Death of a violinist.
(Humor and anecdotes)
Criminal investigation (Humor and anecdotes)
|Publication:||Name: The Forensic Examiner Publisher: American College of Forensic Examiners Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Law; Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 American College of Forensic Examiners ISSN: 1084-5569|
|Issue:||Date: Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 20 Source Issue: 3|
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|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States|
I WOULD NOT DESCRIBE MYSELF AS A TOUGH MAN. LEFT TO MY OWN DEVICES, I WOULD RATHER GROW CUCUMBERS THAN FLOWERS AND WATCH THE SUPER BOWL THAN GO TO A BALLET, BUT I DON'T KICK PUPPIES, AND WHEN MY WIFE WAS ALIVE, I WOULD HAVE KNIT BOOTIES OUT OF BARBED WIRE OR LISTENED TO FRANK SINATRA (I HATED THE GUY; HE WAS A BULLY), JUST TO MAKE HER SMILE.
Our daughter Beth looks exactly like Caroline. Same laughing green eyes. Same pug nose. Same freckles. Same crooked grin.
That's why, even though she sounds like a dying frog when she plays, I paid for her overpriced violin lessons with Mr. Schoenbaum, because he's supposed to be one of the best teachers in town.
Beth took dance lessons, too.
Her ballet teacher was Miss de Lafontaine. As near as I can figure, music and dance teachers don't have first names. Right after they pop out of the womb, their nurses stammer, "Yes, sir" or "No, ma'am," and then back subserviently out of the room.
Funny about people becoming who they are, though.
Throw all of it into the pot: The hope. The ambition. The envy. The joy. The heartbreak. The emotions we're stuck with and can't seem to get through life without. Mr. Schoenbaum must have felt them, too, but he never became a Jack or a Bert or a Phil or a Joe.
Mr. Schoenbaum he was born (or so it and Mr. Schoenbaum he stayed.
He's a tall man with a thick head of dark brown hair. Hawk nose. Preposterous eyebrows. Slate gray eyes. Age? Somewhere north of forty and south of who cares.
When Beth started her lessons, he was teaching his private students out of a cramped fifth floor walkup on East 21st Street in Manhattan. I met Dante (no last name no middle initial), heard him play, and became peripherally involved in his life ... all because Beth decided to study the violin.
I'm a cop. Rank. Division. Assignments ... not relevant to this case. It wasn't my call and I didn't make the arrest. But I was there. Beth and I were both there when it happened, and we both saw the boy die.
Beth says that she's all right with it.
She isn't, but that's okay, because I'm not all right with it either. Neither of us are very good liars.
The first week in April, Mr. Schoenbaum left a message on our answering machine. He stated that he had made some changes, and would now be giving lessons out of his new apartment in Brooklyn: Two bedrooms. Two bathrooms. Music studio (formerly dining room) with windows overlooking Joralemon Street. And only one flight up. Big improvement.
Why the move?
Because, Mr. Schoenbaum eventually told us, he had met a boy.
A very special boy.
A ragamuffin. A throwaway kid. But a genius. A prodigy.
Turns out that other than having private pupils, Mr. Schoenbaum is also the Dean of Music at Lancaster College. The college's school of music occupies an old red brick building on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope. Big rooms. Giant double-hung wood framed windows. Tongue and groove oak flooring scuffed by thousands of students carrying musical instruments up and down six flights of stairs.
The practice rooms are on the top floor. You get there by climbing a narrow staircase that looks like something out of a black and white movie where a psychopath lurches past a 40-watt light bulb and attacks a deaf mute serving girl somewhere between the second and the third floors.
That's not what happened here. In fact, nothing bad happened at all, even though Dante no-last-name no-middle-initial was hiding in the shadows beneath the stairs. He had made himself sort of a nest up there: A ratty army blanket that he'd gotten from God knows where; a plastic water bottle that he refilled at the water fountain; a knapsack crammed with a clean change of clothes (blue jeans, t-shirt, socks, underpants); a roll of masking tape; and a neat stack of sheet music, all stamped with the words, "Property of the Lancaster College School of Music."
