BEHIND BARS : The Odyssey of Buddy Jacobson: Horses, Models and a Murder Sentence

Times Staff Writer

In a white smock that covers his prison green, inmate No. 80a3899 was sitting uncomfortably in a small room on the hospital floor of the Attica Correctional Facility, saying that he might be dead of cancer in a year and still trying to tell the world that he isn't a murderer.

He is Howard (Buddy) Jacobson, once the most successful horse trainer in the United States, once the Pied Piper for high-priced young fashion models on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

This slightly built son of a Brooklyn hat salesman used horses and subsequent real estate deals to make himself a millionaire.

But now, 57-year-old Buddy Jacobson has a disease he's not supposed to beat, and a prison sentence of 25 years to life for the brutal murder of a restaurateur and alleged drug dealer who had replaced Jacobson in the life of Melanie Cain, a $150,000-a-year Redbook and Cosmopolitan model who was a prosecution witness for nine days during the sensational 1980 trial.

The longest and most expensive--$1.5 million--trial in the history of the Bronx, it splashed across the pages of New York's tabloids for three months. The former trainer was described as a "love slave," there were reports of open combat in the jury room and Jacobson accused his lawyer of less than an all-out effort.

After telling the judge that they were "hopelessly deadlocked," the jurors returned a verdict of guilty three days later.

Six weeks after that, Jacobson, posing as a lawyer in a gray tweed suit, walked out the front door of the Brooklyn House of Detention, beginning a 40-day odyssey that ended in Manhattan Beach, Calif. There, he was quietly apprehended while making a telephone call to his son in New York.

David Jacobson--now 33 and a house painter on Long Island, N.Y.--had been in trouble with the police, and he cooperated with them in returning his father to custody. Melanie Cain, 25 years younger than Buddy Jacobson, lived with him for five years and then helped convict him.

Now, Jacobson forgives them both. He won't say what trouble his son was in--that's the only question he ducked during a four-hour interview at this maximum-security prison for 2,100 inmates--but David Jacobson is a regular visitor here.

"I don't think Melanie lied in court," Jacobson said. "She was too dumb to lie. She was sick. She had hyperglycemia (an abnormally high concentration of sugar in the blood). She would fall asleep just sitting having lunch with you. And she did it every day.

"One day, at a sidewalk cafe, I poured cold water down her neck and she still didn't wake up. People used to think she had overdosed on drugs. Then she'd wake up and ask about a modeling appointment or something that she thought happened yesterday, when it was really a couple of weeks before. I think that's what happened to her on the stand."

The million-dollar co-op apartment buildings that his father collected slipped through David Jacobson's fingers after his father went to prison.

"There was never a lot of hard cash," Buddy Jacobson said. "I was always mortgaged up to the hilt. David got involved with some guys who were legal, but he was paying something like 24% interest before it was all over."

As a result, Jacobson has no money and no lawyer for a recent appeal which, he said, is based on new evidence, a review of the old evidence and some technical challenges regarding the way he was sentenced.

With the help of a sister who lives on Long Island, Jacobson has become his own attorney. He quotes frequently from precedents and how they relate to the case.

"Buddy doesn't care about the (bone) cancer," said his sister, Rita Costello. "All he cares about is clearing himself."

A pasty-faced Jacobson still wears a droopy mustache and weighs 170 pounds, 40 more than he ever did, but it's weight added through steroid use. Last week, after the interview for this story, he suffered a collapsed vertebra, which his doctor says is the equivalent of a broken neck, and on Friday, Jacobson was battling Attica officials about where he should be sent for treatment.

"They want to send me to a county hospital," Jacobson told his sister. "They want me to go there and die."

Since he was transferred to Attica two years ago, Jacobson has had moments of biting wit and moments of deep depression, but he said he has never despaired. All he does here is study his case and consider the strategy for cracking the conviction.

A couple of weeks before the interview, Jacobson had closed a typewritten letter to a reporter by saying: "Drop in anytime. I'm always home."

On the day of the interview, he was studying realty instead of law books, unable to turn his head because of a stiff neck brought on by muscle spasms. The cancer has reached Jacobson's spine.

