The Story Behind the Friedlander Murder-Suicide in Cross River

What really happened in Cross River

Westchester Magazine breaks down what really happened in that Cross River home on what should have been a routine day in 2011.

The wooden jungle gym in the back of 2 Lambert Ridge Road, in the quiet hamlet of Cross River, is an unnerving sight. The gray-blue Colonial home looks like any other on the circular road, where houses are set far back from the street and expensive cars are parked in the driveways. Piles of reeds and leaves line the yard, a light above the garage is on, but the blinds are shuttered and no one is home.

The last anyone heard from Amy Friedlander, a 46-year-old mother of two, was around 9 pm on Monday, October 17, when she made what turned out to be her final phone call. Her colleague and close friend, Deborah Bernstein, contacted the Hudson Valley Dispatch at 3:41 pm the following day, requesting that someone check on the well-being of her friend; she had not been able to reach Friedlander and had grown concerned. State police were first to respond but were not able to enter the house immediately; all the doors and windows were locked and there was no sign of a disturbance on the first floor that would give police the urgency to break in. “It was completely quiet,” says Detective Brian Dedusevic of the New York State Police. “Everything looked like it was in order.”

The four-bedroom home had been on the market for five months, listed at $800,000. A real estate agent with keys was summoned, and, when police gained access and reached the second floor, they were met with what Dedusevic describes as a surreal scene—the struggle between husband and wife had been violent. Amy died on the floor of the master bedroom. She had been beaten with what police first described as a broken piece of furniture but what forensic investigators later determined to be a rolling pin. Down the hall, Molly Friedlander, 10, and Gregory Friedlander, 8, were in separate rooms. Police have not been able to establish whether they were asleep when their father entered and shot each of them in the upper-left torso with a 12-caliber Remington 870 pump-action shotgun, then left them lying in their beds. Samuel Friedlander, 50, ended his own life in the basement with the same gun.
Friends and neighbors in Lewisboro Township have been left in disbelief. They question how they might reassure their children that something like this will not happen in their own homes.

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Amy Friedlander was a beloved tutor for local high school students; her husband often could be seen playing with his children in the yard. The day before the murder/suicide, Molly had run a lemonade stand with her friend. A neighbor had yet to return a baseball glove that Gregory, an avid Yankees fan, had left behind at a birthday party on Saturday. The Friedlanders were regulars at school events and parties; they cheered their children on when they played sports and often carpooled to synagogue. In a small, tightly knit community, it was inevitable that neighbors would know the couple was having problems, but no one anticipated the tragedy that unfolded.

Mornings have been particularly difficult for Amy Friedlander’s father, Gary Perez. He and his wife, Roberta, have not slept much since the incident, and his voice trembles as he speaks. Growing up in Pennsylvania, their daughter, then Amy Jo Perez, had been a bright and happy child. She did well in school and, from a young age, loved reading, a passion she would later share with Molly, with whom she attended a monthly mother-daughter book club. In a report card from her nursery school teacher, Amy was described as a friend to everyone, a trait she carried throughout her life.

“She was a confident and caring woman,” Perez says. Amy studied math at Cornell University, graduated cum laude, and was also Phi Beta Kappa, before moving to Philadelphia, where she shared an apartment with her younger sister while working toward a master’s degree in business from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Her sister, Jill Gobora, who still resides in Pennsylvania, has since married, and has four children, who Perez says are struggling with the tragedy. Although they lived in separate states, the young cousins were close, keeping in touch through cellphones and online video games.

After graduate school, Amy moved to New York City, and worked briefly for Bankers Trust before taking a job with Chase Manhattan Bank. Though she was engrossed in her studies and her career, she also took good care of her looks. “She was all girl,” Perez says. She had a sophisticated sense of style and enjoyed having her long, blonde hair coiffed and having manicures with friends. She was 33 when she met her future husband at a synagogue singles function in Manhattan in 1998. Both very intelligent people, they hit it off. Though he never warmed to Friedlander, Perez says it was up to his daughters to determine whom they would marry.

When Amy met Sam, he was a 37-year-old lawyer working in Manhattan. Sam grew up on Long Island, studied government at Skidmore College, and then earned his law degree at Western New England College School of Law, graduating magna cum laude in 1988. In the early ’90s, he worked as an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County. He was one of four children. Two brothers, who reside in Massachusetts, survive him. Those who knew him from Cross River say he was a gentle, mild-mannered man. He was kind and could be relied on in a pinch, as when he brought flashlights and batteries to neighbors when Hurricane Irene caused a power outage.

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The couple wed in 2000 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia. Sam Friedlander worked as associate counsel for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and the newlyweds first lived together in his apartment in downtown Manhattan. They decided to move out of the City to start a family and rented a home in Chappaqua for a year before settling down in Cross River in 2002. Not long after, Amy was offered a buyout and decided to work from home. Without the commute, she would have more time to devote to her young children. She first worked as consultant for MetLife but eventually began tutoring high school students preparing for college entrance exams. Amy developed a great rapport with the teenagers. She’d keep their favorite beverages on hand for sessions, call before tests to encourage them, and afterward to ask how they’d done. “She was more worried than they were,” says Perez.

