A BLOODY INQUEST INTO THE MUTILATION CAPITAL OF THE COUNTRY
By Maury Z. Levy
ON SUNDAY THE TURKEY BUZZARDS flew low to the pines. You could hear their wings flapping a few hundred yards away as they swooped down into the garbage that hid in the trees. They are big, lazy birds, the turkey buzzards.
They were not an unusual sight to the people who lived in the dirty white cottages on Oakwood Drive or to the people in the wooden piney shacks on Crescent Avenue. Oakwood is a straight arrow off Route 571, a dead-end turn from the Phillips 66 station. Crescent is a big loop from 571. You pass the shacks first, the ones with the Russian names out front in this strange settlement called Rova Farms, where the people are peasants who live off the land, eating from little vegetable gardens fertilized by the dust of the road that passes a few feet from their doors.
It’s a very insular community that revolves around the big church around the corner on the Cassville-Freehold Road, a stately structure topped with big golden onion domes. Behind the church is a nice clean cemetery where the Russian peasants have buried their dead for almost 100 years.
You can see the tips of the golden onions from the point where Oakwood and Crescent run into each other and end. There are traces of a crude dirt road leading off that intersection into a hole in the woods. It’s a street with no name, a road that’s the width of one car, if you’re crazy enough to try to drive it. It’s murder on your wheels.
You curve past old beer cans and rubbish and you wind around the giant worn-out truck tires to the blond wood Emerson television set with the busted picture tube that sits two blocks back in the middle of the road that goes nowhere. Dead end.
These woods have been the dumping ground for a lot of things. The trees are very tall and very thick. So most people didn’t give a second thought to the turkey buzzards. Maybe an early season hunter had left his prey to rot or maybe there was something edible in the roadside trash.
But by Wednesday in what had been a very hot and humid week, things began to get a little strange. The humidity put a heavy lock on the air and a terrible smell started coming from the woods. The radio dispatch room in the Jackson Township police station got a couple calls about it. They sent a man out in a car. He drove up Crescent and down Oakwood. He smelled it too.
ON SATURDAY Steve Soltys brought the family down from Jersey City. Soltys finished work at 5:00 and came home and changed to get the blood off his clothes. He and Helene put the two kids and the dog in the car and drove to their summer cottage on Oakwood Drive, about eight miles west of Lakewood and a short holler from Toms River, the Ocean County seat.
While the family unpacked, Soltys let the collie out. But Yukee started charging through the woods after rabbits. Steve Soltys, 34, had to run out and get him. He got close enough to see the dog had something in his mouth. It wasn’t a rabbit. He came up closer and it looked like an arm, it had fingers and everything. First he thought it was part of a doll. And then he saw the fingernails. They were long and well-manicured and were covered with very bright red polish. It was a human arm.
He followed the dog another few yards and found the other arm. Steve Soltys was getting very sick in his stomach. He went about ten yards more and saw what the newspaper would later describe as the torso.
At one time it had been a torso, the headless, limbless body of a human female. But now it was a carcass, little more than a bunch of bones wrapped around a spine. There was a hole at the top and a hole at the bottom and nothing in between. It was like something Steve Soltys had seen in a slaughterhouse. All of the insides had been taken out and the body had been skinned.
Soltys started to shake and he turned white and he ran back to the house and called the police. Lt. Frank Hughes had been on these cases before, bodies in the woods. He’s a graying veteran of the Jackson police. But he’d never seen anything like this before.
“Look at the sockets of the arms,” he said. “The holes are clean. Usually when you mutilate somebody you just cut the arms off and some of the bone is left in the socket. This thing wasn’t a mutilation. The sockets are clean, the arms are perfect. No, this wasn’t a mutilation, this was a carving. The guy who did this knew how to carve meat.
Look at the fingertips. He cut off the under layers of skin so there’d be no way we could get prints. And he took the head with him so we couldn’t get anything from bone structure or teeth X rays. This son of a bitch knew what he was doing, all right.”
The Jackson police called in the Ocean County detectives from Toms River. They were quickly followed by state police and the FBI. And some people came over from Philadelphia, some detectives who’d been working on the case of a missing girl from Tacony. With them on the 60-some-mile due-east ride was Dr. Marvin Aronson, the Philadelphia medical examiner. Aronson had called ahead, and he knew there was next to nothing for identification. So he took a long shot, the only shot he had. He brought with him some Xrays of the spine. The killer hadn’t taken the spine, just the flesh that covered it. The picture matched.
