Photo of the Day

Alice Crimmins, right, waits in line with the crowd before a session of her 1971 trial.

The “Sexpot” Trial 

The Alice Crimmins case broke in 1965 and grabbed headlines for the next twelve years 

Fifty-two years ago, Alice Crimmins’s children died, and she was the prime suspect. The trials that followed ensured we’d never know who murdered them—only that a woman’s life could be used against her.

Whether Alice Crimmins was guilty of the crimes for which she stood trial remains an open question. She may have been convicted more for her freewheeling sexual behaviour than for the conflicting evidence against her. 

The basic details of the case are as follows: Crimmins was an attractive, redheaded 26-year-old mother living with her two children in an apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens. She was Irish Catholic but clearly lapsed.

Separated from her husband, Crimmins liked to drink and socialise, bringing boyfriends home to the apartment she shared with ­5-year-old Eddie and 4-year-old Alice Marie, or “Missy.” On the night of July 14, 1965, Crimmins left her sleeping children in the apartment and took her pregnant dog for a walk. According to her testimony, Crimmins said that when she awoke the next morning, her children had vanished from the bedroom they shared. Police discovered Missy’s body that same day: She had been strangled. Eddie’s badly decomposed corpse was discovered five days later.

Because of her unapologetic penchant for men, martinis and Maybelline, Crimmins did not win the sympathy of New York police detectives or the public. In fact, she was quickly tagged as the prime suspect. After two years of surveillance that included secretly taping her sexual encounters, detectives arrested Crimmins and charged her with the murders. The case came to trial in 1968 and Crimmins was found guilty and imprisoned. But that was just the beginning of what would turn out to be a dizzying legal seesaw. The verdict was appealed and Crimmins was released, charged again, and convicted in 1971. That second verdict was overturned in 1973; then it was reinstated and Crimmins was imprisoned again in 1975. She was paroled in 1977.

Now 77, Crimmins is out there somewhere; according to rumour, she may even be living in Queens.

In a cemetery high up in the Bronx, close to the Throgs Neck Bridge that connects the northernmost city borough to Long Island, a family lie together in a single plot more than twelve miles from home. Their collective grave bears the mark of irregular but consistent tending. There is a bouquet of purple and white flowers that cover part of the grey headstone, a cross carved at the top, just above the family name: Crimmins.

The children lie deepest in the ground. Born a year and a week apart in October, Eddie and Missy died on the same July day in 1965. Lying above them is their father, Edmund. He outlived his children by nearly fifty years.

All but one of the Crimmins family are dead now. Alice, Eddie and Missy’s mother, is out there somewhere. For decades she lived in various parts of Florida. Other times she lived on a yacht bearing her name. More recently, after her second husband died, rumours placed her back in the Queens neighbourhood she fled, nearby Nassau County, or somewhere along the Metro-North’s New Haven line. Nobody knows. Everybody speculates.

People are experts at speculating about Alice Crimmins. They’ve had so much practice over half a century. It’s hard not to when her story will never have a proper ending.

Undated photograph of Edmund, Missy, and Eddie Crimmins. (Photo courtesy NYC Municipal Archives)

The incident that would transfix the public for over a decade involved a previously obscure family with a sad but in many respects, all-too-familiar family history. That family lived in the Queens borough of New York City and consisted of airline mechanic Edmund Crimmins, homemaker Alice Crimmins and their children, Eddie, Jr., aged five, and Alice Marie, always called Missy, four. Edmund Crimmins was a six-foot-tall, sandy-haired and ruggedly handsome man who was starting to get a paunch and double chin. He towered over his wife Alice, a blue-eyed redhead with delicate features who was both slim and buxom. As couples usually are, the two had been very happy during the early years of their marriage. However, that marriage had crumbled, in large part, because Eddie spent very little time at home with his family; he preferred working overtime or drinking with the boys.

Alice, having discovered sex, came to realise Edmund wasn’t what she wanted. He drank too much and stayed out too late with his friends, leaving her to cope with the children entirely by herself. She didn’t want more kids and she didn’t care about Edmund’s fury over discovering her diaphragm. She sought out other men, discreetly at first, as was the norm. Then, after a formal separation from Edmund in 1964—he caught her in bed with another man in their house—more openly.

After they separated, Alice, who had previously been a full-time homemaker, had gotten a job as a cocktail waitress. Also during their separation, she had attended a bon voyage party – one that led to her husband’s custody suit.

In February 1965, Alice went on a cruise with her main boyfriend, the fifty-something millionaire contractor Anthony Grace. She swore the trip was an accident, claiming she and a friend got locked in the bathroom of the boat while it was still docked and weren’t let out until the boat was on en route to the Bahamas.

Alice then had to cajole her nanny into staying several days alone with Missy and Eddie. The nanny, Evelyn Atkins Linder, and Alice did not get along. Evelyn later sued Alice for $600 in back pay. Alice claimed she owed Evelyn a mere $150 and said the nanny had stolen money from her.

