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Cop Killer Travels Twisted Path to Freedom

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four decades ago, after the killings on the Sin Strip here, no one could have imagined that Thomas Trantino would ever go free, as he did this week.

The issue back then was whether he would die for what he did--and how.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 14, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Letter excerpt--In an article Wednesday in Southern California Living, spellings and punctuation were changed in an excerpt from a letter written from prison by convicted murderer Thomas Trantino. The sentence, as in the original material, should have read: “the world is falling apart at the seams crime is rampent and sex is running all over the streets All authority have broke down . . . Law & Order (with equality and justice for all of course) is on the wayne.”

President Kennedy was in the White House, and Martin Luther King Jr. was days away from giving his “I Have a Dream” speech when Trantino and another ex-con pulled a robbery in Brooklyn and headed to New Jersey to celebrate. They landed in the inaptly named Angel Lounge on Route 46, where bars used to stay open till dawn. Frank Falco placed a $50 bill on the counter, and the partying began.

A neighbor thought someone was shooting off fireworks. He called the police with a noise complaint at 2:30 a.m.

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Sgt. Peter Voto, 40, had wrestled for the local high school and served in the Navy before joining the force. A father of three, he worked night patrols, 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Gary Tedesco was only 21 and a trainee, due to get his uniform and gun a week later. He carried only a flashlight on Aug. 20, 1963, when he rode with Voto to Route 46.

Voto made it through the sea battles of WWII but did not survive the Angel Lounge. Tedesco wound up wearing his uniform for the first time at his own funeral.

Afterward, a noose was spotted in Lodi police headquarters. Such was the rage over New Jersey’s most notorious crime since the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.

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A dragnet found Frank Falco across the Hudson River, in a hotel near Times Square. New York police said he resisted when they woke him, and they had no choice but to shoot him six times.

Trantino had enough sense to turn himself in. He had a lawyer and photographer with him when he surrendered at a Manhattan precinct house. Half-Italian, half-Jewish and dubbed “The Rabbi, " he looked like a hood out of the old Jimmy Cagney movies in his gray suit, white shirt and dark glasses.

When reporters shouted questions, he said, “My mother and father are over there. Don’t you have any decency?” A voice shot back, “Don’t you?”

His lawyer argued he’d been made insane by pills and alcohol and that Falco fired the fatal shots, but a jury took only seven hours to find the 25-year-old guilty of murder, and with no recommendation of mercy they condemned him to the electric chair. And who could argue?

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By all accounts, he had set off the massacre after the sergeant discovered a gun wrapped in a bar towel. Witnesses said he grabbed Voto from behind and pistol-whipped him to the ground, yelling, “We are burning all the way!”

It looked like he would burn after they took him to death row on Feb. 29, 1964, but he was still there in 1972, kept alive by appeals, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned death penalty statutes across the country. Though executions resumed by 1977, 600 inmates nationwide had their reprieves secured.

Just as Charles Manson and his followers were spared in California, Trantino’s sentence was reduced to life in prison in New Jersey at a time when life did not necessarily mean life.

Thus began a parole battle like few others.

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There was a long lineup ready to proclaim why Trantino should rot: victims’ families, police organizations, governors and a state Legislature that passed two “Trantino laws” to make sure no cop killer ever again had even the hope of freedom.

Long after the crime, it could still draw a crowd chanting “Kill! Kill!,” as Newark-born attorney Roger Lowenstein found out in 1982, the first time he entered a courthouse on Trantino’s behalf. Lowenstein has represented the convicted killer for no fee for the past 20 years, staying on the case even after he switched coasts to pursue a second career as a TV writer, on “L.A. Law” and other shows.

But it would be hard for any fictional script to match the twists in this real-life case, especially how the rabid killer become one of his state’s best behaved inmates: registering hardly a single infraction for 32 years, designing programs to help young offenders and coming to function “more as a staff member in the prison than as an inmate,” as one of the 57 psychological studies of him put it.

Trantino also wrote a book about his life and made paintings that have been displayed in galleries in Europe and Japan, though those parts of his record may not have helped his cause--his writing and art only inflamed groups that saw him as another killer seeking to profit off the blood of victims while “playing the system” with his good behavior act. Again, who could blame them?

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“Punishment is the word of the day,” Trantino himself noted just last week. “Don’t put them in prison--put them under the prison.”

During his 39 years in custody, American society has grown skeptical of claims of redemption, or rehabilitation, or of the whole concept of parole, especially for killers. In the age of spin, hardly anyone can be believed, much less people like him. The new political climate says there is no atoning for some crimes.

So he stayed locked up longer than any inmate in New Jersey, until Monday, when he made his ceremonial walk away from a halfway house in Camden.