DELORES DELLA PENNA WAS 17. She was a pretty girl who liked to wear faded jeans and halter tops and very bright red nail polish. She had just graduated from St. Hubert’s High School on Cottman Avenue. She had just returned with her folks from a trip to Disney World. Two weeks before they found her, she was packing her bags to go down the shore for the summer, down Wildwood.
On the night of July 11th, somebody grabbed her on Rawle Street, 25 steps away from her house. There was a struggle into a car and then a very long ride down some lonesome back roads. She ended up at the seashore, but about 100 miles north of where she was supposed to be. She ended up, what was left of her, in the wild woods near a very strange place called Toms River, a place where murder has become a way of life.
As in most crimes of this sort, a lot of people who never knew the victim got very deeply involved. Steve Soltys will never be the same. It was Sunday and the turkey buzzards had left. But the area around his summer cottage was crawling with dogs this time, dogs and detectives, each looking for other pieces of the girl and for any clues to the identity of the person who carved her up.
Steve Soltys couldn’t take it any more. He packed the family up and they drove back to Jersey City. The vacation was over. The next day Steve Soltys went back to work. He was a butcher.
THE SEARCH DRAGGED ON. About a week later an old man walking along a dirt road about eight miles away found the legs. Positive identification was made when the bright red polish on the toenails matched bright red polish on the fingernails. The legs were found in Manchester Township, off Route 571 about three miles from Route 70.
Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have taken very much to figure out who the arm belonged to. But then, Toms River isn’t a very normal place. Unofficially, Toms River is the murder and mutilation capital of the world. The chamber of commerce and the cops really don’t like it when people, especially outsiders, say things like that, but it’s true. When they find an arm or a leg just lying around, there’s no telling who it might belong to. Despite the nice weather, it’s not been a very pleasant summer in Toms River and the dozens of little beach communities that spin out from it. Really, it’s not been a very pleasant decade.
A week before they found the girl from Philadelphia, a fisherman was casting along the surf at nearby Island Beach. He reeled in a human leg.
Police thought the leg belonged to a white female. It was not very badly decomposed, so it couldn’t have been there too long. The state police brought in a helicopter to search the ocean for other parts of the body but it started to get dark and the tides changed, so they gave it up.
The leg, which was separated below the knee, was sent to Toms River Community Memorial Hospital, which seems to specialize in this sort of thing. While tests were being run, investigators checked all the missing persons alarms in Ocean and Monmouth Counties. It was a big job.
A week later they matched things up. The leg was identified as part of a dismembered body found a month earlier in parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. It belonged to a James Sweet of Brooklyn.
A New York sewer worker found the torso, minus head and arms, wrapped in a sheet not far from Sweet’s Brooklyn home. A few days later, a head, believed to belong to Sweet, was found in a Manhattan garbage can.
No one in Toms River has been able to figure out how the leg got down there. There are two schools of thought. Either somebody murdered Sweet in New York and brought the leg down or somebody murdered him in Toms River and brought the rest of the body up. No one is quite sure, so now it’s just another routine case on the Toms River books.
YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND a little bit about Toms River itself before you can even start to understand why things like this are so commonplace. Toms River is almost half way between New York and Philadelphia on the road to Seaside Heights. A lot of New York vacationers pass that way, which might help explain the piece of the man from New York. There are also a good number of people from Philadelphia.
The best that police can figure is that the killer of the latest Philadelphia girl took a hack route down, probably 571. That way he would have missed the police patrols and speed traps on Route 70.
It’s a long, lonesome drive east on 70. There is almost nothing but tall pines from Medford Lakes to the ocean. Not even a gas station if you get stuck. You just have to sit there on the side of the road arid hope that the first person who stops for you is a cop.
The drive is like the scenario from a bad dream. You know you’re getting close when you pass Mount Misery. You start watching for the turnoff to Toms River. Most roads in New Jersey just have numbers. This one has a name. It is called Double Trouble Road. If you take it straight, you end up in a town called Double Trouble. The first fork goes to Toms River. There’s not much difference.
There are more pines and every once in a while there is a clearing and a dirt path that goes into the woods. God knows what’s back there. Some homes are being built along the road, mostly one-story slab types for older folks. The area is very big on retirement communities for people who come down and wait to die.
You pass a lot of pineys, a lot of strange, dirty-looking People who look like they belong in Appalachia. Many of them live in shacks, some in log cabins. None of them ever look up at you.
You follow the signs to Toms River and you know you’re there because the final direction sign says, “Dead End.” There is a small marina facing you as you conic in. It’s filled with fishing boats, some of them nice-sized, so you know that some people there have some money.
