Wayne Lonergan served 21 years of a life sentence for murder. Then fate offered a chance at freedom — and some of his dead wife’s millions
GWYN THOMAS,JACK BATTENJuly31965
WIFE KILLER— OR FALL GUY?
Wayne Lonergan served 21 years of a life sentence for murder. Then fate offered a chance at freedom — and some of his dead wife’s millions
THE STORY began in truly amazing coincidence on that day in 1953 when Israel Schwartzberg stumbled across Wayne Lonergan in the exercise yard of Clinton prison in upper New York State. Schwartzberg, “Big Mizo” (for Miserable) to his associates back in the Bronx, recognized Lonergan instantly. The recognition was mutual: who could forget a guy who weighed three hundred pounds, like Big Mizo? Besides, the first time Schwartzberg and Lonergan had met had been a memorable occasion for both of them — it had been each man’s first confinement in a jail. The jail was The Tombs in New York City and the date was October 1943.
Schwartzberg had been arrested that first time for going AWOL from the United States Army. But his sentence was short and he was soon back in the Bronx, dabbling in a number of business enterprises. He peddled Broadway theatre tickets, he ran a small string of race horses, and he fixed college basketball games. This last is regarded as illegal as well as unsporting in New York State and it explains why Big Mizo found himself on his way to Clinton in 1953 and to the second of his fateful encounters with Wayne Lonergan.
Lonergan, who was known to his pals back in the pool halls around the corner of Bathurst and Bloor Streets in downtown Toronto as the guy who had almost made it big, was serving his time in Clinton for the same crime on which he had been awaiting trial in The Tombs ten years earlier — the murder of his wife Patricia. He didn’t do it, he assured Big Mizo, taking up their conversation where it had been interrupted in 1943; he didn’t do it despite all appearances to the contrary, despite, that is to say, his conviction, his thirty-five-years-to-life sentence, and despite most of all, his confession. The confession, Lonergan swore, had been beaten out of him. This was old stuff to Big Mizo. What con ever admits he’s guilty? Also, continued Lonergan, his wife died with money and if it wasn’t for the phony murder conviction, New York State law would give him a third of it. a third of eight million or so. Not such old stuff, thought Big Mizo.
When Schwartzberg had once again bidden farewell to prison and to his new buddy Lonergan, he took a job on the straight side of the law. He became “confidential law clerk’’ (a billing of his own invention) to Frances Kahn, a lady lawyer from the Bronx whose specialty was handling cases for society’s underdogs. Not surprisingly, soon after Israel Schwartzberg joined her staff, Miss Kahn opened a file on the case of Wayne Lonergan, an underdog of sorts. Miss Kahn, who is thirty-five and blond and conducts her practice from a wheelchair as a result of a childhood attack of polio, undertook two chores: to persuade the courts to examine again the circumstances of Lonergan's confession and, provided the courts were sufficiently persuaded to throw out the confession and conviction, to demand from the murdered woman’s heirs Lonergan’s statutory one-third share of her estate.
That was in 1958. Progress was slow until
two high-court decisions a few months apart finally paved Miss Kahn’s way. In June 1964 the U. S. Supreme Court held that henceforth trial judges must determine the voluntariness of disputed confessions before allowing the jury to weigh them as evidence. On January 7, 1965, the New York Court of Appeal made the supreme court’s decision retroactive: any defendant who had already been convicted on a disputed confession that had been handed unexamined to a jury, the New York court held, was entitled to a new hearing. Wayne Lonergan was just such a defendant, and on January 14, 1965, Miss Kahn won an order directing Judge Charles Marks of the New York State Supreme Court to have another look at the circumstances and at the validity of Lonergan’s confession.
That hearing began early last May and, at this writing, it is still continuing. For the second time in twenty-two years, Wayne Lonergan sits in a courtroom in New York City listening to the story — tragic, comic, immoral, dreary, violent — of his life and of the crime that suddenly changed it so drastically.
WAYNE THOMAS t.ONERGAN was born in Toronto on January 14, 1918. He grew up in a neighborhood where a boy had to hustle to keep ahead of the law, on the one hand, and of a life in crime, on the other. Wayne had an older brother and sister; his mother died in a mental institution. When he was barely out of his teens, his father’s death left him an orphan. But he grew into a husky (sixfoot-two, 185 pounds), good-looking, personable young man and never seemed to have much trouble getting by. He was always able to find himself good jobs for those depression days. He worked on the beaches one summer as a lifeguard and for a while he served in Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn’s antilabor squad, knocking the heads of CTO men who got out of line.
