WHODUNIT?

Who Murdered Wendy Wolin? The 50-Year-Old Murder That Still Haunts This Town

A man stabbed 7-year-old Wendy Wolin in public and then disappeared. The biggest manhunt in New Jersey history and 1,500 interviews couldn’t find him—and a generation can’t forget what he did, either.

03.07.16 5:13 AM ET

When police officer Charles A. Williams reported to work in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on the afternoon of March 8, 1966, and was assigned to a patrol car instead of his usual beat, he had no sense of foreboding.

“I was a walking cop at the time,” he said. “But when somebody calls in sick, they fill you in. It was just a quirk of fate that I was working in a car that day. Not only in a car, but that particular car. Car 12.”

About an hour and a half into Williams’s shift, as he and Officer Peter Melchione cruised the quiet streets of the city, they were dispatched to the firehouse on Prince Street, in Elizabeth’s affluent Westminster neighborhood, to look into a report of a young girl who had been punched in the stomach.

Car 12 was the first to arrive on the scene. Williams and Melchione found Wendy Sue Wolin, just 7 years old, quietly bleeding to death on a desk in the fire chief’s office. “A man punched me,” she had told the chief before she went into shock. It wasn’t until they opened her coat that they realized she’d been stabbed.

An ambulance was called, but Wendy was going downhill so quickly that the police decided not to wait.

“Pete picks up the little girl,” said Williams, “and they put her in the car. Headquarters notified the hospital that we were on our way with someone in bad shape. And when we got there, the doctor came over and opened the door of the police car and he saw Pete, blood all over. And this part I will never forget. The doctor looked at me, and he put his head down. He knew. She wasn’t dead at that time, but he knew. And I was just—it was just the hardest thing.”

A team of six doctors at Elizabeth General Hospital did everything they could to save Wendy’s life, but the single blow she had sustained was so savage that it punctured her right lung and her liver, nicking two of her ribs. She was pronounced dead at 5:15 p.m., less than an hour after the attack. An autopsy listed the cause of death as shock and hemorrhage.

The brutal, senseless killing shook Elizabeth to its core, and led to the biggest manhunt in the history of the state of New Jersey. More than 1,500 people were questioned by police and prosecutors. Trains and buses were boarded and searched. A special phone line was installed to deal with the thousands of tips that poured in from eyewitnesses and concerned citizens. Wanted posters blanketed the city and copies were sent to every police department in the nation.

“There were so many people brought in for questioning,” said retired Detective Lt. John McGuire of the Elizabeth Police Department. “If you looked like a mope on the street, you were brought in, because we tried to do everything. It was like a parade going up to the third floor” of police headquarters.

“They must have rousted every bum out of every rooming house in town. They even went so far as to stop ships from going out of Port Elizabeth, to make sure that the guy who did this wasn’t among those crews over there,” said Edward Johnson, former Deputy Chief of Detectives at the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. “There was literally no stone left unturned in that case.”

But Wendy’s killer has never been found. Today, 50 years later, the investigation remains open, although the chances of solving the case grow smaller every day.

I was almost 9 when Wendy was murdered, and like most people who lived in Elizabeth at that time, I remember that immediately afterward, everything seemed to change in my hometown.

“It was the day the music died,” said Michael Lapolla, former first assistant prosecutor of Union County, who was a 10-year-old living in Elizabeth’s Peterstown neighborhood when Wendy was killed. “Before that, nothing bad ever happened. Like, the worst thing you ever heard that happened was somebody’s bicycle got stolen. So at the time this murder occurred, an entire city of 120,000 people freaked out.”

“This was the cataclysmic event of our lifetime,” said Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, who was 11 in 1966 and living in North Elizabeth. “At school, there were prayers said—we prayed for this young girl. But it’s what happened days and days and weeks and months and years after that: innocence was suspended.”

“Oh, it definitely changed Elizabeth,” said Charlie Williams. “Yes it did. It was always a quiet community. Who would ever suspect that something like this would happen in Elizabeth at that time? Now, like I say, it’s a shooting gallery downtown, with all the drug dealers.”

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Of course, there were plenty of factors that played a role in turning Elizabeth from the respectable, multi-class city I remember, with its leafy streets and historical buildings, into the blighted landscape of dollar stores and chain-link fences that much of it is today. But to those of us who grew up there in the 1950s and 1960s, Wendy’s death marked the point when things started to go south.

Then as now, Elizabeth was the fourth-largest city in New Jersey. It was founded in 1664 as a place of prosperous farms and flourishing businesses. Princeton University was established there in 1746. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr resided there.

