The Backcountry Secret
newspaper courtesty of the westchester historical society
More than thirty years ago Kim Klein and her housekeeper Martha Lema were shot execution style on Perkins Road. Theories still abound about mobsters, drug cartels and a forged suicide note (two others associated with the murders would also end up dead)—yet the case remains…
It was midweek on a spring evening when Michael J. Panza, then a patrolman with the Greenwich Police Department, was dispatched to the house in backcountry Greenwich. He had been asked to check on the whereabouts of a mother who failed to pick up her young son after school. And though the officer banged on the door of the split-level home on Perkins Road, surveyed the property, and spoke with the neighbors, he was having no luck. Besides the obvious—what mother simply abandons a six-year-old?—something was amiss: A Volkswagen station wagon belonging to the woman, Joanne Kim Klein, was parked in the driveway. Lights were on inside the house. And Panza could hear voices somewhere in the place.
Around eight o’clock, his supervisor gave him the OK to go in and have a look around. The patrolman climbed atop the roof of the indoor pool, found an accessible third-floor window, and hoisted himself up and in. Calling for the mother, Panza made his way toward the detached voices that were emanating from the second floor.
It was there, in the master bedroom, that he came upon a sight that would stay with him to this day: Two women were dead. On the bed was Kim, thirty-one years old, a onetime model and aspiring photographer. Martha Lema, her Colombian maid, who was twenty-eight, lay on the floor nearby. Both had been shot from behind, at close range, with Kim taking two bullets to the head and Martha being struck in the head and neck. Their blood was spattered across one of the walls, the ceiling and the floor. The mysterious voices had been from the television, its volume turned up, broadcasting its Wednesday-night fare.
The scene was something from a nightmare. Martha’s expression in particular remains a haunting vision for the patrolman who found her that night. “I can still see the look on her face,” says Panza, now a police investigator for the Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice. “Total horror and shock. She knew it was coming.”
The date was June 2, 1976. Seven months after the bludgeoning of teenager Martha Moxley in Belle Haven, the Greenwich police suddenly had a second murder mystery to untangle. The Moxley case was already bringing reproach to the police department, and the town, for lack of an arrest and for its purported deference to the politically wired family of the killer. (Michael Skakel, after years of intrigue, was ultimately convicted in 2002.) Before Moxley, Greenwich had gone twenty-six years without a homicide investigation. Now, as if in recompense for those years of good fortune, there were three victims who demanded justice…and a dearth of answers.
Like the Moxley case—perhaps because of it—the deaths of Kim Klein and Martha Lema produced their share of headlines and recriminations. Kim’s ex-husband, James Michael Klein, a thirty-eight-year-old garment industry executive, was charged with the murders but committed suicide before he could be tried. Although he admitted to being at the house that afternoon and having a bitter argument with Kim, Jim denied killing anyone. His family, friends and lawyers have long maintained that he was innocent. David M. Wise, the Stamford attorney who represented Klein and is now in his eighties, believes the Greenwich police made a rush to judgment, that under the cloud of the stalled Moxley investigation they felt an urgency to make an arrest in this case. “I do believe it’s an unsolved double murder,” he says. “They didn’t do as much as they should have, either to nail him or eliminate him.”
The police had Jim as the suspect from the start and arrested him three months out from the murders. But after he killed himself, reporters took their lead from the defense and homed in on the investigation. Had authorities manufactured the case against Jim? Discrepancies were found in the arrest affidavit. There were also hints that the victims lived darker lives than anyone ever imagined. Kim, it was suggested, might have crossed powerful mobsters from her former life in Chicago. Martha was supposedly in league with drug dealers from her native Colombia. The arguments were threadbare. And while Greenwich police officials barked a bit in indignation, they remained mostly taciturn about the investigation.
These days their heirs offer little more. “I don’t think there was anything left to investigate,” says Greenwich police chief James Heavey, who was in high school when the killings occurred. “The case became dormant once the suspect who had been arrested killed himself.”
Basically, that’s true. After all, the police believed they had their man. But did they have the right man? If so, was he the only man?
