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Parole battle pits Sinatra family against killer of singer’s right-hand man

Jilly Rizzo had spent hours preparing for his 75th birthday party, a soiree the next day that was to include his friend Frank Sinatra and other Rat Pack luminaries. A few minutes after midnight, he got into a white Jaguar and headed for his girlfriend’s house.

As his car slowly crossed Gerald Ford Drive, Rizzo probably didn’t see the Mercedes blazing down the rain-slick street. The driver was Jeffrey Perrotte, a 28-year-old alcoholic, a local man with a rap sheet of DUIs who had the papers for court-ordered alcohol rehabilitation sitting in the glove box of his car.

The Mercedes struck the right side of Rizzo’s car, which burst into flames. Perrotte climbed out of the Mercedes and did something that is hard to imagine, even nearly two decades later: He ran home as Rizzo burned to death.

The 1992 collision and resulting murder trial gripped this affluent, star-studded community. Today it pits the Riverside County district attorney’s office, angry members of Rizzo’s family and Sinatra’s heirs against an inmate serving a life sentence who begs forgiveness, hoping to one day return to his wife and four children.

It’s a story of the devastating toll of drunk driving, but also a modern-day parable of loss, celebrity and one man’s quest for redemption.

A few weeks ago, Perrotte sat stiffly in a windowless conference room at the sprawling state prison in the San Joaquin Valley town of Corcoran, facing two members of the parole board. He is 46 years old now, a tall, tanned and muscular man with neatly trimmed graying hair. He has served 18 years of a life sentence for second-degree murder and has been turned down for parole three times. This was his fourth try.

“Would it be fair for you to spend the rest of your life in prison?” asked Lea Ann Chrones, a former San Quentin corrections officer and the senior parole board commissioner hearing the case.

The inmate considered the question. “I would think,” he said, pausing again before continuing. “I would think yes, it would be fair if I had to spend the rest of my life in prison. I can’t begin to comprehend what it was like for Mr. Rizzo’s family. They got a phone call that I had killed their father. It would certainly be fair.”

The string of desert communities that stretches southeast from Palm Springs, framed by stark mountains and sparkling in 354 days of sunshine a year, has been the playground of the well-heeled since World War II. Rancho Mirage, population 12,000, was once home to Walter Annenberg, President Gerald Ford, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Ed McMahon, among others.

Two decades ago, Frank and Barbara Sinatra were living in what people here called “the compound,” a collection of bungalows on the 17th fairway at Tamarisk Country Club. Rizzo, one of Sinatra’s closest pals, lived across the golf course, a half-mile away on Tamarisk Lane.

Rizzo had grown up in New York’s Greenwich Village and worked as a bouncer in various nightclubs until opening his own, Jilly’s, in midtown Manhattan. He met Sinatra at the Copacabana in 1956, and soon the pair were inseparable.

Sinatra liked the way Rizzo handled himself, which was with his fists if the situation required it. For three decades, Rizzo often accompanied Sinatra on tour, acting as his confidant and gatekeeper. Sinatra spent so much time at Jilly’s nightclub that Rizzo installed a private toilet for him.

Their circle of friends in the desert and on the road included the rest of the Rat Pack — Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. — as well as other singers and comedians of the era.

Rizzo made cameo appearances on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” the 1960s comedy show on which he delivered deadpan lines in his thick New York accent. Sinatra immortalized Rizzo’s nightclub in the lyrics to “Star!” “If they’ve got a drink with her name in Jilly’s bar, the chances are the lady’s a star.”

By 1962, Rizzo had become “Dad’s right-hand man,” according to Sinatra’s daughter Nancy in her biography of her dad. It was a label that stuck: Sinatra’s right-hand man.

On May 5, 1992, Rizzo was busy at home with a friend, cooking his favorite Italian sausage for the next day’s party, at which 80 guests were expected in his backyard. Late that night, he left for the Mission Hills Country Club complex, where he planned to stay with his girlfriend.

Perrotte was a few miles away, emceeing a Rotary Club fundraiser. Toward the end of the evening, he drank several beers, got into his car and headed for home in a downpour, the first rain in months in the parched valley.

Perrotte and his three young children from a previous marriage were living with his girlfriend, Michelle Churis. Earlier that day, Perrotte had telephoned her father, Ed Lambert, and told him that they planned to get married.

“I know you don’t like the idea, but we’re going to do it,” Lambert recalled Perrotte saying.

Lambert didn’t like the idea at all. “I thought he was a cocky, arrogant guy,” Lambert said. “My wife and I weren’t really happy with the situation.”

Rizzo, who was nearly blind in one eye from an accident years earlier, came to a stop sign and then began to cross the four-lane Gerald Ford Drive, toward the gated entrance to the country club.