But the city was rapidly industrialized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its character changed completely. Immigrants, at first mainly from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe, flocked straight from Ellis Island to get jobs in the factories that had begun springing up along the waterfront. The number of people living in Elizabeth increased tenfold between 1850 and 1900, as ethnic groups clustered together, forming tightly knit neighborhoods. By 1930, the city’s population had more than doubled again, reaching about the same level it was when Wendy and I were children.

“Over the years,” said Jessica James, 11 years old when Wendy died, and then living only a few blocks away from the murder, “Elizabeth may have lost its prominence, but it remained a way station for various ethnic groups and nationalities on their way to settling in the U.S. And the neighborhoods that formed around these groups created the intimacy of a small town.”

“Everybody was from a neighborhood that had a name,” said Michael Lapolla, “or a church, or a synagogue—everybody was from somewhere. It was very middle class, ethnic. There was no crime.”

Of course, there was crime in Elizabeth: organized crime in the form of the DeCavalcante Family, later fictionalized in The Sopranos, with its opening titles that featured a drive through Elizabeth. But no serious investigator ever believed that the Mafia had anything to do with Wendy Wolin’s murder. It was far too random an act.

***

On the cold, sunny afternoon of March 8, 1966, Wendy was waiting obediently next to the driveway of her apartment house while her mother fetched the car from the parking lot behind the building. They had planned to go shopping before picking up Wendy’s older sister, Jodi, from Hebrew School, and Wendy was clutching her little change purse, which contained one 1959 quarter—more than enough, in those days, to buy a Hershey bar and a bottle of Coke, or a greeting card along with the stamp to mail it.

Shortly after 4 p.m., a tall, burly, middle-aged man, neatly dressed in a gray fedora, green corduroy coat, and dark trousers walked rapidly away from the center of Elizabeth and toward Wendy’s neighborhood. Minutes earlier, with no provocation, he had hauled off and punched seventh-grade Catholic schoolgirl Diane DeNicola in the eye, knocking her onto the sidewalk of a busy shopping street full of shocked eyewitnesses. Without so much as breaking stride, the man continued into a nearby five-and-ten.

Joseph Cusmano, 50, had been waiting for a bus on Broad Street when he heard Diane’s scream. He and another bystander chased the attacker into Woolworth’s, but, as he said later, by the time he got there, the man “was nowhere in sight. He had a good start.”

Handout

At around 4:15, about half a mile from where he had struck Diane, the man in the fedora approached Alisa Pasternak and her mother, Gina, to ask directions to a restaurant. “I looked at his face,” said Mrs. Pasternak in a statement to the police, “and it was pale and lifeless.” The man put his hand on Alisa’s shoulder. “I said to Alisa, ‘Walk, don’t talk,’ and I pushed her ahead. We continued walking and I heard his footsteps behind us, but I didn’t look back.”

The man, gray-faced and mumbling, went on to spook some high school girls on that street and then to accost 18-year-old Clare Moran, asking her how to get to the center of town.

Moments later, the girls watched uncomprehendingly as he attacked Wendy.

“I saw the man move his hand like he was hitting something,” 14-year-old Lynn Norman later told police, “but I didn’t see what it was. Then I saw the man run down Prince Street.”

It was all over in an instant, before anybody seemed to grasp what was happening. Without stopping or saying a word, the man approached Wendy, pulled his arm back and thrust his fist ferociously into her abdomen. She doubled over in pain and shock as the man—not even pausing to glance at her—hurried away, unobtrusively dropping a sheathed hunting knife into the gutter as he fled the scene. In the ensuing chaos, just before police sealed off the area, a delivery truck would park on top of the knife, and it would lie undiscovered under the wheel of the truck until the following day.

Clare Moran ran into fire headquarters for help. Fire Director Edward F. Deignan, 59, immediately called the police to report the attack, which he did not at first think was life-threatening. Wendy was polite and coherent, providing her name and address when he asked for them.

“The child appeared to be in no pain. There was no indication at all of any physical discomfort,” he said in a statement to police. “I immediately asked the young girl who entered my office, who punched the child?”

Life-threatening or not, it was still a brutal attack on a little girl and Chief Deignan was determined to catch the man who did it. After telephoning police headquarters, he ran outside where a cop was writing a parking ticket, and sent him after the man in the fedora, who had disappeared down Prince Street. The policeman pursued him on his motorcycle. But by then the man had vanished.

