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From the archives: Detective leads probe in LI's kidnapping of the century

This article was originally published in Newsday on June 1, 1998

The ransom note was scrawled in green ink on a sheet torn from a student notebook.

"Attention," it said. "I'm sorry this had to happen, but I am in bad need of money, & couldn't get it any other way. Don't tell anyone or go to the police about this, because I am watching you closely. I am scared stiff, & will kill the baby at your first wrong move . . . Your baby sitter."

It was the Fourth of July, 1956. About 3 p.m., Betty Weinberger had placed her 33-day-old son, Peter, in a carriage on the patio of their handsome, steep-roofed house on Albemarle Road in the Wheatley Villa section of Westbury - just off Exit 32 of the Northern State Parkway. When she returned 10 minutes later, she noticed the mosquito netting she had pulled tightly over the carriage was open. She looked inside.

The baby was gone. In his place was the ransom note.

It demanded $2,000 in small bills. The money was to be placed in a brown envelope and left near the Weinberger home, next to a signpost at Albemarle Road and Park Avenue, at 10 o'clock the next morning.

Betty Weinberger's husband, Morris, soon returned from a ride with their older son, 2-year-old Lewis. Aghast at the kidnaper's threat to kill Peter "at your first wrong move," the couple nonetheless called Nassau police. Det. Frank Abramowitz appeared at the house.

After a cursory investigation, he called his boss, Sgt. Edward Curran - then the Third Squad commander, later chief of detectives and today president of the state Retired Police Association. "I think we've got a kidnaping," Abramowitz said.

"What do you mean - a kidnaping?" Curran asked. "This is suburbia. We don't have kidnapings in Nassau County."

"It's a baby," Abramowitz said.

Scheduled to take the holiday off, Curran had instead gone in to the precinct to clean up a pile of paperwork. Now, he suddenly found himself leading the investigation into Long Island's crime of the century - the kidnaping of a baby from a backyard carriage; fear for the baby's fate gripped the nation's heart for weeks.

Curran raced to Westbury to talk to the Weinbergers. Since recovering the baby was the only priority, everyone quickly agreed the ransom should be paid. But, no matter what the kidnaper might have thought, the Weinbergers were not wealthy. They lived on Morris Weinberger's moderate income as a wholesale druggist.

"Some relatives agreed to get the money together," Curran recalls. "But, because of the holiday, all the banks were closed. We arranged for a bank to open and release the money. All the serial numbers were recorded. We also put recorders on the Weinbergers' phones."

But the kidnaper had given flawed instructions. In demanding that the money be left at Albemarle Road and Park Avenue, the kidnaper failed to recognize that Albemarle formed a semi-circle crossing Park at two distinct intersections. Thus, the detectives were obliged to prepare two ransom packages.

At 10 o'clock the next morning, the ransom packages sat beside the signposts at the two intersections. Detectives were staked out nearby, waiting for the kidnaper to appear. But, by that time, news reporters had somehow learned about the kidnaping and were swarming around the Weinberger home. Amid the commotion, the kidnaper made no attempt to pick up the money.

Morris and Betty Weinberger could only wait - hour after hour - with no word from the kidnaper. Investigators came up with the idea of calling a news conference to appeal to the kidnaper to feed the baby his medically recommended infant formula - a formula that, although it contained no prescription drugs, would supposedly require a pharmacist's skills to prepare. "It was a phony formula," Curran says. "It couldn't be filled by a pharmacist. We hoped that, if the kidnaper tried to get the formula filled, the pharmacist would realize what was happening and tip us off."

Betty Weinberger appeared with Curran before television cameras, floodlights and dozens of reporters and photographers at Nassau police headquarters. "I am the mother of Peter Weinberger, who was taken from me yesterday," she read from a sheet of paper. "Whoever you are, I now plead for the return of my baby, who needs the care of his mother." Moments later, she broke down - sobbing uncontrollably.

"Here," she said, shoving the paper toward Curran. "You read it for me. I can't." Curran took over, saying that the baby was "in need of special feeding." He slowly read the supposed ingredients for the fake formula.

But, afterward, the detectives received no calls from pharmacists. There was no sign of Peter Weinberger. The tense wait - and the search - continued.

