His Wife Tried (more Than Once) to Kill Him, but Tony Toto Is Alive, Well—and Phoning Her in Prison

updated 05/07/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/07/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I Love Tony (Situation Comedy) Tony To to goes sprawling down the front steps of his house after an unknown assailant rigs a wire across the top stair. Tony walks away uninjured. It had all the absurd makings of a sitcom, and starting with that pratfall in August 1982, the adventures of Tony Toto seemed headed for a long run. In fact, according to Allentown, Pa. police, the then 37-year-old pizzeria owner scarcely had time to ponder the identity of his assailant before the attacker tried again.

I Love Tony (Situation Comedy)
Tony is accosted by a stranger who attempts to brain him with a baseball bat. The bat becomes tangled in a bush, and Tony gets off without a scratch. Toto was getting a mite peeved. Clearly somebody wanted him out of the way. But who? Why? A few weeks later, while the police were investigating, Tony's nemesis struck again.

I Love Tony (Situation Comedy)
Tony discovers that someone has rigged his 1982 Lincoln to explode when he turns the ignition key. The device fails, and Tony drives off safely. Tony couldn't figure it. Certainly there was no reason to suspect Frances, 38, his wife of 17 years, who worked at his side in their pizzeria. Then in January 1983 someone tried again to do him in. And now there was a new character in the script, Anthony Bruno, 21, who was dating Tony's daughter, Elizabeth, 17.

I Love Tony (Situation Comedy)
A man creeps into Tony's bedroom while he is sleeping and with Tony's .25-caliber automatic shoots him in the head. The bullet lodges in Toto's brain but miraculously fails to kill him. Toto went into shock. Frances took care of him, fed him chicken soup laced with the sleeping aid Nytol. The trusting Toto later explained, "She did it to make sure that if I died, I would die in my sleep." The police were not so sure.

I Love Tony (Situation Comedy)
Two teenage boys steal up on Tony as he sleeps. Unsure where Tony's heart is located, they recall that in grade school the right hand goes over the heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. One of the boys presses Tony's gun against his chest and fires. The bullet goes right through Tony, but the wound is not fatal. In fact, Tony gets up and walks into the living room wanting to know what all the noise is about. The next night the teenagers, cousins named Ronald and Donald Barlip, bragged to a friend about their new careers as hit men. The friend told the police. Captain Gerald Monahan found Tony in bed, and pulling down the blankets, discovered Tony's chest wound. Monahan caught up with Frances, who had already left the room to call her lawyer, and arrested her for attempted murder. The sitcom was over.

From the moment he was well enough to comprehend his situation, Toto vigorously defended Frances. He posted $50,000 bail for her, hired her the best lawyer he could afford, and testified in her behalf. According to Toto, the real villain was Anthony Bruno. "He sees I've got a nice home, a nice business, a nice family, and he's going to get it all," Toto declared.

The police, however, believed that Frances had started trying to kill Tony even before Bruno came into the picture. She certainly had a motive: Toto admitted that he was a ladies' man—"my mistake was my nightlife." According to Frances, Tony also beat her frequently; he admits only that he "pushed" her on occasion.

In March Frances began serving four to 10 years in the state prison at Muncy, about 90 miles northwest of Allentown. For aiding Frances, Bruno and the Barlip boys also got prison sentences.

Tony, who came to the U.S. from Bari, Italy at 14, is now thinking of opening a pizza parlor closer to Frances' new address. Meanwhile he and his four children phone Frances every night for 15 minutes. The calls make Tony wistful. "According to the law, she's wrong, and I have to go along with the law. But in my heart, I know Frances is innocent."

Then he says, "I'm looking forward to my wife coming home. We've got a lot of good years ahead of us." Barring, of course, an accident.

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