A Prayer Before Dying
The scenario was right out of the Godfather movies. But the young men who were later arrested for the crime were no mobsters. They were all suburban teenagers—two only 14 years old. They all knew each other through family ties, school or membership in the Sea Cadets. One taught Sunday school. Even more ordinary, perhaps, than their backgrounds was their boredom and lack of direction. They spent their nights cruising around, drifting through a neon-lit blur of video arcades, malls and fast-food join Is. "[We] just drove around whichever way the car was pointing," one of the boys said later.
Shortly after their arrests, three of the teenagers, whose identities have been protected throughout the ensuing legal proceedings, worked out plea bargains, agreeing to testify against both James Wanger, 19, who wielded the fatal cord, and the group's informal leader, Frank Castaldo, 20, who is accused of masterminding the murder, Manson-like, even though he wasn't at the scene.
Last week a Superior Court jury in Paterson, N.J., found Wanger guilty of murder, despite his claim that he wasn't present at the crime scene. But his conviction and three-week trial shed little light on the motive for the killing. "I've given you the what, the how, the who, but what I really can't give you is the why," prosecutor John Snowdon Jr. told jurors in his closing arguments. "There's something missing from these people."
What emerged from trial testimony was that the group in the parking lot that night nurtured a Godfather fantasy all their own. Castaldo, a 12th-grade dropout, played the role of capo. "[It was] like a gang, almost, where we'd have meetings, talk about stuff," one of the 14-year-olds said. "It was like the junior Mob. I was part of something...a big something to me." Sometimes the boys stayed out all night. Sometimes they got into fights with one another. Sometimes they played a game, trying to lose—or ditch—each other during their endless cruising.
They also drank, which led to a falling-out with Solimine, who had been a close friend of Wanger's since they joined the Sea Cadets together when they were 13. Solimine, a high school senior whose parents were divorced, overdosed on prescription drugs during the summer of 1991 and was sent to an intensive-treatment program. When he got out in August, he had changed. "He stopped drinking," complained another of the teens on the witness stand. "And when he stopped drinking he didn't know what to do with himself. He kept coming around and wouldn't stop.... He wanted us to stop drinking too."
Solimine soon got the reputation of being a tattletale. Some incidents are in dispute, but one is not. A month or so before the murder, one of the older boys got drunk during an evening's outing. Once the youth was home, he sat in his car outside his house. Solimine, he testified later, "woke my mother up and told her I was in my car drunk." The drunken boy was put on a curfew, and revenge for this is the closest thing authorities can find to a motive. "It's not much," says Clifton police detective captain James Territo. "In New York City they kill somebody for a quarter or a coat or a hat or whatever. But even that is motivation."
For whatever reason, at some point during January 1992 the group decided Solimine had to be punished. They pretended to still be his friends "so that we could do something worse to him later," one boy told the court. The "something worse" was cooked up at a series of clandestine meetings with Mafia-like overtones. At one point, Wanger gave everyone St. Joseph medals as a symbol of solidarity.
First the group tried vandalism. Unfortunately for Solimine, they failed in efforts to slash his tires or steal one of his wheels. Each time they tried, Solimine or someone else happened on the scene. That led Castaldo to conclude that "a spirit" was looking out for Solimine, one teen testified. Undiscouraged by such apparent supernatural intervention, "we began to talk about killing him," another added.
The first attempt came in late January or early February, when the group tried to blow up Solimine's car by stuffing a shoplifted can of feminine hygiene spray into the fuel tank, mistakenly believing it would explode when the car was started. But they couldn't even manage to pry open the gas cap. Two weeks later they decided to torch the car after handcuffing Solimine to the steering wheel. Sensibly, Solimine resisted when Wanger tried to cajole him into trying on a pair of "trick" cuffs. "It would be comical," said one of the prosecutors early in the case, "but we're still left with a tragic result—that Robert Solimine was strangled to death."
On the chilly night of Feb. 16, three juveniles testified, the teenagers ended the evening's rambles in the deserted elementary school parking lot. Each of the teens knew that Solimine was supposed to be murdered, but the timing and method had been left vague. Then, the teen in the passenger seat testified, Wanger said in Italian, "Adesso "—"Now."
First Wanger suggested that they listen to the birds, the teen testified.
"This is stupid," Solimine replied. "Let's leave."
"All right, all right," Wanger answered. "We'll say a prayer before we leave."
Solimine agreed, the teen in the passenger seat testified.
The reason for the prayer, said prosecutor Snowdon, was to lull Solimine into closing his eyes long enough for Wanger to slip the garrote over his head. This time the plan worked. "His head was to the side, and his tongue was sticking out," testified the teen in the passenger seat. "The only time I saw him moving was when Wanger pulled back on the cord."
After they were sure Solimine was dead, one boy testified to setting fire to a rag stuffed into the gas lank in an attempt to destroy the car. The rag burned out before doing any significant damage. Meanwhile, the other youths fled. When they met up later that night, the three minors all testified, Wanger was jubilant.
"Yeah, he's dead!" he shouted. "Let's celebrate!"
Afterward, they went to Castaldo's house. His response? "He just gave a tiny little smirk," one boy said. "That was it."
The three teenagers who testified against Wanger demonstrated a chilling lack of remorse on the witness stand. "In a way I felt bad that he was dead. In a way I felt good," one of them told Judge Ronald Marmo's hushed courtroom. "I never really accomplished anything in my life...and this being done, I did."
Having been convicted, Wanger now faces a minimum of 30 years in prison. Each of the three teens was given an indeterminate sentence but is expected to serve no more than five years in return for his testimony. One of the judges administering the plea bargains said he hoped the teen before him would put his time in custody to good use. "You're going to have to say a lot of Hail Marys," Judge Carmen Ferrante told one of the teenagers, "to salvage anything in your life.
MARIA SPEIDEL in New Jersey