Reporting from Rancho Mirage — Jilly Rizzo had spent hours preparing for his 75th birthday party, a soiree the next day that was to include his friend Frank Sinatra and other Rat Pack luminaries. A few minutes after midnight, he got into a white Jaguar and headed for his girlfriend's house.
As his car slowly crossed Gerald Ford Drive, Rizzo probably didn't see the Mercedes blazing down the rain-slick street. The driver was Jeffrey Perrotte, a 28-year-old alcoholic, a local man with a rap sheet of DUIs who had the papers for court-ordered alcohol rehabilitation sitting in the glove box of his car.
The Mercedes struck the right side of Rizzo's car, which burst into flames. Perrotte climbed out of the Mercedes and did something that is hard to imagine, even nearly two decades later: He ran home as Rizzo burned to death.
The 1992 collision and resulting murder trial gripped this affluent, star-studded community. Today it pits the Riverside County district attorney's office, angry members of Rizzo's family and Sinatra's heirs against an inmate serving a life sentence who begs forgiveness, hoping to one day return to his wife and four children.
It's a story of the devastating toll of drunk driving, but also a modern-day parable of loss, celebrity and one man's quest for redemption.
A few weeks ago, Perrotte sat stiffly in a windowless conference room at the sprawling state prison in the San Joaquin Valley town of Corcoran, facing two members of the parole board. He is 46 years old now, a tall, tanned and muscular man with neatly trimmed graying hair. He has served 18 years of a life sentence for second-degree murder and has been turned down for parole three times. This was his fourth try.
"Would it be fair for you to spend the rest of your life in prison?" asked Lea Ann Chrones, a former San Quentin corrections officer and the senior parole board commissioner hearing the case.
The inmate considered the question. "I would think," he said, pausing again before continuing. "I would think yes, it would be fair if I had to spend the rest of my life in prison. I can't begin to comprehend what it was like for Mr. Rizzo's family. They got a phone call that I had killed their father. It would certainly be fair."
The string of desert communities that stretches southeast from Palm Springs, framed by stark mountains and sparkling in 354 days of sunshine a year, has been the playground of the well-heeled since World War II. Rancho Mirage, population 12,000, was once home to Walter Annenberg, President Gerald Ford, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Ed McMahon, among others.
Two decades ago, Frank and Barbara Sinatra were living in what people here called "the compound," a collection of bungalows on the 17th fairway at Tamarisk Country Club. Rizzo, one of Sinatra's closest pals, lived across the golf course, a half-mile away on Tamarisk Lane.
Rizzo had grown up in New York's Greenwich Village and worked as a bouncer in various nightclubs until opening his own, Jilly's, in midtown Manhattan. He met Sinatra at the Copacabana in 1956, and soon the pair were inseparable.
Sinatra liked the way Rizzo handled himself, which was with his fists if the situation required it. For three decades, Rizzo often accompanied Sinatra on tour, acting as his confidant and gatekeeper. Sinatra spent so much time at Jilly's nightclub that Rizzo installed a private toilet for him.
Their circle of friends in the desert and on the road included the rest of the Rat Pack — Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. — as well as other singers and comedians of the era.
Rizzo made cameo appearances on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," the 1960s comedy show on which he delivered deadpan lines in his thick New York accent. Sinatra immortalized Rizzo's nightclub in the lyrics to "Star!" "If they've got a drink with her name in Jilly's bar, the chances are the lady's a star."
By 1962, Rizzo had become "Dad's right-hand man," according to Sinatra's daughter Nancy in her biography of her dad. It was a label that stuck: Sinatra's right-hand man.
On May 5, 1992, Rizzo was busy at home with a friend, cooking his favorite Italian sausage for the next day's party, at which 80 guests were expected in his backyard. Late that night, he left for the Mission Hills Country Club complex, where he planned to stay with his girlfriend.
Perrotte was a few miles away, emceeing a Rotary Club fundraiser. Toward the end of the evening, he drank several beers, got into his car and headed for home in a downpour, the first rain in months in the parched valley.
Perrotte and his three young children from a previous marriage were living with his girlfriend, Michelle Churis. Earlier that day, Perrotte had telephoned her father, Ed Lambert, and told him that they planned to get married.
"I know you don't like the idea, but we're going to do it," Lambert recalled Perrotte saying.