11 of Westchester's Most Twisted Crimes
A coveted suburb by any standard, Westchester is nonetheless no stranger to the strange. Here are some of the more shocking crimes in the annals of county lore.
By Nick Brandi, Aidan McGovern, and Vivianne Ong
The Notorious Case of Albert Fish: Something Wicked This Way Comes
No atrocity on this list of local infamy assumes a position lower in human depravity than the case of Albert Fish. Of the many children who were tragically taken from their families by this real-life Hannibal Lecter, one of the most infamous involved Grace Budd, who was just 10 years old when Fish arrived at her doorstep under the alias Frank Howard. Howard was supposedly a Long Island farmer responding to a newspaper ad placed by Edward Budd, the family’s eldest son, who was looking for work to support his father. It didn’t take long for Fish — who’d earned nicknames such as the Werewolf of Wisteria, the Brooklyn Vampire, and the Boogeyman — to identify Grace as his next victim. On the pretense of a short trip to a birthday party at his sister’s home in Manhattan, Fish instead took her to Wisteria Cottage, in Irvington, where, he would later confess, he strangled, dismembered, and further dissected Grace before consuming her over the course of the following nine days. The investigative work of Detective William King, through analysis of the stationery Fish used in writing his anonymous confession letter to Grace’s mother, ultimately led law enforcement to the cannibal murderer. Fish was convicted of murder and put to death by electric chair on January 16, 1936 at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining. Fish was reportedly overjoyed with the verdict, saying, “It will be the only thrill I have not tried.” According to reports, he helped the executioner position the electrodes on his body.
Fish boasted he had victimized about 100 children, covering every US state, though this claim was never verified. Eerily, Fish purportedly lived on one of America’s most haunted places, Buckout Road in West Harrison.
Jean Harris & the Scarsdale Diet Doctor: Love and a .32
The case of Jean Harris and her mysterious involvement in the murder of Dr. Herman Tarnower is not one of horrifying sadism but is much more a classic tale of obsessive love and jealousy.
Jean Harris was once the headmistress of the Madeira School in McLean, VA, a private, college-prep boarding school for girls. However, once the course of her romantic life crossed paths with that of Tarnower, famed author of The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, her destiny shifted dramatically.
Harris grew enamored of the successful doctor and became his lover for the ensuing 14 years — until the fateful day she learned of Tarnower’s affair with one of his employees, Lynne Tryforos, who was 33 years his junior. This unsettling realization ultimately drove Harris over the edge and to Tarnower’s secluded 6.8-acre estate in Purchase, armed with a revolver.
Upon seeing the personal belongings of Tarnower’s new mistress splayed about his bedroom, Harris pointed the gun at her own head. Tarnower tried to wrestle the gun from her hands, but in the struggle that ensued, multiple shots rang out, and the “Scarsdale Diet” doctor was left dead, heavier by the weight of four bullets, on the night of March 10, 1980, eight days before his 70th birthday. Although Harris claimed she had attempted to kill herself, a jury found her guilty of second-degree murder; she was sentenced to 15 years to life at the Bedford Correctional Facility, of which she served 12. Harris died in 2012, in New Haven, 20 years after New York State Governor Mario M. Cuomo commuted her sentence.
Albert Tondra and the Blooming Rose
Not normally a superstitious woman, Mrs. John Beszedes of Wells Avenue in Yonkers was nonetheless concerned after she had back-to-back nightmares about her 15-year-old daughter, Rose — first being crushed by a falling skyscraper, then being engulfed by a fire that had broken out in her closet. This drove the panicked mother to Rose’s room. Mrs. Beszedes believed Rose was staying at a friend's house for the night, but upon seeing Rose's closet empty, she shrieked to her husband to call the police --— Rose ran away!
Meanwhile, Mrs. Albert Tondra, of Yonkers’ Van Cortlandt Avenue, had also called the Yonkers Police that night, according to some reports — stating that her 45-year-old husband was missing on that 1922 night. Connecting the dots was easy once police realized that two missing persons from the same area booked passage on the same train bound for Niagara Falls. Turns out that married grandfather Tondra was a music instructor who had taken Rose, a beautiful but adolescent music prodigy/stenographer, under his wing but fell in love with her in the process — as she had with him. As the May-December duo attempted to elope to Canada, they were intercepted and returned to Yonkers, where Tondra faced charges of abduction and was held on $5,000 bail. Over the course of the trial, police collected letters he’d written to Rose, along with a song he’d composed called “To a Fragrant Rose.” The simple but creepy tune contained lyrics like: “O, pretty rose, please keep my secret safe and true/and keep it ever sweet and pure.”