Physical evidence revealed only so much. Despite the gruesome tableau, the crime scene was strikingly undisturbed. A vase of roses remained unscathed in arm’s reach of the victims. On the dresser were Kim’s keys, her scarf and sunglasses. There, too, right nearby, were three fifty-dollar bills, which an intruder could easily have pocketed but left alone. “I suppose you can surmise that the person responsible was known by the victims as there were no signs of break-in or struggle, but, of course, I can’t say that definitely,” Chief Stephen Baran said at the time.
The victims were clothed. Kim, who was found on the double bed with her legs draped over the side, appeared to have been sitting when she was shot, news accounts said. The gunman was believed to have reached across the bed, killing her first. Investigators, according to court documents, figured that the shooter would have been sprayed with blood when he fired. “Almost execution-like” was how one prosecutor depicted the murders.
The weapon, either a Luger or a Walther P-38, never surfaced. Although four shots were fired from the automatic handgun, only one shell casing, found under Kim’s body, was recovered. The others were collected by whomever was involved. The place was also wiped clean of fingerprints.
Much was made about whether the crime was committed by someone with an expertise in killing. But Thomas Keegan, then captain of detectives and later chief of police, was having none of it, at least publicly. “I agree they were cold-blooded and calculated murders,” he said, in sparring with reporters. “Nobody said they were professional murders.”
James Michael Klein grew up in Bayside, Queens. His father was a naval architect and his mother was an insurance underwriter. (He was also a cousin of Joe Klein, who today is a renowned author, television commentator, and political columnist for Time magazine.) Family and friends describe Jim as charming, mischievous and generous. By all accounts he had the golden touch as a salesman. Early in his career, he sold women’s underwear for Sarong, Inc. His boss, whom he became friends with, was the late Victor Kiam, who went on to fame as the owner of Remington Products, for which he was the spokesman in a popular TV commercial. Kiam also owned the New England Patriots.
Jim and his first wife, Iris, were teenagers when they and another couple went off and eloped. The other girl’s father promptly had her marriage annulled, but Jim and Iris stayed together for seven years. They had two children, Deborah and Jeffrey. As Jim began building his career, the family lived in Baltimore; Framingham, Massachusetts; and Chicago, where Jim worked for Sarong.
Frequent travel was the price of being a salesman. “One time he left his little black book home,” says Iris Alwaise, his first wife. “I was a little nosey—I was twenty-three or twenty-four years old—and I saw things in there that made me suspicious. It turns out he had girlfriends, and I think he had a lot of girlfriends.”
One day when they were living in Chicago, Jim called to say he was bringing someone home from work. It was a model who was employed by his company, he said. “It turns out that it was Kim,” Iris remembers. “And I made her dinner. I was very unaware at the time. I was very naïve that this was going to be his next wife.”
Young, blonde and comely, Joanne Kim O’Brien played off her looks. From the Chicago area, she had been a go-go dancer, B-girl and clothing model under the name Kim Bryan. Some have suggested that she worked as a prostitute, though evidence of that seems lacking.
Debbi Lohse, Jim’s daughter with Iris, who now lives on Long Island, has a vivid memory of her father bringing Kim to the house. “When he introduced us, I will never forget her teaching me to do the Monkey,” she says with a laugh. “I remember exactly how she taught it. I had no idea what a go-go dancer was.”
Iris is frank about her former husband, warmly recounting his endearing qualities, from his free-spiritedness to how sharply he dressed, but at the same time seeing his flaws. When it is mentioned that Jim didn’t seem violent, she pauses as if remembering something long buried. “I don’t think he was violent to the point of killing anybody,” she then says. “But I can’t say that he didn’t, once at least, raise his hands to me. That he did.”
When the affair started is unclear, but Jim eventually left his wife for Kim. He would also win custody of the children. And when all was said and done, a new family would emerge, consisting of Jim and Kim, Debbi, and before long the couple’s son, Jay. (Debbi’s brother Jeffrey chose to stay with Iris.)
The Kleins lived an itinerant life. Over the course of the marriage, the family moved half a dozen times, bouncing back and forth between Greater New York and the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri. In 1973, they landed in Greenwich, settling into the spacious five-bedroom house that they bought on Perkins Road, complete with an indoor swimming pool. To help with the housework and childcare, they employed a live-in domestic, Martha Lema, who had immigrated to the United States just a couple of years earlier. In time, Martha became something of a sidekick to Kim, who had few close friends in town.