Then, about 10:45 a.m. on July 10, the phone rang in the Weinberger home. Morris Weinberger answered. On the other end of the line was a male voice - that of the kidnaper. He instructed Weinberger to leave the ransom at a spot off Exit 26 of the Northern State Parkway. Weinberger did so, but the ransom was not picked up.

Later in the day, Betty Weinberger received a call from the kidnaper. The police recording devices on the phones picked up this exchange:

"Hello, Mrs. Weinberger?"

"Yes."

"Listen, do you want to see your kid or don't you?"

"Er, who is this?"

"Well, it's the party you would be interested in. I called up earlier. And I don't know who answered. I made an appointment and nobody showed up."

"You made an appointment with my husband? What did you ask him to do?"

"Go over to Exit 26 and - "

"Yes, we kept that appointment. My husband went."

"Nobody was there. I was there for over an hour. Well, now, on Exit 28, if you want, right by the sign, I'll be there in at most a half hour. You'll find a blue bag there."

"Now, wait a minute. Let me get this straight. I'm nervous. Just what do you want me to do?"

"Put the money in and take the note and it'll tell you where you'll find the baby in an hour's time."

"Wait a minute. Where on Exit 28, which side?"

"As you're going towards New York. And you will find a blue bag right by the sign - not at the exit, right by the sign that says, Exit 28.' "

"You're only giving me a half hour?"

"That's all. You can make it in fifteen minutes. I know. I already done it. I'll be watching as you go by."

"The blue bag will be right by the sign that says Exit 28'?"

"That's right."

Curran assigned several detectives - dressed in ragged clothing and pretending to be workers picking up papers along the parkway - to stake out the area near Exit 28. They spotted the blue bag, but for hours the kidnaper did not show up to retrieve it. Eventually, the detectives seized the bag as evidence. Inside was a second ransom note, repeating the $2,000 demand, in handwriting that seemed to match the first.

After waiting a week, as then required by law, the FBI entered the investigation. (As a direct result of the Weinberger case, Congress later passed a law authorizing the FBI to launch an investigation 24 hours after a kidnaping.)

Nassau detectives, accustomed to dealing with the three-agent FBI contingent stationed in Mineola, now found themselves working with swarms of agents from the New York office. JAMES KELLY, then the agent in charge of the New York office and later Nassau police commissioner, came to Long Island to direct the federal detail. "We're going to put 55 agents on the case," he told Curran. At the time, Curran had only eight detectives working on the kidnaping - all his superiors would provide him. He asked Stuyvesant Pinnell, chief of detectives, to match the FBI contingent. "Pinnell hated the FBI," Curran says. "He argued, but eventually agreed to give me the 55 detectives. We paired the guys up - one detective working with one agent. We didn't know what to expect, but those agents were for real. They worked really well with our guys. The FBI guys got $15 a day meal money. Our guys got nothing. So the FBI guys spent part of their money to feed our guys."

FBI handwriting experts flew in from Washington to examine the ransom notes - the chief clues in the case. The experts found the notes contained distinguishing chacteristics in 16 letters of the alphabet. Most unusual was the kidnaper's lower-case script "m," which the experts said resembled a sideways "z." The agents and detectives composed what they called "The Happy Birthday Letter," a birthday greeting that included all the letters in the alphabet. Anyone who came under serious suspicion was asked to copy the letter for handwriting comparison with the ransom notes.

Investigators simultaneously began searching through more than 2 million public records - among them the files of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, whose jurisdiction included Long Island - for handwriting that might match the kidnaper's. They also distributed copies of his writing to other law-enforcement agencies.

But there was still no sign of Peter Weinberger.

There was no shortage, however, of people claiming to know the baby's whereabouts. The Weinbergers were plagued by cruel hoaxes in which callers tried to extort the ransom money from them with phony stories that they had the baby. Five of the callers were arrested.

Another caller instructed Betty Weinberger to carry the ransom money to a movie theater, the Savoy in Jamaica, Queens, and to take a seat in the next to the last row. She insisted on keeping the appointment. But, before she went, 30 detectives and FBI agents discreetly entered the theater and took positions where they could watch her once she arrived. Within minutes after Betty Weinberger took her seat, a purse snatcher - knowing nothing about the kidnaping or ransom - grabbed her pocketbook. All 30 investigators seemed to pounce on the hapless thief at once. Questioning revealed that he was no more than a petty criminal, and nothing was heard from the phone caller who precipitated the commotion.