Long story short, Dante was living up there, on the seventh floor, under the stairs.
He roamed the neighborhood during the day. Stealing food. Hanging out at libraries. Biding his time. But at 4:00 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he was back at his post, because that's when, in Rehearsal Room E, about seventeen feet away, Mr. Schoenbaum began to teach his first student of the day.
I encountered Dante maybe six or seven times before the attack. He was a handsome fourteen-year-old male, a year older than Beth, and almost as tall as Mr. Schoenbaum ... maybe five-eleven or six feet. He had light brown skin. Long fingers. High forehead. Aquiline nose. Thin lips. His mouth was immobile and inexpressive. His eyes were big, black, and haunted.
It was right before Beth's first lesson in Mr. Schoenbaum's new apartment that I met the kid. He opened the door. We walked into the foyer. Mr. Schoenbaum was inside waiting. He said, "This is Dante," turned, and led us into his studio. It was sparsely furnished with four chairs, two music stands, an upright piano, and a small desk between two windows that overlooked the street.
After her lesson, Beth and I caught another glimpse of Dante walking away from us down the hall. We turned toward Mr. Schoenbaum. I asked, "Who is he?"
Later, Beth told me that she thought Dante was "gorgeous."
So, girl's eye view, Dante was a good-looking kid.
But he never talked about his past, and other than six scars on the backs of his shins and thighs, the story of what must have been a gruesome childhood never made it into any social worker's casebook.
Back to the seventh floor of the music school at Lancaster College.
Dante had a violin. He didn't explain how he got it, but Mr. Schoenbaum believes that he must have attended an elementary school sometime in the past, that the school had music classes, and that in one of those classes, he was exposed to the violin. Maybe Dante took a few lessons. Maybe he just listened outside a door. Either way, he stole it from that class.
As plausible a theory as any.
Dante would tear off a piece of masking tape from the roll that he kept in his knapsack, and tape his sheet music at eye level to the riser at the back of one of the stairs.
He would position himself at a diagonal to Rehearsal Room E, so that he could watch Mr. Schoenbaum teach. Then, trying to follow the lesson, he would do the necessary bow and finger work, but without his bow actually touching the strings, in a silent and surreptitious pantomime of what was occurring seventeen feet away.
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Dante mimed Mr. Schoenbaum's violin lessons, and every night after the custodian locked up, he stole out from under the stairs, entered Rehearsal Room E, and played, really played, the pieces that he had learned earlier in the day.
He couldn't refer to his stolen sheet music, because he couldn't run the risk of turning on a light. So he played by memory. He played by heart.
Dante maintained this lonely vigil for thirteen months, two weeks, and almost five days. On the fifth day, he blew his cover, and his lessons, at least the ones that nobody knew he was taking, came to an abrupt halt.
I have no idea which student Mr. Schoenbaum was teaching that night. I only know that he was as bad a violinist as Beth. I also know what he was playing: Jules Massenet's Meditation from Thais. I know this because it's one of Beth's favorite pieces, and she drilled it into me. Whenever I forget the name (regularly), my beautiful pug-nosed daughter rolls her gorgeous green eyes, sighs, "Oh, Daddy," and tells me again.
So that's the way it was. Mr. Schoenbaum, scowling while his pupil butchered Massenet, glancing at the clock every few seconds, and praying for the session to end. Which was exactly when Dante screwed up. In the past, the bow of his violin stroked nothing more substantial than air. But that day, he got lost in the romance of the melody, and his fingers not only danced up and down the fingerboard of the violin, his bow touched the strings.
When Mr. Schoenbaum heard music coming from down the hall, he assumed that it was a recording of the same selection that he was teaching. Annoyed at the intrusion, he stalked out of the classroom. As he moved closer to the sounds, he realized that the style of playing was unlike anything he had ever heard before. That was when his annoyance turned into curiosity.