On the surface, Jim and Kim Klein looked to be a successful young couple. Yet behind closed doors they embraced the excesses of the seventies. Jim’s friend and colleague Richard Bickett, who goes by “Skip,” remembers lots of cocaine and sexual exploits that would have scandalized the neighbors had they known. “Drugs, partying, you name it,” he says. “[Jim] always did his job and he was always at work, but he was a hard partier. Not a drinker. Mostly drugs.”
Jim’s lawyer, David Wise, would concede to reporters that Jim lived a “bizarre lifestyle.” Bickett says Kim, whom he admittedly disliked, was sexually adventurous. “She was kinky, I think would be the word,” he says. And Carole Raft, Jim’s sister, who authored a true-crime apologia on Jim’s behalf, wrote of “a whirlwind of swingers, lesbians, one-way friendships and mounting debts.”
Against this backdrop, Jim made a career choice that would be his undoing. Ignoring the warnings of his friend Victor Kiam, he quit a lucrative job to start a discount clothing club called Fashion Sorority. Skip Bickett, who today is involved with import-manufacturing from China, worked with Jim in getting the business going but left after about a month. “He was partying too much and he seemed to have lost it businesswise,” he says. “I just saw the handwriting on the wall about a guy beginning to kind of go down the tubes.”
Fashion Sorority turned out to be a crushing failure. A major investor pulled out, according to Carole’s book, Rape of a Blinfolded Lady. But whatever the problem, the company was in bankruptcy before it even really found its stride; customers were up in arms over unfulfilled orders, and the U.S. postal inspector, the New York State Attorney’s Office and the Federal Trade Commission were investigating Jim for fraud.
Adding to his woes, Jim’s marriage was faltering and would end in divorce. His sister blames Kim, both for encouraging him to start Fashion Sorority and for bailing out of the marriage when his money was gone. (Kim played a part in the business as well, handling advertising and marketing.) But then, Jim’s extramarital dalliances, no state secret, might also have contributed to their problems. What’s more, Kim would tell others that her husband had become increasingly erratic, switching from affectionate to chilly without warning.
Jim continued living in the Perkins Road house for a few months before moving into a third-floor walkup on New York’s East Side. Debbi remained with her stepmother a while but then dropped out of Greenwich High School and at seventeen got her own place in Stamford.
The couple had been divorced a year and a half at the time of the murders. Debbi says she called the house repeatedly after she got home from work that day. Already concerned that no one was picking up, Debbi was stunned when a Greenwich police detective, Stephen Carroll, finally answered the phone. All he said was that something had happened and that they would send someone to bring her to the police station. “And that’s where they told me,” she says.
Detectives informed her father of the killings in the wee hours of the next morning, meeting him outside his building as he returned from a night out with friends. When questioned back in Greenwich, Jim said he had been out to the house the day before to discuss financial issues with his ex-wife and that they’d quarreled. The three fifty-dollar bills that the police found in the bedroom were an alimony payment that he gave her, Jim told them, fifty dollars short of what she was expecting. By the next day, he stopped talking with the police. He also refused a lie detector test.
Three months passed without an arrest, but Jim was clearly the suspect. He went back to working for Victor Kiam, selling jewelry for the Benrus Corporation. Kiam, meanwhile, wanted to send Jim to Kuwait, to work for another company in which he had a stake.
Years later, Kiam would recount Jim’s story as a sort of cautionary tale in one of his popular motivational books, giving him a pseudonym and either intentionally changing or hopelessly confusing many aspects of the case. Kiam wrote that he himself contacted the police to ask if Jim’s going to the Middle East would be acceptable to them. Whether that’s true is uncertain. Jim had not been charged; he could go wherever he wished. What is known is that just as Jim’s move to Kuwait seemed imminent, the Greenwich police pounced. Over Labor Day weekend, detectives Carroll and James Lunney flew to Florida, where Jim was visiting his son, now in the care of Jim’s parents, and arrested him on a sealed warrant. In all, he spent sixty-nine days in jail, in Florida and Bridgeport, before Wise was able to get the bail reduced and have him released.