More than six weeks had passed since the kidnaping. And still there was no sign of Peter Weinberger.

Then a federal probation officer in Brooklyn discovered in his files a longhand document written by a onetime criminal defendant who habitually formed the script letter "m" in the same way as the author of the ransom notes. The defendant, convicted of helping construct an illegal still in Suffolk, had just completed a term of probation. His name was Angelo LaMarca. He was 31, worked as an automobile mechanic and lived in Plainview.

FBI handwriting experts, spotting numerous similarities between LaMarca's handwriting and the ransom notes, concluded he had written them. Curran and Kelly drew up detailed plans for arresting LaMarca - plans intended to avoid endangering Peter Weinberger if he were still alive. Investigators determined where all LaMarca's close relatives lived. Teams of agents and detectives - referring to LaMarca as "the package" in their two-way radio conversations - took up positions Aug. 23 near LaMarca's home and those of several relatives. Curran and Kelly, riding together, gave the "go" signal to hit all the houses simultaneously.

Eight investigators seized LaMarca at his small, ranch-style home on Richfield Street as he returned with his wife, Donna, from dropping off their two children at his parents' house. Then, after all the cooperation between the local detectives and the FBI, a heated wrangle developed over who would take custody of LaMarca. FBI agents initially whisked him to their Manhattan office, over Curran's protests. When Curran showed up, demanding to see "his" prisoner, he was denied access. Confronting Kelly, he shouted that the FBI had no jurisdiction in the case - since there was no indication LaMarca had crossed a state line and violated federal law. "You know it and I know it," he said.

Kelly grudgingly put Curran in a room with LaMarca. Curran immediately pointed out to the suspect that they both grew up in the same town - Elmont. "I live on the same street as your parents," he said. "I'm the only friend you have."

LaMarca denied knowing anything about the kidnaping. Curran then brought LaMarca's wife into the room. "Angelo, did you kidnap this child?" Donna LaMarca demanded. "Think of that baby's mother. If you did this and I was the mother, I'd want to know where he is."

Angelo LaMarca winced. "Get her out of here," he shouted. BUT THEN THE story began pouring from him. Curran took a 12-page handwritten confession from LaMarca - every page signed by each of them and every one bearing the distinctive "m." Immediately after the kidnaping, it developed, LaMarca had abandoned Peter Weinberger - alive - in a wooded area alongside the eastbound cutoff road at Exit 37 of the Northern State Parkway. He said he kidnaped the baby at random after seeing Betty Weinberger place Peter in the carriage on the patio. LaMarca said he carried out the kidnaping because he was $1,800 in debt after buying a refrigerator and storm windows for his house and falling behind on his car payments.

Investigators began an extensive search of the parkway near Exit 37, but could find no sign of the baby. "Then we took LaMarca out there," Curran said. "He was able almost to pinpoint the spot where he'd left the baby." At 10:25 a.m. that day, Aug. 24, the investigators found Peter Weinberger's body 150 feet south of the exit road. He had died of exposure.

At the Weinberger home - before news of the discovery was received - Peter's parents were still expressing confidence he would be found safe. "There's no question in my mind that the baby is still alive," Betty Weinberger told a handful of friends and relatives.

Five minutes later, the Weinbergers received word that Peter's remains had been found. "There was a profound silence and they looked at each other," one relative said. "There was little any of us could say. The reaction was very, very severe."

LaMarca was swiftly indicted on charges of kidnaping and first-degree murder. Nassau District Attorney Frank Gulotta took the unusual step of prosecuting the case himself when it came to trial in November, 1956. In his closing argument - urging a jury to convict LaMarca on both counts, even if it meant sending him to the electric chair - Gulotta said, "This man LaMarca has passed that sentence on himself. Literally and actually, with the life of that little child in the palm of his hand, he determined his own fate when he said to himself: Shall that baby live or shall that baby die? His hands closed and he chose death. When that baby's life expired, LaMarca's life expired, too."

On Dec. 7, the jury of 10 fathers and two grandfathers found LaMarca guilty on both counts and did not recommend mercy - making a death sentence mandatory.

