Westchester County is known for its good schools, picturesque golf courses, and cul de sac communities that are the glamorous gateway to the world’s most famous city. It’s also known for something else.
From crimes of passion that spawned drippingly melodramatic TV movies, to famous, beautiful jetsetters offing other beautiful jetsetters, to some of the most disturbing, grisly, serial killings the world has ever known, Westchester County has a killer reputation when it comes to murder. Here are the 10 most famous Westchester homicides, ranked in order of notoriety.
In 1990, Gjelosh Rukaj, then a 37-year-old immigrant from Albania, plunked down his dollar for a Lotto ticket and won $17.5 million. Next came the big house in Rye, the wealthy lifestyle, and a love affair with a 25-year-old married woman, Rigaletta Nikc. The illicit lovers had a tumultuous, fiery relationship, which produced a daughter and eventually resulted in Nikc attempting to take out a restraining order against Rukaj.
On September 11, 1996, Rukaj went to Nikc’s house in Mount Pleasant to, he would later claim, discuss his future role in raising their then five-year-old daughter. Nikc was there with her father-in-law, who was also a cousin of Rukaj’s. When Rukaj arrived, Nikc pulled out a revolver and blasted a bullet into his gut. Rukaj returned fire, killing his ex-lover. He then shot and killed her father-in-law.
Rukaj is serving his 20-to-life sentence at Sing Sing.
In a tragic epilogue, in 2002, Rukaj’s son Patrick, then 17 and a junior at Harrison High School, was arguing with a classmate, Rob Viscome, over a single dollar bill. The two were at an underage drinking party in Harrison when Viscome made a remark about Patrick’s father and the younger Rukaj threw a punch. Viscome’s head hit the concrete. A week later, he died from the head injury. Patrick Rukaj got a conditional discharge for his involvement.
In 1911, six poor Italian immigrants, who were working at the Croton Aqueduct for just $1.75 per day, heard that Anna Griffin, a widow who lived in one of the big, beautiful houses that rimmed the reservoir, had inherited a fortune of $3,000. The six—Santo Zanza, Lorenzo Cali, Vincenzo Cona, Salvatore DeMarco, Angelo Guista, and Filippo DeMarco—were desperate for money and decided to get some of Griffin’s inheritance.
On November 9, while Filippo DeMarco acted as a lookout, the rest of the men entered the house. With a gun aimed at her by Lorenzo Cali, Griffin gave him what she had on hand. Upstairs, Zanza and Guista found one of Griffin’s boarders, Mary Hall, who was so terrified that she couldn’t stop screaming. Zanza, not knowing what else to do, plunged a dagger into Hall’s chest.
An intense manhunt followed. The six were eventually caught and, after separate and super-speedy trials—Salvatore DeMarco, the last to be caught, was tried, convicted, and sentenced in a single day—they were all sentenced to die in the electric chair, even though only one committed the murder. The men spoke very little English. In one of the trials, the jury deliberated a mere seven minutes before convicting.
“There is some doubt that three of them even knew the crime was committed,” says Mark Gado, a retired New Rochelle detective, former DEA agent, and author of Mom: The Killer. “They were part of the powerless class. All of them went to the electric chair.”
On July 12, 2009, Florida millionaire Ben Novack, Jr., was found bludgeoned to death at the Hilton Rye Town. His wife, Narcy Novack, a former exotic dancer, told police that she had found her bloodied, 53-year-old husband’s body—his eyes gouged out, his head caved in—in their hotel room after returning from having breakfast alone. After 13 hours of questioning, Narcy Novack was released.
Theirs was hardly an ideal marriage. In 2002, police were called to their Miami home to find Ben, the son of the founder of the storied Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, bound and gagged. He reported having been left in that condition for more than 24 hours; nearly $400,000 in cash and other items was missing from the house. No criminal charges were filed, though—Narcy claimed it was part of an elaborate sex game between the couple.