For months, Jim contemplated suicide. There was even a failed attempt. Which was why Jim’s latest girlfriend, Barbara Boyle, grew concerned on February 8, 1977, when she hadn’t heard from him. That night, she called Skip Bickett, who had a key, and they hurried to Jim’s apartment. There they found his lifeless body, along with two notes he had written. “He had a suit on and he was lying fetal style on a bed with his hands kind of under his head like a little kid,” Bickett recalls. “I knew he was dead because there was blood dripping out of his mouth. He had ingested a whole bunch of pills.”
Dated the day before, one of the suicide messages was brief, with instructions to use the cash in his pocket for his cremation. The other was about five hundred words. “I don’t understand why all this happened and why they are doing this to me,” he wrote of the charges against him, “but I do know they are and I am not strong enough to take it.”
Remarkably, the tragedy deepened. Four days after Jim was found, his uncle, Stanley Adler, who led the effort to raise Jim’s bail money and after his suicide pressed the attorneys to clear his nephew’s name, was shot to death in what appeared to be a robbery of his Mount Vernon, New York, mattress store. No one was ever arrested in that case. And as eye-popping as the timing was, police in Mount Vernon and Greenwich insisted the killings were unrelated.
In a murder trial, it is not uncommon for the defense to suggest that other people could have committed the crime in question. The lawyers need not prove much; the goal is to create reasonable doubt. One way to do that is to get the focus off the defendant and onto the victims. Jim’s attorneys never had a chance to present their case in court. But now, free of the proprieties of an upcoming trial and urged on by Jim’s family, they went public with their defense. They found the media, particularly the now defunct Daily Item in Port Chester, New York, more than happy to carry their water.
The most sensational scenario offered was that Kim had ties to the Chicago Outfit, as the Mafia there is known, and that her death was a “classic gangster execution,” with Martha being collateral damage. This theory came about because at some point in the sixties, Kim had been interviewed by staffers of the Illinois Crime Investigating Commission. Was her murder a payback for revealing mob secrets? Recent bloodletting involving the Outfit, namely the high-profile slayings of former boss Sam Giancana in 1975 and John Roselli just a couple months after Kim’s death, fired the imagination of some reporters.
Attention was drawn to Kim’s first husband, Donald H. Morowitz. It is true that the lawyer, who died of a heart attack in 1991, had ties to hoodlums, including Felix “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio, the Outfit’s underboss and then boss in the late sixties; Alan Rosenberg, a 325-pound financial scammer and enforcer; and Irwin “Pinky” Davis, another swindler. Morowitz drew up incorporation papers and his name appeared as an officer for several fraudulent businesses they ran. He was indicted, though charges were later dismissed, for mail fraud, in one scam in which the mobsters acquired some discount merchandise houses, only to rapidly sell off everything, close up shop, and leave creditors, including one bank, holding the bag. His name also emerged in a federal investigation of Wall Street trading irregularities in which Mafia figures were suspected of having a hand.
As Morowitz told the Daily Item in 1977, Kim, who had worked as his secretary, only knew the hoodlums indirectly. She was interviewed by the crime commission, he said, in regard to his work and his clients. “She couldn’t tell them anything,” he said. “There was nothing going on. There was nothing to tell them. She didn’t know anything.”
That statement might have been self-serving, of course. But another man who doubts that Kim was killed because of any syndicate connection is Arthur Bilek, executive vice president of the nonprofit Chicago Crime Commission, another organization said to have interviewed her. As an investigator for the Cook County State’s Attorneys Office in Chicago back in the sixties, Bilek worked organized crime, took on Sam Giancana and the others, and knew their workings as well as anyone on this side of the law.
“Absolutely not,” he says when asked if Kim could have been a target of the Chicago gangsters. “The Mob would never do something like that. It doesn’t make any sense. First of all, they never killed someone like the maid. I personally worked over two dozen Mob hits and there’s nothing in the whole retinue of Mob hits in this area that would be similar to what you described to me.”
In the 1960s, Mafia hits were not uncommon in Chicago. But come the seventies, federal and local law enforcement had made tremendous inroads against organized crime there and elsewhere. By 1976, the Outfit was trying to stay under the radar. “The likelihood of them finding an old sore from a number of years before and deciding, ‘Wow, that’s something we better take care of, we better show her what’s what,’ and going there, finding her, killing her, killing the maid, that’s ridiculous,” Bilek says.