In seconds, he came upon Dante no-last-name no-middle-initial, oblivious to his surroundings and completely unaware, not that he was playing out loud, but that he was doing so in the presence of his idol.
The instant Dante finished the piece, he lowered his bow, opened his eyes, and saw Mr. Schoenbaum. He gasped in horror. Then he tried to bolt past the teacher down the hall.
But a fourteen-year-old street urchin who lives under the stairs is no match for a tall, fit, domineering Dean of Music.
Surrender was inevitable.
What came next was not.
Mr. Schoenbaum realized immediately that he had stumbled upon the rarest of rare in a world dominated by harmony, melody, and skill.
A boy whose soul not only understood music, but was music.
Raw. Untrained. Untamed. Undisciplined. But with a talent so big, it could make your gut clench. He, Mr. Schoenbaum, had discovered the boy. And the boy, Dante, would become his protege.
I won't go into the details of what came next, because my knowledge of its progression is sketchy. The outcome was no secret, though. Mr. Schoenbaum of no-known first name legally adopted Dante of no-known last name, who had become Dante Schoenbaum by the time that we met.
Now I have to tell you two more things.
First, about Lucas Pride.
Pride's juvenile records are supposed to be sealed, but I have a friend in social services with no respect for privacy, so I know that even before his eighteenth birthday, Lucas Pride was already a worthless sack of shit. He had been arrested for robbery, home invasion arson, public disturbance. weapons possession, and assault. He was short, stocky, and sneering, with a body like a fire hydrant on steroids and a head like a Neanderthal. My father he was also a cop. So was my mother--would have called him an evil man.
I call him a scumbag.
Pride lived with his mother, another bottom feeder, on West 135th Street in Manhattan. I'll spare you her rap sheet. His hunting ground was anywhere from Greenwich Village to Washington Heights. His last arrest was for the attempted rape of a Twenty-two-year-old waitress from Duluth, but when the prosecution's sole witness, the complainant, bought a bus ticket back to Minnesota and disappeared, they dropped the charges.
And Lucas Pride was back out on the streets.
That was the first thing I wanted to tell you. The second is about the day that I arrived at Mr. Schoenbaum's apartment at 4:30 p.m. for Beth's 5:00 o'clock violin lesson. Beth's subway got stuck at 36th Street because a drunk fell on the tracks and nothing could move until the paramedics carted him away.
So I got there early, and Beth got there late. I rang the bell, apologized to Mr. Schoenbaum for bothering him, and said that I would just mind my own business and wait in the hall. But there was a look in his eye identical to one that I'd seen on my drill sergeant when I was a Marine, so when he said, "No. You will join us in the studio," I practically snapped to attention and obeyed.
The teacher pointed at a folding chair.
I noticed Dante behind a music stand with his bow hand hanging loosely at his right side and his violin held aloft in his left hand. I nodded at the boy and I smiled.
His eyes, still black and still haunted, met mine. He nodded back, but he didn't return my smile. Come to think of it, I never saw Dante smile. Then Mr. Schoenbaum tapped the music stand with the side of his baton and demanded, "From the beginning."
This is where, as a chronicler of event, I fall down on the job, because I don't know the name of the piece that Dante was playing. I didn't recognize it then, and I never had the stomach to ask about it later.
Dante played for about fifteen minutes. Maybe longer. I don't know, because I lost track of time. Less than a minute after he started, the strings of his violin became fluttering fingers, and the fingers were making rapturous love to my heart. I felt it all. The joy. The sorrow. The ecstasy. The thrill. The fear.
And the imperishable grief that loss can bring.
It wasn't until the music stopped that I noticed Beth was sitting by my side and that our hands were latched together in a death grip. And it wasn't until I took a handkerchief out of my pocket and wiped away Beth's tears that I realized how moved I had been, because she then took the handkerchief out of my hand and wiped away my tears, too.
I didn't know music could do that to a grown man. Make him cry. A man who would rather grow rhubarbs than roses and likes the gridiron better than the ballet.