According to some sources at the time, Tondra was sentenced to two years’ probation but within days reclaimed Rose again before being recaptured in New York City. This time, he was sent to Sing Sing for stretch of four to five years. Mrs. Tondra is on the record as having immediately forgiven both would-be lovers and being eager to take her husband back.
The Minter-Watson Murders: Some Wounds Time Can’t Heal
There are some crimes that unleash a tsumami of horror from which there is no escape. Few people understand this better than Jason Minter, who, at the tender age of 6, was frozen in a state of apoplexy in his friend’s bedroom, along with their younger sisters, while two men violated the sanctity of not only their South Salem neighborhood but also their mothers in an adjacent bedroom.
On March 2, 1977, 26-year-old Samuel Ayala and 25-year-old Willie Profit robbed and ransacked the Watson household before savagely murdering Bonnie Minter and Sheila Watson. It was later revealed through police reports, investigated by Jason Minter himself, that his mother and Watson were not only shot several times but also raped before their lives were extinguished. Ayala and Profit fled the scene of the crime in the blue van they had rented, in which accomplice James Walls Jr. had been waiting. The men had carelessly left behind some stolen items from the Watson household in the van, which ultimately led to their capture.
Jason Minter spent years searching for the answers that would set him free from his mental prison of confusion and trauma. For him, discovering the truth and motives from the criminals themselves was the only parole from the deafening silence that obliterated his youth. Today, more than 41 years after the murders, Jason Minter lives in New York City, where he operates a restaurant in Inwood known as Indian Road Cafe. While he has since moved past aspirations to produce a documentary detailing the events of his mother’s murder, Minter still campaigns with his sister, Maggie, to ensure that their mother’s killers remain behind bars.
Rachelle Curry & James Callahan: Love on the Rocks
Mount Vernon resident Rachelle Curry was eager and well-prepared to begin the next phase of her life. Everything seemed to be working, whether in the forms of her recently acquired MBA from NYU or her promotion to investment representative at Morgan Stanley, the brokerage firm where she’d worked the previous seven years.
All of this came crashing to a sudden end, however, when her fiancé, James Callahan, lost control of his 1997 Ford Explorer and sent them and their SUV careening into the icy waters of Grassy Sprain Reservoir, off the Sprain Brook Parkway in Yonkers, on February 24, 2006. Callahan escaped from the vehicle and swam to shore, whereupon he ran to a nearby BP service station at 619 Tuckahoe Road. The service-station manager reportedly called 911 after finding Callahan “screaming and crying and unable to say his own name,” around 5:15 a.m.
Earlier that evening, Curry went out with friends. Around 2 a.m., she returned to the Mount Vernon residence she shared with Callahan, who, according to reports, was waiting for her outside their building, in his car. They took a drive, during which, Callahan claimed, the couple spoke of wedding plans and buying a house. Testimony from Curry’s friends, however, state that earlier, Curry had expressed concerns about Callahan, along with an intent to leave him to become more independent and to pursue a relationship with another man — news that Curry had allegedly broken to Callahan the night before.
After the incident, Callahan was brought to Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla to treat “hypothermia and minor lacerations,” according to state police, while Curry was brought to the same place later but pronounced dead.
Callahan apparently made no clear effort to try to save Rachelle Curry after plunging the car into near-freezing water near the parkway, which Callahan was intimately familiar with because of his job’s location. There was no evidence of his car braking, and the car entered the reservoir in the one spot where there were no trees to impede it. Reportedly, Rachelle’s body showed no signs that she tried to escape from the car. It is because of this and the $500,000 Callahan stood to collect from her death that left many convinced that this was no accident but rather premeditated murder. To date, no charges have been brought against Callahan for the events of that fateful night.
The Weaver-Praponoj Murders: Motel Hell
Newlywed Julie Weaver had a strange feeling on September 5, 1995, when her husband didn’t return home after getting his paycheck cashed from his night-manager job at Elmsford’s Saw Mill River Motel. The couple had plans that evening, and 32-year-old Jon Weaver was as reliable as a Swiss watch. Concerned, Julie called Jon’s best friend, who was working at the nearby Eldorado Diner, and asked if he could stop by the motel and find out if Jon had been there. What greeted him at the motel was neither Jon’s warm smile nor his movie-star-handsome face but rather the thin yellow tape that demarcates the scene of a crime.