Then young Eddie told his father and grandmother he saw “cousins” in their undershirts in the living room when he woke up in the morning. It made the little boy upset and anxious because he didn’t understand what was going on. His father, who kicked in $40 a week in child support and saw the kids regularly, understood all too well.

On June 22, 1965, Edmund filed for sole custody of Eddie and Missy, alleging Alice was an unfit mother and, without saying so outright, an immoral slut. Alice’s own mother wrote an affidavit siding with her son-in-law, calling Alice “mentally ill” and asking the court to grant full custody of the kids to Edmund. Mrs Burke called him a “good man” who would “take good care of the children,” who were, in her view, “innocent victims of a sick mind.” She didn’t know Edmund was spying on her daughter, tape-recording Alice having sex with other men (more for titillation than information-gathering).

The trial for custody was only a week away. Her attorney had told her to expect a court agency inspection in connection with it, so Alice had spent much of the previous evening doing a lot of housecleaning and fixing up.

However, on that hot, sunshiny morning of July 14, 1965, she found little Eddie and Missy were not in their rooms. She made a frantic phone call to Edmund who strongly denied taking them, then went over to her place to help her look. Unable to find them, he called the police to report that his children were missing.

Kew Gardens Hills, NY: Ralph Warnecke, 10, points to the spot in the wooded area where, out for a walk with his father Vernon, 51, he found the body of five-year-old Edmund Crimmins. Vernon told police he went into the underbrush, poked at a blanket and “out rolled something that looked like a body.” The boy had been missing since July 14th, when he and his four-year-old sister Alice disappeared from their mother’s home. Alice was found strangled to death a few hours after she was reported missing. July 19, 1965.

The children had gone missing.

That was all that their father, Edmund Crimmins, could say when he called police around 10 a.m. on July 14, 1965. His blond, blue-eyed daughter, Missy, 4, and her brother, Eddie, 5, had vanished from the first-floor apartment in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, where they lived with their mother, Alice, 26. The couple were separated and had been living apart for months.

The wife’s story was that she had tucked the children in around 9 p.m. the night before. At midnight, when she peeked in on them, they were snug in their beds, fast asleep. By morning, when she checked again, they were gone. Alice called her estranged husband to see if he had them. The couple was in a nasty custody battle, scheduled to come to court within the week. But they were not with their dad, who rushed to the apartment to search and call the police.

Alice told police that she always locked the children in their room. The purpose was to keep Eddie, who was a little chubby, from getting up in the night and raiding the fridge. With no way to open the door, their exit, whether they were snatched or decided on an adventure, had to be via the window.

“Fishy,” was how the investigators described the story, especially in light of the custody battle. Also, police who questioned Alice thought her too calm for a mother facing her worst nightmare.

Her appearance didn’t win any sympathy either. Shapely and flame-haired, she greeted officers in eye-popping turquoise hip-huggers with a bright, flowery blouse. Her makeup was perfect, and every strawberry-blond strand was in place.

Alice and Edmund Crimmins leaving their Kew Gardens Hills home on July 16, 1965, two days after their children “disappeared.”

Jerry Piering, who was the first detective to arrive, quickly made the case his own. Hoping for a promotion to second grade on the Queens’ detective command, he immediately sensed that he had stepped into an important investigation. It took only one glance at Alice for him to decide that she did not look the picture of the anxious mother, this striking redhead in her twenties, with thick make-up, hip-hugging toreador slacks, a flowered blouse and white high-heeled shoes.

One detective summed it up: “She looks like a cold bitch.”

A veil of suspicion fell over her, as more than 150 officers, some in helicopters, combed the area for signs of the lost children.

The casement window was found open about 75 degrees; Alice remembered having closed it the night before because there was a hole in the screen and she wanted to keep the bugs out. The screen was later found outside, leaning against the wall beneath the window, and nearby was a “porter’s stroller”—a converted baby carriage with a box on it.

Patrolman Michael Clifford had already filled Piering in on the background—the Crimminses were separated and in the middle of a custody fight, but the role that the vanished children might have played in their skirmishing was still obscure.

The first fruits of Piering’s look around the premises confirmed the unfavourable impression Alice had made. In the garbage can, there were about a dozen empty liquor bottles that Alice later attributed to good housekeeping rather than over-indulgence, explaining that she had been cleaning the apartment in anticipation of an inspection visit from a city agency in connection with the custody suit. Still more revealing to Piering was a proverbial “little black book” that Alice had dropped outside; the men listed outnumbered women four to one.

While Piering was making his rounds, Detective George Martin found trophies of Alice’s active social life in a pastel-coloured overnight bag stowed under her bed. The greetings and dinner programs that filled the bag documented her relationship with Anthony (Tony) Grace, a fifty-two-year-old highway contractor with ties to important Democratic politicians.

As former Newsday reporter Kenneth Gross wrote in his 1975 account of the crime and subsequent trials, the investigative game was rigged from the start, and Alice was always fated to lose. The police fell back on a familiar feeling, voiced by lead detective Jerry Piering well within the first 24 hours of the case:

“You take the husband,” lead detective Jerry Piering said to his partner, while the house was still being searched, before Missy’s body was even found. “I’ll take the bitch.”