And while Giancana and Roselli were certainly Mafia hits, those were different. Those involved top-level figures within organized crime who could have done serious harm to senior members of the syndicate. Hundreds of witnesses were interviewed by the commission. “And they didn’t go and rub all those people out,” Bilek says. “They didn’t rub out people who gave testimony that was very damaging to them.”
It has been written that Kim may have been writing a memoir that had the mobsters nervous, that she kept it in a drawer in her bedroom, and that it was nowhere to be found after the murders. How the wise guys in the Midwest ever caught wind of the Greenwich mother’s literary efforts is a question one might reasonably ask, if of course the pages ever existed, which most likely they did not. Her stepdaughter, Debbi Lohse, has no recollection of Kim writing anything like that. And given what a peripheral figure Morowitz was and the passage of time, what could she have written that anyone would have cared about?
Then there is Martha Cecelia Lema. The defense suggested that the Kleins’ maid provided drugs to the couple and that she may have been tied to South American drug dealers. The implication was that the real target could have been Martha, and that Kim was simply in the wrong place when the hit went down. The newspaper stories were burnished by quotes from Skip Bickett, saying he had been to parties involving drugs at the Kleins’ house, that he had received cocaine from Martha, and that she bragged about knowing “the biggest coke dealer on Long Island.”
Today, Bickett vehemently denies making those comments and denounces any suggestion that Martha supplied drugs to the Kleins or was in any way connected to the murders: “I’m telling you right now, Martha had nothing to do with any of that—period,” he says angrily.
After all, back in the days of Studio 54, drugs weren’t particularly hard to come by, especially for those in certain circles, like the fashion industry. “That was cocaine time in the garment center,” recalls Bickett. “[Jim] probably had a hundred places he could get it from.”
The Martha story gained traction when a New York television reporter tried to link a Colombian who was arrested on gun charges in Queens, New York to the Greenwich killings. Federal authorities had been seeking him for an attempted murder in a dispute connected to the drug trade. And in his possession was a nine-millimeter handgun, the same caliber as the weapon used to kill Kim and Martha. That theory went belly up when the ballistics tests came back: The guns didn’t match.
Martha was a sweet, simple person, says Bickett. Back in Colombia she spent four years in preparation to join a religious order and hardly fit the profile of a drug runner. “Everything we learned about Martha is that she was shy, timid, and fearful,” said Keegan when he met with reporters to address the “vituperative attacks” against the investigation.
If indeed Martha was affiliated with narcotics traffickers she seems not to have been compensated very well. In the days before her death, cash was so tight at the Perkins Road house that Martha was basically working in exchange for a roof over her head, according to Greenwich Police Chief Heavey, and had to get a second job.
Yet the story persists. Debbi Lohse, for one, thinks it’s likely that Martha smuggled drugs back from her visits to Colombia. “We think she was like a mule and that the murders were not focused on my stepmother but on Martha,” she says. “We think that Martha took either something that didn’t belong to her or money. There was something. They came in for Martha and my stepmother happened to be there, and it was all about drugs.”
THE EVIDENCE AGAINST KLEIN
For all the talk about other possibilities, only one man, Jim Klein, was ever charged with the murders. And for all the articles that were written about how the Greenwich police may have gotten it wrong, no one ever asked if the cops got it right. Some of that is because the department refused to say much. But even without help from the police, enough information is available to cobble together the basics of their case. (Detectives Carroll and Lunney, the primary investigators on both the Klein and Moxley cases, are deceased. And Keegan, who has long since started a new life in South Carolina, failed to respond to telephone and e-mail requests for an interview.)
Jim, of course, was the ex-husband. That alone made him someone whom the police would want to take a hard look at. The crime scene, too, spoke of a person familiar to the victims committing the killings. There was no sign of forced entry, which meant the killer was probably allowed inside or had a key. Likewise, no indication of struggle was evident. And when the killer departed, he seems to have locked up.
Jim couldn’t be found for a long time that first night. He was said to be out to a party and dinner with friends. But the passage of more than half a day between the murders and him being located meant that if he was the assailant he had plenty of time to unburden himself of the gun and the casings as well as any other evidence.