There was also the time that Ben broke Narcy’s nose, and she went to a plastic surgeon to get it repaired. When she awoke from anesthesia, she noticed that, in addition to the rhinoplasty, she also had some brand-new breast implants that she hadn’t asked for.
After the murder, Narcy reportedly failed five lie-detector tests. An anonymous letter to the Miami police tipped off authorities, and they now believe Narcy hired her brother and two other men to kill Novack for his inheritance.
Since zeroing in on Narcy for Ben’s murder, police have reopened the case of Novack’s mother, an 87-year-old woman who died a few months before her son in what was thought to be a fall. Prosecutors believe that Narcy also may have been behind that death.
In 1977, Rodney Alcala, who often used the pseudonym John Berger, was in NYU’s film school studying under Roman Polanski. He had long, brown, feathered hair; a lantern-like jaw; and a smooth demeanor. It’s not hard to picture him approaching Ellen Jane Hover, the heiress to LA’s famous Ciro’s nightclub. Alcala liked to tell young, beautiful women that he was a fashion photographer and they just had to sit for him.
After he lured victims to his place, no high-fashion shoots were to take place. Alcala was a serial killer who liked to rape and choke his victims to the brink of asphyxiation, allow them to come to, and then torture them some more. Authorities believe that’s what Alcala did to 23-year-old Hover before burying her body on the grounds of the Rockefeller Estate, a good distance away from where he was staying in New York City.
After his brief stint at NYU, Alcala moved back to California without graduating and, in 1978, he appeared on that quintessential ’70s show, The Dating Game. His greasy, innuendo-filled lines were enough to win over the bachelorette on the show, though she later admitted Alcala was far too creepy in person to ever really date.
It wasn’t long after this victory that he was arrested for the murder of a 12-year-old girl, and, while he awaited trial, his DNA and bite marks started showing up in one unsolved case after another. When police found his stash of photos featuring young women and men in provocative poses, they feared that Alcala may have been responsible for the murders of as many as 130 victims.
It took three trials to convict him for the murder of the 12-year-old, and, in the third and most bizarre trial, Alcala acted as his own defense attorney. His showing of his Dating Game victory did not endear him to the jury. He now awaits execution at San Quentin. But it wasn’t until January of this year that he was indicted for the murder of Ellen Jane Hover. The New York district attorney plans to extradite him for prosecution.
On a beautifully clear August day in 1643, Wampage, the leader of the Siwanoys, an Algonquin-speaking people, headed up the hill in the area that is now theHutchinson River Parkway. Recently, 100 of his fellow Algonquins had been slaughtered by the Dutch settlers. Wampage and his men wanted revenge and they didn’t care what white settlers had to pay for the Dutch’s sins.
Anne Hutchinson, an Englishwoman and famous advocate for religious freedom, had made a home in Pelham Bay after she was banished from the territory that is now Massachusetts for her progressive views. Hutchinson embraced the people native to the area, so when the warning call went out for all white settlers to flee because of the Siwanoys, she ignored it. She believed they would do her and her family no harm. But that morning, Wampage led his men to the Hutchinson estate, killing Anne and five of her children. The men allegedly took time to slice off each of the victim’s scalps.
An interesting side note: Anne’s red-headed daughter was spared because the Siwanoys are said not to have seen that before. The tribe raised her for several years.
Anne Scripps Douglas, a prominent Westchester socialite and heiress to the E. W. Scripps Company, went to bed in her Bronxville home on New Year’s Eve, 1993. Before, her daughter from her first marriage, Anne Morrell Petrillo, had come to visit. Petrillo had been urging her mother to leave her stepfather, Scott Douglas, a man whom many had witnessed physically and verbally abuse Anne.
Scott Douglas was in a foul mood that New Year’s Eve, and Petrillo, not wanting to watch her stepfather mistreat her mother, left and went home. Yet, a bit later, worried about her mother, she called to check up. No answer. She called the police. When the police arrived at the Douglas home, they found Anne covered in blood, her new terrier puppy whimpering by her side, and the Douglas’s three-year-old daughter, Victoria, at the foot of the bed. Victoria asked the police why mommy was covered in war paint.
