Sleuth-blog by Joyce Keller Walsh by Joyce Keller Walsh - Read Online

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Summary

What would you do if a friend tells you he can identify the killer in an old murder case? Would you advise him to go to the police? But what if the police were involved? And what if the victim was a well-known antique dealer...and firearms seller? And what if the Mafia were implicated? Would you walk away from the story? But what if you were a mystery writer? This is the true story of the author's two-year investigation of a 1969 unsolved murder in Fall River, Massachusetts. Written in blog form (that's like a journal to those outside the blogosphere), the reader follows along, step by step, as the author uncovers information about the case. The reader and author arrive at a surprising conclusion together.
Published: Whiskey Creek Press on
ISBN: 9781611603200
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1970

Preface

What would you do if a friend tells you he can identify the killer in an old murder case?

Would you advise him to go to the police?

But what if the police were involved?

You ought to look into it, he says.

Why me?

The last question is the one I repeatedly ponder. After all, I’m no detective. I have no credentials beyond authoring a few mystery novels.

And yet, what is more compelling than Life and Death? Especially to a writer.

So, this is the story of my own investigation of a 1969 unsolved murder in Fall River, Massachusetts. I suppose it will reveal as much about me as it does the investigation, and perhaps I shall make some discoveries through each. Written in blog form (that’s like a journal to those outside the blogosphere), the reader will follow along with me as I uncover information about the case, and we will arrive at some conclusion together...whatever that may be.

July 2, 2009

The names of public officials and public persona are represented accurately;names of private individuals have been altered.

Chapter 1

The Tipping Point

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

A man leans across the small table covered in cracked red-vinyl to tell me in a low voice the details of a murder that occurred forty years ago—about which, apparently, only he still cares. The case was never solved.

But, he finishes, leaning back with a satisfied nod, "I know who did it."

Between us are white plastic plates filled with homemade tabouleh, hummus, baba ganouj, gyro slices of seasoned lamb, alongside a basket of fresh-baked pita bread still warm from the oven. In the background, Casbah music interweaves with the exotic aromas of a Lebanese kitchen, evoking hot foreign lands and jostling bazaars with mounds of fragrant multi-colored spices: cumin, cardamom, nutmeg, turmeric. A floor fan whirrs, flailing the hot dry air.

The setting is not a middle-Eastern marketplace, however, but rather a small eatery in Fall River, Massachusetts. Joe’s Kabob. Behind the counter, the middle-aged mustachioed owner smiles unctuously at us and barks orders in Arabic to his sturdy wife at the stove. Without looking up, she cooks vengefully, letting the sizzle and steam answer him back.

I’ve never been to the Middle East. My exotic images of the Casbah come from old movies. Friends who have traveled there, however, tell me it is less than cinematic. Sweaty, dirty, crowded with tourists, overrun with jostling beggars and clamoring vendors. There it is, the eternal gap between the fanciful and the actual. I shouldn’t still be surprised at these realities of life but I’ve always been a cup-half-full type. Full of what, however?

Umm, I’ll leave that deliberation for later.

Continuing on about the murder, my companion tells me about police involvement in the death of Russell Goldstein and the underbelly of corruption during that era. It was commonly known back then, he tells me, that Fall River was like Dodge City.

Sam is in his sixties, with slicked-back gray hair and a Robert Duvall sort of demeanor. When he was in his mid-twenties, he was the property manager for a run-down boarding house and seedy bar on Main Street in Fall River across from a cluttered storefront, RussGold Sporting Goods. The owner, Russell Goldstein, known as RussGold after the name of his store, was the murder victim. And Sam’s friend.

Goldstein was a renowned coin collector and antiques dealer, and arguably the largest dealer of firearms from Providence to Boston. In the 1960s, he had a clientele both legitimate and...shall we say...shady? He sold art and antiques to well-heeled customers, high-end auction houses, private collectors, and even the Smithsonian. He sold guns to whomever.