Piering took Alice into her bedroom and questioned her about her activities on July 13. Between 2:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon she and the children had picnicked in Kissena Park, six blocks from the apartment. They came home after stopping to pick up some food for dinner; at Sever’s delicatessen in the neighbourhood, she had bought a package of frozen veal, a can of string beans and a bottle of soda.

When she arrived home she called her attorney, Michael LaPenna (recommended to her by Grace), to discuss the custody case which was scheduled for a hearing in a week. She was concerned about a former maid, Evelyn Linder Atkins, who claimed that Alice owed her $600 and, according to Alice, had hinted that if she were paid she would not testify against her in the proceedings. Evelyn had a worrisome story to tell the judge if she decided to do so, for Alice had without warning abandoned the children one weekend while she took a boat trip to the Bahamas with Tony Grace and his friends. Alice told Piering that it was not her fault; she had thought she was aboard only for a bon voyage party but the men had playfully locked her and a girlfriend in a washroom and carried them off to sea. Perhaps LaPenna shared her concern about the maid because the lawyer did not seem as optimistic about her chances of retaining custody as he usually did.

After dinner, Alice took the children for a ride in the direction of Main Street, wanting to find out the location of a furnished apartment to which her husband had recently moved. Knowing that Eddie had planted a crude ‘bug’ on her telephone, she was hoping to retaliate by finding him to be living with a woman. She drove around for more than an hour until it was almost dark and then gave up the search.

Upon returning home, Alice prepared the children for bed about 9 p.m. (Theresa Costello, aged fourteen, Alice’s former babysitter, later told the police that it was at this very moment that, passing below the bedroom window on her way to a babysitting job, she heard the Crimmins children saying their prayers.) Alice bought a replacement screen from her room to the children’s bedroom but noticed that it had been fouled by her dog, Brandy. She, therefore, reset the children’s punctured screen in the window without bothering to bolt it into place. Mindful of the coming agency visit, she disposed of wine and liquor bottles and made a pile of old clothing; by 10:30 p.m. she was tired and collapsed on the living-room couch to watch The Defenders on TV.

The program did not make her forget that Tony Grace had not returned the call she had made earlier in the day. She reached him at a Bronx bar and to her jealous questions, he responded that he was alone. After she hung up, Alice received a call from a man Grace had apparently replaced in her affections, a house renovator named Joe Rorech. In their conversation, Joe Rorech asked Alice to join him at a bar in Huntington, Long Island, but she evaded the invitation, pleading the unavailability of a babysitter.

After talking to Joe, Alice returned to her television set. At midnight she took little Eddie to the bathroom but could not wake Missy; she thought she had re-latched the bedroom door. Afterwards, Alice took the dog Brandy for a walk, then sat on the front stoop for a while. She told Piering that she may not have bolted the front door at the time. When at last she was getting ready for bed, her husband called and angered her by repeating the maid’s claim that Alice owed her money. Alice calmed down by taking the dog out again and, after a bath, went to sleep between 3:30 and 4 a.m.

Alice and her husband Edmund arrive for a session of her 1968 trial. Photo AP.

Alice and Eddie, childhood sweethearts, had been married seven years. They were reasonably happy for a while but, soon after the birth of their son, they quarrelled frequently about Eddie’s staying out late working or drinking with friends. After Missy was born, Alice decided to have no more children and Eddie, brought up a good Catholic (as was she) never forgave her after he found birth control devices in her purse.

Alice had quickly tired of the domestic life and looked elsewhere for excitement. She found it in the arms and beds of a string of lovers.

Driven nuts by her cheating, Edmund moved out, but he kept tabs on her activities, bugging her bedroom so he could hide in the basement and listen in on her lovemaking. He decided her swinging life was not a healthy environment for his children and sued for custody.

By then, the couple were already separated, the children living on with Alice at the Regal Gardens. The custody petition charged that, immediately after the separation, Alice “began to indulge herself openly and brazenly in sex as she had done furtively before the separation.” It was further detailed in the petition that Alice “entertains, one at a time, a stream of men sharing herself and her bedroom until she and her paramour of the evening are completely spent. The following morning, the children awake to see a strange man in the house.”

Combining a high degree of jealousy with a flair for the technology of snooping, Eddie had devoted many of his leisure hours to surveillance of her relations with men. He had much to observe, for when Alice gave up her secretarial work to become a waitress at a series of Long Island restaurants and bars, her opportunities for male acquaintance multiplied. To keep his compulsive watch, Eddie bugged her telephone and installed a microphone in her bedroom which he could monitor from a listening post he had established in the basement below. Once he had burst in on Alice and a usually overdressed waiter named Carl Andrade, who had fled naked out of the window to his car.

Eddie liked to think that the purpose of his spying was to gather evidence for the custody case, but he ultimately admitted that he had often invaded Alice’s apartment when she was out just to be near her “personal things.” During their separation, so Alice said, Eddie told her that he had exposed himself to little girls in a park, but Alice disbelieved him, thinking that he was trying to play on her sympathy for his loneliness and distress.