Leon Yurkus, 42, an Elizabeth bus driver, later reported that a man matching the description of the killer pounded on the doors of the out-of-service bus that he was driving down Prince Street around 4:20 that afternoon. “I could see there was something wrong with this man. He appeared like he was on Cloud 9.” After providing a detailed description, he said, “There is no doubt I would know this man if I saw him again.”

He never saw him again.

The murder weapon in Wendy's case.

Handout

The murder weapon in Wendy’s case.

A $3,500 reward was posted by the Elizabeth City Council in the Daily Journal. The newly elected mayor, Thomas G. Dunn, made personal appeals for information on television and radio, as well as in a printed flyer which was distributed nationally. Police Director Gustave Brugger announced that any Elizabeth policeman who apprehended the killer would be automatically promoted to detective.

“We had everybody—every detective, every uniformed man. Everybody wanted to do something for no other special reason than it was a girl, 7 years old,” said John McGuire, who was then a detective sergeant actively involved in the investigation. “But everybody was coming in with nothing.”

“It was incredible,” recalled Charlie Williams. “Cops stayed on the job. They didn’t go home for three or four days. Everybody felt so badly for what this poor girl went through. And they didn’t care—quitting time? No no no no no. They stayed out for days.”

Actors from New York were brought in for a lineup in a local hotel, where they were dressed and made up to try and match eyewitness descriptions of the perpetrator. But as Police Chief Michael D. Roy stood on the sidelines watching, one of the witnesses remarked that he looked more like the killer than the actors did. Chief Roy gamely donned a fedora and green corduroy coat and took his place in the lineup. A photograph of him dressed as the suspect was circulated, and for years after that, people would see him on the street and think he was Wendy’s murderer.

Local art teacher Lee Gaskins drew a compelling sketch of the killer which appeared on wanted posters all over the city. Michael Lapolla told me that his mother kept the poster taped to her refrigerator for years. My own grandmother had a copy of it in her kitchen drawer.

“The police may have been unsuccessful,” said Eddie Johnson, who was put in charge of the case when the Prosecutor’s Office reactivated it in 1995, “but it wasn’t for lack of trying.”

Gradually, though, the leads and tips slowed to a trickle, and Wendy’s name dropped out of the headlines, reappearing on anniversaries of her death to remind us all that another year had passed, and her killer was still at large.

For people in Elizabeth, Wendy’s murder became an event almost like the Kennedy assassination: Everybody remembered where they were when they heard the news that shattered their sense of safety. And, as with the Kennedy assassination, it didn’t take long for conspiracy theories to spring up. One involved the son of a local undertaker who had ties to the mayor. Another suggested a connection with an unsolved double murder that had taken place in Highland Park, New Jersey, in 1965. There was talk about a performer from a visiting circus, and someone who worked as a merchant seaman. But nothing panned out.

Pierce Manor playground in 1966.

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Pierce Manor playground in 1966.

And then, nearly 30 years after the murder, a woman went to see Mary Rabadeau, then Elizabeth police director. Rabadeau had been a senior at Sacred Heart High School when Wendy was killed, and she remembered the case well.

The woman told Rabadeau that she’d attended a wake in Elizabeth, where she saw a man who had molested her when she was a child. She said that she had repressed the memory for years, and now realized that he looked like the man in the Wendy Wolin wanted poster. Rabadeau duly called the prosecutor’s office, where Johnson was then a lieutenant of detectives.

Johnson left a note on the door of the man’s apartment, inviting him to come in and answer some questions in connection with an investigation. The man appeared willingly.

His resemblance to the wanted poster was “uncanny,” according to Michael Lapolla.

Johnson asked the man if he remembered the Wendy Wolin case—he did—and then said, “‘Well, let’s really test your memory. Going back to this time, what kind of clothes would you have worn?’ And then he tells me, ‘I wore a gray fedora and a green corduroy jacket.’ And it’s like, you’ve gotta be kidding me.”

At the time of the murder, the man was living in Woodbridge, New Jersey, about 10 miles away, but he was originally from Elizabeth. He had a history of mental problems. He had never been married, didn’t own a house or a car. According to Lapolla, on the day Wendy died he had called in sick to his factory job.

Eddie Johnson and Detective Albert Mendes of the Elizabeth Police Department visited the man’s brother, who provided them with a photograph of the man from the 1960s, all the while vehemently defending him. They created a six-person photo lineup and showed it to five of the 1966 eyewitnesses. Three of the five women picked the man out of the lineup, one even bursting into tears and exclaiming, “those eyes! I’ll never forget those eyes!” The other two women were less sure.