Despite their difference in age, young Sam and the forty-four-year-old Goldstein were close. In appearance, they made an unlikely pair. Although both tall, Goldstein was obese and fleshy, not particularly attractive, a little slovenly; Sam, the opposite. But temperamentally they clicked. Goldstein was well read, articulate, savvy, and he loved women; Sam likewise. RussGold was a likeable bachelor who was generous to his ladies of the night; Sam was married, not married, married, not married, never at a loss for a pretty consort.

They would meet after work every Friday night, drive ten or so miles to the Newport Creamery in Seekonk where RussGold would have his usual Awful Awful ice cream drink (awful big, awful good), and afterwards they’d go bar-hopping for adult beverages. This was their routine for years.

Then, one winter night, when RussGold was alone in his small apartment, he was shot multiple times by person or persons unknown. He died where he sat in his armchair. There was no forced entry against the fortified door. No suspects. No modern forensics. No one was ever convicted.

Yet, even as Sam is talking, I’m wondering—although I set up this meeting—why I should care. It happened a very long time ago. I didn’t know the victim nor do I have any personal connection to Fall River. And while I have written several mystery novels, I am definitely not Nancy Drew.

Nevertheless, the food is exquisite. We tear off pieces of pita and dip them into the smoky roasted-eggplant paste, then the creamy garlicky hummus, and then the sharp slightly-vinegary tabouleh comprised of bulgar, parsley, tomato, and onion. But I’m thinking with each bite that none of this has anything to do with me.

Still, here is an acquaintance of mine, actually more of my husband’s than mine, with information that no one else has about this fatal event. Sam—who once owned a nightclub, killed a man attempting to kill him, and acquired not only a college education but certification in a variety of construction skills—is what genuine investigative journalists call a primary source. An exclusive source. That appeals to me, the idea that I have privileged information.

I have secret visions of being the one who solves the crime. This, I know, is a vanity. But we’d all like to distinguish ourselves in some way, wouldn’t we? Sometimes it is our expectations of ourselves (or those we care about) that lead us to make reckless or even irrational decisions in the name of fame, fortune, or fun. I’m not immune to this.

But what also appeals to me is the idea of resolution, if there is such a thing. We human beings live in mystery—to paraphrase Lewis Thomas—not knowing our origins, our purpose, our beginning or ending. Not knowing how the universe works or even our own cells. Here, perhaps, is an opportunity to solve something unsolved.

Perhaps there is a little Nancy Drew in me. Or Miss Marple, more like it.

So I continue to listen. And eat. Love to eat.

Hooked

Technically, my first encounter with the Russell Goldstein case occurred about a month earlier. It began with a conversation I overheard between Sam and another man as they compared their Fall River growing-up experiences one evening at the Berkley American Legion Post.

Berkeley, as in California? you may ask. No. Definitely not. No. This is Berkley (only two e’s, not three), Massachusetts. Although not so far apart in latitude, these two continental opposites are as far apart in longitude as they are in lifestyle.

Berkley, Massachusetts is a rural/residential town some thirteen or so miles north of Fall River, forty-plus miles south of Boston, thirty-plus miles east of Providence, and a world apart from each. It lies in the heart of what once was all Wampanoag land. After years of petitioning the federal government, the Wampanoags have recently been recognized as an authentic tribe. They are an authentic tribe although some current tribal members may be rather dubious descendants. There is a move afoot for the Wampanoags to build a casino on tribe-owned land in the nearby town of Middleborough. In this, the Commonwealth faces a dilemma—whether to rescind its prohibition of casino gambling, or to continue to watch precious gaming revenue flow to adjacent states. We already have a state lottery, scratch tickets, and racetrack betting-parlors; thus, the camel’s nose, so to speak, is already under the Puritanical tent.

Separated from the City of Taunton a century after its founding (no one knows why anymore and some residents want to reunite for fiscal reasons, Taunton being only slightly less broke than its offspring), Berkley covers about seventeen square miles in the southeastern part of the Commonwealth. Hardly anyone outside this area has even heard of it. With a population of less than six thousand at the last census, it has just a blink of a town center, two churches—but no high school, no post office, no supermarket, no newspaper, no motels and, until recently, no zoning. (There was a hell of an uproar last year when the town voted for special area-zoning that would allow X-rated businesses, but thus far none have felt it profitable to move in, and Berkley remains PG.) What Berkley does have, however, is rural charm and the only watering hole for miles around: the American Legion Post. ("It’s a club not a bah," say the members.)