The main drag only runs for a couple blocks as a commercial area. There are a few clusters of small shops, a clothes store that’s a little behind the times, a nice new bank and an old-fashioned drugstore on the corner of Washington Street. There is a poster that greets you in the window of the drugstore. It’s one of those movie billboard things that tells you what’s playing at the local theater. In this case it’s the Toms River Drive-In. The movie is called Now You See Him, Now You Don’t.
If you continue on, you pass some small, old, nicely-shrubbed two-story houses as the street becomes tree-lined on the way out to a big highway where things are building up around a Two Guys shopping center and a Gino’s and a McDonald’s, all of this to serve a permanent population of about 44,000 and a transient population, especially in warm weather, of several times more.
But if you take that first turn down Washington Street by the drugstore you miss all of the commercialism. The buildings here have colonial pillars and clean red brick. They are official buildings. Toms River is the seat of Ocean County. They have little cannons and things out on the front lawns to memorialize battles from the Revolutionary War.
It’s an old town, Toms River. It got its name in 1727 from a Captain William Tom, who was put in charge of things there by the English. Some say the town was really named after an Indian, one Thomas Pumha, who had a whole tribe here once. This used to be very much Indian country, but the locals don’t cotton much to Indians or any other outsiders.
Toms River is very much a hick town. Many of the women still wear their hair in buns, looking like they should be working in the library. And many of the men, never having heard the wet head was dead, look like they belong in a gas station.
There are a lot of quaint little flower beds outside the main county building, where you can still park for a penny. Not all of the people inside are so quaint.
CALVIN WOOLLEY is chief of county detectives. He looks like the southern cop in the Dodge commercials. But he’s in plain clothes. He sits behind an old desk chomping a cheap cigar, waiting a good three seconds before answering each question. You can hear his mind working through the sounds of silence. He’s not sure whether to lie to you or to just boot you out on your ass.
He’s fingering the file of his latest case. Traces of arsenic had been found in the blood of the wife of a reputed underworld leader and also in a soda bottle she drank from just before her death. This happened at her summer home in Toms River. The woman’s name was Carolyn Lardiere. She was 52.
Her husband John, 65, has been in prison for a year on a contempt charge because he refused to answer questions of a state commission investigating the Mob. The commission had tied him in with the organization of the late Vito Genovese. He was a reputed lieutenant of a North Jersey rackets boss. The investigating commissions say Lardiere was involved in organizing Teamsters Union locals.
Calvin Woolley has been having a rough time with this murder because none of the relatives have been willing to talk. It runs in the Family. And when they told Lardiere that his wife had been killed, he refused to believe them. He still thinks she’s alive, that the story of her death is a plot to trap him into talking.
Calvin Woolley holds to the line of every other local official we spoke to. He says there is no Mob presence in Toms River. Sources inside the FBI say differently, much differently. They say the area from Toms River to Asbury Park is a summer haven for the Mob, not to mention a dumping ground for its victims, which is something that Calvin Woolley didn’t want to mention.
“Yeah,” he says, “the old Celso farm in Jackson Township. I think they found a body out there once.”
The 1967 FBI investigation in Jackson Township is one of the better-kept local secrets. A source in the Jackson police department says he knows of at least three bodies that were found, but his department doesn’t have any names or any proof because the FBI took the whole thing over and wouldn’t let the local lawmen in.
“The reds sealed off the whole area,” the Jackson man says. “We knew there was something big going on there. Christ, they had at least 300 men in the area.”
FBI sources say only that two bodies were found. They were found out on rural Cook Road, both the victims of Mafia enforcers. Neither of the bodies was ever positively identified, but one was believed to be Kenneth Later, 50, a New York stockbroker who had vanished four years earlier.
The body was found in a 55-gallon drum of acid. The drum had been buried beneath the concrete floor of a chicken coop across Cook Road from the 100-acre, weed- infested Celso farm.
The other body was found in a pit that had been filled with mash from an old bootleg still. The property was owned by Joseph Celso, 49, a convicted bootlegger, and his wife Rosa. Both were taken into custody and then released.
Meanwhile, the FBI kept digging. They were looking for the body of a missing gangland playgirl named Barbara Delmar. Mrs. Delmar also had disappeared four years earlier after leaving her home in Danbury, Connecticut. Authorities there say a reputed lieutenant in the Genovese family telephoned her and, after the call, she packed her suitcase and left. She told a niece she was going to New York City and that she wouldn’t be back for four or five days.
When police questioned her husband about his missing wife, he didn’t seem too concerned. “Oh,” he said, “she’s probably with Ken Later.”
Only the FBI seems to know whether Barbara Delmar’s body was ever found, or how many more along with it. ”We expect to find more bodies, though not necessarily on the same farm,” an FBI spokesman said at the time.