In 1939, a young man on the make, he went to New York City and hired on at the world’s fair as a guide, pushing wornout sightseers around in a wheelchair. And there one afternoon. one wornout sightseer, a well-dressed man in his mid-fifties, took a shine to Wayne. He invited him back to his apartment in Beekman Hill, a residential section reserved for New York’s rich. Lonergan’s history is silent on his motive, that summer day in 1939, for accepting the well-dressed man’s invitation, but it was that moment’s decision that was to put him within touching distance of a fortune and to lead him inexorably into the courts and prison.
Lonergan’s Beekman Hill host was William Oliver Burton, born Bernheimer, the high-living son of an aggressively wealthy industrialist who had banked enough money in the beer business to keep his family in luxury for several generations, even a family that included his son the playboy. Burton had several homes, a wife, a daughter Patricia, and, so the New York papers later suggested, a penchant for husky good-looking,
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Did the scratches on his face prove a link with murder?
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personable young men. Lonergan became a permanent part of Burton’s floating retinue and for the next several months he moved with the Burtons through the fleshy ornate worlds of Rome, Biarritz, Florida and Newport, with side trips for Lonergan back to Bloor and Bathurst to dazzle the old neighborhood with tales of the good life.
Lonergan’s share of the good life might have ended early in 1941 with William Burton’s death, but he soon proved that he had been up to more in the old man’s service than pushing his wheelchair. In July 1941 Lonergan eloped with Burton’s daughter Patricia, who was three years younger than Lonergan, and married her in Las Vegas. With that event. Lonergan turned himself to the role of the socialite playboy with single-minded dedication. He and Patricia moved first to an apartment on New York’s Park Avenue, later to a three-story apartment at 313 East 51st Street. They rarely saw either place except to sleep, change clothes and to throw parties for other socialites and playboys. They were financed by the weekly sevenhundred-dollar allowance Pat received from her father’s estate, and they looked forward to Pat's thirty-first birthday when she would inherit a large lump sum from grandfather Bernheimer’s estate. Only two events of any significance interrupted their idyllic existence in those days. One was the birth on July 1, 1942, of their son William Wayne Lonergan, and the other was the draft hoard’s rejection of Wayne Thomas Lonergan for reasons of “immoral tendencies.” In an apparent fit of candor — or to dodge the draft — Lonergan had confessed to the board that he was a homosexual.
In August 1943 the good life did run out for Lonergan. His wife dismissed him from her life and her apartment. She was tired of him. Lonergan returned to Toronto and joined the RCAF — it either didn’t know or wasn’t fussy about Lonergan’s sexual leanings — but he still yearned for the old Beekman Hill days. On Friday. October 22, he flew to New York for a weekend of socializing. He visited his wife at the 51st Street apartment on Saturday afternoon and they discussed, amicably enough, arrangements for their divorce. That night Lonergan dated an
actress, a woman whose name, Jean Murphy Jaburg, hasn't left much imprint on the annals of the theatre. He escorted Mrs. Jaburg to dinner, to a play and on a round of nightclubs, and at 3 a.m. he left her at her apartment door.
It’s at this hour — 3 a.m. on Sunday, October 24 — that the account of his movements which Lonergan insists on and the account the police offer begin to diverge so sharply that one account is plainly a lie. Lonergan swears that, unpleasant an alibi as it may be, he picked up an American serviceman and took him back to the apartment that Lonergan had borrowed from a friend for the weekend. When Lonergan awoke later that morning, about ten o’clock, he found the serviceman on the way out the door with Lonergan’s cash and his RCAF uniform. The men fought briefly, Lonergan was scratched on the face, and the serviceman made off with the uniform.
Then, according to Lonergan’s account, he left the apartment dressed in a suit borrowed from his friend, the absent apartment-owner, and delivered a wrapped toy elephant, a present for his son, to the door of his wife’s apartment. He saw no one there and no one saw him. He walked to a drugstore nearby and bought some pancake makeup but didn’t, he says, put any of it over the scratches on his face. He had previously arranged a lunch date with Mrs. Jaburg and he killed the rest of Sunday afternoon, until he took his plane back to Toronto, enjoying a social afternoon with her.
Curiously, in Mrs. Jaburg’s testimony at Lonergan’s first trial, she swore that she saw no scratches on Lonergan’s face. And indeed, twentytwo years later, Lonergan now insists that he received the scratches on Sunday evening, not Sunday morning, in an encounter in Toronto that he refuses to discuss. Why then did he buy the pancake makeup? He isn’t saying anything about that either, and the makeup remains a minor puzzle in the tangle of more baffling mysteries.
The police are sticking to the version that Lonergan was scratched on Sunday morning, by his wife who was defending herself against Lonergan’s attack. They say that Lonergan showed up at his wife’s apartment wearing his RCAF uniform at 9 a.m., quarreled with Pat Lonergan in her bedroom over the divorce, struck her with two heavy candlesticks, strangled her for
good measure, and let himself out a door leading from the bedroom to a public hallway. Back at his friend’s apartment, he discovered blood on his uniform which he couldn’t wash out. He dressed himself in the borrowed suit, walked to the East River and threw the uniform in the water. Then he bought the pancake makeup and joined Mrs. Jaburg.