Appeals delayed LaMarca's execution for more than 18 months. But on the night of Aug. 7, 1958, he was led into the execution chamber at Sing Sing Prison in upstate Ossining. Among the 35 witnesses was Ed Curran. "I didn't particularly want to be there," he recalls. "But Betty Weinberger and Frank Gulotta asked me to go, so I felt I had to do it."

LaMarca expressed neither remorse nor any other emotion. He was accompanied by a Catholic chaplain, the Rev. George McKinney, reading the 23rd Psalm in Latin. LaMarca occasionally muttered a response to the prayer.

He wore black loafers, dark gray trousers and a white shirt open at the neck. Before entering the chamber, he had eaten a last meal of fried chicken, French-fried potatoes, vegetables, ice cream and coffee.

As they reached the electric chair, the priest gave LaMarca a crucifix to kiss. A half-dozen guards eased him into the chair. They strapped his arms and lifted his face to receive a heavy leather mask that covered his eyes and a strap that covered his mouth.

"What are you trying to do, choke me?" LaMarca complained. Those were his last words.

Moments later, with the preparations completed, 2,000 volts of electricity shot through his body.

When the electricity was turned off, an Ossining physician, George McCracken, approached LaMarca. He placed a stethoscope to LaMarca's chest.

"This man is dead," he pronounced. THE SCENE REMAINS UNCHANGED THE HOUSE on Albemarle Road in Westbury looks much the same as it did in 1956 - when Peter Weinberger was kidnaped from his carriage on the rear patio.

It has the same steep roofline, the same brick facing in front, the same garage alongside the living quarters. Doreen Kenner and her family have lived there for more than four years. For the first two years, she did not know this house had once been owned by Peter's parents, Betty and Morris Weinberger (both now deceased), and had been the scene of Long Island's crime of the century.

Then, one day, a limousine driver who lived in her neighborhood arrived at the home to take her to the airport for a flight to the Bahamas. "So you bought the Weinberger house," he said.

"What house?" Kenner asked. "I thought people named Hogan used to own it."

"Yes, but before that it was the Weinberger house," the driver said. "A baby was kidnaped there and murdered."

Kenner, who had never heard of the Weinberger case, went to the Westbury library when she returned home and researched the crime. She said she and her family were not particularly disturbed to learn about their house's history, but did speculate that the crime four decades earlier might be responsible for mysterious sounds they heard in the home from time to time.

Kenner called the broker who negotiated her family's purchase of the house. "How come you didn't tell us this was the Weinberger house?" she asked.

She said there was a pause and then the broker replied in what passed for an innocent tone: "Oh, didn't I tell you that?" LI'S GHOSTS of CRIME PAST ASIDE from the Peter Weinberger kidnaping, other notorious crimes captured the public's attention during the 1950s. Among them:

The Harold Lorentson Case. Lyde Kitchner, 12, a seventh-grade Smithtown schoolgirl, was found strangled in woods off Route 111 on Nov. 29, 1951. A schoolmate, 13-year-old Harold Lorentson, was charged with her murder. Police said Harold confessed that he killed the girl after he tried to kiss her and she slapped him. But Harold was found not guilty in a Children's Court trial on grounds of insufficient evidence. Newsday - amid fanfare - bought him a Palomino horse to replace another horse that had died. Twelve years later, 25-year-old Harold Lorentson's well-drilling machine struck a 7,500-volt power line in Farmingville. He was electrocuted.

The Ivan Jerome Case. A millionaire inventor and owner of the Massapequa Farmers Market, the 59-year-old Jerome was arrested in 1955 on 60 counts of staging filmed sex parties with teenage girls. Freed on $100,000 bond, he jumped bail and disappeared. There were reports he had been seen everywhere from Russia to South America, but he was never found - prompting persistent newspaper headlines asking: "Where Is Ivan Jerome?"

The Francis Henry Bloeth Case. Bloeth, tagged the "mad-dog killer," terrorized Suffolk for more than two weeks in 1959 with a robbery-murder spree that took the lives of a Westhampton Beach diner owner, an Islip delicatessen owner and a Smithtown diner counterman. Arrested days after the third shooting, Bloeth confessed to all three. "The only reason I didn't kill more was that I didn't have any more bullets," he said. Bloeth was tried in only one of the killings and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

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