Earlier that afternoon, Weaver did indeed go to get his check cashed and was chatting with his colleague Kerson “Kay” Praponoj when a gun-wielding man in a stolen red Toyota Celica entered the motel and demanded money. The two clerks complied, not wanting to risk their lives over $400, but they learned soon enough there was no risk involved: The thief fully intended to execute them in cold blood anyway, with two shots each to the head at point-blank range. Weaver died at the scene; Praponoj lingered in a coma for five years before succumbing to her injuries.
The case received widespread notoriety for multiple reasons. First, double-murders that were not crimes of passion were uncommon in the area — even at the somewhat seedy Saw Mill Motel. Second, Weaver’s brother James happened to be the chief of police in neighboring Tarrytown. Third, the .25-caliber Raver that killed Weaver and Praponoj was used about six months later to murder “New York’s Second Mayor,” as he was known, iconic 2nd Avenue Deli founder Abe Lebewohl, who had been making a bank deposit.
To date, no one has been charged in the deaths of Jon Weaver, Kay Praponoj, and Abe Lebewohl. Chief Steve Foster of the Elmsford Police Department said on the 20th anniversary of the slayings that “not a day goes by that we don’t think about it.”
Christina Long: Deadly Hookup
It’s no secret that the very same technological advances that have brought the world together electronically have also become a vehicle of predation previously undreamed of.
Such is the sad case of Christina Long. The spirited 13-year-old student and cheerleader lived a seemingly normal life during her time at St. Peter Roman Catholic School in Danbury, where she had just begun to thrive as leader of the cheerleading squad, an altar girl, an excellent student. What people didn’t know, however, was that Christina had a secret life, one that brought her into intimate contact with men like Saul Dos Reis.
Dos Reis was a married, 25-year-old Port Chester restaurant worker who had, according to police, met Long through the Internet and had been with her sexually several times prior to her final night alive. Apparently Long, despite appearances to the contrary, was no stranger to hooking up with strangers she’d met in online chat rooms. Her luck ran out on the evening of May 17, 2002, when she and Dos Reis had sex in his Infiniti G20, in the parking lot of a McDonald’s near the Danbury Fair Mall. According to some reports, Dos Reis claimed to have strangled the sixth-grader to death accidentally while having sex. What is undeniably true is that he dumped her body in a ravine in Greenwich. The crime sent shockwaves through the community and received national attention after being reported in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and on CNN and 60 Minutes II, as well as other media outlets. Though Dos Reis’ attorneys put up a creative defense, he wound up pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter and three counts of sexual assault en route to a 30-year prison sentence.
Nightmare in North Salem
Sixty miles from New York City, with just 5,000 residents, North Salem is known for horse paddocks and idyllic pastures — but that all changed on November 9, 2015, when the sleepy Rockwellian town was shattered by a thunderclap of violence. That’s the day 83-year-old socialite Lois Colley was bludgeoned to death in the laundry room of her sprawling 300-acre estate, Windswept Farm.
Colley and her husband, Eugene — who’d amassed a fortune by owning more than 100 McDonald’s franchises — were active and well-liked members of the community, so the news that one of their own had been cut down so brutally sent shockwaves through the populace. For the two years that followed, discreet whispers of speculation and disbelief echoed in the coffee shops and kitchens of North Salem.
Investigators were frustrated. There was no sign of forced entry into the home, and no weapon was recovered. Except for the murder scene itself, which was described by Westchester County district attorney Anthony Scarpino as “horrendous,” there was nary a sign that anything unusual had even taken place at the estate… except that a fire extinguisher seemed to be missing.
Eventually, law enforcement learned that Colley had been visited by a 32-year-old undocumented immigrant and former laborer at Windswept Farm named Esdras Marroquin Gomez the day she died. Apparently, Victor, as Gomez was known, had paid a visit to Colley following a dispute he had with her relative, according to some reports.
Apprehending Gomez, who had become a person of interest, proved to be an international affair. A few days after Colley's death, Gomez fled to his native Guatemala. He later began working illegally in Mexico. When Mexican immigration authorities got wind, they deported him to back to his home country. During a flight that had a stopover in Miami, Gomez was seized by FBI agents. Two years after that dark day in North Salem, Gomez was charged with the murder of Lois Colley by blunt force trauma to the skull, administered by a fire extinguisher.
Wampage on the Rampage
On a clear August day in 1643, back when our county included the Bronx, Wampage, the leader of the Siwanoys, an Algonquin-speaking people, headed up the hill in the area that is now the Hutchinson River Parkway. One hundred of his fellow Algonquins had recently been slaughtered by Dutch settlers, so Wampage and his men were out for blood — and they didn’t care which white settlers “donated” it.