There was a snowstorm swirling around outside, and although the accumulation was going to be considerable by late afternoon, it was no threat to Attica's high brick walls. There hasn't been a threat here since 1971, when the prisoners rioted and took over the buildings for three days.

"It would be terrible to spend my last days with this still over my head," Jacobson said last week.

Jacobson's mother is 84 and lives downstate. She is well enough to visit but doesn't know about her son's cancer, and Jacobson won't allow her to come here.

Jacobson's mother had three brothers--Hirsch, Sidney and Eugene Jacobs--who were horse trainers. Hirsch Jacobs used to win races in clusters, as his nephew later would, and he was elected into the sport's Hall of Fame in 1958.

When Buddy Jacobson was 11, he began working at the barn for Eugene Jacobs. He took out his first trainer's license at 21, and from the start he thumbed his nose at racing's bluebloods.

He said he learned little from his uncles and that the game was not complicated. He decried the importance of jockeys in winning races and he wheeled and dealed so much with claiming horses that even his owners couldn't keep up.

One of them sued Jacobson for $275,000 over the sale of some horses. In 1969, Jacobson led a backstretch movement on behalf of better working conditions and pension benefits that closed racing at Aqueduct for nine days.

For the man who had won 509 races from 1963-65 and who had won five New York training titles, the two-week strike was virtually the end of his training career. Later that year, Jacobson, charged with fraud and misrepresentation by an owner, was suspended for 45 days by New York racing officials. For almost five years after that, he was denied stall space for his horses at New York tracks.

"I don't want to use the word, (but) it's what Jacobson did, it's his standing in the field," said Jack Dreyfus, then chairman of the board of the New York Racing Assn. "If we accept Buddy, then we have to turn down people (other stall applicants) who don't have this on their reputations."

Jacobson filed an $8-million lawsuit against the NYRA, which he lost, but in 1975 he was issued stall space again.

By then, Jacobson had developed other interests. He bought a high-rise apartment building in Manhattan--the place where Melanie Cain's new lover, John Tupper, was later shot four times and apparently tortured through multiple stabbings.

When Jacobson was brought to trial for the murder of the 34-year-old Tupper, Manhattan real estate records showed that he had sold several properties for more than $3.3 million and had also bought additional buildings for more than $1.4 million.

His relationship with Melanie Cain, a small-town girl from Illinois, led to the formation of the My Fair Lady modeling agency. Jacobson also bought a ski lodge in Vermont.

Jacobson lied to Cain and other women about his age, saying he was much younger. He introduced his two sons as his younger brothers.

When Jacobson walked out of the prison in Brooklyn, waiting for him with the getaway car was Audrey Barrett, a 22-year-old model and part-time Bible teacher.

"There's nothing wrong with going for women much younger than you," Jacobson said the other day. "In Manhattan, you see it all the time."

He started to say that Barrett was the only one he ever loved. "Nah, I guess that's not right," he finally said. "I loved every girl I was ever with."

On the morning of Aug. 6, 1978, John Tupper was killed, either in Jacobson's penthouse apartment or in the apartment of another tenant, who disappeared and was arrested on drug charges several years later, becoming a witness for the federal government in narcotics investigations.

A policeman said that what was done to Tupper was enough to have killed him 10 times. The body was taken to a dump in the Bronx--about a 25-minute drive from Jacobson's building--and was found in a burning wooden crate late the same afternoon.

Cain, who reportedly was out of the building, signing a lease for a new apartment in which she and Tupper were moving, said that when she returned, Jacobson had stopped the elevator and barricaded the stairway to the floor where the murder had occurred.

Jacobson, maintaining that he served as the superintendent and even did the janitorial work for the buildings he owned, said he closed off the accesses because he was cleaning up some paint that had been spilled on an outside carpet, and didn't want people traipsing through the mess.

Jacobson said that he was also doing work that day at a hospital building that he had bought for conversion into an apartment complex.

According to Jacobson, the doorman at a building next to the murder scene could have confirmed what time he left--which would have placed Jacobson away from the building at the time of the murder.

That was not brought out at the trial. Witness Estelle Carattini testified that she had seen Jacobson at the dump in the Bronx late in the afternoon. She also identified his yellow 1974 Cadillac.

