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The Officer Behind 'City' Tells of a Life Altered by Crimes

Film is based on former Officer Vincent LaMarca, whose father, son were convicted for deaths.

September 05, 2002|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Shoot to kill, that's what we think cops are trained to do. But once, Officer Vincent LaMarca came upon a gang rape along a Long Island boardwalk. First he knocked down two of the guys. Then he pulled his gun--and fired a warning shot into the air. The other two culprits stopped in their tracks. All were apprehended.

This is the Vincent LaMarca upon whose story "City by the Sea" is based, and yet--since movies are movies--there are significant differences, as well as parallels.

For one thing, killing another human being is not as easy as it appears on the screen. LaMarca, 55, served 20 years on the police force of Long Beach, N.Y., and believes that until confronted with a life-threatening situation, "you don't know exactly what you would do. I let a warning shot go in the air, and I'm very grateful that it did its job."

"I had a good friend who killed somebody in a shootout," he explains. "This was a tough cop, but it bothered him; he was physically shaken by this."

LaMarca, too, has been shaken up by killing--but not by his own hand. When he was 9, his father, Angelo LaMarca, was convicted of murder in the death of a child he kidnapped; 40 years later his own son Joey was arrested for stabbing a man to death.

The movie borrows this premise, with LaMarca played by Robert De Niro, now a New York City detective who's investigating a murder--which happens to have been committed by his estranged son, Joey (James Franco), a strung-out drug addict. The movie LaMarca has to face up to his own fatherly responsibilities--after avoiding them for most of his son's life.

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In Los Angeles on a press tour, Vincent LaMarca is a burly, medium-sized man with a smooth bullet of a head, a neatly trimmed beard, and large, metal-framed glasses. Wearing jeans and a Harley Davidson leather vest, his biker's arms gesture as he talks.

He has a tough-guy exterior, but he is a thoughtful man--one who's spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the family tragedies that have bookended his life.

He wishes he had been a better father. He and Joey's mother were separated in 1975 and, as the film indicates, it was under acrimonious circumstances.

"I walked out," LaMarca admits. Also accurate is Joey's drug addiction. By 15, the boy was smoking crack daily and was in and out of trouble.

Vincent LaMarca wonders whether it would have made a difference if he had been more available. He knows he cherishes the memories of his own father, despite what he did.

In 1956, Angelo LaMarca, married with two young children living in Plainview, N.Y., found himself $1,800 in debt--$400 of that to a loan shark. One day, driving through a more affluent neighborhood, the taxi dispatcher who also had a job at a moving company had the devil of an idea--he decided to kidnap a baby left outside in his carriage. In a ransom note, he demanded $2,000 to be left at a designated drop-off point. When time came, Angelo was spooked by the cops and abandoned the baby in the woods.

To the family, the crime was unfathomable. Vincent LaMarca remembers his father as a caring, loving man. "We were dirt poor, but there was a lot of love in the family."

As a child, Vincent had been stricken with polio, and every morning and evening for a year, his father would bathe him and massage his legs. "He wouldn't accept the doctors telling my parents I'd never walk right again."

Seven weeks after the kidnapping, Angelo was arrested and confessed.

The kidnapping was a sensation, as was the trial; the conviction came quickly. Nine-year-old Vincent did feel "some guilt, specifically wondering if my medical bills had something to do with it."

For the two years Angelo was on death row at Sing Sing, he and his wife wrote one another daily. She would also visit weekly, sometimes with Vincent in tow. All the letters came to Vincent when he was 21, when his mother died--more than 1,500 pieces of mail, he says. At the time LaMarca could not bring himself to read them all.

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Vincent LaMarca joined the police force of Long Beach, more out of circumstance than design, he says. Still, he was dedicated to his job and eventually moved up to the position of executive officer, the No. 2 spot on the force.

Not once in his 20 years of service was his father's record held against him, he says, and he still glows with pride at having been a member of that fraternity. "They were a very special breed of people," he says.

Joey was the second son of LaMarca's first marriage. The police were onto him shortly after the stabbing--an act of revenge. The police caught Joey in Texas. In the film, the murder occurs over a drug deal gone awry and Joey kills the crazed dealer in self-defense.

An even bigger difference is that the movie LaMarca investigates the murder whereas the real LaMarca had by then retired with his second wife and three stepchildren to Florida.

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