My husband John and I live within walking distance from the Legion Post, but actually over the town line in Lakeville. Lakeville is roughly double Berkley’s size and double in population, and almost as rural—no supermarket, sidewalks, water and sewer, or actual town center, but we do have a post office and, yes, zoning.

The concept of zoning is interesting. As is the whole concept of land ownership and ownership in general. (Yeegods, I just had a flashback to my high school hygiene teacher—yeah, we did have them back in the day—who told us that when we cut off our fingernails the clippings still belonged to us, and she called it propria. What an incalculable amount of trivia gets stored in the brain!) In Boston, for example, as in other wintry cities I expect, although you don’t own the street in front of your house, if you shovel out your car after a snowstorm, that space is yours, dammit. Usufruct. And while you have to pay taxes to the municipality for the land which you own, the town government can prohibit you from doing certain things on your own land—filling in cranberry bogs, for example; erecting a building without a permit; accumulating too many unregistered cars; dancing naked in the yard (no, I didn’t)(not exactly). All in all, we don’t own land so much as lease it with covenants.

In researching zoning once upon a time, I read that the original reason for zoning was to keep like with like. The example used was, You wouldn’t put a refrigerator in your bathroom, would you? Well, why not, if you wanted it there? I’ve seen houses in various parts of the country with refrigerators on their front porches. Then there’s that whole thing about outhouses. But yes, zoning can be useful; as is the concept of land ownership—except for the coastline. California got that one right; Massachusetts didn’t.

Most of Southeastern Massachusetts used to be considered farm country somewhere down there at the bottom of the state, neither quite The Cape (all genuflect) nor the upscale South Shore, until the first commuter rail came and we were suddenly South Coast. If that sounds like a developer’s distinction, it probably is.

Like most of the small towns in the area, the housing market ballooned in the last ten to fifteen years until the 2008 economic downturn. The cap on increasing development, by most people’s reckoning around here, is the only good outcome of hard times. Development leads to overrides, higher taxes, more kids, less green space, harrumph.

When John and I arrived at the Legion that night, the bar was already rocking. Harry, a retired firefighter with a neatly trimmed white beard, was sitting heftily at the end of the bar under the television set tuned to ESPN. He was nursing a sweet Lambrusco wine. Next to him, Sam, pressed smartly from his new business venture as a buyer’s broker, was drinking his usual Guinness.

As I sit down on the only available stool, the two men to my right are already engaged in deep conversation. John stands beside me. We exchange greetings with everyone and soon John is engaged in banter with a man down the end of the bar. Conversation there ranges from What about the tomato blight? and Who’s growing Macombers? to Go stuff your butternuts. This is Cheers country-style.

Both Sam and Harry moved into this area from Fall River within the past decade. They didn’t know one another previously and remained relatively aloof at first. Evidently, the young thug whom Sam shot to death in self-defense in his nightclub some thirty years ago had been a friend of Harry’s. And although Harry admitted that the guy probably deserved what he got, he wasn’t keen to buddy up with his friend’s slayer.

A few drinks on a Saturday night will usually smooth discord or exacerbate it. Tonight, it’s the former.

The Legion, more comparable to a pub than a saloon, serves Monday night pizza, Friday night dinner, Sunday morning breakfast, and hosts raffles, holiday dinner-dances, antique car shows, clam bakes, pig roasts, chicken barbeques, and turkey shoots (that is, target-shooting with rifles for the prize of a frozen turkey; I once out-shot a local legend, my secret pride). Until the Legion bought the land adjacent to it for overflow parking, we used to joke that it was the only bar in which you could look out the window and see cows...for real.

