Three nights before Halloween and nine days before Election Day in 1977, a gunman kicked in the door to 16-year-old James Comey’s home in suburban New Jersey.
The future director of the FBI was home alone with his younger brother, Peter, and police would later say that the gunman held his .38 caliber revolver to their heads. The gunman locked them in the bathroom and proceeded to ransack the house.
The Comey boys forced open the bathroom window and clambered outside only to encounter the gunman in the yard. The gunman had himself exited the house and accosted a high school teacher and his wife and mother who had just been arriving across the street. He now advanced on the Comeys, who dashed back inside their house and locked the door. They called the police as the gunman fled into the surrounding woods.
More than 150 police officers and firefighters searched the forest with the assistance of helicopters, but found only a dark knit cap that the gunman might have lost as he fled. The neighbors from across the street joined the Comey boys in helping a police artist prepare a sketch. The result and the description of the gunman’s stocky build and grey clothing prompted the police to announce that the gunman had been none other than the Ramsey Rapist, suspected in other home invasions as well as rapes involving teenaged babysitters as young as 15.
“The description given by the five hostages positively identifies him,” Allendale Police Chief Frank Parenti said.
That must have made the experience all the more frightening in retrospect for young James Comey. He would later recall the impact during a 2014 interview with 60 Minutes as the new director of the FBI.
“We escaped, he caught us again, we escaped again – so it was a pretty horrific experience,” Comey said. “Frightening to anybody, but especially for a younger person to be threatened with a gun and to believe you’re going to be killed by this guy.”
Comey added: “It most affects me in giving me a sense of what victims feel. Even the notion that no one was physically harmed doesn’t mean no one was harmed, because I thought about that guy every night for five years.”
He said the experience had imparted a lesson that helped guide him in his later years.
“It’s made me a better prosecutor and investigator to feel better what victims experience,” he said.
The story of the Comey boys and the Ramsey Rapist imparts another lesson, one that has never been fully reported and that James himself may not know. This accompanying lesson began two days after the break-in, when a civilian volunteer who the police would describe as a “woodsman” and tracker set to following the gunman’s trail through the area that the small army of searchers had trampled.
The woodsman was 27-year-old Tom Brown, Jr. and he would later say that he had acquired his expertise from a wandering Apache shaman scout named Stalking Wolf. The tale as told by Brown was that Stalking Wolf had been 20 when “a vision sent him away from his people” and “for the next 63 years he wandered, seeking teachers and learning the old ways of many native peoples” until he encountered “a small boy gathering fossils in a stream bed.”
“He recognized that boy as the person with whom he would spend his final years, and to whom he would teach all he knew,” Brown would later attest. “That boy was Tom Brown, Jr. Tom became the recipient of not only all that Stalking Wolf had learned during his travels, but the distillation of hundreds of years of Apache culture as well.”
The self-proclaimed inheritor of Apache knowledge subsequently reported to the Allendale police that he followed the bootprints of “a large man running" for at least half a mile through the trees. Brown said he had spotted hairs and bits of torn clothing along the way.
“Footprints are signatures,” Brown would later say. "I can tell someone’s size, weight, whether he’s right-or left-handed, and his strength.”
By various news accounts, Brown determined that the trail emerged from the trees in the vicinity of a house owned by a man named Steve Ader. The man happened to be the brother of Bruce Ader, Sr., a 39-year-old bulldozer operator who lived in Bernardsville but was helping to clear a road in Allendale two miles from the Comey home. Somebody who had seen Bruce, Sr. on the job had apparently decided that he matched the sketch and the accompanying description of the gunman.
The police enlisted Brown to slip into the area surrounding the road-clearing site in camouflage and surreptitiously take photos of Bruce, Sr. The police are said to have shown the photos to the Comey brothers as well as the family from across the street and the three rape victims. All the victims were reported by the press to have positively identified Bruce Ader, Sr. as their assailant. Brown would later be quoted telling a reporter that he had spotted a boot print in the vicinity of the bulldozer that was “exactly like” the ones he had tracked in the woods.
“Brown played an important role, he did a very excellent job for us,” Allendale Police Chief Frank Parenti subsequently told the press.
On November 1, the police apparently posted undercover officers at the job site. Bruce Ader, Sr. returned home from work that day and his wife, Carol, got what she would later understand was the first sign of what was to come.
“I said, 'You didn’t eat your lunch,’” she told The Daily Beast this week. “He said, ‘There was something wrong on the job.’ I said, ‘What, did somebody get hurt?” He said, ‘No there were people on the job that are not in construction. I just felt wrong about it. So did some of the other guys.’”
He and Carol and their 11-year-old son, Bruce, Jr., sat down to dinner. They had just finished when there came the sound of somebody at the door.
“And there they were,” Carol later said.
Police officers from three towns entered with weapons drawn.
“I said, ‘What’s with the guns?’” Carol would recall. “They just said they were arresting Bruce. I said, ‘What?” Bruce said, ‘What?’”
An officer placed Bruce, Sr. in handcuffs for reasons nobody even tried to explain. Their son bolted from the house and ran in a panic to his aunt’s home.
“It was terrifying for all of us, because we had no clue,” Carol would remember.
Carol kept asking what was going on, and even a Bernardsville cop she had known all her life did not answer.
“I said, 'Give me a break here, I know you,’” she would recall.
“They wouldn’t tell me what he was being charged with or anything.”
Bruce was taken away. Carol soon after arrived at the Bernardsville police station, still asking why her husband had been arrested, still getting nothing.
Unbeknownst to her, her husband was taken to Ramsey. Carol finally got an answer when the lead detective there spoke to the TV news.