Local officials say they don’t know how many bodies were eventually found, but they’ve got enough of their own problems to worry about. Calvin Woolley says there have been over 40 murders around Toms River just in the past six or seven years, many of them mutilations. He seemed hard-pressed to remember any of the details.
“Let’s see,” he said, scratching his head rather unconvincingly, “there was the Girardi case. This guy stabbed some woman 40 times. Not much else I can remember, though. Give me some time to think.”
We told him we’d be back later on, that there were a few things we wanted to check out, but that we wanted to grab a cup of coffee first. We went back to the main drag and drove down Route 35 a few blocks to the Driftwood Diner. A few trucks and cars were parked outside. We went in and got a booth and ordered.
We figured we’d get some local color with our coffee. We asked the waitress if she remembered any local murders. She turned green. “Hey, that’s a pretty sick joke,” she said. When we finally convinced her we didn’t know what she was talking about, she told us the whole story. ”Right here,” she said, kicking the floor, “it happened right here. They just found part of him last month.”
JOHN BELL WAS 36. He was supposed to have taken over the diner from John Lynch, a father of five. It was the summer of ’71. Late one night they got into an argument over the financial arrangement. The argument became very heated. Lynch pulled out a gun and shot Bell to death. It was a while, though, before anyone ever figured out Bell was missing. They picked it up in bits and pieces.
Somebody found a big bag along a highway in Virginia. Inside were the head and torso of John Bell. A short time later, a camper found two arms and one leg in Shawnee State Park in Western Pennsylvania. The gun used to shoot him was found in Neshaminy Creek in Bristol. And the last part wasn’t found until over a year later. A fisherman in Schnellsburg, Pennsylvania, found the left leg.
We never did finish the coffee. On an empty stomach we drove back to see Calvin Woolley. Ah yes, now he remembered the case at the diner. John Lynch is now serving 20 years for second-degree murder.
We asked Woolley why. Why in Toms River was mutilation so common, so popular? Certainly every town has its share of murders, but why the little pieces?
“Yeah,” Woolley said, “well, you know we asked Lynch about that. We asked him why he cut this Bell guy up in all those pieces. And he came up with a pretty good answer. He said he wanted to get rid of the body and it was easier to carry that way.”
The crazy thing is that if you hang around Toms River long enough, stuff like that starts to make sense. It’s weird. The people there just seem to take these things very matter-of factly .
Like we were in the local library trying to find some information they didn’t have and we started talking to the librarian, a nice family lady, about the area.
“There sure are an awful lot of woods around here,” she said. “I went with my husband last week to one of the state parks nearby here. It was a really deserted place. There weren’t any other people around. There was nothing there but trees. ‘Gee,’ I said to my husband, ‘wouldn’t this be a great place to dump a body?” She was still giggling when we left.
Calvin Woolley blames the woods for many of the bodies. “It’s so open here, so barren,” he says, “this whole area is just a natural dumping ground. Nobody but hunters ever goes in. We certainly can’t get police cars in there to patrol. We’re right between New York and Philly, so we get it from both ends. Who knows how many bodies are out there in the woods, bodies nobody will ever find. You could look forever.”
Some historian made a survey about that once, over 100 years ago. A small boy named Warren Conklin, age six, the son of a hunter, went into the woods back in the summer of 1860 to bring dinner to his father. The boy got lost. Hundreds of people searched for him for three months. His decayed body was found close to a spot that the searchers had passed many times, the woods were that thick. They still are. The historian who recorded the case did some interesting mathematics involving the number of people who searched, the amount of time and the amount of ground. He figured it would have taken one man 17 years to cover as much ground.
Warren Conklin was the first recorded death of that sort in the Toms River area. He certainly wouldn’t be the last. In the century that followed, Toms River would know death better than any town around. The bodies just keep popping up.
On our last visit to Calvin Woolley’s office, the chief was trying to think of numbers. “A lot of people,” he said, “just a lot of people. Hell, there are eight of ’em right here in this room.” We didn’t understand.
“Right over here,” he said, pointing to a cardboard box that said Kendall Motor Oil on it. We walked over and looked in and there in little plastic bags and Dixie cups were the remains of eight people. Parts of bones. Pieces of skulls. “You mean there are eight human beings in this box?” we asked.
“Naw,” Calvin Wooley said, “we thought they were human beings at first. Turns out they were Indians. Somebody found them in a park. Guess they must be a couple hundred years old. We’ll probably give them away to a museum or something. They don’t do me no good sittin’ around here. They just clutter up the office. I’ve got enough bodies to worry about without having to worry about Indians.”