Small Town Rocked by Murder of Officers

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A crime’s impact often goes beyond the obvious, the widowed spouses and orphaned children. When the brother of the slain sergeant said the killings “destroyed two families,” he understated the fallout in Lodi, a town of 20,000 developed around the United Piece Dye Works. The factory eventually closed, but the workers stayed, and their families intermarried in a community that defined “tightknit.” One of the officers called to the Angel Lounge was Tedesco’s cousin. Voto had a cousin on the ambulance crew. And his brother, Andy, eventually become chief of police.

Andy Voto never forgot how, as a little boy, Pete “walked me to school on my first day.” Not long before the murders, his 7-year-old daughter died, and the deaths joined in his mind. He couldn’t bring himself to hug his mother. “There was no sign of love left in me,” he said.

Andy recalled a man telling him at Pete’s funeral that his brother was in heaven and that they should “pray for his murderer.” He had to keep from slugging the guy.

Over the decades, Andy tried to come to all the demonstrations to demand justice--preferably death--for Trantino. He could barely express what he felt when heard suggestions that the murders that devastated so many had, in a sense, helped the killer. Voto did not doubt that prison could be good for a former heroin addict and robber, or that a high school dropout might become “jailhouse smart.” But to hear Trantino’s lawyer portray him as an inmate who had “changed himself forever” was something else.

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Even after he retired and had a stroke, Andy Voto would lean on his walker and say to the TV cameras, “Trantino, I hate your guts, and I’ll follow you to the grave.”

Rebellious Prisoner in a Tempestuous Era

Trantino was rebellious through the ‘60s, his death row years, and was often thrown in the hole for breaking rules. He refused to cut his wildly curling hair and wrote stream-of-consciousness letters to his lawyers or authorities. The old-style hood morphed into a jailhouse Yippie prankster.

One letter requested an eight-foot flag for his cell and a recording of Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.” Trantino complained that “the world is falling apart at the seams, crime is rampant and sex is running all over the streets. All authority have broke down . . . Law and order (with equality and justice for all, of course) is on the wane.” A prison supervisor wrote back commending his “show of patriotism.”

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About the time the death penalty was thrown out, Trantino’s letters and Picasso-esque drawings were published by Knopf under the title “Lock the Lock.”

It was a time when books by inmates were in vogue, from Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” to the novels of France’s Jean Genet. The life of crime was often portrayed as a reflection of society and prison conditions as a mirror of oppression outside. Trantino became friends with another New Jersey inmate, boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose autobiography would proclaim his innocence well before his conviction was, in fact, thrown out.

But any efforts to present authorship as evidence of an inmate’s worthiness for freedom suffered a fatal blow when Norman Mailer and others touted the brilliance of Utah killer Jack Abbott, whose letters became “In the Belly of the Beast.” Abbott was feted in New York after his 1981 release--then stabbed a man to death.

Public attitudes were in flux. By 1988, George Bush would win the presidency in part by blaming Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for Willie Horton, a convicted killer who raped a woman while on a furlough. After that, it was a brave politician who argued for release of any killer.

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Caught in the Web of State Parole Board

Trantino became eligible for parole in 1979. He was 41 and no longer quite the rebel.

After earning “full minimum” status, he was assigned to an honor camp, where he was trusted enough to escort young offenders--69 times--on work and recreation details. On a trip to the beach, he saved a girl struggling in the surf. Later, the New Jersey Supreme Court said he had “no rules infractions since 1970,” no alcohol or drug violations and had “completed 17 programs designed to enable him to help fellow inmates.”

Trantino’s prison record would have been irrelevant under the life-without-parole sentence coming into style. But he had been resentenced under old statutes that downplayed retribution in favor of “reformation and rehabilitation.”

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In fact, in order to keep him in prison, New Jersey had the burden of showing “a substantial likelihood” he would commit a crime if released. Otherwise, he was supposed to go free.

One by one, the others reprieved off death row were paroled under that criteria. Not Trantino.

The Parole Board did vote 3-2 to release him in 1980, provided he pay restitution to the families. They wanted no part of such a deal. Police groups were outraged also. Rumors circulated that the dead men had been sexually mutilated--or urinated on--though there was no evidence of such. The board changed its mind, nonetheless: Trantino would have to serve another 10 years to satisfy “punitive aspects” of his sentence.

But Trantino was assured that would be it. Unless he exhibited “aberrant behavior,” the board chairman said, “we are now looking at a day when you will be released.”

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He wasn’t, though. His next time back, the board decided he needed more drug counseling.

His next time, they hit him with a Catch-22. The board agreed that he had, in fact, reached his “rehabilitative potential” in prison--it merely needed to see how he did in a halfway house. The catch? Prison officials refused to send him to one.

One parole official suggested he sue. “You’ve done what you’ve needed to do,” the man said. “This case has never been treated the same way as any other.”