“The head detective said, ‘Everyone can relax. We have the Ramsey rapist. You don’t have to be afraid anymore. You can leave your children at home,’” Carol would remember.
She would later consider that Election Day was the following week and that local officials who were about to face the voters no doubt welcomed the detective’s proclamation, “Your community's safe. We have the man.”
Carol’s neighbors were stunned. They knew Bruce, Sr. as the guy who was always offering to lend a hand with their yard work and other chores. He was the go-to guy when a kid’s bike needed fixing. He had rebuilt for his son a go-car that had belonged to his own father, a noted stock car driver.
“He's just a great guy and they're a good family, and I just can't believe it,” one neighbor was quoted saying.
“All we can say is good—there's nothing bad about that family, this is a shock to us,” said another.
The son calmed down enough to make a declaration.
“My daddy didn’t do that.”
Two of Bruce, Sr.’s friends said the same, telling the police that they had been with him 35 miles away in Bernardsville on the night the gunman invaded the Comey house. They said they had been chatting with him until 9 pm at the bus depot where Carol worked part time driving children with special needs. He then went directly home and soon after 9 pm was talking on the phone with other friends about an upcoming meeting of his union, Local 825 of the Operating Engineers. All the alibi witnesses agreed to take lie detectors tests. All passed.
Bruce, Sr. was nonetheless held in lieu of $250,000 bail. Reporters milled outside the Ader home for days and an elderly woman across the street took to chasing them away. Neighbors uniformly expressed their support for the Aders and a local cop came by off-duty and out of uniform.
“He said, ‘I’m here because I know he didn’t do this. I know this just didn’t happen,’” Carol would recall. “He said ‘I know you two.’”
But the rest of the world seemed to be saying that Bruce, Sr. was the Ramsey rapist.
“You don’t know where to turn,” Carol would recall. “It was awful.”
Bruce, Sr.’s brother, Steve, would tell the Daily Beast that his own children went through pure hell at school. Steve — who is generally known as Tim — would also say that he was mystified when he read reports of Brown supposedly tracking Bruce, Sr. through the woods at night. The brother could not picture Bruce, Sr. making that dash in the first place.
“He can’t run with all that weight on him,” the brother told the Daily Beast on Saturday. “My brother wouldn’t know how to get to my house, walking, driving or anything. He doesn’t know the roads up here.”
Steven can only figure that the police in Allendale and Ramsey felt hard-pressed to get the gunman who had everybody terrorized. The suburbs can know few crimes scarier than a serial babysitter rapist.
“People who live in these towns were upset that their wife or their daughter could be next, “ he told The Daily Beast.
On her part, Carol was mystified how anybody could think her husband was guilty if Brown really had found the gunman’s hair along the supposed route of flight.
“Bruce always had an army haircut,” she later told The Daily Beast. “I never even found hair in the sink.”
The youngest rape victim said she was too frightened to view a line-up on November 7, but the other two agreed. Neither picked out Bruce, Sr.. Nor did the family across the street from the Comey home. One of the Comey boys – it is not clear which – did pick out Bruce, Sr.. The other did not.
The police searched the Ader home, but found no gun or anything else incriminating. Bruce, Sr. agreed to submit a hair, saliva and blood samples. There was no match with any recovered from the crime scenes.
The day after Election Day, a judge agreed to reduce Bruce, Sr.’s bail to $12,000. A Newark police detective who believed in his innocence posted his own property as collateral. The Bergen County prosecutor, Roger Breslin — who reportedly was not consulted by the police before they made the arrest — expressed little confidence in the case.
“At the moment, there are no viable rape charges against him,” Breslin told reporters.
Carol and their son were there waiting when Bruce, Sr. was released.
“I'm just happy to be back with my family,” Bruce, Sr. told reporters. “The last week’s been a nightmare.”
But he still faced the charges pending before the grand jury. His lawyer advised him to have somebody with him at all times when he left the house and to keep a journal of everything he did during the day including which TV shows he watched, so he would have an alibi if there was another attack.
In the meantime, the nightmare continued for their son.
“I think he took it the worst,” Carol later told The Daily Beast. “He had a hard time at school from people who right away said, ‘Guilty.’"
She added, “Of course, he grew up not really respecting police officers.”
The father waived immunity and testified before the grand jury. Breslin allowed the defense attorney to add any witnesses he felt were important.
There remained the lone reported line-up identification by one of the Comey brothers. But the police had no further evidence. And Bruce, Sr. had those multiple alibis.
On February 3, 1978, the grand jury surprised nobody by declining to indict Bruce, Sr.
“Nobody was ever charged” for either the home invasion or the rapes, Breslin told the Daily Beast last week.
The Allendale Police Department and the Ramsey Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. The woodsman, Brown, could not be reached for comment. He has gone on to write a book, “The Tracker.” He also founded “Tom Brown, Jr.’s Tracker School,” described on its website as “the largest of its kind.”
“Tom Brown, Jr. is America’s most acclaimed outdoorsman, and a renowned tracker, teacher, and author,” the website says. “Tom earned his reputation as ‘The Tracker’ by finding lost people, and fugitives from the law. He has since worked with many law enforcement agencies, throughout the United States and internationally, on cases involving abducted children, lost hunters and hikers, and fugitives.”
Bruce, Sr. continued his life as if nothing had changed, though it had, most particularly for his son. Bruce, Sr. died in March of 2014 at the age of 75, leaving us all with a lesson.
“I think that taught my whole family a lesson: ‘You never say somebody is guilty until they admit it,’” Carol told The Daily Beast.
She was not aware until The Daily Beast told her that one of the teenaged victims in the case had grown up to become the FBI Director and withstand pressures of his own at the approach of Election Day.
“What a small world,” Carol remarked.