THE CASE OF THE DEAD JURORS
In 1947, twelve jurors rendered a guilty verdict in a murder trial and a man was sent to the electric chair. Five years later, it’s discovered he was innocent and now someone is knocking off one juror after another. Tony and Mindy race to find the killer before all twelve are dead.
Saturday, October 10, 1953, 12:45 P.M.
The detective game was in the dump. Not a single divorce lawyer referral in two months. No skip tracers to find. Nothing. Cash flow was down to a trickle. Tony Donohoo sat at the bar of the Yellow Front Saloon chewing on a hamburger and washing it down with a bottle of Schlitz.
“Whatsamatta, Tony? You don’t look happy,” observed Frankie from behind the bar. Frankie was Tony’s older brother.
“I got nothin’ goin’, Frankie. Bank account is near empty. If you need somebody a couple of nights behind the stick, give me a yell. I could use the money. And I still owe you a hundred from last week.” Tony was referring to the sum he had borrowed from his brother, Frankie, to finance the annual pilgrimage to New England that Mindy insisted upon to see the fall foliage each year in the first week of October. All of Vermont and the rest of New England were bathed in glorious gold, orange and red. Mindy, his longtime girl friend and detective operative, was also a commercial free-lance photographer. The first week of October was hog heaven to a photographer. She made the trip bedecked with camera bags and a dozen rolls of film. They had gotten an early start on Friday afternoon in Mindy’s Kelly green ‘51 Ford convertible. The balmy weather permitted the entire trip to be with the top down. They checked into a small country inn in Arlington. To satisfy the blue-nosed Vermont innkeeper, Mindy spun her Hackensack High class ring around to appear as a plain gold wedding band. This enabled Tony to sign the register “Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Donohoo, of Hackensack, New Jersey.” The merchants and townspeople varied their normal caustic attitudes and distrust of visitors just a bit in anticipation of the short lived economic boom brought on by the dazzling array the forests of Sugar Maple, Ash, Beech, and Yellow Birch displayed with the change of season.
Saturday was spent photographing covered bridges, dynamic flora, and attending overpriced church sales with stalls under tents selling goods at 300% of what the locals would pay, if they were to buy the stuff at all. Tony actually enjoyed the crustiness of the natives. That evening, Tony and Mindy had a luxurious dinner of clam chowder and braised pork at the Four chimneys Inn in Rutland.
“Don’t worry about the C-note, Tony. I know you’re good for it,” Frankie said.
It’s good to have a big brother, thought Tony, even if he’s smaller.
Frankie moved down the bar to address a man that was not a regular. He had walked in and was looking over the patrons with a quizzical look on his face. He was in his forties and wore slacks, an open collar shirt and a cardigan. “Can I help you, pal?”
“I’m looking for Tony Donohoo,” came the answer.
“That’s my little brother,” said Frankie with a wide grin. “That’s him with the long puss and the hamburger.”
“I don’t want to disturb your lunch,” the man said. “Your receptionist told me you’d be here.”
“No, that’s all right, take a load off.” The man hopped up on the stool next to Tony. “What’s on your mind?”
“My name’s Brendan Cavanagh. I may want to hire you.”
“To do what?”
“It’s kind of confidential. Is there some place we can go?”
“We can move to a table, or if you want to wait a couple of minutes, we can go to my office, which is behind that bookcase over there. You want a beer, or somethin’?”
“No, no thanks. I’ll wait. Finish your lunch. I’m in no hurry.”
* * *
“What’s on your mind?” Tony repeated, now seated behind his desk and facing Mr. Cavanagh.
“What’s with the secret door?” asked the visitor, smiling.
“It’s a throwback to Prohibition. Pop ran a speakeasy in the saloon. The front was all boarded up and the way to get in was by entering the real estate office, into this room, and then passing into the barroom. In those days, you could sell all the booze you wanted just so long as it didn’t look like that’s what you were doing. Now, what’s troubling you?”
“My wife died in a so-called accidental drowning a couple of months ago.” Cavanagh’s voice broke slightly.
“Sorry to hear that. Why so-called?”
“I have a cabin up on Sunrise Lake in New York State. It’s been in the family since my grandparents built it around the turn of the century.”
“I know Sunrise Lake. I’ve been there visiting friends.” said Tony.
“We go up on weekends starting in April, and after the summer’s over, as late as Thanksgiving.
During the summer, my wife and kids would spend all week there, and I would come up on Friday nights and head back Tuesday mornings. “My wife, Marcy, was a strong swimmer and in the habit of taking a swim in the lake by herself about seven each morning. It woke her up. She’d return full of energy. There’s a float anchored out in the lake about fifty yards. It’s about ten by ten and buoyed up by a bunch of 55 gallon drums. A couple of teenagers found her body under the float tangled up in the anchor cables.” Cavanagh dipped his head. His eyes were tearing.
Tony pulled a bottle of brandy out of his desk. He poured three fingers into a thick water glass with decades of surface scuffing and handed it to Cavanagh. “Drink this.”
Cavanagh threw it down in one swig. “Thanks.”
“How deep is the water there?” asked Tony, getting back on track.
“About fifteen feet. Anyway the coroner’s inquest ruled it an accidental death. I didn’t feel too good about that, but there didn’t seem to be anything further to do.”
