so I reasoned that I deserved a summer "fun-in-the-sun" with a ready made family who had invited me into their lives.
Unfortunately, "Ce sera sera" entered play when the heat of our relationship began to wane like the summer sun. Gina's request that I give up my apartment and commit to hers became insistent and a problem. By October I was seeing her less; drinking; getting high; and I owed a neighborhood shylock a "G-Note," ($1,000). So when I got a phone call from a "Dannemora Alumni" with an invitation to "step-out,"(commit a robbery) that's exactly what this "loser" did.
The State Police cruiser eased off the median strip of the Thruway when the lead car drove past it. We watched nervously as it pulled along-side the lead car, then just as suddenly, for reasons we'll never know, it veered off and drove back on the grassy median. To give the appearance of one person in the car I climbed into the back seat, and listened as the radio announced the robbery of Leonard‘s Jewelry Outlet in Syracuse earlier that morning.
As we drove past the S.P. cruiser, my soon to be co-defendant said, "Here he comes,..the hardons trailin' us." I cautioned him to relax. I reminded him that the radio reported no descriptions of the robbers or their car, and besides the car is clean. What I didn‘t mention was that I still had the pistol and a pair of handcuffs I hadn't used. So he drove on while I crawled into the seats fabric, and the Trooper kept coming.
The seconds that passed before the State cruiser reached us were seemingly frozen in time and dipped in "Murphy‘s Law." I considered rolling down the window and dropping the items on the tar-mac, but I felt responsible for my accomplice’s Beretta pistol, and besides, the Trooper might see them fall, I reasoned. He has no reason to search us, stash them under the seat, I thought, but it was Bobby's car/Bobby‘s "pinch" so that was no good. As the seconds ticked I decided, the car is legit: we‘re not speeding; we‘re over 35 miles/40 minutes away; his hood-lights are not flashing, relax, we‘re OK. As those thoughts filled my head, suddenly my kidneys filled as well. What would James Cagney do?
Lying prone on the backseat I saw the cruiser pull alongside, and the Trooper's arm signal us to pull over. My co-defendant uttered a disgusted, "M .... F ..... ,” pulled over on the Thruway shoulder and stopped.
The Trooper parked about 15-20 feet behind us then exited his car. A 6' tall Stetson with a stomach paunch and slow gait walked to the driver's window. In a voice that sounded more command than request he said, "Let me see your license & registration." It was at that point that he saw me lying in the back. "What’s wrong with him?" he asked. Why in the Trooper's mind something was wrong with me, we’ll never know, but Bobby's response was, "Nothing, he's just tired. What‘d I do Trooper...I wasn't speeding." The Trooper’s curt reply was, "I'll ask the questions here."
Feigning sleep, I awoke and inquired, "What's up Bobby?" What was up was the fact that he couldn't produce a driver's license. The car was registered in his wife Pat's name, but he had no license. I was drugged. Here I was feeling bad that I didn't tell him about the pistol while this clown never told me he had no license. I couldn't believe he had driven from the "Big Apple" to Syracuse for the sole purpose of robbery, and he had no license. "Murphy's Law" was at the door with more in store ,... and I couldn't bar its entry.
The Trooper told Bobby to take the money out of the wallet then give the wallet to him. Bobby complied. In looking through the wallet, the Trooper saw a license and asked whose it was. Bobby said it belonged to a friend that left it in the car. The Trooper placed the wallet in his back pant's pocket, then instructed Bobby to exit the car. Bobby complied again, and was told to assume a frisk position against the car. (The following facts were un-rebutted at trial and supported by physical evidence.) This had the makings of a real nightmare on a beautiful sunny day.
I was convinced that the Trooper did not consider us suspects of anything, least of all the Syracuse robbery. I was certain we would‘ve been long ago "magnum revolverized" and sitting on the ground waiting for his brethren's assist were that the case. Eight months later the trial evidence & testimony would prove me right.
After the frisk, Bobby asked if he wanted to look in the trunk? In reply, the Trooper opened the back door of the old "Caddy" and said, "How about you Buster, let me see some I.D." I replied, "My name’s not Buster, it's John," and I attempted to hand him my bank I.D. and Carpenter Union card. However, instead of taking my offered "I.D.," he reached into the back seat and took hold of a green suede jacket I had worn in the robbery. To this day nobody knows why he did it. His manner was arrogant, and with little regard for procedure, but he was a cop doing his job, so I guess that's all the "Whys" he needed.
By then I was fuming at Bobby, the Trooper, and myself. I knew the jacket held a pair of handcuffs I hadn't used, so I got out of the car and grabbed the jacket. "Hey! That‘s not I.D., this is I.D." I shouted, still holding the Union Card, etc. in my right hand while tugging on the jacket with my left. His face registered surprise by my actions, but be continued to tug on the jacket with his right gun hand. Knowing that I was just seconds away from arrest, I let go of the jacket and reached into my back pocket for the Beretta pistol (25 Cal.) that I accompanied with, "Trooper, don‘t make a move."
A lifetime of reckless behavior and bad decisions had come to a head in slow motion seconds. His face went from surprise to shock when he saw the gun in my hand. He dropped the jacket and began stepping back onto the Thruway as his hand reached for his revolver. A voice that sounded like mine said, "Don't do it Trooper, please," but he just stared as his hand came up full of blue steel.