Scott Douglas was nowhere to be found. His car, however, was discovered parked on the Tappan Zee Bridge with a bloody hammer still inside of it. Three months later, his body washed up on the shore near the train tracks not far from where he’d parked his car.
In 2009, Anne Morell Petrillo, who had alerted the police on that New Year’s Day, more than 15 years earlier, committed suicide by jumping off the Tappan Zee Bridge—the same bridge from which her stepfather had jumped to his death. In 2011, Victoria, the toddler who had witnessed her mother’s murder and is now 21, was arrested in Vermont for possession of heroin.
On a Sunday afternoon in January 1989, Carolyn Warmus—25 and blonde, with the type of body that the press would later call “voluptuous”—phoned Paul Solomon, a 41-year-old married man from Greenburgh, to let him know she was disappointed that they hadn’t gone out for her birthday. They had met two years earlier at the Greenville Elementary School in Scarsdale where they both taught and had had an affair.
Solomon told his wife, Betty Jeanne, 40, that he was heading to the bowling alley that night. He did make a brief stop at Brunswick Lanes in Yonkers, but spent much of the night in the dark and cozy Treetops bar and restaurant in the Yonkers Holiday Inn with Warmus, where the couple had dinner, and then made love in Warmus’s car. “It’s very hard to resist Carolyn,” Solomon would later testify. When he got to his home in Greenburgh’s Scarsdale Ridge Apartments just before midnight, he found his wife, face down on the living room floor, covered in blood. She had been shot nine times.
Warmus is serving her 25-years-to-life sentence in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. In 2008, she won a lawsuit against the Department of Correctional Services and was awarded $10,000. She claimed she was forced to have sex with correction officers to receive privileges.
On a cold, late-January night in 1982, Kathleen Durst traveled into New York City for a party at a friend’s apartment. She was there to socialize, but she was also trying to spend some time away from her husband, Robert. They’d been feuding, and she told friends she was afraid of him and his tendency toward physical violence.
Early in the evening, Robert, whose family owns the Durst Organization, one of New York’s premier real estate firms, called, demanding that Kathleen return home to their house near South Salem’s Lake Truesdale. Before she left, she confided in a friend that she was scared and, if anything should happen to her, they should suspect Robert.
That was the last time her friends ever saw her.
Robert reported her missing a full four days later. Kathleen’s body has never been found.
Robert Durst was an eccentric jetsetter, a regular in clubs like Studio 54 whose friends included Jackie Onassis and John Lennon; he’d even dated Mia Farrow’s little sister. He met Kathleen when she was a tenant in one of the family’s buildings. At the time of her disappearance, she was a hardworking med student at Albert Einstein and wanted to be a pediatrician.
When questioned by police, Durst, they noted, was remarkably calm for a man whose wife was missing. He explained that they had three different homes and, because of the troubles in their relationship, they didn’t always see each other every night. He has been suspected in her disappearance ever since.
After his wife’s disappearance, Durst’s life took a bizarre turn. He became a loner and drifted throughout the country before settling in Galveston, Texas, where he spent much of his time living as a woman.
In September 2001, the dismembered body of Durst’s cranky next-door neighbor washed up in Galveston Bay. The head was never found. When police investigated, they found a trail of blood leading back to Durst’s apartment.
Durst fled and evaded capture for more than a month. His bizarre undoing matched his strange life. He was arrested for shoplifting a chicken salad sandwich, a newspaper, and Band-Aids from a supermarket in Pennsylvania. He had more than $500 cash in his pocket at the time, and he was wearing a woman’s brown wig and a fake blond mustache.
Though he did admit to dismembering the body, Durst claimed self-defense in the murder of his neighbor and the jury agreed with his self-defense claim. He received a five-year sentence for bail jumping and tampering with evidence. He was paroled in 2005, rearrested for not following the conditions of his parole, and paroled again in ’06.