I frequently accompany John to the Legion on a weekend night although I rarely drink alcohol. I had a workable tolerance for it when I was younger, but now it gives me headaches and hot flashes. (There are other food groups that I suddenly have problems with that didn’t exist before. Just more ways in which the aging process has been unkind.) This particular night, Franny is the bartender, and automatically brings me cans of diet soda as the evening wears on.

Sam and Harry’s conversation turns towards do-you-remember? With tacit permission, I listen to their reminiscences. Eventually, the topic of Russell Goldstein comes up. Both know there is a back-story to the famous murder.

Russell Goldstein, they tell me, was killed somewhere around the late 1960s or early 1970s; neither can remember precisely when. He was shot to death in his apartment. No one was ever found guilty of the murder but many thought the Fall River police were involved.

Of course the cops were involved, Harry asserts.

Sam nods and turns to me. You’re a writer; you should look into it.

Harry agrees. "It was all over The Providence Journal. It was the big news of the day."

They move on to other topics, but I remain curious. It’s not much to go on but, being between projects, it piques my interest enough to want to find out more.

I’ve just had my fourth novel published and finished the first draft of my next manuscript. I intend to begin a full-length play during the summer while I revise my completed manuscript, but I decide I can still do both while looking into this RussGold thing. Right?

The following Tuesday, I drive to the Providence Library in my usual circuitous fashion. My map tells me to exit Route I-95 onto Service Road 8, but Service Road 8 is unmarked and I obviously miss it. Two Massachusetts cities I simply cannot negotiate are Providence and Fall River; wouldn’t you just know it? I’m not so great in Cambridge either, but that’s mostly because of the parking. I got my driver’s license at sixteen in New Jersey, have driven half-way across the country and on all the cow-paths of Boston, but get me to the city line of Providence and I abandon myself to chance.

Dumb luck got me to downtown Providence, which is not unlike downtown Boston architecturally, at least the way Boston used to be before The Big Dig. Providence has a smaller population by two-thirds (one hundred and seventy-five thousand compared with Boston’s half-million-plus) and is less than one-fourth the total size of Boston (twenty square miles compared with about ninety, but nearly half of Boston is water). I guess that makes both cities roughly comparable in density. For whatever that means. (I was trained in epidemiology and am obsessive-compulsive about statistics.) I used to live in Boston but don’t really know Providence. Probably because I can’t find it half the time.

While both Boston and Providence may bear the founding imprint of God’s thumb, they also flaunt his ruby-ringed pinky finger. Along with a rich colonial, religious, and cultural history, each city has a notorious mob history. It’s probably fifty-fifty as to which history people know more about—the founders of the original colonies, or the famous modern mobsters. Providence had Raymond Il Patrone Patriarca, since deceased, of the Italian-American La Cosa Nostra (LCN); Boston had the now-fugitive James Whitey Bolger of the (predominantly) Irish-American Winter Hill gang. Most New Englanders know both of these mobsters’ names but I wonder how many can name the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony? John Winthrop. I’d hate to ask a teenager for fear s/he would say John F. Kennedy. Or Matt Damon. It’s a toss-up.

Both cities have also had a history of checkered governance: Providence had its Mayor Vincent Buddy Cianci Jr. who, despite serving time for racketeering, etc., is still beloved by many residents and currently hosts a popular radio and television show; Boston had its legendary Mayor James Michael Curley, who was returned to elective office in the first half of the twentieth century despite repeated indictments and imprisonment. The current mayor of Providence, David N. Cicilline, is the son of reputed mob attorney, John F. Cicilline, and brother of John M. Cicilline, the defense attorney incarcerated for sixteen months for extortion/protection and just recently released from federal detention facility Fort Devens, MA. New Englanders are a forgiving lot when they like someone.

Continuing on my blind tour of the city through Providence’s one-way streets, I finally happen upon the library, only a block or so away from Trinity Repertory Theatre. A good omen. And surprisingly, I find a parking spot.

