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

January 10, 1988|BILL CHRISTINE | Times Staff Writer

ATTICA, N.Y. — 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.

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