Only in 1995 did the corrections department explain its refusal to send him to a less-secure facility: “Letters ... warning that Mr. Trantino would be killed.”

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When the state Supreme Court found the explanation inadequate, Trantino was moved to a screening center. That’s when Gov. Christine Todd Whitman declared her “surprise” and urged the attorney general to review the transfer. He ordered a new psychological exam of the inmate who’d had dozens.

The state Legislature passed its first law inspired by the case in 1996, abolishing parole for anyone who kills a police officer. Another in 2000 took away any chance of parole to any murderer whose death sentence was overturned in the future. “No more Trantinos!” was the cry.

The state was not through trying to hold the real one, either. Parole officials went back over every piece of paper on him, from his work record as a 7-year-old to reports by his former wife that he abused her in 1963. Suddenly the board had five new grounds to deny release, including his failure to deal with the domestic violence 37 years earlier. It also cited his “history of being less than candid” about events in the Angel Lounge.

During his trial, Trantino testified that he was high on Dexedrine and double shots of whiskey and could not remember the shootings. He didn’t believe witnesses who said he shot Voto. “I was never a killer, no way,” he kept saying even a decade after his trial. “I played the role of the tough guy. That just wasn’t me.”

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Later on, even his lawyer told him how offensive his stance was. “He made his sound like he was a victim,” Lowenstein said, “when no matter how you looked at it, he was responsible for both murders.”

Though Trantino never changed his story that the night was largely blacked out to him, by 1999 he was almost going overboard in professing his guilt.

“Yes, I shot and killed both men,” he told the parole board.

“You’re sure?” he was asked.

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“I am sure.”

For the board, this became “inconsistent testimony,” one more reason to keep him.

When the case came before the state Supreme Court a final time, Deputy Atty. Gen. Howard McCoach told the justices that Trantino appeared to be a “charming, beguiling, charismatic” man but was “a schemer, a plotter, a manipulator.

The families however, could sense what was coming after those Sept. 25, 2000 arguments. Tedesco’s mother sat in a wheelchair, holding a painting of her dead boy while one of Voto’s sons reminded reporters of another New Jersey inmate and author, Edgar Smith. He won his release and moved to California, where he stabbed a woman.

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“He’s a caged animal,” Jerry Voto said of Trantino. “If they want to go by the letter of the law--12 people found him guilty and he was supposed to be executed.”

Later, the court was respectful of such emotions as it ordered Trantino’s transfer to a halfway house for a year, and then parole.

“We do not underestimate the pain and anguish that our disposition is likely to cause,” the 4-1 decision said. But he should have been free years earlier, it concluded.

“No matter how great the pressure, agencies of government cannot ignore the law in special cases,” the court wrote. “At its core, this case is more about the rule of law than it is about Thomas Trantino.”

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Andy Voto was not well enough to make the hearing. He admitted to fantasizing, though, about running into his brother’s killer. “I can’t say it didn’t pass through my mind in the heat of the thing. But vengeance takes a different position in your life as time goes by,” the retired chief said.

“I would be as bad as him if I went there and killed him in cold blood.”

His living room wall reminds him of the daughter and brother he lost. He wouldn’t want to miss seeing them in heaven.

Resuming His Life After 39 Years in Custody

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Trantino knows there’s little he can say to the families. Words “can’t bring back the person they love. And that’s what they want.”

He said he feels like the mythological character whom Camus writes of in “The Myth of Sisyphus” whose plight is to push a boulder to the top of a mountain only to see it fall back, then have to do it again, for eternity.

“Sisyphus was being punished for his sins. But Camus says he finds his freedom when he’s coming down the mountain, to roll it up again.” Trantino tries to stay “coming down the mountain ... in the freedom of the moment.”

The state announced his release date as Tuesday, but that was to keep spectators away. He went on parole a day earlier, his 64th birthday. He was a free man, technically, when he carried his laptop out the door of the halfway house that morning. He will begin work Monday as a counselor for young offenders.

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A good diet has kept his weight at 185 pounds, he said, same as when he went in at 25. He meditates.

He will be on parole the rest of his life with a slew of restrictions, including no alcohol, no bars and no going to Bergen County, where Lodi is located. If they catch him in the smallest violation, he knows, he’ll be back in.

His mother is dead, but he hopes to see his father, who is 89 and in a nursing home. He may eventually settle in Staten Island, near other family. One of his favorite sayings is “Happy spring!,” so he wants to hear the birds and see the flowers.

He has an invitation to produce an art show in Tokyo if he’s ever allowed to leave the country. He wants to visit California, where Lowenstein has put aside scriptwriting to open a “social justice” charter school for poor children, many from homeless shelters.

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But his more immediate plans were modest: “To see my parole officer and do what my parole officer tells me to do. Then I’m going to continue my life. Just be a better person every day.

“There’s nothing to celebrate.”


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