Eddie’s preoccupation with his wife’s love life dominated his activities on July 13, as he recounted them to the police. At 7 a.m. he had played a poor round of golf at a public course at Bethpage in Nassau County. Afterwards he drank three beers in the clubhouse with a friend and watched the New York Mets baseball game on television, leaving around 2 p.m. before the game ended. He then drove to Huntington to see whether Alice was visiting Joe Rorech but was disappointed to find no sign of her four-year-old Mercury convertible there. He arrived home at 5 p.m. and spent the evening watching television.

Then, about 11 p.m., he drove along Union Turnpike to a small fast food stand near St. John’s University, bought a pizza and a large bottle of Pepsi Cola, and returned home. Alice, though, was still very much on his mind. After driving back to the Union Turnpike and drinking gin and tonic at a bar until 2:45 a.m., he drove into the parking lot behind his wife’s bedroom window; he thought he saw a light there and in her living room. He went home and called up Alice to talk about the maid. When Alice hung up, he watched a movie on television, read briefly and fell asleep by 4 a.m. A detective who checked out Eddie’s story found that the movie he claimed to have seen on the CBS channel had actually been on much earlier.

In addition to questioning Alice, Jerry Piering, a fledgling in his job, directed the police inspection and photographing of the apartment, apparently with more enthusiasm than expertise. Piering later claimed that when he first came into the children’s room, he observed a thin lawyer of dust on the bureau top, which in his mind eliminated the possibility that the children had left the room through the window since they would have had to cross over the bureau. However, technicians had covered the top of the bureau with powder for detecting fingerprints before the bureau could be photographed in its original condition.

It was Piering’s further recollection that when he had moved a lamp on the bureau, it had left a circle in the layer of dust. This story was later disputed by Alice’s brother, John Burke, and others, who agreed that the lamp on the bureau had tripod legs. Also, many people had come into the room before Piering arrived; Eddie Crimmins had leaned out of the window to look for the missing children, and, of course, Alice on the previous evening had removed and replaced the screen; it seemed unlikely that Piering’s dust film would have remained undisturbed amid all this activity. In any event, neither the layer of dust nor the impression left by the lamp base was noted in Piering’s first reports.

Alice Crimmins (with husband, Edmund behind) arrives for court in 1968. (TOM GALLAGHER/NEWS)

In the early afternoon of July 14, 1965, the Crimmins case was transformed from mysterious disappearance into homicide. A nine-year-old boy, Jay Silverman, found Missy’s body in an open lot on 162nd Street, about eight blocks from the Regal Gardens.

A pyjama top, knotted into two ligatures, was loosely tied around her bruised neck. An autopsy, performed with the participation of Dr Milton Helpern, New York City’s distinguished Chief Medical Examiner, found no evidence of sexual assault; haemorrhages in the mucous membranes in the throat and vocal cords confirmed that Missy had been asphyxiated. The contents of the stomach were sent to an expert, who reported finding, among other things, a macaroni-like substance.

This discovery rang a bell with Detective Piering, who recalled that on the morning of July 14 he had seen in Alice’s trash can a package that had held frozen manicotti and had also noticed a plate of leftover manicotti in her refrigerator. However, none of this evidence had been preserved — nor had Piering’s discoveries been referred to in his contemporaneous reports.

Following the discovery of Missy’s body, the search for young Eddie intensified. A false alarm was raised in Cunningham Park when what looked like a blond-headed body turned out to be a discarded doll. On Monday morning, July 19, Vernon Warnecke and his son, walking together to look at a treehouse used by the children in the neighbourhood, found Eddie Crimmins on an embankment overlooking the Van Wyck Expressway. The boy’s body was eaten away by rats and insects and in an advanced state of decay. The site was about a mile from Alice Crimmins’s apartment and close to the grounds of the New York World’s Fair that was then in progress.

By this time, police were certain that the children had died by their mother’s hand. They had no solid evidence, but there was simply something about Alice.

After the children were buried, Alice and her husband, reunited by their tragedy, faced a relentless police investigation which explored many trails, always only to return to Alice. Detectives pursued reports of strange intruders in the Crimmins neighbourhood, including a so-called “pants burglar” who broke into homes only to steal men’s trousers. A closer look was taken at the boyfriends whose names filled Alice’s black book. Anthony Grace admitted in a second interview that he had lied when he told the police he had never left the Bronx on the night of July 13/14.

He now stated that he had driven over the Whitestone Bridge to a restaurant called Ripples on the Water with a group of “bowling girls,” young married women who partied around town under the pretext that they were going bowling. Grace maintained that he had stayed away from Alice during the period of the custody battle and had not seen her much recently.

Joe Rorech told Detective Phil Brady that he had called Alice twice on the night of the disappearance, first after 10 p.m., when she declined his invitation to the Bourbon House Bar, and then at 2 a.m., when there had been no answer. Rorech had been drinking all night and admitted he might have misdialled the number. On December 6, 1965, the police administered the first of two sodium pentothal “truth tests” to Rorech. Satisfied with the results, and finding Rorech’s self-confidence weakened by business reverses, they conscripted him as a spy. Joe took Alice to motel rooms where recorders had been planted, but their conversations contained nothing of interest.

