Guilty plea ends odyssey that began with boy's 1979 killing

John Pius appears in a photo taken during

John Pius appears in a photo taken during Christmas 1978. The boy's body was found near the Dogwood Elementary School playground in Smithtown. (Credit: Handout)

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Originally published in Newsday on June 20, 2003.

After 24 years, eight trials and five successful appeals, the prosecution of the four boys who took part in the killing of 13-year-old John Pius finally ended yesterday in a Riverhead courtroom.

When Thomas Ryan, 42, of Holbrook, pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted manslaughter, he avoided what would have been his fourth trial on murder charges. And because he waived his right to appeal, the case finally will be closed.

"It has been a long road to a very tragic case," said District Attorney Thomas Spota, the original prosecutor. "We have to bring finality to the case."

Of the other defendants, only Michael Quartararo, 38, is still serving prison time, and it's the most minimal sort. He was sentenced as a juvenile to 9 years to life, but he spends only two nights a week at the Lincoln Correctional Facility, a minimum security prison on the Upper West Side. The rest of the time he is out on work release, one of only two convicted murderers participating in the program.

His brother, Peter Quartararo, 39, was never retried after his murder conviction was reversed in 1989. Robert Brensic, 41, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 1988 after his murder conviction was reversed and now lives in Virginia.

Ryan, who has served 18 years in prison, was promised a sentence of 5 to 15 years. He is now free on $75,000 bail.

Although the case is now closed, the victim's mother, Barbara Pius, said in a phone interview from her Florida home that there will be no such thing as closure for her.

"It's been ... horrible years," said Pius, who lost her only child. "It only gets worse. It can't go away. It's always there in your heart."

The killing of John Pius was one of the most notorious murders on Long Island. The four defendants wanted to silence him because they thought he might tell on them for stealing a minibike frame. During questioning yesterday by Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Janet Albertson, Ryan said that on the evening of April 20, 1979, he drove the others to Dogwood Elementary School in Smithtown to look for Pius.

He let them out and joined them later, he said. By the time he got there, Pius was motionless. The medical examiner later said the boy died a slow, agonizing death after having rocks crammed down his throat.

Ryan said he helped move and hide the body, which was found the next day.

"I hope he suffers in his mind," Barbara Pius said. "I wish all of them wake up every day and visualize my son and what they did to him."

Getting murder convictions to hold up in the case proved difficult. Each of the original murder convictions was struck down, largely because appellate courts ruled that juries should not have heard about a confession Peter Quartararo gave to police. Courts have ruled police obtained it improperly and that it was inadmissible hearsay when used against co-defendants. Allusions to that confession - including in Ryan's most recent conviction - also were improper, courts ruled. Convictions from two of Ryan's trials on the charges were overturned and his last trial ended in a mistrial.

For Barbara Pius, the constant retrials were torture. Each reversed conviction dredged up the murder, she said.

"It's devastating," she said.

Spota watched Ryan's plea from the second row.

"I came to watch something that I started a long time ago," Spota said, glancing at a still youthful-looking Ryan. "He's put on some weight," he added, remarking on the passage of years.

In return for Ryan's plea and waiver of appeal, Albertson said the district attorney's office would not compel him to testify about the killing in any future legal proceeding.

Afterward, Spota and defense attorney Charles Hochbaum of Garden City said they were satisfied with the result.

"I always felt he was the least culpable," Spota said, noting that Ryan served more time in prison than the others.

"It was hard for Mr. Ryan," Hochbaum said. "I think it was a difficult step for him."

Ryan, who is working in construction, left court without commenting. Acting State Supreme Court Justice Michael Mullen will impose the sentence in September. Ryan will surrender then and will be in prison only as long as it takes for the state prison system to process his release papers.

Barbara Pius said no earthly punishment will be enough.

"I hope he never has any peace for the rest of his life," she said. "If he doesn't get what he deserves in this life, he surely will in the next life."

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