THE BODIES I UST KEEP popping up. Nobody would give us an official count. No one’s really sure if there is one. By Calvin Woolley’s top-of-thehead count, there’s been between 40 and 50 discovered since 1965—but there’re probably a lot more than that.
On August 19th, 1972, a group of surveyors found the decomposed body of a young man in a wooded area near Route 72. The body, though fully clothed, bore no identifying papers. The county medical examiner estimated the man had been dead from one to two months. The dead male was between 17 and 25 years old, medium height, slight build. He was found behind a drive-in movie about 100 yards from a gravel pit.
On May 23rd, 1972, Mrs. Margaret Lyon, 74, was beaten to death with a grub hoe. She lived in a local senior citizens’ housing project.
On March 20th, 1972, state police announced a body had been found by a man walking his dog in nearby Lebanon State Forest, the third body found there since August, 1971. All three bodies had been shot with .32 caliber guns and all had their throats slit. All three bodies were male, all in their 20s. In August, 1971 a torso was found in the forest. A complete body in the same area in October.
On December 26th, 1971, the Rev. John L. Wessell, 33, was walking out of Toms River Community Memorial Hospital when he was shot to pieces by a 24-year-old Vietnam veteran with a shotgun. Wessell had just come from a counseling session with his attacker.
On June 6th; 1969, Paul Sass, 56, owner of a dry goods store in Freehold, was gunned down with a shotgun near his home in Lakewood. A motive was never established, a suspect never found.
On August 10th, 1966, local residents became concerned over three killings in the space of a week. Mrs. Dorothy McKenzie, 45, of Toms River was shot to death in a car in back of the Regent Diner. Two days before, 18-year-old Ronald Sandlin, a gas station attendant in Lakewood, was kidnapped and killed. Five days earlier, the nude body of 18-year-old Donna DeRier, a Hawthorne coed, was found near Allaire State Park. She had been bludgeoned to death.
On May 14th, 1966, three teenaged boys bicycling along Cooks Bridge Road in Jackson Township saw something floating in a branch of the Metedeconk River. The object turned out to be 17-year-old Catherine Baker of Edison Township, who had been missing for two months. Police arrested a suspect who was found hanged in jail the next day. After Miss Baker’s body was discovered, local police logged about 100 reports of bodies being found in one section of town or another. There were reports of bodies on the beach and in a Toms River shopping center.
On February 5th, 1965, Irwin C. Brown sold a tavern in Philadelphia. That day he was seen smiling and flashing a large roll of bills. He was never seen alive again. His body was found, minus the bankroll, in the woods off Route 539 in Stafford Township. He had been dead three days.
On October 3rd, 1964, hunters found the body of Anthony Scanella Jr. of Trenton in the woods of Jackson Township. His killer made the mistake of picking the first day of deer hunting season to dump the bullet-riddled body. Some hunters got a make on the car and the killer was caught and sentenced to life.
On August 26th, 1963, a passerby found the body of a teenage girl in the woods off Route 70 in Manchester Township. The body had been tied with an electric cord, strangled and burned. It took investigators two months to identify it as that of Leola Jones, 18, a babysitter from Neptune. The body was identified through use of a dental chart.
On September 15th, 1965, Mary Ann Klinsky, 18, of West Keansburg was found on a slope of the Garden State Parkway. Her nude body had been raped and beaten. Her clothing was never found, leading police to believe she was killed elsewhere and dumped on the parkway.
On June 9th, 1962, Phyllis Jones, an attractive student at the Hedgerow Acting School in Philadelphia, disappeared from the beach at Barnegat Light. A passerby found her body in a desolate area of Lacey Township near the pit where the state dumps illegally-killed deer.
The list goes on and on. And the further back you go the more bodies and pieces of bodies you find. Some people around Toms River would have you believe that all of this is just coincidence. Maybe.
But we very carefully, just as the police probably have, traced the route of the latest killer, picking it up in Tacony and following it all the way down the back roads to Jackson Township. And it was no coincidence. He had to have been in that area before to know those back roads so well. He knew where he was going. It was an almost perfect crime. The cops around Toms River were impressed by that.
The girl from Tacony with the bright red nail polish had never been to Toms River before. She had never seen the people from New York and Philadelphia sail their boats out of the marina toward Seaside Heights. She had never seen the wooden shacks or the little white cottages or the big brown pines. But like so many before her she ended up here.
The summer was ending when we left Toms River, the air had a nice nip and a lot of people started going home. For most of them it had been a very nice summer. Many of them never even knew about the girl from Tacony. The papers here really didn’t play it up much. They only play up unusual things in Toms River.