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- November 23, 1987
- Vol. 28
- No. 21
A Wicked Rage Claims a Child
The Death of Little Lisa Steinberg, Prisoner in a House of Horrors, Bruises a Hardened City's Heart and Conscience
While breathing air into the comatose girl's lungs, Officer Daluise hastily glanced around him, taking in an appalling scene. Another child, later identified as 16-month-old Mitchell Steinberg, lay soaked in urine, tethered to a playpen by a three-foot piece of twine. The apartment's walls and floors were bare. The rooms were filled with the suffocating stench of stale food and neglect. The sheets and pillowcases on the only bed were bloodstained. There was electricity, but none of the lights was working.
In this cold, cheerless cave, there was only one thing that was fresh: two fish tanks with plump tropical fish circling in pristine water. "There was at least someone in that apartment who placed a higher value on animal life than on a human life," said Assistant Chief Aaron H. Rosenthal, commanding officer of Manhattan detectives.
The two adults in apartment 3W, the adoptive parents of the two children, were Joel Steinberg, 46, a criminal lawyer, and his lover of 17 years, Hedda Nussbaum, 45, formerly an editor of children's books. The officers saw that Nussbaum's face bore the fresh wounds of a savage beating; her nose was battered and bandaged, her eyes puffy, her lips split and swollen. Steinberg seemed nervous but unmarked by any sign of the rage that had so damaged his child and his lover. As doctors later discovered, he did have a slight injury: bruised and cut knuckles.
Daluise hurriedly carried the little girl downstairs. His partner led the way in the squad car, but Daluise stayed with Elizabeth and Steinberg in the ambulance as they drove to St. Vincent's Hospital. Steinberg remained at the hospital briefly, then returned home. The doctors did what they could, but the child was beyond help. A brain hemorrhage, later said to have been brought on by repeated blows to the head, had left her clinically dead. The only sign of life was the mechanical sigh of the respirator.
Later that day Officer Daluise, along with Officer Irma Rivera, a specialist in child abuse, went to the 130-year-old redbrick house on West 10th Street to arrest Steinberg and Nussbaum for a scarcely conceivable crime: the attempted murder of their adopted daughter.
Held without bail in the city's Rikers Island jail, Steinberg was placed in isolation on a suicide watch. He refused to co-operate with the investigation but called his 81-year-old mother, Charlotte, to proclaim his innocence. Nussbaum was hospitalized in a prison ward in Queens with nine broken ribs and a fractured jaw and nose as well as ulcerated legs. At St. Vincent's Hospital weeping nurses sat at the little girl's bedside until three days later, when the life-support systems were finally disconnected and Lisa—as she was known to her grieving first grade classmates at Public School 41—was officially declared dead. The charges against both parents were upgraded to murder.
The unfolding horror broke through the crime-hardened patina of the nation's largest city, exposing raw feelings of revulsion and pity. Lisa's fate haunted millions who never knew her. Her eyes, staring out in sad reproach from television screens and newspapers, seemed to demand an answer: How could we, with all our wealth, power and vaunted humanity, so fail a child? How could this brutality find its home in one of the nation's most cultured and monied enclaves?
"You'd have to be a psychiatrist to figure this out," Deputy Police Inspector Robert Frankel told a reporter. "It defies reason, how two intelligent, literate people can come to this."
The dominant figure in the case seemed to be Steinberg, the only son of a lawyer, who grew up in the Bronx and nearby Yonkers, N.Y., to become a brooding and intense man with a brittle temper and a flair for rubbing people the wrong way. "The word manipulative comes up most in my mind," a fellow lawyer who once shared an office with him has said. After graduation from Fordham University in 1962, Steinberg enrolled in New York University law school. But he withdrew after drawing poor grades and later joined the Air Force. He finished law school at NYU eventually, but claimed exemption from the rigorous New York State bar examination under a regulation favoring students whose studies were interrupted by military service.
He was specializing in criminal law and living in the West 10th Street apartment 17 years ago when he met Hedda Nussbaum. The daughter of a Manhattan beauty parlor owner and his wife, she was a Hunter College graduate who had joined Random House as a writer and editor after teaching elementary-grade classes in the New York public schools. "She was bright, lively, personable," recalls a Random House co-worker. "She was your quintessential successful career woman." Two of her books were well-received by critics, and one, Plants Do Amazing Things, was dedicated to the man she viewed as the grand passion of her life. "To Joel," she wrote, "my everyday inspiration."
By the late '70s the relationship's darker side became disturbingly obvious. Within the couple's intimately scaled apartment house it was an open secret that Steinberg was a merciless wife beater. "You would hear screaming all night long," says one tenant. "You could hear the sound of a body falling. It would go on. And then it would stop." The neighbors felt powerless to intervene; the police were called frequently, but Steinberg avoided possible prosecution because Nussbaum would never even say that he beat her. "He loves me," she would tell her concerned family. Sometimes the police were barely out of earshot before the dreadful screams, slaps and curses would begin anew in 3W.
Meanwhile, Hedda Nussbaum appeared at work hiding her secrets behind dark glasses. After she was hospitalized for a ruptured spleen in early 1981 (Steinberg told one of Hedda's co-workers that she had slipped and fallen in the kitchen), colleagues urged her to leave her tormentor. "You didn't get killed this time—you're lucky. You've got to get out of this situation," a co-worker recalls telling her. "She just laughed it off." Hearing that Hedda was trying to adopt a baby, another colleague tried to stop her. "I was so appalled that I went in and said, 'How can you protect a child when you can't even protect yourself?' She just denied it. Total denial." Another office friend believes Nussbaum "thought the little girl was going to be an answer—a protection from Joel." Hoping to block the adoption, some of Nussbaum's friends say that they notified authorities that Steinberg was a potentially dangerous father. Their efforts were for naught.