How the investigators proceeded is spelled out in the arrest affidavit: Back at the Greenwich Police Department, Jim explained that he had made plans to meet Kim, then drove out from the city on Wednesday afternoon. They had a friendly conversation over coffee, he told his questioners. But then, as he gathered some of his belongings that were at the house, an argument erupted and they began shouting. He went outside to begin loading his possessions into his car. But Kim, standing at the rear door, refused to let him back inside. With that, Jim claimed, he departed.
During his interview, the police asked him if when he lived on Perkins Road he kept any guns in the bedroom, and Jim said no. But Debbi had told them a different story, they said, and that a gun was nestled in a drawer there. And while Jim admitted he did own three firearms, he said they were all at a relative’s house on Long Island.
A detective from the State Attorney’s Office swabbed Jim’s hands for gunshot residue, which eventually came back inconclusive. And when his clothes were examined at the FBI laboratory in Washington, D.C., some blood was detected on his pants. But it proved too miniscule an amount to show whose blood it might have been. (Jim claimed he cut his finger on the trunk of his car that day.)
Just two weeks before the killings, Kim had summoned the police to complain about her husband. She was agitated and concerned that Jim would come into the house without her permission. She also told the responding officer that she was worried he might leave the country without paying his considerable debts and that if she refused to do what he wanted he would cut her off financially.
Kim was telling a lot of people about her problems with her ex-husband and that she was afraid of him, the police found. Among others, she told a former employer, Donald Altshuler, a real estate developer, that Jim was giving her too little money and that he’d become violent with her, the affidavit went on. She was in fear of Jim, she said, and that he threatened her life. In his statement to police, Altshuler recounted that Kim told him her ex-husband was friends with a “Mafia man,” that she and Jim had been out to dinner with this individual, and that both her ex-husband and this person had threatened her.
She also spoke to John A. Vassallo, a divorce lawyer in New York, whom Kim had hired to help with a financial issue in the aftermath of the divorce. Kim had refused to co-sign for a third mortgage on the house, the lawyer told the police. “Attorney Vassallo related that Mrs. Klein stated that she earlier informed her husband that she intended to obtain her own lawyer and that her husband went crazy and threatened her,” the arrest affidavit reads. “According to the attorney, Mrs. Klein related that her husband had struck her numerous times and that he had threatened her numerous times.”
And Martha Lema’s mother told the police that she had letters from her daughter saying Jim threatened to kill the two women. In a telephone conversation in the weeks before she died, Martha told her mother that Kim had signed some papers when they were divorced and her ex-husband now wanted them changed. If they weren’t fixed, he said, “something horrible would happen.”
BUT IS THERE REASONABLE DOUBT?
After Jim’s suicide, the Greenwich police took considerable heat over the arrest affidavit. The document overstated the amount of barium, a key element that helps to detect whether someone discharged a firearm, that was found on Jim’s left hand. And when interviewed by the press, a number of witnesses, including Debbi and Donald Altshuler, said the police got their accounts wrong.
Keegan, for his part, called the barium error an honest mistake. (Given that the document previously cited the forensic chemist as saying the test was inconclusive, it hardly seems the most effective lie.) That the daughter of a man charged with a double murder would change her story didn’t shock him, he went on. As for Altshuler, the lawman merely pointed to his signed statement.
One person the reporters seem never to have spoken to was Kim’s New York divorce lawyer. John Vassallo is retired now and living on Long Island. In a recent interview with GREENWICH Magazine, he discussed his meeting with Kim. She had asked him to write a letter to her ex-husband, the details of which he now forgets. She wanted it sent to his office because she felt he would react less furiously there.
“I do remember her concerns about his violence,” he says. “Again, that was the reason the letter was sent personal-confidential to his office. What I remember was a great amount of fear on her part. And I remember that she even asked, which is not my custom, to sit there while I dictated into my Dictaphone the letter that would be sent to him in order that it be, how shall I say, amicable enough. There was a lot of anxiety on her part about how he would react.”
When presented with other theories of the case, Vassallo all but scoffs. “She didn’t look like a gangster to me,” he says of Kim. “She looked like a lady who was scared to death about how her husband would react to my letter.”
Debbi Lohse responds to Vassallo’s comments with the barnyard epithet. In her book about the case, Jim’s sister, Carole Raft, wrote that Kim was prone to dramatics. “Kim’s tall stories and exaggerations always seemed harmless enough when she was alive, but in light of the way she died, they were beginning to turn into a nightmare for Jim and his family,” Carole wrote.