It is believed that Durst returned to New York in 2011 and is living in Harlem, but he refuses to talk to the media. The motion picture All Good Things, released in December 2010 and starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst, is based on Durst and his relationship with Kathleen. Durst provides his own chilling commentary track.
On March 10, 1980, Jean Harris, the stately head mistress of the prestigious Madeira School in McLean, Virginia, drove to the Purchase estate of Dr. Herman Tarnower—the author of the bestselling The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet and her lover for the previous 14 years—heartbroken after learning about Tarnower’s affair with a secretary 30 years his junior. She brought along a handgun, intent on killing herself.
When she entered Tarnower’s bedroom suite, she found lingerie that belonged to the secretary. Incensed, she confronted Tarnower, who, in turn, slapped her and told her she was crazy. Harris decided to end it there, in the bedroom, in front of her lover. Turning her back to him, she placed the gun to her head. Tarnower tried to intervene, and from there, the facts are in dispute.
“There are so many misconceptions about this case that it would take forever to explain them all,” Joel Aurnou, Harris’s defense attorney, who still practices law in White Plains, says. “Jean was suicidal and she went to say goodbye. He slapped her so hard that his prints were left on her face for eight days after the incident.”
Aurnou maintains that Tarnower was shot in the hand trying to prevent Harris from killing herself. A subsequent struggle, he says, resulted in more shots that left Tarnower bleeding profusely and mortally wounded.
Harris refused to take a plea, and Aurnou claims that the jury was not allowed to hear evidence that would have cast doubt on the credibility of a crucial medical witness for the prosecution. In 1980, she was sentenced to 15 years to life and sent to Bedford Hills. In 1992, she was granted clemency by Governor Mario Cuomo while she was being prepped for quadruple bypass surgery.
In prison, Harris spent her time developing educational programs for inmates so that they could get their GEDs and attend college. She also worked in the prison nursery and taught parenting classes for the inmates with children. Today, she lives a quiet life away from the public eye in Connecticut.
The number-one spot on this dubious list is difficult to write about. There is nothing camp, poetic, or literary to his crimes.
“Albert Fish is regarded by many as the single most depraved serial killer in the annals of American crime,” says Harold Schechter, author of Deranged, the definitive Fish biography, and a professor of American literature at Queens College. “He practiced every known perversion found in medical texts and came up with a few of his own that no one had ever heard of. After he was arrested, he appeared to be in some discomfort. An X-ray found that he had inserted twenty-seven sewing needles of various sizes up his perineum that were floating in his bladder region.”
If you don’t like to read about horrible things, stop here.
Fish preyed on children. He sexually tortured young boys and girls. He castrated and mutilated them. Authorities aren’t sure how many victims there were, but Fish bragged that he had more than 100.
His most infamous crime and the one that proved to be his undoing occurred in Irvington in 1928. Posing as a Long Island farmer offering to hire the Budd family’s son Edward, he met and became obsessed with their 10-year-old daughter, Grace. Fish lured her into an Irvington cottage he knew to be empty. There, naked, he confronted Grace and choked her to death. He then cut her body up and brought it back to his New York City apartment where he made a stew out of it and consumed it over the next week while compulsively masturbating.
Six years later, he wrote a lengthy letter to Grace Budd’s mother describing every detail of what he had done. An analysis of the handwriting and the stationery enabled the police to track Fish down.
“He was tried and convicted,” says Schechter. “Though the jury believed he was insane, they thought he should die anyway. He was executed at Sing Sing as the oldest man ever put to death there in 1936 at the age of sixty five.”
The cottage where Fish killed Grace Budd was on what is now Mountain Road in Irvington. A home currently for sale in that neighborhood is believed to be the cottage where the crime took place. Harold Schechter and Patrick Raftery, of the Westchester Historical Society, believe it is the same house. Realtor Dalia Valdes of Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty, who is listing the property, does not.
Tom Schreck lives in Albany, New York. He is the author of the Duffy Dombrowski Mysteries, including soon-to-be-released The Vegas Knockout.