Jacobson also said that he and his attorney, Jack Evseroff, argued about the lawyer's fee just before the start of the trial.

"I had already paid him $125,000," Jacobson said. "But while they were still picking the jurors, he wanted $50,000 more, because he said the case was requiring much more work than he thought.

"I wouldn't go for it. I didn't think it made any difference what lawyer I had. I didn't get involved as I should have, and during the trial I was even making phone calls about real estate deals, instead of concentrating on the case."

Jacobson said that his lawyer cried when they started arguing over the fee, and he kept the attorney instead of finding someone else.

"Looking back now, there were so many things that could have been done, and a lot of things that were said were out of context and should have been elaborated on," Jacobson said.

When Jacobson was arrested on the day of the murder, about two miles from the dump, a policeman said he smelled of gasoline, which had been used to torch the body.

"What he smelled was turpentine," Jacobson says now. "The turpentine from cleaning up the paint on the rug back at the apartment."

Jacobson said that Carattini's husband did not agree with all of his wife's testimony. He also said that although Estelle Carattini was at the police station after he was arrested on the day of the murder, there was no lineup of suspects, and she wasn't asked to make an identification until a week later.

"Tupper was involved in drugs," Jacobson said. "He had a $1,000-a-day habit himself. But we weren't allowed to emphasize this at the trial. I don't think Tupper had turned police informer, but he had some damaging tapes, and my feeling is that he kept them to protect himself if the other dealers ever put any pressure on him."

Melanie Cain testified that she once counted out $30,000 in cash for Tupper and saw him deliver it to a man.

According to Jacobson, the district attorney's office wanted to find him guilty because other suspects were drug traffickers who could be useful in a major narcotics investigation. If any of the dealers had been convicted of the Tupper murder, Jacobson said, they wouldn't have been credible witnesses in a drug case.

Last June, Jacobson's sister found Cecilia Linzie, a woman who had volunteered information to the police the day after the murder but whose statements weren't introduced at the trial.

Linzie has signed an affidavit that says she noticed some activity at the dump, several hours before Estelle Carattini said she saw Jacobson there.

Linzie says she saw one man standing outside a yellow Cadillac and two men seated in the rear of the car, one of whom matched the description of the murdered man. She says that none of the men fit Jacobson's description.

According to Linzie, she was summoned to the district attorney's office and told that her statement wouldn't be recorded, "because then we would have to give it to the other side."

Linzie said that she couldn't be sure whether the man resembling Tupper was dead or alive. At one point, Linzie said, an assistant district attorney said: "We can't use this, because it will blow our whole case apart."

William Kelly, who headed the prosecution team against Jacobson, and is now a New York judge, couldn't be reached to comment on Linzie's affidavit.

A pair of bloodied blue jeans, which had the same blood type as Tupper's, also were said to belong to Jacobson, and they were a key exhibit at the trial.

Rita Costello said that Dr. Robert Shaller, the medical examiner, was interviewed by her private investigator. According to her, Shaller now says that he looked at two pairs of jeans. One pair, belonging to another suspect, had seven blood stains. The other pair--Jacobson's--had three stains that couldn't definitely be identified as blood.

Attempts to reach Shaller last week were unsuccessful.

The jury's first vote was 6-6. Three of the jurors were auxiliary police at the precinct where Jacobson was brought after his arrest.

The next day, seven jurors voted guilty. One more juror joined them a day later, then the count grew to nine before all voted to convict.

One of the jurors, a retired subway worker named Michael Speller, told the New York Daily News after the trial that he didn't think Jacobson was guilty. Speller said that one juror threw a chair at another juror during the deliberations.

"They wore me down," Speller said. "If we had to do it all over again, I think it would go the other way. There's a reasonable doubt that he did it."

Speller has died, and his wife has suffered a stroke and is unable to discuss the case.

Jacobson's immediate appeal, which was handled by Ramsey Clark, was unsuccessful.

While awaiting sentencing, Jacobson was sent to the Brooklyn House of Detention, a facility that was thought to be escape-proof.

On May 31, 1968, he received a visitor who identified himself as Michael Schwartz, Jacobson's real estate lawyer. But Schwartz was really Tony DeRosa, a bartender who used to work across the street from one of Jacobson's apartment houses.