In 1981 the couple obtained a baby born to an unmarried Catholic girl. The private adoptions of Lisa and her brother were never formally registered—a step Steinberg avoided, an adoption lawyer has suggested, because he knew the couple's violent relationship could not withstand the scrutiny of a court-ordered home study.
Hedda returned to work after the adoption, frequently keeping the sleeping baby at her side, but soon she began showing up at Random House with new bruises and even feebler excuses, often missing work entirely. "One day after Hedda wasn't in I saw her wheeling the baby down the hall," one colleague said. "The baby had a cut lip and Hedda had on sunglasses and a bandage." Finally, in 1982, after a long absence, Nussbaum was fired, leaving her under the constant domination of Steinberg, who was running his law practice out of 3W.
At about this time both Steinberg and Nussbaum seemed to undergo bizarre personality changes. She grew paranoid and reclusive, hiding from visitors to the apartment so they might not see that the vivacious Hedda of memory was now gray-haired and shockingly battered. "I was devastated when I last saw her on the street, about 18 months ago," says a Random House editor. "She didn't recognize me. She looked like a retired prizefighter."
For his part, Steinberg began to specialize increasingly in drug cases, leading observers, say police, to deduce from his erratic behavior and mood changes that he was himself a heavy drug user. In 1981 he represented the chief defendant, John Novak, who was convicted in one of the largest drug-smuggling cases in the history of Vermont. In a vain attempt to secure a new trial, Novak claimed, Steinberg asked frequently for cocaine and disappeared during court recesses to snort the drug in the men's room.
The rumors that drugs had finally sent the Steinberg-Nussbaum relationship tumbling terribly out of control were given credence by a police search of their apartment after Elizabeth's death. Detectives said that quantities of marijuana, hashish, heroin, cocaine and crack pipes were recovered, along with $18,290 in cash, $5,000 in traveler's checks and the kind of digital scales used to measure narcotics. Prosecutors speculate that Steinberg may have been a dealer.
Over the last few years, though, neighbors knew only that the cries and crashes from the 3W battleground seemed to be louder and more distressingly frequent. In public Joel Steinberg played the loving father, wheeling the carriage of Mitchell, his new baby, whose adoption in 1986 had left neighbors despairing of intercession by the authorities. Still, most people assumed that Hedda was the one being beaten, never believing that the bright little girl with the big vocabulary could be the target of anyone's wrath. Back in 1983 and 1984 two complaints of possible child abuse had been rejected as unsubstantiated by investigators from the city's Human Resources Administration.
Hindsight suggests there were signs that Lisa was in jeopardy. Recently she looked unhappy at school, and at least one older child knew that she cried when she had to go home. In class the once-eager little girl was listless, her hair matted, and she looked ill-cared for. When a teacher asked her about some prominent bruises, Lisa said her baby brother had hit her. Questioned by the teacher, Steinberg apparently gave the same story.
On two occasions in the last month of her life, Lisa came heartbreakingly close to rescue. On Oct. 6 police received yet another complaint about "noise" from 3W. Steinberg refused at first to open the door, claiming that he knew "his rights." Finally a sergeant pushed his way into the apartment and demanded to see Hedda Nussbaum. Coaxed to emerge from a bedroom, she had a swollen lip but refused to file a complaint. Police left behind a pamphlet explaining how battered wives could get help.
Two weeks later Sharon Listing, an alert toll taker on the New York State Thruway called police after seeing a bruised and sobbing little girl drive through in a car with a man. The car was stopped, and Steinberg—explaining that he was a New York lawyer returning to the city with his daughter after trying a drug-trafficking case in Albany—was able to convince the officers that all was well. Before releasing him, they photographed Lisa and noted her father's explanation that she had an aching neck.
Those photos may be used in evidence when the case against Steinberg comes to trial. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau has indicated that Steinberg is under investigation for other crimes as well, including possible illegalities in the adoption of Lisa and Mitchell. At first Hedda Nussbaum refused to co-operate with the investigation and claimed that Lisa's injuries resulted from roller-skating accidents. Though prosecutors apparently do not believe she was responsible for Lisa's injuries, she has been charged with murder for failing to intervene. There is speculation that she may accept a plea bargain, perhaps entering a guilty plea to a lesser charge, in return for her testimony against Steinberg.
Six days after the child's death, her natural mother came forward for the first time, winning a court battle for the right to bury Lisa. She testified that six years ago she thought she was hiring Steinberg as a lawyer to find adoptive parents for the girl. New York Mayor Ed Koch likened the murder to the notorious 1964 slaying of Kitty Genovese, another victim whose cries had gone unanswered. Schools and city agencies reviewed their actions but found no solace in "proper" procedures that still fail to prevent as many as 2,000 child abuse murders a year nationwide.
And now, the building on West 10th Street, which carries a plaque in memory of Mark Twain, also has become a kind of shrine for Lisa Steinberg. Every night, people in the neighborhood come by and pause. Some lay flowers at the entryway. Some leave notes. Some light candles. In life Lisa's suffering was her own and unheeded. In death it should not be forgotten, though it lies beyond all words, too deep for tears.
- Lee Powell,
- Yvonne Daley,
- Penina Spiegel.
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