All of this probably sounds corny, but I don't care. I'm a cop. I don't tell stories for a living; I write police reports. I investigate crimes.
Not then, though. Not that afternoon.
That day, I was on the receiving end of a gift so big, I was literally struck dumb. I had witnessed a talent so big and so overawing that I expected Dante's music teacher to burst into applause. To slap his adopted son on the back, or put a John Wayne twang into his voice and growl, "I'm proud of you, boy."
But Mr. Schoenbaum didn't say a thing.
Neither did I.
I did not say, "Thank you, Dante," and to this day, I regret that deeply. But Dante looked at me and at my daughter Beth, and he saw tears in both our eyes, and he made a motion that was halfway between a bow and a nod, so he must have known how much his playing had touched us.
At least, I hope that he knew.
No. I'm sure he knew.
The next time I saw Dante was when Mr. Schoenbaum's students got together with young people from of all over the city to create a five-borough orchestra for an annual recital at Carnegie Hall. It was a day that never should have happened.
Maybe that should be the title for this thing that I'm writing: "The Day That Never Should Have Been." Maybe not.
For those who don't know the city, Carnegie Hall is located on 57th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. It's a great neighborhood. The Russian Tea Room is right next-door. The Steinway Piano Showroom is half a block away. Tiffany's is two blocks east.
Even though Beth's contribution to the recital was minimal--she was such a poor player that Mr. Schoenbaum buried her behind four rows of violinists on the stage--her spirits soared. She was thirteen-years-old and playing at Carnegie Hall. My child. My daughter. The phantom reincarnation of my adorable wife. She had a smile on her face so big and she was so happy that my heart went on another roller coaster ride. This time, without the tears.
Dante played that evening, too. A short, tricky solo to a standing ovation. It's the kind of music that the cognoscenti get excited about, but to be honest, it didn't make my socks roll up and down.
Then it was over.
Teenaged girls squealing.
Teenaged boys grinning from ear to ear.
Families hugging. Party spirits. Joy in the air.
I gave Beth a small bouquet of violets and miniature roses. I saw one like it in a book of Victorian poetry that Caroline used to read, so I brought the book to a florist, showed him the illustration, and said, "Do it."
Beth and I were walking, arm-in-arm when it happened.
Everything went down so fast; no one had time to think,
No one except Lucas Pride.
He had been standing on the southeast corner of 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, waiting for the concert to end and for the audience to spill out into the street. Beth and I were just outside the lobby doors, and Mr. Schoenbaum and Dante were about ten feet closer to the curb.
Dante was holding his violin case in his left hand. Lucas Pride bounded toward him. Lucas was nasty, nimble, brutish, and fast. I saw it. I saw it all.
His thick arm reached out, and his hand jerked at the handle of the case holding the violin.
Like I said, it went down fast. In a microsecond, Dante spun around. The elbow of his right arm crashed into Lucas Pride's chest. The little scumbag made an "oof" sound, staggered back across the sidewalk, and then died.
Just like that.
I don't have to tell you what happened next, because you've seen it on hundreds of cop shows on TV. The sirens. The crime scene tape. The squad cars. The TV cameras. The crowds. The chaos.
All of that was to be expected.
What no God damn normal human being with anything resembling a code could have expected, though, was that the next day, the camera-courting, publicity-seeking, celebrity-humping son of a bitch district attorney would swear out an arrest warrant, or that police detectives would ring, the doorbell of Mr. Schoenbaum's apartment, handcuff Dante, and haul him away.
The way I saw it, the kid had only two things going for him. Maybe three, if you included that Mr. Schoenbaum, eyebrows more outrageous than ever, was standing behind his adopted son all the way.
The first thing was me.
I am a trained observer, a New York City Police Office, and a credible witness. And it didn't hurt that I had testified over two dozen times in criminal court.