“They were emphatic identifications in a good lineup,” said Johnson. “But eyewitness identification that’s 30 years old, no matter how adamant the witnesses were, was not enough” to charge the man. “We needed a confession.”

Then someone in the prosecutor’s office leaked the story to the newspapers.

Site of the first attack, taken 1969.

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Site of the first attack, taken 1969.

“It not only made the front page,” said Johnson, “but you had all kinds of legal experts repeating again and again, ‘Without a confession, you’ll never be able to prove this case.’ Now, if you’re the killer, it’s like, ‘I don’t care if you take me into a room and hang me up by my thumbs, I’ll never confess.’”

Johnson brought in Detective Sergeant Edward Fitzgerald, who had taught interrogation techniques at the Police Academy, to see if he might still be able to coax the man to admit to the murder.

“During the course of the interrogation, he broke down,” said Fitzgerald, “He absolutely broke down. But at the end of the day, he said, ‘I didn’t do it.’ For whatever reason—maybe he wasn’t guilty, or maybe he was just strong-minded—he didn’t confess.”

Eventually, the man engaged a lawyer and passed two polygraph tests, and the investigation came to an end. Michael Lapolla and the detectives often saw the man on his way to the library, which is near the prosecutor’s office. He always smiled and said hello.

“He was beyond smug,” Lapolla told me. “He was like, ‘I know you know, and I know there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

The man died in 1998 at the age of 76, naked and alone in subsidized senior housing in Elizabeth. His body was not discovered until neighbors complained about the smell coming from his apartment. There is no record of a death notice or funeral, online or in any newspaper. His name has never been released publically and he remains a person of interest.

“I think we may have had the answer,” said Eddie Johnson, “but I’ll never know. And quite frankly, I wasn’t convinced. If you yourself aren’t 100 percent convinced of your case, you know—that’s somebody’s life you’re playing with.”

Wendy’s murder has haunted me since I was a little girl. I started interviewing people about it in 2011, secretly hoping that I would find a clue that had escaped all the professionals who had been on the case since 1966. I didn’t.

What I did find was that I wasn’t the only person from Elizabeth who still cared about the story, and who clung to the probably irrational hope that it might one day be solved, even if by now, the murderer is almost certainly dead.

Handout

“If you’re not from here, it’s kind of hard to get your arms around how, after all these years, people care,” said Michael Lapolla.

A few years ago, former Elizabeth resident Rick Norton, with the blessing of Capt. James Todd Mooney of the Elizabeth Police Department, started a Facebook page devoted to the murder (Who Killed Wendy Sue Wolin?) where members could post messages as well as theories about the crime. Mooney encouraged people to contact him directly if they had any information about the murder.

He continues to get phone calls and emails, and the Facebook page buzzes with messages of support and encouragement, as well as many versions of long-standing conspiracy theories that have been kicking around Elizabeth for years. Mooney looks into them anyway—because you never know—and every once in a while, he’ll announce that he’s close to naming the killer. But so far, certainty and proof have eluded him.

Mooney himself was the same age as Wendy, and he remembers walking to his grandparents’ house in the Westminster section of Elizabeth, stepping over the bloodstains on the pavement where Wendy was stabbed. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to solve this,” he told me.

Recently, John McGuire, now 86, convinced the Prosecutor’s Office to have the physical evidence tested for DNA. But Wendy’s clothing had not been properly stored—nobody anticipated DNA testing back in 1966—and the murder weapon had disappeared from the evidence room. Results, unsurprisingly, were inconclusive.

I asked Eddie Johnson if he could think of anything that would allow the killer’s identity to be revealed. “Somebody could come in and say, ‘I’ve known about this for a long time, this guy told me he did it,’” he said. “And you’re on your way.”

That’s what Jodi Wolin, Wendy’s sister, is hoping for. “There’s somebody out there who knows,” she said, and I’m inclined to agree. I mean, how can it be that this burly stranger appeared out of nowhere in his gray fedora and green corduroy coat to terrorize our city for one afternoon, before vanishing into thin air? Somebody, somewhere must know who he was.

Elizabeth’s mayor, Chris Bollwage, has plans to dedicate a memorial to Wendy later this year, probably somewhere in her old neighborhood, which is undergoing vibrant renewal after years of decline. Jodi Wolin will fly in from her home in Florida, and hundreds of current and former residents of Elizabeth promise to attend. And maybe, though the case remains unsolved, some healing will at last take place.