Both parents, it seemed, had motive for taking the children, but police lost interest in Edmund after he agreed to take a polygraph test. At first, Alice did too, but then changed her mind, mid-question, and ran shrieking from the room.

This might have seemed as good as a confession, but detectives still failed to dig up anything to justify an arrest.

With the exception of Detective Brady, the police now decided to forget about Eddie and concentrate on Alice. Before the Crimmins’ moved into a new three-room apartment in Queens to avoid the eyes of their unwanted public, the police, succeeding to the role long played by Alice’s jealous husband, planted ultrasensitive microphones and tapped the telephone wires.

Detectives monitored the apartment around the clock from the third-floor pharmacy of a neighbouring hospital, but could not pick up a single incriminating statement. Their failure was not remarkable since Alice seemed well aware of the police presence, beginning many of her conversations, “Drop dead, you guys!” Unable to overhear a confession, the secret listeners were tuned into the sounds of Alice’s sexual encounters, which resumed shortly after she took up her new residence. As their high-tech recording devices picked up Alice’s cries of physical need, her pursuers became more certain of her guilt, convinced, as they were that grief for the dead children would demand an adjournment of the flesh.

According to reporter Kenneth Gross, who has written the principal account of the case, police investigators vented their hostility against Alice by interfering with the love affairs that they were recording so assiduously. When the tireless eavesdroppers overheard Joe Rorech and Alice making love, they informed Eddie Crimmins, who promptly called and was assured by Alice that she was alone.

The police, hoping for a confrontation between lover and outraged husband, flattened Rorech’s tires, but he managed to have his car towed safely out of the neighbourhood before Eddie got home. When Alice moved out of the apartment to live with an Atlanta man for whom she was working as a secretary, the police thoughtfully advised the man’s wife, and when she came to New York, helped her destroy Alice’s clothing. Undaunted by this harassment, Alice reappeared in her familiar nightspots, now as a customer instead of cocktail waitress.

New York: The defence took over May 21 in the murder case of Mrs Alice Crimmins, who is shown arriving at court May 21. Her lawyers introduced five witnesses to testify that Mrs Crimmins never left her house on the day she is accused of killing her four-year-old daughter. A prosecution witness testified May 20 that she sawMrs. Crimmins leave the neighbourhood they both live in with a man, a small boy and carrying a “bundle.” 5/21/1968 — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Queens police were far more interested in Alice Crimmins’ sex life than in proper detective work. The original investigation, while Missy and Eddie were still officially missing persons, was shoddy at best and embarrassing at worst. Newspaper photographers took more photos, and more meaningful ones, than did police photographers. Jerry Piering, a resolutely Catholic rookie detective desperately angling for a promotion, concentrated so much on interrogating and judging Alice at eight-to-ten-hour-a-day intervals that he forgot about other important matters.

Edmund, their father, wasn’t taken seriously as a suspect, dismissed as “not too bright” and thus incapable of the complexities involved in kidnapping and murdering children.

The investigation dragged on for a year and a half without result, and meanwhile, there was a growing public clamour for action. At this point, New York politics intervened to step up the pace of events. The grand jury failed to return an indictment, and a second grand jury empanelled under Hentel’s Democratic successor “Tough Tommy” Mackell also disbanded without indictment in May of the following year. Then, on September 1, 1967, Assistant District Attorney James Mosley went before still another grand jury to present the testimony of a “mystery witness,” who was soon identified as Sophie Earomirski.

Sophie’s original entrance into the case had been anonymous. On November 30, 1966, she had written to then District Attorney Hentel telling him how happy she was to read that he was bringing the Crimmins case to a grand jury. She reported an “incident” she had witnessed while looking out of her living room window on the early morning of July 14, 1965. Shortly after 2 a.m., a man and woman came walking down the street towards 72nd Road in Queens.

The woman, who was lagging about five feet behind the man, was holding what appeared to be a bundle of blankets shining white under her left arm, and with her right hand led a little boy walking at her side. The man shouted at her to hurry up and she told him “to be quiet or someone will see us.” The man took the blanket-like white bundle and heaved it onto the back seat of a nondescript automobile. The woman picked up the little boy and sat with him on the back seat; she had dark hair, and her companion was tall, not heavy, with dark hair and a large nose. Sophie apologised for signing merely as “A Reader.”

Shortly after he was entrusted with the Crimmins case by Mackell, Mosley came across Sophie’s letter, and the hunt for her began. The police obtained samples of the handwriting of tenants living in garden apartments from which the scene described in the letter could have been viewed, and they identified Sophie, who recognised Alice’s photograph as resembling the woman she had seen. Sophie’s testimony before the third grand jury was decisive, and Queens County finally had its long-coveted indictment, charging Alice Crimmins with the murder of Missy. The prosecution had persuaded the grand jury that there was reasonable cause to believe that the bundle of blankets Sophie had seen contained the little girl’s dead body.