The second thing was Midge Gillespie. Midge was the divorced mother of a girl about Beth's age who also took violin lessons from Mr. Schoenbaum. She's an attorney. She handles adoptions (she did Dante's), real estate closings, wills, prenups, property settlements, and so on. Once when we were waiting for our daughters to finish rehearsals and bored out of our minds, Midge told me that she had gone to law school expecting to become the next Clarence Darrow. But after working a year as a public defender, she realized that she hated her clients. The same year, she read Clarence Darrow's autobiography, and she realized that she hated him, too.
When Dante got arrested, Midge was finally able to do what she had always dreamed of doing: defend an innocent client.
At least, that was our take on things. District Attorney Malcolm Kline disagreed. Personally, I never liked the guy. I still don't. He's a pompous, arrogant, ambitious bully who only prosecuted cases that he thought he could win. Justice never entered into it.
Kline did everything he could (interviews; leaks to the press) to portray Lucas Pride as a misguided victim and Dante as a trained killer with a short fuse. Which meant that right from the start, Dante and his lawyer had two problems. One: The kid was being prosecuted as an adult. Two: He was being charged with involuntary manslaughter, which meant that if he was convicted, he could be imprisoned for anywhere tip to four years.
The D.A.'s plan was simple. He would convince the jury that even before Dante took up residence tinder the stairs at the music school, he was primed to kill. It didn't matter to Kline that he knew nothing about Dante's history, because he didn't care about the facts.
He only cared about winning.
Kline's strategy was to suggest that somewhere and at sometime in the past, a skinny fourteen-year-old violin student had become an expert in the martial arts; that he had developed lightning-like reflexes; and that he had learned life-threatening skills.
The initial phase of D.A. Kline's presentation was predictable. He called the arresting officer, the medical examiner, crime scene technicians, and so on. Exactly what you would expect from a prosecution case.
Kline's final witness, however, was unexpected.
Bill Okayama is a master martial arts instructor, a recipient of the Martial Arts Hall of Fame award, and holds forty, black belts in ten martial arts. After he testified, the outcome for Dante looked anything but good. First Okayama analyzed the prosecution's version (all hands; no elbow) of the blow that killed Lucas Pride. Next he described its level of complexity (very hard to execute) in the context of a wide range of karate, aikido, and jujitsu moves. Last, he characterized that particular maneuver as being inherently lethal. When Kline asked Okayama about the guidelines for and legal ramifications of the use of deadly physical force, the expert stated unequivocally that when it came to self-defense, it was the martial artist's responsibility and obligation to restrict himself to the reasonable and necessary use of force.
"So," the D.A. persisted smugly, "if someone tried to steal your violin, you would not find it necessary to kill him?"
The expert replied somberly, "No. Of course not."
Bill Okayama had been a credible and likeable witness.
Even Midge Gillespie liked him when she began her cross-examination.
Her purpose was to chip away at the prosecution's premise that Dante was or had ever been a trained killer. In response to her questions, Okayama admitted that he had not been provided with documentation or evidence to indicate that the young man on trial had ever practiced or was even familiar with any of the martial arts. Midge continued with that line of questioning until the foundation of the prosecution case was looking pretty shaky. She ended her cross-examination by asking if the death Okayama had described as resulting from "a lethally complex series of blows" might just as easily have resulted from "a reflexive elbow to the ribs."
She even got some nervous laughs at his one-word response.
He answered, simply, "Yes."
After Midge was finished with Okayama, she presented the defense's case.
It consisted of one character witness: Mr. Schoenbaum.
One eyewitness: Me.
And one human factors expert witness: Clarence Thomas Rodriguez, Ph.D.
Dr. Rodriguez's testimony dealt with how people react in conditions and/or circumstances that are perceived as jeopardizing their safety, property, or life. His particular areas of expertise are human sensory capabilities and perception/reaction time. The charts, diagrams, and graphs he showed the jury practically put them (and me) to sleep, but we woke up when he explained that human beings have a faster reaction time and exhibit a deadlier response when we perceive a threat to our loved ones than we do to any perceived threat to ourselves.
Dr. Rodriguez was Midge's set-up for her last witness.
When D.A. Kline heard who, or rather what it was, he objected vehemently.