Indeed, Kim’s latest “tall stories” seemed remarkably prescient, but no matter. There were other arguments against the case:
For starters, the defense says that Jim was gone by the time Kim and Martha were shot, leaving the house at 2:15 p.m. and arriving in New York an hour and a half later, with witnesses who saw him just before 4 p.m. That was around the same time frame that the police, using unanswered telephone calls at the residence, figured the killings occurred, though the detectives said he stayed longer.
Much, too, was made of a green car with a black roof that was said to be seen at the house. The police insisted it belonged to a workman in the area, but Jim’s defenders speculate that it was the real killer’s car.
And the Greenwich police, said the defense, refused to consider anything but that Jim committed the murders.
Any one of those issues might have scored points in court. Perhaps a jury would have accepted that Jim was a most unfortunate victim of circumstance and law-enforcement tunnel vision. Perhaps he would have won an acquittal or a hung jury. His attorney, David Wise, certainly thinks so. “There would have been a ton of reasonable doubt,” he says.
But reasonable doubt is not exoneration. In truth, the most powerful argument for Jim’s innocence—the heartfelt professions of support by those who knew him best—would have been of no help in the courtroom. “I went into the room afterward, after the police were all done with everything, and I tell you, I will never forget it,” says Debbi. “There was blood on the ceiling, blood on the walls. This wasn’t something that a normal person even in anger could just come in and do. This had to be a way of life for them to be able to do this to another person.”
“I know my brother,” says Carole. “We were very close. And one thing I know that he could not have done is kill somebody. He was not capable of killing somebody.”
Before his death in 2001, Stephen Carroll said in an interview with the Greenwich Post that he too doubted that Jim killed Kim and Martha. But the retired Greenwich detective did feel that the ex-husband was present when someone else pulled the trigger. Jim Klein may even have picked up the casings, he said. And the crime scene looked “very much like a Mob hit.”
Carroll went so far as to hypothesize that Jim may have been forced to take his own life, to protect the person who fired the gun. (Given how frequently Jim was thinking about suicide, writing about it in a diary he kept while in jail and talking about it with his sister and others, that seems a stretch.) Carroll even mused about whether Jim’s suicide notes were written under coercion or by a forger.
What to make of Carroll’s theory? So much attention was given to Kim’s supposed ties to the Chicago Outfit, but no one seemed to ask whether Jim had any connections to such people. Who was this “Mafia man” that Kim spoke about? Was this the “babblings of an emotionally disturbed person,” as the defense so cruelly tried to portray Kim? Or did this individual exist?
As it turns out, Jim did have a friend in the Mafia, according to Skip Bickett. His name is Anthony Rabito, who is also known as “Fat Anthony” and “Mr. Fish,” because he once operated some seafood restaurants. Back in the 1970s, Rabito was a respected soldier in New York’s Bonanno crime family. Today, in his late seventies and reportedly in poor health, he is the group’s consigliere, a top– ranking member. As part of a federal takedown of the Bonanno family in the early eighties, Rabito went to the penitentiary for drug trafficking. In 2007, he pleaded guilty to federal gambling and extortion charges. He was released from prison in 2009.
How Jim met him is uncertain, though it is no secret that the Mob has long been a player in the garment industry. Like a lot of folks, such as restaurateurs who usher the wise guys to their best tables and comp their bills, Jim was enamored with the hoodlums. “Jim was fascinated with that s**t,” Bickett says. “It was ridiculous. As brilliant, bright and everything else that he was, he had a side to him that was like a little kid.”
Bickett personally saw his friend Jim and Rabito together on at least fifty occasions. When Jim recruited Bickett and a colleague to join him at Puritan Fashions in the early to mid-seventies, he says, Rabito came along on an all-expense paid vacation to Jamaica. And when Fat Anthony opened a disco in New York, Klein invested heavily. “I know that Jim put up, if not all, a good portion of the money for this club,” Bickett says, “and of course it lasted about a month.”
For Jim, being in on what Bickett calls “the light side of gangsterism” was part of the allure. “Jim wasn’t above investing in a scam if he thought he couldn’t get touched in it,” Bickett says. “It would be exciting for him. It wouldn’t be the money as much as it would be kind of exciting.”
