Hurricane's last foe
Hollywood has cast Rubin ``Hurricane'' Carter as a '60s civil rights
martyr. But among those who helped send him to prison, Carter still
plays the role of killer.
BY SUE REISINGER
The audience sits hushed and solemn in the dark Port St. Lucie theater,
watching as the actor playing Rubin ``Hurricane'' Carter stares into
his young friend's eyes and asks: ``Lesra, do you believe I killed
Lesra: ``I know you didn't.''
Suddenly a woman sitting in the theater's back row breaks the silence,
announcing in a steel-hard voice: ``I know you did.''
That woman is Patty Valentine. The real-life Patty Valentine, whose
discovery of a 1966 triple murder in Paterson, N.J., was lyricized in
the opening of the Bob Dylan song, Hurricane.
``Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out, ``My God, they killed them all!''
And this is the first newspaper interview she has given since the
killings that sent Carter to prison for 19 years until his conviction
She and other persons touched by the crime are breaking years of
silence for two key reasons: The book and hit movie, The Hurricane,
along with Carter's many TV appearances, are glorifying a man they
blame for the deaths of their friends. And they cannot live with the
way the movie depicts Det. Vince DeSimone as an evil and corrupt cop
who pursued Carter all his life and framed him for the murders.
Valentine and three other former Paterson, N.J., area residents, who
all now live in Florida, came together to view the movie. All four were
caught up in the murders' aftermath.
During the movie, the four sit mostly quiet, munching popcorn,
occasionally groaning at what they see as distortions of fact. But in
one almost surreal moment, while the audience watches intently, the
movie depicts a disheveled Patty Valentine hearing the shots and
hurrying into the bar in her nightclothes to discover the bodies.
The real Valentine starts to giggle.
Then, right in the middle of this dramatic moment, the real Valentine
blurts out: ``Damn, I hope I look better than that now.'' The entire
foursome bursts into laughter.
Before and after the movie, they sit at a patio table sipping drinks --
Valentine drinking only sodas. They look at old pictures and newspaper
clippings, and talk about the one topic that haunts their lives. The
Lafayette Grill murders.
The four are:
Valentine, 57 this year, a tough, expletive-not-deleted kind of woman
who still fears for her safety. She no longer goes by that last name,
still will not allow her picture to be taken, has never told her
neighbors or others close to her about her connection to the murders,
and will not say where in Florida she lives.
Valentine lived in Broward for a while, where she filed a defamation
and invasion of privacy suit here against singer Bob Dylan. She lost in
1983, the judge ruling that for the purposes of this crime, she was a
public figure. She has since moved elsewhere in Florida.
James Lawless, 72, a retired Paterson police officer who lived less
than two blocks from the bar and was the first officer on the murder
scene. Lawless retired in 1981 as Paterson's deputy police chief and
moved to Florida. When Muhammad Ali showed up in 1976 with a quarter
million dollars in cash, in a suitcase, for Hurricane Carter's bail,
Lawless was assigned to guard Ali.
The colorful Lawless also worked 18 years as a weekend stunt driver in
a thrill show until age 62, when his wife made him quit. In Florida,
Lawless started a home security firm, and went to work for a while for
then-Broward Sheriff Nick Navarro as head of courthouse security.
Eventually he was elected Port St. Lucie city councilman in the '80s
and served as the town's mayor in the early '90s. Port St. Lucie is in
St. Lucie County, just north of Palm Beach. It was at his home the four
gathered Tuesday night.
Cal Deal, 50, then a reporter/photographer for The Passaic Herald-News
in Paterson, who wrote about the murders and interviewed Carter in
prison in 1975. Deal later moved to Florida where he worked for various
newspapers, including The Herald.
Deal, who had stayed in touch with Valentine through the years, now
owns a trial graphics business in Fort Lauderdale. He has established a
controversial Carter Web site (www.graphicwitness.com/carter) to, in
his words, ``counterbalance the movie.''
The fourth is Valentine's lifelong friend, who was her roommate above
the bar at the time of the murders. Her name is being withheld by
request. She happened to be visiting her mother the night of the
killings, ``or else Patty and I probably would have been down there
with our friends, shooting pool.''
Though there is little that both sides can agree on, one fact is
certain: Those who believe in Carter's guilt do so with the same fervor
and unwavering determination as those who fought for his freedom.
Between those two extremes, these facts are undisputed:
Amid the explosive racial tensions of the mid-1960s, two black men
using a shotgun and a .32 caliber handgun killed three white people and
wounded a fourth in the Lafayette Grill around 2:30 a.m. on June 17,
Two died instantly. The third was hospitalized and survived a month.
The fourth, Willie Marins, survived but died in 1973 of unrelated
Patty Valentine, who lived above the bar, had been awakened by the
shots. She looked down from her bedroom window and saw the two men
climb into a white car with distinctive triangular taillights.
Also at the scene was Alfred Bello, a chronic liar and thief whose
testimony would often change. He had been trying to break into a
warehouse nearby with an accomplice. This part of his story did not
change: He saw the two fleeing men carrying guns get into a white car
with ``butterfly'' taillights and out-of-state blue and gold plates.
No one got a license plate number.
At 2:34 a.m., a police bulletin went out for a white car with two black
occupants. A patrol car near the bar spotted a speeding white car but
Almost everyone now agrees, the murderers were in that speeding car.
After circling around, police pulled over a white car at 2:40 a.m. It
carried Hurricane Carter, John Artis and a third man (accounts differ
on who he was). Because the police officer knew Carter, a prizefighter
challenging for the middleweight title, he let them go.
A short time later, police were alerted that the suspect car also had
``butterfly taillights'' and out-of-state, blue and gold plates.