"That's an inanimate object!" He exclaimed.
"It has already been introduced into evidence!" He sputtered.
"There is no way to swear it in!" He howled.
Midge remained unruffled.
"With the bench's permission," she said serenely. "May I explain?"
In elegant contrast to Malcolm Kline's histrionics, Midge Gillespie stated simply that Dante's response to the attack from Lucas Pride had not been born of a homicidal impulse, but of the need to protect the thing in the world that he loved the most. She suggested to the judge that it would not be necessary for Dante to be sworn in, because it was his musical instrument, and not he, who would being giving testimony, and for some reason, the judge accepted that.
Then Midge motioned the accused to the witness box.
She handed him his violin.
The courtroom fell silent.
I don't know if Dante and Midge had collaborated beforehand on which piece he would be playing. In fact, I'm sure that they didn't. Later, she told me that she'd just said to him, "Play like your life depends on it. Play to break the jury's heart."
And he did.
It was the same piece he had played the day that I arrived early and Beth arrived late for her lesson. I still don't know what it's called, but if I had to make up a title, I would call it "The Song of a Thousand Tears."
There wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom by the time that Dante finished playing.
Within seconds, and without a closing statement, Midge said, "Your honor, the defense rests."
Nobody remembers the prosecutor's summation. Nobody was listening. And it took less than fifteen minutes for the jury to be ushered out, vote, and then ushered back in.
The verdict was Not Guilty.
No great surprise.
Nor was the response from the spectators.
Despite the judge's half-hearted admonition that he would clear the courtroom if they didn't' shut up, they burst into wild hoots and applause. The defense table, however, was silent.
Midge stared at Dante.
Mr. Schoenbaum's eyes darted back and forth between his attorney and his adopted son.
Dante remained motionless.
But I saw a sorrowful expression on his gaunt and handsome face, and as I observed the drama at the defense table unfold, all I could think of were the last two lines of Ernest Thayer's poem, "Casey at the Bat."
Dante had not struck out.
If anything, he had hit the ball out of the park. But sometime between the hour when he had first fallen in love with music and those last few seconds when Midge told him to play to break the jury's heart, Dante's own heart had broken instead.
He laid his violin on the evidence table, looked neither at his lawyer nor at his father, and then walked out of the room.
Lucas Pride had tried to steal a violin.
He died for his effort.
He killed Dante's joy instead.
A life for a life. A death for a death.
When we got home that night, Beth told me that she didn't think she wanted to take violin lessons anymore. At least, not for now. "For now" turned into forever, and she never went back.
This all happened eleven years ago.
I often wondered if Mr. Schoenbaum's love for Dante had anything more in it than an ambitious teacher's enthusiasm for a gifted protege, and whether their father/son relationship survived the boy's abandonment of his violin.
I wondered if the curative powers of time had healed the great gash in the young genius's soul. Time had worked for me. I will always love Caroline. Nothing can kill that. But I married Midge ten months after the trial.
And I wondered ... I still wonder ... if Dante no-last-name no-middle-initial ever resumed what should have been a brilliant career. Sometimes, I go on my computer, search "Professional Male Violinists," and browse through their web sites.
I read biographies.
I look at photos.
Other than details about performances, schedules, awards, and recordings, none of them say very much about themselves.
Nothing about family. Nothing about a life away from music.
Several of these young men seem to be about twenty-five years old. Some are tall and slim. A few appear to have aquiline noses and light brown skin. When I look at their photos, I like to think that one of them could be Dante, that he assumed a new identity, and that he is still playing the violin.
But all of them have last names.
And none of them have haunted eyes.
So, I don't know.
I just plain don't know.
SHELLY REUBEN is an author, newspaper columnist, private detective, and certified fire investigator. Her books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She has just finished writing a new arson procedural novel and is working on a book about her cases. For more information about her work, visit www.shellyreuben.com.
Copyright [c] 2011 Shelly Reuben
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout, But there is no joy in Mudville--Mighty Casey has struck out.
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