What led Alice to conviction, by police, media, and two predominantly male juries, was being resolutely herself. How dare she take considerable time to put on makeup before talking to detectives? Never mind that makeup was Alice’s defence against longstanding acne scars and anyone who would make her feel ashamed or out of control. People said she wasn’t grieving for her children, but, in rare moments of true solitude, she would take out deeply buried photographs of Missy and Eddie and weep for their loss.

Alice knew her defiant attitude was what set people against her, but she clung to it because, as she told Gross in 1971, “they wanted me to break down. They wanted me to grieve—not for the sake of my children, but for them—the police. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction. They were my kids. Nobody was out looking to see who killed my kids. They were interested in making me break.”

She broke, over and over again, whether questioned directly on the stand in her first trial, through years of phone taps, being asked to leave jobs after her employers found out who she was from police, and continuing to drink too much, laugh too hard, and take too many lovers instead of acting like the stereotypical sobbing, grieving mother. In the immortal words of Cole Porter, “Why can’t you behave?” Alice Crimmins didn’t until she had no other choice.

Crimmins was of lower class, overly teased hair, and too much black eyeliner was tried in the media for her female promiscuity, not the actual homicides. There was never a shred of physical evidence to connect her to the murders. Still, she was put on trial. Newspapers called it the “Sexpot” trial when Crimmins came before a jury on May 6, 1968, for the killing of her daughter. With scant concrete evidence, prosecutors hammered away at her promiscuity.

The trial began in the ground floor courtroom of the Queens County Criminal Court Building amid widely varying perceptions of the defendant. To the sensationalist press, Alice was a “modern-day Medea” who had sacrificed her children to a deadly hatred for her husband, and the pulp magazine Front Page Detective, invoking another witch from antiquity, called her an “erring wife, a Circe, an amoral woman whose many affairs appeared symptomatic of American’s Sex Revolution.” A group of radical feminists offered to identify Alice’s cause with their own, but she declined their help. Between these two wings of public opinion there was a dominant vision of Alice as a man-hunting cocktail waitress, and her long years as a housewife, mother and secretary receded into the background.

The prosecution case was presented for the most part by James Mosley’s aspiring young assistant, Anthony Lombardino, but Mosley himself scored the first important point while questioning Dr Milton Helpern. The forensic expert testified that the discovery of as much food as was found in Missy’s stomach was consistent with a post-ingestion period of less than two hours. If Helpern was right, then assuming that Alice had been the last to feed the children, she could not have seen them alive at midnight, as she claimed.

Lombardino insisted that the prize job of examining the prosecution’s star witness, Joe Rorech, was his — his alone. Since the police had first enlisted Rorech’s aid, Joe’s difficulties had continued to mount; his marriage was in trouble and he had been upset by a brief period of arrest as a material witness. In his testimony, he made it plain that he had lost any vestige of loyalty to his former mistress.

The defence, led by Harold Harrison, was unmoved when Rorech indirectly quoted Alice, “She did not want Eddie to have the children. She would rather see the children dead than Eddie have them.” Harrison had not heard this before, but he did not regard the statement as damaging; surely the jury would understand that it was just the kind of thing that a divorcing spouse was likely to say in the heat of a custody battle. Rorech, though, had something more to disclose that would change the course of the trial. Though the police had learned nothing incriminating from electronic eavesdropping, Joe testified to a long conversation with Alice at a motel in Nassau County. After weeping inconsolably, she had said again and again that the children “will understand, they know it was for the best.” At last, she had added, “Joseph, please forgive me, I killed her.”

Stung by the witness’s words, Alice jumped out of her chair and banged her fists on the defence table, crying, “Joseph! How could you do this? This is not true! Joseph . . . you, of all people! Oh, my God!” Harrison was unable to follow Alice’s outburst with telling cross-examination for he had no effective means of rebutting Rorech’s quotes. In fact, he may have been preoccupied by a dilemma of his own: the next morning he went before Judge Peter Farrell and unsuccessfully sought to withdraw from the case on the grounds that prior to the trial had had represented Joe Rorech as well as Alice, to whom Joe had introduced him.

After Rorech’s damning testimony, the appearance of Sophie Earomirski, The Woman in the Window, came as an anticlimax. Sophie elaborated the scene she had recalled in her anonymous letter by adding a pregnant dog. She told the jury that the woman had responded to her male companion’s order to hurry by explaining that she was waiting for the dog. She had said, “The dog is pregnant,” and the man had grumbled, “Did you have to bring it?” In fact, Brandy was pregnant that night, but several witnesses swore that nobody had recognised the pregnancy — that when the dog produced a single puppy the week after the killing, Alice and the neighbours were surprised.

The defense tried to destroy Sophie’s credibility, but the scope of the attack was narrowly limited by Judge Farrell. The judge excluded an affidavit of Dr. Louis Berg to the effect that a head injury suffered by Mrs. Earomirski at the World’s Fair had resulted in “permanent brain damage.” Defence lawyer Marty Baron questioned her about two suicide attempts, but to no avail: the courtroom spectators cheered her recital that she had placed her head in an oven to see how dinner was coming along. A press photograph records Sophie’s exit from the courthouse, her hand raised in triumph like a triumphant boxer, still champion, on whom the challenger could not lay a glove.