DeRosa had bought Jacobson's Vermont ski lodge, then suffered heavy losses. Jacobson said he forgave DeRosa the debt--estimated at $300,000--and DeRosa said that if Jacobson ever needed a favor, he would be available.

"I don't know if this guy had ever killed a guy, but the way he said it, I got the feeling that he was willing to go that far if I needed it," Jacobson said last week.

Jacobson's request wasn't that demanding, but it was serious. He needed help in breaking out.

DeRosa visited a few times before May 31, and they practiced signing the Schwartz signature. DeRosa's signing on the way into the prison would have to be matched by Jacobson on the way out.

DeRosa concealed the business suit that Jacobson would wear when he walked through the front door.

The guard at the front door joked with Jacobson. "I don't know if I should let you out," she said.

Jacobson gave her a hug. "Come on, baby, you're coming with me," he said.

Jacobson had gradually been shaving off his mustache in the jail, so that by May 31, there was hardly anything left.

"The rest of it," he said, "I covered up with a satchel that I held up near my face."

Practicing the Schwartz signature had been a waste of time, however.

"My hand was shaking so much by that time, all I could put down was a wavy line," Jacobson said.

Running down the street, with Audrey Barrett and his son David in a waiting car, Jacobson bumped into a woman, knocking groceries from her arms.

"I stopped to help her pick them up," Jacobson said. "While I was down there, I thought to myself, 'What am I doing? I'm supposed to be escaping.' "

Barrett and Jacobson dropped his son off before they headed West. They were someplace in Iowa when Jacobson's sentence of 25 years to life was handed down.

Jacobson's attorney told the courts that he had escaped to look for evidence that might clear him. And there was a possible witness in Northern California whom Jacobson unsuccessfully tried to find.

"But the only reason I ran was to be free," Jacobson says now. "I hadn't done anything. I was the same as those hostages in Iran. DeRosa got one to three years. I don't know what happened to him."

In Des Moines, Iowa, a friend from Jacobson's horse-racing days supplied him and Barrett with a different car. They visited a cemetery, getting ideas for aliases off the tombstones. Jacobson became Lonnie Sherman Rumbaugh, and Barrett was Rhonda Sue Guessford. Much of the way, Jacobson wore a gray wig covered by a baseball cap, which made him look like an old man.

When they arrived in Thousand Oaks a few days later, Barrett's brother talked her into returning to New York and turning herself in. Jacobson believes that she didn't help police with his capture.

Alone, Jacobson wound up in a motel in Manhattan Beach. He told the manager that he was a writer. Among his few belongings were a typewriter and a pair of roller skates, which he used to go up and down the strand almost daily.

Before she left him, Jacobson had taken Audrey Barrett to the Criterion restaurant. They had especially liked the fried zucchini with Parmesan cheese--$1.50 an order.

The Manhattan Beach Police Department is located 200 feet away from the Criterion.

On the afternoon of July 9, Jacobson went to the Criterion and asked for a half order of zucchini and a cup of coffee. He was carrying $1,800 in bills and $5 in quarters, which he planned to use to call his son, David, in New York, to ask for more money.

Jacobson bought another $10 in quarters from the cashier before he went to the phone in the back of the restaurant.

He had trouble making the call. "The phone's taking my quarters," he called to a waitress.

"Write the phone company and they'll send it back," she said.

"Sure," Jacobson said, reaching for more quarters.

In New York, David Jacobson had been told by police to keep his father on the phone. They talked about hiding out, Audrey Barrett, real estate and the money Buddy Jacobson needed.

The call was 20 minutes old when one of six police officers, all displaying rifles and shotguns, tapped Jacobson on the shoulder.

"Can you identify yourself?" the cop said.

"I'm Howard (Buddy) Jacobson," he said.

He still had 20 quarters left.

"At least I have change to call a lot of lawyers," Jacobson said.

"Not from this phone," one of his captors said, and in New York, about 3,000 miles away, David Jacobson heard a hang-up on the other end of the line.

The bill for the zucchini and coffee was $1.06, but no one bothered to ask Buddy Jacobson to pay it. And he's had nothing but free meals ever since.

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