Bickett is one of Jim’s fiercest defenders. He steadfastly believes his friend had nothing to do with the murders. (He thinks that Kim’s old Chicago ties came back to haunt her.) As for Jim’s friendship with Rabito, it’s irrelevant to the Greenwich homicides, he says. “Jim was a gangster groupie for a little bit and that’s it,” Bickett says. “I don’t know how much of that was a friendship and how much the guy used him because he had a groupie.”
(Telephone messages left for two attorneys who have represented Rabito in recent years went unreturned.)
Bickett is not alone in his thinking. One former federal agent familiar with Rabito says it’s unlikely the Mafioso or any of the wise guys would have gotten involved in killing two women. As strange as it sounds, he says, it wasn’t their style. And while Rabito was accused of being in on hits on three renegade mobsters in 1981, that falls under family business. In truth, the retired agent says, Rabito was more interested in financial dealings and drugs than killing. And yet, there’s no denying he knew people who could do such a job.
And so the murders on Perkins Road remain blurred. They leave a legacy of sorrow, anger and confusion for the loved ones of all the deceased.
One of the most tragic stories to come out of the case is the life, and death, of the little boy whose mother failed to pick him up at school that spring afternoon thirty-six years ago.
Jay Marc Klein was raised by his grandparents in South Florida. As he got older, he developed serious behavioral problems. He got involved with drugs and ran with a bad crowd. At one point, he arranged for his buddies to rob his grandparents’ home when they were out at the racetrack. His grandmother sought psychological help for the boy, but to no avail, says Carole Raft, who lives in Florida. “The head of the hospital down in Miami told my mother that he was a hopeless case. He said he’s a boy without a conscience.”
One day Jay discovered a copy of the book his aunt had written and for the first time learned the details of his parents’ deaths. “He read it one night and it upset him terribly,” Carole recalls. “They had hidden some things from him about his mother and he was just very upset.”
Debbi invited her brother to stay with her in New York one summer. She ended up sending him home early. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “I was a nervous wreck with him around my house. He was not trustworthy.”
When he was eighteen, to the relief of his grandparents, Jay moved to Southern California. Late at night he would call Debbi from a bar someplace, drunk or high. She finally changed her telephone number. “He became somebody you wouldn’t want in your life, put it that way,” she says.
In October, 1998, when he was twenty-eight years old, Jay was murdered. The killer, Jeffrey Fecht, had been infatuated with Jay’s girlfriend and wanted him out of the picture. In the luckiest of breaks for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, a hiker happened to witness Fecht dumping Jay’s body into a ravine in the Santa Monica Mountains. (He was believed to have been bludgeoned with a hammer and then decapitated. His head was never found.) The woman immediately called authorities; the arrest was made; and Fecht received a life sentence.
For all the tragedy of the saga that began in 1976, it ends on a note worthy of Oprah Winfrey: Jay had a son with a woman he met in a drug rehabilitation program in Florida. The mother and child eventually went their own way, to Pennsylvania, then other places, while Jay went to his fate in California. The Kleins kept in touch with the mother, mostly through Jay’s grandmother. But when the Klein matriarch died, the families lost contact.
Then a few years ago Carole Raft received a letter from Jay’s son, looking to connect with the family he never knew and to learn more about his father. The boy was in college on Long Island—fifty miles from Debbi, as it turned out—and had looked on the Internet to see if he could buy Carole’s old paperback. By now the book was in short supply and its price was exorbitant. So the young man instead took the train to Greenwich and found it at the library. From there, he wrote to Carole, who put him in touch with Debbi.
Now in his twenties, Michael Klein lives in Manhattan and is vice president of a startup environmentally friendly shipping company. Debbi and her nephew regularly stay in touch. In the other, each has found a connection to something that was taken away long ago, something that had its roots in a horrific crime on Perkins Road. In contrast to so much that was dark, both aunt and nephew welcome the light. “When we see each other it’s not necessarily a case of reminiscing or wallowing in the past,” says Michael. “It’s more like catching up for lost time. We have fun.”
For Debbi, the young man is a gift she never expected. “He’s been out to my house; we’ve spent time together; we e-mail,” she says happily. “And he’s such a good kid. I can’t even believe he’s a part of my life.”