Perrotte, who didn’t have a stop sign, approached from Rizzo’s right at a speed well above the 50 mph limit. (The state’s expert said he was going 85 mph; a defense expert said it was about 60.)

When the Mercedes struck Rizzo’s car, a Mission Hills guard raced to the flaming wreckage with two fire extinguishers — neither worked. Witnesses recalled hearing Rizzo cry out for help.

Perrotte’s car came to stop about a hundred yards away, and he ran the few remaining blocks to his home. He returned to the scene with his girlfriend, who told police she had been driving.

The police, noticing air-bag abrasions on Perrotte’s forearms, were skeptical. Later tests confirmed that he was the driver and that his 0.13 blood alcohol level was over the legal limit. A year later, a Riverside County jury convicted Perrotte, and a judge sentenced him to 15 years to life.

Not long after the trial, singer Frankie Avalon was having a drink with Sinatra.

“When Frank got to talking about his friend, Jilly, he broke down,” Avalon said, according to “Jilly! Sinatra’s Right-hand Man” by Scott Allen Nollen. “He was devastated. He just couldn’t get over the fact that Jilly had gone.”

Rizzo was buried next to the Sinatra family plot in Desert Memorial Park, where Sonny Bono and Betty Hutton are also interred. Rizzo’s marble gravestone is just steps from that of his friend Francis Albert Sinatra, who died in 1998 at age 82.

In prison, Perrotte joined Alcoholics Anonymous, became a substance abuse counselor and earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from a correspondence university. He wrote dozens of letters to alcohol abuse organizations and set up a website to tell his story in the hope, he said, that others wouldn’t make the same mistakes he made.

He married Churis shortly after the crash, and she raised his three children to adulthood. Their daughter, who was 6 weeks old when her father went to prison, will enter college this fall.

Over time, his father-in-law became Perrotte’s strongest advocate. A towering, 76-year-old retired accountant and former college fullback, Lambert has spent more than $100,000 on Perrotte’s defense. They talk daily.

“He’s come to an understanding of what happened and why,” Lambert said, sitting in his home on the 18th fairway of Mission Hills Country Club. “There’s been an enormous change in Jeff. It didn’t just appear this year; it appeared over a number of years.”

Perrotte came up for parole in 2002 and again in 2005 and 2008. Each time he had a file full of testimonials from prison guards, counselors and even, twice, the judge who sentenced him. Each time, he was denied parole.

“What we’ve been dealing with all along,” Lambert said, “has been the hidden hand of the Sinatras.”

Before his parole hearing in June, Perrotte had collected dozens of letters of support. Among them there were two new names: Rizzo’s sons, Joey and Willy.

“Sometimes you have to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” said Joey Rizzo, 62, speaking by telephone from his home in Florida. “My father was the type of guy that you could do him wrong and if you needed something four days later, he’d give it to you. So we just decided to get closure. Hopefully, he’s learned his lesson,” he said of Perrotte.

Jilly Rizzo’s daughter, Abby, and her daughter Kacey Cotten, haven’t been swayed, though.

“My grandfather was slammed into by a three-time drunk driver … and left alone to burn to death,” Cotten said in an e-mail. “We don’t care about their PR campaign. We know the truth.”

Sinatra’s family stands with Cotten and her mother. In a letter to the board, Nancy Sinatra said that the thought of Perrotte being freed “is too painful to bear.”

“My friend … roasted to death, all the while fully aware of what was happening to him,” she wrote. “The images … still cause great stress for all of us.”

Perrotte told the board that he was deeply sorry and promised to spend the rest of his life offering himself as an example of the deadly consequences of alcohol abuse.

Asked why he fled the scene of the accident, he said: “I was so self-centered and selfish and such a coward that by the time I got out of my car, the only person I was thinking of was myself.” Later, he added: “I’ve been waiting 18 years to make amends to everybody I’ve harmed.”

Judy Buck, an assistant district attorney, argued against parole. His actions at the accident scene showed “a grotesque attitude toward a human being,” she said.

When Commissioner Chrones delivered her decision, seven hours had passed on the Timex clock affixed to the hearing room wall. She said that Perrotte had shown sorrow and regret but that he had not yet shown sufficient remorse or insight into how his abuse of alcohol had led to the crime.

Parole was denied. His next chance will be in 2013.

Speaking by telephone from prison a few weeks later, Perrotte said he was “still a bit numb.”

“But the first thing I have to realize is that I’m not the victim,” he said. “I shouldn’t have been drinking and driving. I murdered an innocent human being.”

“The hardest part of the entire parole proceeding,” he added, “is coming back and calling Michelle and the kids and telling them that they will continue to suffer as a result of my actions of two decades ago. That breaks my heart the most.”

scott.kraft@latimes.com


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