Pat Lonergan’s body wasn’t discovered until 8 p.m. Sunday when a Marine captain named Peter Elser arrived to escort her on the evening’s round of nightclubs. The maid was used to Mrs. Lonergan’s playgirl hours, but she told the captain that her mistress hadn’t been out of her locked bedroom all day and she was worried about her, this time. Elser, a decisive sort, kicked down the bedroom door, and found Pat Lonergan, nude, battered, strangled and dead. He called the police.
Next morning at eight o’clock, Wayne Lonergan was arrested in the room of a male friend at 342 Bloor Street West in Toronto by Detectives Arthur Harris and Alex Deans of the Toronto police acting on telegraph instructions from the New York police. Lonergan was put under guard
in an office at police headquarters r n College Street. He waited there Ur eleven hours, unaware, he says, of the reason for his arrest but aware enough of his rights to ask the police to contact a lawyer friend named Michael Dovle. By a not unlikely coincidence. Doyle was trying to see him. He had been retained by Lonergan's uncle who had read of the arrest in the paper. Miss Kahn now says, in one of her more crucial points, that the Toronto police, on instructions from New York, deliberately prevented Lonergan and Doyle from contacting each other.
Assistant district attorney John Loehr arrived from New York at eight o'clock on Monday night and questioned Lonergan for four hours. Lonergan appeared mildly shocked to learn of his wife’s death but denied that he was involved in it. Next day. Lonergan signed a paper waiving extradition proceedings and he and Loehr and two New York detectives took a train for New York City. At this point, Lonergan had not been charged with a crime, taken before a judge, or allowed to confer with a lawyer.
Immigration officials at the border near Buffalo permitted Lonergan to cross into the United States only on the understanding that he was traveling to New York to “assist in the solution of a crime,” and that he would be returned to their custody when that chore was finished. They’re still waiting. Lonergan spent Tuesday night handcuffed to a bed in a Buffalo hotel room and late Wednesday afternoon he arrived by plane in New York City.
At two-thirty on Thursday afternoon, still uncharged, still without counsel, Lonergan began to dictate to a police stenographer his confession; he had, he said, murdered his wife. Lonergan swears now that the confession did not materialize as suddenly or as spontaneously as it seemed to twenty-two years ago. At his hearing last May he testified that he had endured fifty-three hours without sleep (a period that would take him back to the time of his departure from Toronto) and twenty-seven hours without food, that he had been subjected to constant grilling and harassment, and that he had been struck repeatedly by police officers on the back of his head. He had managed to resist all of this pressure, he says now, but had caved in when John Loehr offered him a deal. Loehr showed Lonergan a sample of the gaudy press stories his story was attracting in New York: “The sex-twisted Café Society playboy with the crewcut and the easy sneer,” the Journal-American said one morning, “is playing the trump card of sex perversion as an alibi.” Loehr told Lonergan he could end the painful publicity and protect himself and his son by finally confessing. And, Lonergan swears, Loehr guaranteed that if he co-operated the police would see to it that he was convicted not of murder but of manslaughter. He would be free in less than ten years. The deal seems sad and unlikely, looked at in cold print, but perhaps it struck a man in Lonergan’s position as the last word in reasonableness. Loehr. he says, obligingly helped him with the wording of his confession.
The confession w'as enough to con-
vict Lonergan of second-degree murder at his trial the following spring. There was no other evidence offered against Lonergan. no witnesses who placed him at the scene of the crime. There was only the confession, and Lonergan's lawyer, for a reason that can never be known since the man is now dead, did not put Lonergan on the witness stand where he might have successfully repudiated the confession. It was not a meticulously conducted case. Lonergan went to prison and
remained there until, by some playful whim cf providence, he encountered for the second time in his life Israel “Big Mizo” Schwartzberg.
Now Big Mizo says things like this: “Just give us a million. That'll let us live decently in our declining years. 1 might even get my hair turned black again.” Perhaps Schwartzberg and Lonergan will be rich men some day. Perhaps Miss Kahn will redeem another underdog from unjust persecution. Even without the beatings and
deals and the repudiated confession, she has a strong case for freeing Lonergan in the district-attorney’s refusal to take Lonergan before a judge for five days.
But the modern morality play that has been acted out in the court rooms of New York City really doesn't need a decision from a judge to tell finally its story. If there is a moral in the case of Wayne Lonergan, it was revealed plainly enough many years ago to anyone who cared to look for it. ★
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