Amy Friedlander had recently founded John Jay Prep, a private tutoring service, along with Deborah Bernstein. Bernstein spoke at the memorial held for her friend and her children at John Jay Middle School, describing Amy as a woman who was deeply devoted to her children as well as to her students. There were many happy times, she said. The family often traveled to Florida, where the Perez family has a house, and spent their days on the beach or lounging by the pool. They celebrated holidays with friends and family. After working for a slate of small law firms, Sam Friedlander leased an office space in Bedford Hills and opened his own practice.

The Friedlanders began to struggle financially, and, despite his wife’s successful second career, Perez says he was forced to step in to pay for clothing and school supplies for the children. Tension started brewing; the couple argued over finances and how to raise Molly and Gregory. In 2006, the police responded to a domestic disturbance call at the house. An argument had broken out when Sam Friedlander complained his daughter was using too much salt. The fighting only got worse. The couple decided to divorce in 2009. Sam Friedlander represented himself in the proceedings. Without the means to afford a second home, he continued to live in the house, but in a separate bedroom adjacent to the those of the children. Perez repeatedly asked his daughter if she felt safe sharing a home with her estranged husband, and she assured him that she did, physically, though the situation was emotionally difficult.

Friends from law school told the Journal News that Sam Friedlander had been emotionally abused in his marriage, and often complained of his wife belittling him in front of the children or restricting his access. Perez denied these claims, and said it was Sam Friedlander who had harassed his daughter, and in a statement from Amy’s attorneys, the claims were described as shameful and false. Now, friends and neighbors are hesitant to speak to the press, out of respect for the family.

Rabbi Carla Freedman, of the Jewish Family Congregation, where the Friedlander children had attended religious education classes for past five years, says she knew that the couple had financial difficulties and were going through a divorce, but: “It didn’t look like a family that was going to explode.” She adds that they were not the only family in the congregation going through trying times and that there were others she had been more concerned for. The children seemed well adjusted and happy. Molly would often bounce into class with a smile on her face, and Gregory, who could rattle off any baseball statistic imaginable, aspired, with two of his best friends, to be a clown. “I always thought, ‘Well the parents are doing a good job of keeping whatever is going on between them away from the kids,’” Freedman says.

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Freedman says the Friedlanders had built a strong network in the congregation. “Certainly, Amy was very connected through the public school and sports activities that the kids were involved in,” Freedman says, adding that Amy Friedlander was a lively, outgoing person and always the first to volunteer. As for her husband? He had a loyal group of friends and seemed to care deeply for his children. “I would describe Sam as a quiet, gentle person,” Freedman says. “Even though he has done this horrific thing, I still think of him that way.”

The house was put on the market and a lengthy custody battle came to a close last April, when the couple agreed that Amy would be designated as the primary residential parent. Though Sam Friedlander would still have ample access to the children, several friends, including old law school buddies, confirmed that he was not satisfied with the arrangement. (At the time of the murder, he still lived in the house and saw the children every day.) Just a few weeks later, on April 29, he visited a sporting goods store in Yonkers, presented his New York State driver’s license, and, without a criminal record, acquired the shotgun he would later use to kill himself and his family. The type of gun costs between $300 and $450, is typically used as a hunting rifle, and does not require a permit.

In police interviews following the incident, some had noted a change in Sam Friedlander’s behavior in the weeks leading up to the incident. He seemed stressed, odd, but nothing that would indicate anything other than that the divorce was taking its toll. “Having to go through that, deal with the kids, living arrangements,” says Detective Dedusevic. “Those are definitely pressures that build on anybody.” The Friedlanders were scheduled to appear in divorce court on Thursday, October 20. When leaving his office for the last time, Sam Friedlander left behind a note bequeathing his property, and that evening posted two letters to a family member in Massachusetts. According to police, the letters could be interpreted as suicide notes, but did not contain anything that would indicate Sam Friedlander had intended to harm anyone but himself.

It is difficult to determine what pushes an otherwise gentle man, loyal friend, and loving father, with no history of mental illness, to brutally murder his wife and kids. John Gerson, PhD, a couples and family psychotherapist who has practiced in neighboring hamlet Katonah for the past 20 years, opined that Sam Friedlander may have experienced his own financial issues as well as his wife’s success as sources of shame. “Some cope with stress by becoming physically ill. Others cope by blaming other people,” Gerson says. “Friedlander was blaming others in his homicide, and in his violent suicide, he blamed himself.”

Amy Friedlander and her two children were laid to rest in Trevose, Pennsylvania. There was no mention of Sam Friedlander. A private service at Crestwood Memorial Chapel in lower Manhattan was arranged for him at the request of his family. The Friedlander home has been completely cleared of all evidence of the crime. A group of volunteers from Chesed Shel Emes, an organization specializing in recovery and burial services, scoured the bedrooms and basement. Carpets have been changed and soiled bedding cleared, and the small “for sale” sign in the driveway has been removed. A haunting stillness surrounds the property. Perez and his wife spent the holidays with their remaining daughter’s family, but there was no celebration; their loss is far too great. “These were not normal deaths,” Perez says. “These were even more than just terrible acts of violence.”

Amy Friedlander with her two children in happier times.

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