The principal strategy of the defense was to put Alice on the stand to deny the murder charge and to show that she was not made of granite, as portrayed by certain sections of the media. When Baron’s questioning turned to the children, Alice began to tremble and whispered to Judge Farrell that she could not continue. Farrell declared a recess. When the trial resumed, Alice concluded her testimony with a strong denial of Rorech’s account of her confession.

The decision to permit Alice to testify gave prosecutor Lombardino the opportunity he had been waiting for: to question her closely about her love life. All the most titillating incidents were brought out: the night Eddie had caught her in bed with the amorous waiter Carl Andrade, an afternoon tryst with a buyer at the World’s Fair, a 1964 cruise with Tony Grace to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, and nude swimming at Joe Rorech’s home when, Lombardino was careful to stress, the children were dead. To reporter Kenneth Gross it seemed that Lombardino had torn away the last shred of Alice’s dignity when he inquired whether she remembered making love with her children’s barber in the back of a car behind the barbershop; Alice admitted having had ten dates with the barber, but, straining at a gnat, couldn’t recall the incident in the car. Lombardino continued the catalogue of Alice’s conquests with obvious relish until the judge ordered him to conclude.

The trial ended after thirteen days on Monday, May 27, and early the next morning the jury returned a verdict of guilty of manslaughter in the first degree; one of the jurors said that a large majority had voted for conviction on the first ballot, but that he had doubts about the proof and did not regard her as a danger to society. At her sentencing hearing, Alice protested her innocence and angrily told Judge Farrell, “You don’t care who killed my children, you want to close your books. You don’t give a damn who killed my kids.” The judge sentenced her to be confined in the New York State prison for women at Westfield State Farms, Bedford Hills, New York, for a term of not less than five nor more than twenty years.

Alice’s conviction was far from the last chapter of the case. In December 1969 the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, an intermediate appeals court, ordered a new trial because three of the jurors had secretly visited the scene of Sophie Earomirski’s identification of Alice. One of the jurors had made his visit alone at about two in the morning, hoping to verify what Sophie could have seen at that hour. The court reasoned “the net effect of the jurors’ visits was that they made themselves secret, untested witnesses not subject to any cross-examination.”

The State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, agreed, ruling in April 1970 that the unauthorized visits were inherently prejudicial to the defendant, and adding, in a significant aside, that the evidence of guilt was not so overwhelming that we can say, as a matter of law, that the error could not have influenced the verdict.’ The Court noted that only two witnesses, Sophie Earomirski and Joe Rorech, had directly implicated Alice, and that Rorech’s testimony was seriously challenged, and the witness was subjected to searching cross-examination.’

When the case was retried in 1971, a change in counsel, the presiding judge, and the cooling of community passions resulted in a more restrained courtroom atmosphere. Gone from the prosecution team was Tony Lombardino, replaced by Thomas Demakos, the experienced chief of the District Attorney’s trial bureau. The judge to whom the second trial was assigned, George Balbach, planted court attendants in the courtroom and adjacent corridors to assure better order. Perhaps the most significant change was at the defence table, where Herbert Lyon, a leader of the Queens trial bar, now sat in the first chair. Lyon had devised a more conservative defence plan that would place greater stress on Alice’s grief and loss and keep her off the witness stand so that the prejudicial parade of her love affairs could not be repeated.

The stakes had been raised in the second trial, which began on Monday, March 15, 1971. As Alice’s first jury had found her guilty of manslaughter in the death of Missy, principles of double jeopardy prohibited her from being charged with a greater offence against her daughter, but the prosecution had compensated for that limitation by obtaining an additional indictment for the murder of young Eddie. Though the state of his remains ruled out proof of cause of death, Demakos offered the evidence of Dr Milton Helpern that murder could be “inferred” because of the circumstances of his sister’s death. Joe Rorech, obliging as ever, adapted his testimony to the new prosecution design; according to his revised story, Alice had told him that she had killed Missy and “consented” to the murder of her son.

The presentation of defense evidence was already in progress when Demakos, over vigorous objection by Lyon, was permitted to bring a surprise witness to the stand. Mrs. Tina DeVita, a resident of the Kew Gardens Hills development at the time of the crime, testified that on the night of July 13/14, while driving home with her husband, she had looked out of the driver’s window from the passenger’s side and seen “people walking, a man carrying a bundle, a woman, a dog, and a boy.”

The angry Lyon could not shake Mrs. DeVita’s story but did much to neutralize its impact by introducing an unheralded witness of his own, Marvin Weinstein, a young salesman from Massapequa, Long Island. Weinstein swore that on the morning of July 14, he, together with his wife, son and daughter, had passed below Sophie Earomirski’s window on the way to his car; he had carried his daughter under his arm “like a sack” and they were accompanied by their dog — who might well have looked pregnant for she had long ago lost her figure. As a final jab at the State’s case, Lyon called Vincent Colabella, a jailed gangster who had reportedly admitted to a fellow prisoner that he had been Eddie’s executioner, only to deny that report when questioned by the police. On the stand Colabella chuckled as he disowned any knowledge of the crime; he said that he had never seen Alice Crimmins before.