Instinctively, I fired one shot and broke to my right around the car as his shot smashed through the driver's door window. He fired another shot that entered the car's engine block. Squatting behind the car, everything continued to play in slow motion. The whole confrontation was less than a 10 second scenario that seemed unreal, and would be visited by a commercial at any moment. But there was no commercial, only a need to do something next. I looked under the car and saw the Trooper trotting across the median to the Thruway's far side. Quickly, I ran to his cruiser for the keys, which I threw in the weeds to prevent his pursuit. My co-defendant, who had crouched between the cars during the confrontation, now ran to his car for escape. Luckily it was a four-door car, and I was able to grab the right rear door and jump in as he pulled away. The last recollection I have of the Trooper was of him firing another shot across the Thruway as we drove away.
Because the drama had played out before a traveling audience, we were forced to exit the Thruway. Speeding along in search of an EXIT, the absurdity of flight ran parallel to the disbelief I struggled with to comprehend. "C'mon, I'm dreamin' ,... what just happened, didn't just happen,” I tried to convince myself. Regrettably, the wild-eyed look on my co-defendant‘s face, coupled with the mangled window frame flapping in the breeze caused a cold fact. This was no dream. What just happened was the culmination of my reckless, goalless, drug dabbling life, and we were on the run from a gunfight with the State Police. Then the absurdity of escape and flight revealed another fact, i.e., my jacket and I.D. was back on the tarmac, and Bobby‘s wallet was snug in the Trooper's back pocket. Although I had discarded his car keys, I could see him reporting the incident on the car phone, "...Yes, two white guys, one is Robert Donovan, and the one with the gun is John
The EXIT sign read Canastota. As we exited the Thruway we saw a couple of cars in line before the booth, and people began to point at our car as we approached. Suddenly the yellow/black striped barrier bar was lowered preventing our exit on the outside. "Crash through it," I told Bobby. "Suppose it's metal?" he replied. "You wanna get out and walk?" He floored the car and broke through it. It was wood.
Lost in the Canastota hamlet and needing to ditch the car, we did so when we noticed a woman sweeping off her back-yard walkway. There was a car in her open garage. We approached her and when I got closer I showed her the pistol and said, "Lady, we‘re in real bad trouble, you won't get hurt, we just need your car."
She said the keys were in the house. We entered the kitchen and she took the keys off the hook. I tossed them to Bobby just as her little girl appeared. "Hi Honey, go with Mommy," I said as I placed them in a nearby bathroom. On the way out I pulled the phone cord out and got in the car. As we drove away we had no idea where we were, where we were going, or how to get there.
Approximately twenty minutes later we reached the town of Oneida, N.Y.. I reasoned that the woman must have used a neighbor's phone by then to report us and her stolen car, so we had to ditch it. At a small cab stand, Gala's Taxi, we hired a cab to drive us to Utica which I imagined would provide us cover until nightfall. We were told a cab would return soon, so I paid $20 for the $18 trip, then went to the bar next door, The Crystal Lounge to wait.
I recall thinking that the lounge would be over capacity if more than ten people were lounging. As it were there were only two old timers sitting at the bar being served by a barmaid of equal age. I ordered a beer, then walked over to the phone on the wall. As I dialed the number a news bulletin flashed on the T.V. above the bar. "The State
Police now report that the Trooper who was shot on the Thruway this morning has died on the way to the hospital. Police are searching for two or possibly three white middle-aged males believed involved in the shooting.
I'll never forget how the two old male heads, and that of the barmaid all turned to look at the stranger on the phone. Their faces had an unmistakable, We Know Who You Are look about them, and I'm sure they saw something in my face as well. I went empty inside. No organs, no function. Everything closed down behind, “Thou shall not kill." Guilt, shame, loss, Mom, survival, sorrow, responsibility and more all flashed through my mind. It was the single most agonizing moment of my many moment life.
I replaced the receiver and walked back to the bar where I drank my beer and said, "Have a good day." I left the bar feeling their eyes push me out the door.
The taxi was waiting with my zombie-like co-defendant who had heard the report on the cab's radio, Our driver was William Jones, whose identity I learned when I insisted he be called as a witness at our capital punishment trial ten months later. William Jones's contribution to my life is that he helped save it simply by his honesty. Despite the opportunity to lie or embellish the facts to appear a hero/celebrity to law enforcement or small town friends, Mr. Jones simply told the truth. The truth was that during the drive small talk was shared that included the shooting report. He testified that we would probably run into on of the roadblocks being Set-up. More importantly, he stated that at no time was he harmed, felt threatened, or ordered to evade the roadblock by us who by that time had nothing to lose. He testified that within twenty minutes we ran into a roadblock on Rte.5, in Sherill, N.Y., where Bobby and I were taken from the taxi and ordered on the ground, hands on heads, bellies in the dirt.
What William Jones couldn‘t testify to, and what I would later learn, was that, notwithstanding the millions of square miles; its 62 counties; its hundreds of thousands of roads that criss-cross New York‘s upstate landscape, that patch of ground where our bellies met the dirt was the exact patch where in 1970, Martin Fitzpatrick executed the Sherill sheriff and his deputy after robbing a Canastota gas station.
And so it came to pass that, "Ce sera sera, " and a patch of New York terra firma brought the upstate stranger, Martin Fitzpatrick into my life in a most macabre manner. Regrettably it didn't end there for me, for what was to be was the first mandatory death penalty trial, compliments of Fitzpatrick, and conducted in a cash poor county on a cash poor me.
The die was cast, and the cast of characters along with legal skullduggery was soon to follow.
End of Part I
John Ruzas 75-C0385
Fishkill Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 1245
Beacon, NY 12508