Post by Joanna on Oct 10, 2016 17:51:14 GMT -5
A Connection That Wasn’t Leaves Two Murders Unsolved
Fifty years ago, a mob mutt by the name of Gabriel “Johnny the Walk” DeFranco, 42, who lived on a beaten-down corner of Paterson, New Jersey, answered his doorbell for the last time. Around 1:30 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 6, 1966, after hearing a commotion, a neighbor peeked out and watched three men assault DeFranco on the porch of his apartment. He suddenly gasped, dropped to his knees and clawed at the door as the men hurried off. When police arrived, they found Johnny the Walk – nicknamed for his limping gait – dead of a slashed throat.
Hours before, DeFranco’s name had come up during a Passaic County grand jury examination of another murder – that of Judith Kavanaugh, a young Clifton woman killed the previous February. The two homicides – connected by a cast of murky witnesses mustered by a fishy investigator – became one of the state’s most baffling true crime rat’s nests. Daily News wordsmith Henry Lee labeled it a “New Jersey phantasmagoria.” Passaic prosecutor John Thevos called the imbroglio “bizarre and weird.” This was in part because Thevos’ bullish chief investigator, Joseph Muccio, couldn’t come up with a single motive. Instead, he linked the murders to a fistful of scandalous but vague subplots: a wife-swapping club, amateur porno shoots, infidelity, counterfeiting, corruption, and for good measure, homosexuality. “It’s a keg of dynamite,” Muccio whispered to salivating scribes.
Judith Kavanaugh, 21, was last seen alive on Thursday, Feb. 24, 1966, when she drove her husband, Paul, to his graveyard-shift trucking job in Garfield, 10 minutes from their Clifton apartment. Her 1962 Corvair was later found in the Ironbound section of Newark, doused with gas and set on fire. Seventeen days later, a dog-walker found Mrs. Kavanaugh’s body dumped in a Garden State Parkway gully barely 100 yards from home. She had been shot twice in the head and was nude below the waist, her high heels and cat-eye glasses tossed nearby. Police assumed it was a sex murder, though an autopsy showed no signs of rape.
Prosecutor Thevos placed the case in the gnarly hands of Muccio, a protégé of Joe Bozzo, Passaic’s Republican bigshot. Heeding the homicide playbook, Muccio cast a gimlet eye on the husband. Paul and Judith Kavanaugh were sweethearts at Clifton High, where she was a top graduate. They married young and he went to work as a driver for Matzner Publications, owner of Wayne Today and 22 other small newspapers. Muccio mucked about and learned that Paul Kavanaugh was sneaking around with another woman. He also discovered the Kavanaughs had a fling with their downstairs neighbors during a New Year’s Eve bacchanal eight weeks before she disappeared. The zealous investigator leaked flimsy details, stretching the truth to multiply the one-night four-way into an inveterate nooky club.
Meanwhile, the gumshoe assembled a clutch of jailbirds eager to add mortar to the gaps of his many stories. A grand jury was impaneled and the detective’s snitches – a jailed stickup man, a junkie and a habitual writer of rubber checks – told all they knew – and perhaps a little more. The show-stopper was the check-kiter, Jacqueline Natoli, 31, an East Rutherford divorcée with a towering platinum bouffant. She told a stupefying tale. Natoli claimed her pal DeFranco was counterfeiting with Paul Kavanaugh and Harold Matzner Jr., 31, an executive with the family newspaper chain. The gang, she said, would send Judith Kavanaugh and Matzner’s wife, Dorothie Kreuger, to Roosevelt and Yonkers raceways to bet funny money on the ponies and collect payouts of legit cash. She said Mrs. Kavanaugh, miffed about Paul’s affair, threatened to squeal, so she was ferried to Matzner’s home in Denville, where DeFranco shot her, then dumped her partially-stripped body in Clifton to make it look like a sex crime. And, she added, DeFranco was murdered because the gang feared he would become a stool pigeon.
Based largely on Natoli’s account, the grand jury indicted Paul Kavanaugh, the Matzners, Vincent Kearney, 26, who was accused of the DeFranco knifework, and Sgt. John DeGroot, a Clifton cop. “They think I did it!” Kavanaugh bellowed at a bank of Speed Graphics as he was released on bail, which was paid by the Matzner family. “But I didn’t! I didn’t do it!” Others were charged as oddball accessories, including Kavanaugh’s mistress and the wife-swappers. Prosecutor Thevos called the case a “giant conspiracy.” A defense attorney termed it Muccio’s “giant fantasy.”
The DeFranco murder trial came first, in the fall of ’68. Attorneys called 142 witnesses during 86 days of testimony, a state record. Natoli assured jurors she was not “a screwball.” But she was carved up by defense lawyer Bruno Leopizzi, and admitted she had fabricated three make-believe Mafiosi – Phil the Gorilla, Steve the Greek and Frankie T – in her grand jury testimony. All the defendants were acquitted.
Natoli reprised her role a year later for the Kavanaugh murder trial. After 12 weeks of testimony, Judge Gordon Brown told jurors their decision hinged on Natoli’s veracity. “If you are not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Mrs. Natoli has told the truth, then that is the end of the trial,” he said. “You must acquit.” Jurors did just that, announcing acquittal as Muccio glared from the gallery.
Thevos lost his job that year. Muccio held on until 1975, when he was ousted for failure to meet the standards of a “highly skilled professional.” And a half century after the Jersey phantasmagoria, comeuppance for the two murders is still a pipe dream.
Source: David J. Krajicek, The New York Daily News, October 9, 2016.