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Picture-Perfect Family's Life Included Heroin--Then Death : New York: The Marbacks lived on the Upper West Side, in a nice apartment with two nice children. An overdose betrayed their secret.

August 20, 1995|RICK HAMPSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — The mile up Amsterdam Avenue from 83rd Street to 106th is about the longest in America. It begins in the hip, comfortable Upper West Side, land of Zabar's and the Museum of Natural History, and winds up in a shabby crossroads where drug dealers wait for cabs bearing yuppies.

Richard and Patricia Marback lived at this mile's southern terminus, in a nice apartment in a nice building with two nice children.

She was the kind who'd hold the elevator with a smile while you got your mail. He was the kind who'd get you something if he was going to H&H, the famous bagel emporium on Broadway.

But when he stepped out the lobby door on Saturday, Aug. 5, Richard Marback was not crossing Broadway for bagels. He was heading north for heroin.

Twenty-four hours later, the love of his life was dead.

*

Everyone who knew the Marbacks--from the sister who slept in the bed next to hers for 15 years to the neighbor who knew him only by sight--describes their family the same way: picture-perfect.

She was 36, a stockbroker with red hair and a knack for names, dates and numbers.

Richard, founder of a medical journal, remained an avid rollerskater and biker despite the approach of his 40th birthday. At 6-2, with light, salt-and-pepper hair, he cut a strikingly athletic figure.

They had two children: Natasha, 8, a little blonde known to all as "Tashi" who had thrilled her parents by getting admitted to a public school for gifted students; and John, 2, who spent days at home with a baby-sitter.

You'd always see them together, loading the car for weekends in the Hamptons, or cycling to Central Park, or walking Henry, their handsome golden retriever.

They lived in a 16-story brick apartment house on West 83rd Street. Richard had moved in some 15 years ago, and Patricia had joined him.

Just before noon on Sunday, Aug. 6, the police were called to the building. Detective Joseph Waters took the elevator to the 14th floor, where Richard and the children met him at their door.

It was a beautiful place, a spacious contrast to the apartments that were subdivided after the war. The walls were covered with dozens of family photographs. There was a living room overlooking Broadway, and three bedrooms. In one, Patricia was dead of a heroin overdose.

Marback gave Waters two small bags of heroin. Then he led him to his dresser drawer, where the detective found a rolled-up dollar bill that had been used to snort another three bags' worth the night before.

As word spread through the building, the reaction was something like this: The Marbacks seemed like the perfect family, but we are not unsophisticated; we could understand what happened if it was marijuana or cocaine, or if the Marbacks had been at a party, or if they had no children.

But heroin? Copped at the edge of Harlem? Snorted in the apartment while the kids were home?

"It's inexplicable to everyone," said a neighbor, Maxwell Yerger.

Not to the police, who have been watching heroin, once the poor man's drug, make its way up the social ladder.

In the last decade, world opium production has quadrupled, driving heroin's price down and its purity up.

The white stuff now on the street is so strong that those leery of needles can inhale it, instead of injecting it. It's pure enough to intoxicate even veteran junkies; pure enough to lure recovering addicts; pure enough to kill a young mother at home in the safety of 222 W. 83rd.

*

Patty Winston was 15 the summer she met Richard Marback. They were both doing odd jobs at an optometry shop in Great Neck, N.Y., where Patty's family had moved when she was 6.

It was, they said, love at first sight, and their relationship endured--through high school and college, even though she studied psychology at Boston University and he went West to study business.

Both came back to New York and married in 1985. Patty rose to associate director at Bear Stearns & Co., selling stocks and bonds to what the firm describes as "high-net-worth individuals." They were, her sister says, "people you've heard of, people in Who's Who."

Richard told neighbors he'd been so successful selling ads for medical publications that he started his own.

They were well off, but not rich. Their income went into his business and to pay the usual Manhattan tariffs: the $3,000 monthly rent, baby-sitters, garages and all sorts of classes for Tashi, including horseback riding at an academy on Long Island.

Their personal lives seemed as successful as their professional ones.

Richard struck acquaintances as happy and uncomplicated. "He loved being married," said Robert Sawyer, who moved into the Marbacks' one-bedroom apartment when they moved upstairs. "Some married men seem to envy me because I'm single, but Richard would say, 'Robert, it's time you got married.' "

On the Upper West Side, with its cast of singles and loners, eccentrics and non-conformists, the Marbacks seemed almost absurdly wholesome, "the sort of people with whom Newt Gingrich would like to repopulate America," as one neighbor put it.

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