This morning, the sidewalks are crowded with people walking to their destinations. Spring temperatures were cooler than usual this year, averaging only in the fifties, and this sunny seventy-degree weather has brought everyone outdoors, including lots of college students. I mean lots of them. Among local colleges, Providence boasts the ivy-league Brown University as well as Providence College (run by the Dominicans), the University of Rhode Island, and the artsy Rhode Island School of Design. Boston, however, has more colleges per square inch—from Boston University, Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts and many junior colleges, to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), School of Dentistry, and Medical School. The main Harvard University campus is in Cambridge, and Boston College (run by the Jesuits) is actually in Newton; oh well.

The sidewalk entrance to the Providence Public Library leads me through a computer room where an instructor is teaching word-processing to eight adults. The interior is not impressive in the way I expect, not like the New York Public Library or even the Boston Public Library. It’s a bit drab and dowdy.

As I exit the elevator on the second floor, I am instantly reminded of my old high school library...the aged oak furniture, faintly bookish smell, and low tech seems familiar and comfortable. I count two other people using the reference area. The earnest librarian, although willing, is unable to help me identify the exact date of Russell Goldstein’s murder—which neither Sam nor Harry could remember—from the hand-typed catalogue cards. She directs me to a reference room with four microfilm readers. An older woman overseer tells me that The Providence Journal (ProJo) is not indexed prior to the 1980s. I will have to search the reels of microfilm page by page, day by day, week by week, until I find the article reporting the incident.

It takes several punishing hours until I finally find the headline in The Providence Journal on December 21st 1969 that reads: Fall River Antique Dealer, Alleged Plot Target, Slain.

Reporter Randall Richard records the events of the previous day, i.e., Russell Goldstein, aged forty-four, of 420 South Main St., Fall River, was found slumped in a chair in his apartment on the morning of Saturday, December 20th by an unnamed woman who ran to the store across the street to tell the owner to call the police.

It was initially determined that Goldstein was shot at least three times—chest, hand, and the center of his left ear—by a .22 caliber pistol. Goldstein’s own snub-nose .38 was found on the floor behind him. There was three hundred dollars cash in his wallet and apparently nothing else had been taken. The police stated that there was no sign of forced entry.

The last person who reported seeing Goldstein alive at one o’clock in the morning was an unnamed female visitor (clearly, according to Sam, she was one of RussGold’s ladies of the night). He was discovered dead later in the morning by another unnamed woman who reportedly stopped in around nine o’clock to give him holiday greetings. Uh huh.

Christmas and Channukah were only days away. Also only days away, the first Nor’easter of the season, blowing in snow and sleet. Temperatures then were already hovering around the freezing point the night Goldstein was killed.

According to the newspaper, Goldstein’s murder followed the suspicious and violent deaths of three teenagers in Fall River who reputedly were among a group of his very close friends. These were:

Thomas Collins, age eighteen, who was arrested on a misdemeanor and on Sunday morning, July 19th, was found hanged by a belt hooked above a ten-foot-high cell door in the Fall River lock-up on Saturday night. Reportedly, he had no belt on his person, according to the two police officers who searched Collins before putting him in the jail cell. (Sam tells me later at our luncheon that the jailer that night informed him that the belt used as the noose was many sizes larger than Collins’ thin waist);

-Frank Cabral, age nineteen, who died on Sunday October 5th (a scarce three months before Goldstein) in an automobile crash as the passenger of John Wilson, who was apparently uninjured; and

-Normand Tremblay, age seventeen, who was found on Tuesday, October 14th, hanged in his own back yard from a tree with his hands behind him in handcuffs. Tremblay’s death was ruled a suicide by the associate medical examiner, Dr. Israel Rudolph, in what could only be considered a gymnastic contortion worthy of Houdini.

I immediately wonder what exactly is meant by very close friends. They are teenagers; Goldstein is in his forties and unmarried. But Sam tells me that RussGold’s relationship with them was strictly professional—they were thieves and they brought him their stolen goods to be fenced. Oh.

Sam then informs me that just seven months before Goldstein’s death, that previous May, a prior attempt had been made on the antique dealer’s life. The news article mentions this but does not give any of the details of the encounter. Sam says that Goldstein told him the following:

On the Saturday night of