Anne Hutchinson, an Englishwoman and famous advocate for religious freedom, had made a home in Pelham Bay after she was banished from the territory that is now Massachusetts for her progressive views. Hutchinson embraced the people native to the area, so when the warning went out for all white settlers to flee because of the Siwanoys, she ignored it, believing they would do her and her family no harm. But that morning, Wampage led his men to the Hutchinson estate, killing Anne and five of her children. The men allegedly took time to slice off each of the victim’s scalps.
Side note: Anne’s redheaded daughter was spared because the Siwanoys are said not to have seen red hair before. The tribe raised her for several years.
The Rye Town Hilton Murder: You can Check Out Any Time You Like, but You Can Never Leave
It is July 12, 2009. Florida millionaire and Fontainebleau Miami Beach Hotel heir Ben Novack Jr. is found dead at the Rye Town Hilton (now the Hilton Westchester) — his body bloodied; his eyes either gouged out or slit open; his head caved in. Who discovered the 53-year-old’s corpse? His wife, of course, Narcy Novack, who claimed to have found her husband’s mutilated body after returning from breakfast alone at the hotel. Police questioned Narcy for approximately 13 hours before releasing her, only to learn later that she had failed five different polygraph tests.
Consider the conflicts that plagued her marriage to Ben — his ongoing affair with tattoo-artist-turned-porn star Rebecca Bliss being only one of the provocations. Police were called back in 2002 to the Novack’s Miami home to find Ben bound and gagged for what had apparently been 24 hours, with $400,000 in cash and other possessions missing from the home. In another quarrel, according to some reports, Narcy claimed Ben broke her nose, which was fixed in a rhinoplasty procedure but accompanied by unwanted breast implants while she was under anaesthesia.
As police continued to home in on Narcy as the primary suspect in Ben’s murder, they opened another investigation aimed at connecting Ben’s death to that of his 86-year-old mother, Bernice, whose demise had been falsely attributed to a fall just three months before Ben’s. After a trial in 2012, the verdict was that Narcy Novack and her brother, Cristobal Veliz, were guilty (along with other accomplices) of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, domestic violence, stalking, money laundering, and witness tampering. Narcy is currently serving life in prison in Tallahassee, FL, and has been ruled ineligible to inherit her deceased husband’s estate, valued at $4.2 million, in accordance with the so-called slayer rule.
Sex slaves... in Pound Ridge?
Tucked in the northeast corner of Westchester, Pound Ridge boasts beautiful homes set far apart on sprawling tracts that often include dense woods and stonewall dividers between neighbors. It is a storybook place, almost too good to be true — making it the perfect place for the scene of a clandestine crime.
Joseph Yannai was an enigmatic figure to his neighbors in Pound Ridge. Back in 2009, he was a professorial-looking man in his mid-60s who lived a quiet life in his modest (by Pound Ridge standards), russet-colored cabin-style house. If only his neighbors had known the truth of what was going on behind the closed doors of 309 Salem Road.
“We got a call from a man who is a caretaker of a property, who happened to see this girl running,” Pound Ridge Police Chief David Ryan recalls. “He told us the girl had been ‘held captive.’” Ryan was referring to a then-21-year-old Hungarian woman who was spotted fleeing the Yannai house three weeks after she had arrived there on the pretense of providing au pair services in return for a salary, free housing, paid expenses, and a year-end bonus. What she got instead was captivity and coercion by Yannai into a life as a sex slave. A grand jury later handed down a 20-count indictment against Yannai that included a sodomy charge and three counts of labor trafficking pertaining to three different women, including the Hungarian “nanny.” This same witness declared that she had seen pictures of Yannai with six or seven other women whom authorities believed had been held illegally, as well. Ultimately, Yannai, who had attempted suicide twice during jury deliberations, was convicted on all counts, which included human trafficking and forced labor, among other charges.
Editor’s note: Following an eight-month investigation and some incredible reporting by News 12 Westchester’s Tara Rosenblum, Westchester County, along with the outlying Hudson Valley, remains a hotspot of human trafficking and sex enslavement, with more than 1,250 reported incidents in just three years. Nyack Motor Lodge leads these sordid dens of iniquity, with 151 responses in three years, while Elmsford’s La Quinta Inn tops the Westchester County list, with 37 police responses in 24 months. The victims can be as young as 12.