LODI, N.J. — 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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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?
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.
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?
"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.