Carter's car had both, including blue and gold New York plates. The
police raced back to look for Carter.
This time police found only Carter and Artis in the car. They were
ordered to drive to the bar. There, both Valentine and Bello identified
Carter's 1966 white Dodge as the getaway car.
But no one at the scene identified Carter and Artis as the killers.
Bello would do that in October, saying he delayed because he was afraid
for his safety, and because he hoped to slip away quietly to avoid
questions about his criminal activities that night.
A search of Carter's car turned up one live .32 caliber bullet and one
live 12-gauge shotgun shell, but no weapons.
Carter and Artis were taken to the hospital where a wounded and shocked
Willie Marins did not identify them. Carter and Artis were then
questioned at the police station, given lie detector tests and let go.
In November, after Bello identified Carter and Artis, they were
indicted for murder. After two trials and two convictions, a federal
judge in 1985 freed them. The judge ruled that prosecutors had violated
their due process rights by arguing a racial revenge theory, and by
withholding evidence that Bello's lie detector test was conflicting.
Patty Valentine recalls:
``If I live to be 99 and in a wheelchair and not remember my kids'
names, I'll still remember that night and what I saw.''
When the shots woke her, she looked out her bedroom windows and saw the
two black men getting into the white car, which was waiting parked in
the street. She ran downstairs in her pajamas covered by a rain coat.
``I saw the bodies. Willie Marins [shot in the forehead] was standing,
holding onto a pole.
``He said, `I been shot.' He wasn't even trying to wipe the blood away.
That's what was amazing; it was just trickling right down his nose.''
Valentine saw her good friend, Hazel Tanis, lying on the floor, shot
five times. Tanis was still conscious. ``Hazel was a mess, oh God.
``She said `My God, Patty, I've been shot.' I said, `I know, what can I
do for you?' She said `Call Bob, call Bob.' That was her boyfriend. She
gave me his number. And I went right out the door, afraid I would
forget Bob's number.''
Valentine ran upstairs, called Bob, called the police, threw some
clothes on, and ran back down. Later she would realize that her shirt
was on inside-out and that she had forgotten to put in her false teeth.
By the time Valentine got back downstairs, the first police officers
had arrived but she insisted on staying with Tanis until an ambulance
Did the movie scene of Tanis lying bloody on the floor bother her?
``The bar wasn't the same. She wasn't where they put her in the movie.
I guess that's why it didn't bother me quite so much.''
Jim Lawless recalls:
``I've seen a lot of homicide cases. I even fought in a war [World War
II, he joined at age 16]. But I've never seen anything like that
Lawless lived 1 1/2 blocks away. While the dispatcher was radioing
patrol cars, the station also phoned Lawless and told him a caller was
screaming that ``someone was shooting up the Lafayette Grill. People
Lawless tossed on some clothes, ``grabbed two guns and went running
down the street toward the bar. As far as I knew, they [the shooters]
were still there.''
When Lawless arrived, ``I saw Hazel first. I knew her. She was a
waitress at the country club. Her stomach was hanging out.''
He pauses. ``She asked me to shoot her . . . .''
He goes on, ``I don't remember seeing Marins at first.'' Valentine
interrupts here that Marins had gone into the bathroom to relieve
himself. When he came out, ``he started drinking everyone's drinks left
on the bar.''
``I didn't see Bello,'' Lawless remembers. ``Either he was hiding, or
he had gone down the street.'' (Police later learned that Bello had
rifled the cash register of $62, taken the money to his accomplice,
then returned to the scene because he was afraid he might be implicated
in the shootings if he ran.)
Eventually Lawless went to the station that night. It was he who took
down Patty Valentine's written statement. After she got her teeth.
As the movie ends, the four sit watching the credits roll. When they
see the name of the actress who portrays Valentine, they laugh one
final time. Her name is Pippa Pearthree.
Barely out of their seats, they start ripping apart the movie.
``My biggest problem,'' Lawless says, ``is that the movie would have
you believe that it was a racially motivated arrest.
``The arrest was made and we were sure we had the right people, because
if we didn't have the right people, it would be criminal for us to let
the people who did that to Hazel and the others go. Just wrong. You
know, I have to sleep at night, too.''
Then he adds: ``And the fellows that worked on that case, I never had a
problem with them. Everything was being done by the book. If there were
mistakes, they were innocent mistakes.''
One of this group's biggest problems with the film is how it portrays
one detective, named Vince Della Pesca in the film, as a conniving and
evil man, a racist who pursues Carter relentlessly from the time he was
The movie's producers have argued that Della Pesca is not a real
person, that he is a composite character who reflects the corruption
and racial prejudice of the Paterson police department and the
complicity of the New Jersey criminal justice system.
Yet, a real detective formed the basis for the role -- the late Passaic
County detective Vincent DeSimone, who worked for the prosecutor's
office and helped prepare the case against Carter. In real life,
DeSimone was not involved in the arrest nor even in the investigation
until about two weeks later.
Valentine and Lawless say unlike the movie character, the real DeSimone
was not a racist, never swore, and would never ask anyone to lie.
She has called DeSimone's son to console him, and to reassure him that
the movie character is a fraud.
``I'm telling you, this man protected me with his life,'' Valentine
says. ``And no one ever asked me to lie [to identify Carter]. Not
Lawless says the police officers involved in the investigation never
would have allowed DeSimone or anyone else to have framed someone.
``I mean, we knew those people [victims]. They were our neighbors, our
friends. Only an idiot would think we could see what we saw that night
and then try to convict an innocent man.
``You'd have to be stupid to think we wouldn't want to find the real
killers. And I think we did.''
In a resolute voice, Valentine has the last word on the film and
Carter: ``He did this. He did this. I don't care what this movie is
telling you. He did this.''
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