In his closing argument, Lyon cited Sophie Earomirski’s testimony that she had been led to tell her story by the voices of the children crying from the grave; if they were crying, Alice’s defense lawyer suggested, they were saying, “Let my mother go; you have had her long enough!” Demakos had harsher words, reminding the jury of Alice’s failure to take the stand, “She doesn’t have the courage to stand up here and tell the world she killed her daughter.” Alice interrupted to protest, “Because I didn’t!’ but the prosecutor went on without being put off his stroke, “And the shame and pity of it is that this little boy had to die too.”

The jury deliberations began after lunch on Thursday, April 23 and ended at 5:45 p.m. on the following day. Alice was found guilty of murder in the first degree in the death of her son and of manslaughter in the strangling of Missy.

On May 13, 1971 Alice Crimmins was remanded to Bedford Hills prison, and there she stayed for two years while her lawyers continued the battle for her freedom in the appellate courts. In May 1973 the Appellate Division ruled for a second time in her favour. The court threw out the murder conviction on the grounds that the State had not proved beyond reasonable doubt that young Eddie’s death had resulted from a criminal act. With respect to the manslaughter count relating to Missy, the court ordered a new trial on the basis of a number of errors and improprieties, including the prosecutor’s comment that Alice lacked the courage to admit the killing of Missy: this argument amounted to an improper assertion that the prosecutor knew her to be guilty and, in addition, was an improper attack on her refusal to testify. Alice was freed from prison following this ruling, but the rejoicing in her camp was premature. The tortuous path of the judicial proceedings had two more dangerous corners.

The first setback was suffered when the Court of Appeals in February 1975 announced its final decision in the appeals relating to the verdicts in the second trial. The court sustained the decision of the Appellate Division only in part; it agreed with the dismissal of the murder charge but reversed the grant of a new trial in the manslaughter conviction for the killing of Missy, returning that issue to the Appellate Division for reconsideration. Explaining the latter ruling, the Court of Appeals conceded that Demakos’s comment on Alice’s refusal to testify violated her constitutional privilege against self-incrimination. However, in seeming contradiction of its sceptical view of the prosecution case in the first trial, the court decided that the constitutional error was harmless in view of the weighty evidence of Alice’s guilt.

The Appellate Division confirmed the manslaughter conviction in May 1975, and Alice was once again sent back to prison to continue serving her sentence of from five to twenty years. Persevering in his efforts for her vindication, Lyon still had one card to play, an appeal from the denial of his motion for retrial, based on newly discovered evidence.

A would-be witness, an electronics scientist named F. Sutherland Macklem, had given the defence an affidavit to the effect that, shortly after one o’clock on the morning of July 14, 1965, he had picked up two small children, a boy and a girl, hitchhiking in Queens County. The boy had told him he knew where his home was, and Macklem had let them out, safe and sound, at the corner of 162nd Street and 71st Avenue. The affiant did not learn the children’s names but stated that the boy could well have identified his companion as “Missy” instead of “my sister,” as he had first thought. He admitted that he had identified his passengers as the Crimmins children only after reading newspaper accounts of the first trial, three years after the incident.

On December 22, 1975, the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s rejection of this defence initiative. The court was influenced by the affiant’s seven-year delay in coming forward, and commented scathingly that the affidavit “offers an imaginative alternative hypothetical explanation [of the crime], worthy of concoction by an A. Conan Doyle.”

In January 1976, Alice Crimmins became eligible for a work-release program and was permitted to leave prison on weekdays to work as a secretary. In August 1977 the New York Post reported that Alice had spent the previous Sunday “as she has spent many balmy summer Sundays of her prison term — on a luxury cruiser at City Island.” (Under the work-release program, participants were allowed every other week-end at liberty.) In July 1977, Alice married the proprietor of the luxury cruiser, her contractor boyfriend, Anthony Grace. The Post was indignant over the nuptials, furnishing telephoto shots of Alice in a bikini and T-shirt, and headlining a follow-up story with a comment of the Queens District Attorney, “Alice should be behind bars!”

Crimmins was paroled in November 1977. She had married her long-time millionaire boyfriend, Anthony Grace, and moved away to Boca Raton, Fla. to live in anonymity. However, since his death (of natural causes) there have been sightings of her back in Queens and on Long Island. Despite the conviction, the deaths of her children remain for many one of the most puzzling of Queens’ unsolved mysteries.

The case of the Crimmins children is closed. The NYPD won’t ever reopen it. That’s why all of the files are in the Municipal Archives. Old evidence counts among the files. The police don’t care anymore. Hardly anyone connected with the case is still alive to bother. What was once a molten-lava crime story is now consigned to the dusty annals of history.

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