“Was she a big woman?
“No, about five-two, 110 pounds.”
“Were you at the lake when it happened?”
“No, it was a Thursday...May 28th. I’m an advertising copywriter. I go into the city two or three times a week. I was in my office when I got the call.”
“Where do you work?”
“Midtown, off Madison.”
“How come you only go in a couple of times a week?”
“I’m not an employee, but an independent contractor. I get paid a percentage of agency revenues derived from what I produce. I do a lot of my work at home.”
“And what do you want me to do?”
“There’s more.” Cavanagh leaned forward in his chair as if he were about to whisper a secret. “This week I was riding the bus into the city. There were two guys sitting right in front of me. I’d seen them many times but didn’t know them, if you follow me. Just enough to nod hello. But they seemed well acquainted with each other. They were talking about a mutual acquaintance who had been killed recently in Hackensack. The dead guy, Norman Jackson, was working on his car and had it jacked up. He was under the car and the jack slipped out and he was crushed to death.”
“Did you know this Jackson guy?” Tony pulled out his Luckies, offered the pack to Cavanagh, who refused, and then lit his own.
“No. I read about it in the paper a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t know him. Do you remember a murder trial back in ‘47 for a guy named Harry Cassetti?”
“Yeah, sure. They called him Harry “the Cat” Cassetti. He got the electric chair for killing his wife.”
“That’s it. Only he didn’t do it. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence against him. He was known to beat his wife and the kids. His prints were on the gun. Neighbors had heard him threaten to kill his wife, and a lot more. He routinely cheated on her and was something of a ladies’ man. The jury was unsympathetic. Anyway, he was convicted and executed in ‘48.
“Then last year, another guy was about to be fried, and got religion at the last minute. In confessing his sins to a priest, he admitted being the one who actually killed the Cassetti woman. The priest told him that he had to tell the authorities if he wanted absolution. He did. At first they didn’t believe him, or didn’t want to, but he came up with facts that were never made public, and the state realized that Harry Cassetti had been wrongfully convicted and executed.”
“Okay, I remember that. But how does that tie in with the two guys on the bus.”
“One of them reminded the other that Norman Jackson had been one of the jurors on the Cassetti trial.”
“Yeah, so what?”
“So was my wife,” said Cavanagh.
“So,” said Tony, “you’re thinking that two jurors who voted guilty in the Cassetti trial have died by accident a few months apart, and that’s too much of a coincidence?”
“Yeah, but both accidents could easily have been deliberately caused. I mean, if one of the jurors died in an airplane crash, a bunch of other people would also be killed. An avenging angel, if there is one, couldn’t justify that. Both of these accidents were directed only at former jurors.”
“Mr. Cavanagh, I gotta tell you. It’s a stretch. Do you know if any other jurors might have also died by accident?”
“No, but I don’t know the identity of the other ten jurors. I doubt if Marcy knew any of their names either. Jurors don’t get introduced to one another by name. Anyone could ask another, but after five or six years, who would remember? Getting their names is one of the things I was hoping you’d be able to handle.”
“Their identities would be sealed. It would take a court order to get their names, and the assignment judge would never sign it with this evidence, if you could call it evidence.”
“Are you telling me you won’t take the case?”
“Did I say that? I don’t think I said that.” Right now I’d take a case chasing skunks off the garage roof if a paycheck came with the job.
“So you’ll take the case?”
Tony produced a form from his desk drawer. “This is my service agreement. I get $300 for a retainer, non-refundable. When, and if, it runs out, I’ll let you know. I get $35 a day. If I have to travel, there’ll be an additional $20 a day for hotel and meals. Five cents a mile if I leave the county in my car.”
Cavanagh had his checkbook out and quickly signed the service agreement after merely glancing at it. When asked, Cavanagh gave his address, home and office phone numbers.
“How many cars do you have?” asked Tony.
“Now we have just one. I sold my wife’s car after her death.”
“Do you recall the license plate number on her car?”
“Yes, the plate numbers were just one digit apart. Hers was BMS 478 and mine is BMS 479. Why?”
“Routine,” answered Tony, making note of the numbers. Tony maintained a license plate number file on 3 x 5 cards in an old Dewey decimal system file cabinet. It contained about 60,000 cards. When an investigation took him or a part-time operative to any location, it was standard practice to write down the plate numbers of all the other cars in the lot on a yellow lined pad, with the place, hour, and date. The sheet would be turned over to the receptionist who would make up a rubber stamp from a kit with the tweezers that might look like this:
1700 Route 6
Little Ferry NJ
TU 7/14/52 2100
She would stamp the same number of cards as plate numbers and write each number in the upper left hand corner. The card was filed away alpha-numerically. It was not uncommon for there to be six or seven cards on any one plate number. The lists were also filed, but chronologically. When two plate numbers appeared together on two or more lists, especially if at two different locations, it followed they probably knew one another. If two plates both showed up at a local bar and then at a motel sixty miles away, it was a bingo. The file was very helpful in most divorce cases.
“You got a picture of your wife?”
Cavanagh took a wallet sized photograph out of his billfold and handed it to Tony. “What do you want that for?”
“Investigating. Some people may not have known her name but could recognize her.”
“What course are you going to take?” asked Cavanagh.
“I make it up as I go along. I’ll be in touch.”
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