The original plan for Seven Million (then titled differently) was for part of the book to be told in the first person. Ultimately, we canned this idea. Here is one of my early chapters, unedited with some questions still in place for answers. This was about a visit to prison to see killer Gerald O'Connor, whom I suspected knew details of the murder of Ronnie Gibbons. This chapter is raw, and not run through my editing mill, but I figured I would share here. (If you see typos, my apologies.)
Dannemora NY is well past the middle of nowhere.
The tiny town is a stark reminder that in a state mostly known for the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple, many off-the-beaten-track towns and villages are fatigued and mired in economic struggles.
Were it not for the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora would likely have crumbled into oblivion decades ago. The main thoroughfare in the town runs adjacent to the prison, which sprawls endlessly and ominously. Known as “New York’s Siberia” because of its isolation and brutal winters, the Clinton prison is home to more than (how many) inmates, or about two-thirds of the census population of Dannemora.
The population includes killers, rapists, child abusers, and no shortage of psychopaths and sociopaths – which, in 2008, made it a perfect home for Gerald O’Connor.
The Gibbons task force had decided that I might have a chance of prying information from O’Connor. I was again walking a ticklish path, pushing up if not crossing that professional line that exists between me as a reporter and the people I cover. I could not do the bidding of the police, but I also recognized that, if O’Connor truly knew where Ronnie was buried, the police would ultimately need to know. Under a bizarre scenario, I guess, I could have toted a shovel to a location pinpointed by O’Connor and started digging, but I recognized that the idea was preposterous.
I decided that if O’Connor were to be of any help, I’d have to encourage him to talk to the police directly. If he asked for secrecy from me, I would honor that, unless there was an unlikely chance that someone was in danger.
First, however, I had to get O’Connor to talk to me, and the letters from him had dried up. The police had run into brick walls in their talks with him. He remained slippery to the point of reptilian. But, in the police meetings with him, O’Connor mentioned my correspondence with him on multiple occasions. Somehow I’d gotten his attention. I had no idea how, but we decided that I should try to extract some information from him.
By 2008 I’d been visiting New York prisons for a good 13 years, conducting interviews with wrongly convicted prisoners and rightly convicted killers, drug dealers and drug addicts, and other men and women whose lives had derailed somewhere along the way. I had a good rapport with the state Department of Correctional Services staff, who never impeded any request I had for interviews in their prisons.
There was a big difference, however, with my plan to meet with O’Connor and my previous interviews: O’Connor had not answered my several requests for a formal interview at the Clinton prison. That left me with no choice but to simply show up one day during visiting hours and see whether he’d talk to me.
I would be at the mercy of O’Connor’s willingness to meet me. That meant I could not carry a notepad, pen or pencil. I would be amongst the hundreds – and some weekends thousands – who roll into the prison parking lots, get herded into waiting areas, and do just that – wait – until their loved one or friend is summoned and brought to a specially designated visiting section. If nothing else, it would give me a taste of the common reality of prison families. And since I wrote so much about prison conditions, such an experience would likely be enlightening and valuable.
Still, it was an experience I could do without.
I went to my editor Neill Borowski, who quickly agreed to the trip. I would drive the nearly seven hours to the city of Plattsburgh, perched on Lake Champlain, and spend the night there. The next morning, a Saturday, I’d drive the 15 miles to Dannemora and hope that O’Connor would find some value in meeting me.
I told corrections officials about the plans, and they said they’d try to alert the staff at Clinton so there weren’t any roadblocks to my visit. I’d still need to go through the visiting procedure, but they said they’d tried to keep my wait to a minimum.
A few days later I made the trip to Plattsburgh, then the next morning to Clinton. Unfortunately, the message about my visit had gotten lost somewhere in the prison bureaucracy, so I was placed on the waiting list in the first-come, first-enter system. And many others had arrived before me, some who took northbound buses 300-plus miles from New York City every weekend.
I spent two-plus hours in the waiting area – in this case a trailer on prison grounds. There was no privacy to be had. Families held out hopes that their particular inmate would be paroled soon; others talked about how the prisoners had been wronged; some complained about the physical drag of the weekly trip, but said they didn’t dare neglect their loved one. Their visit was a rare respite from the drudgery of the inmate’s routine.
With only a handful of visitors left, a corrections officer called my name and I followed him into the main entrance of Clinton. I knew this drill well; even with sanctioned media visits I always had to clear the metal detector and have my hand stamped with the invisible ink that only shows up under the ultraviolet lamp.
A guard asked me who I was visiting. I told him and he asked for my connection to the prisoner. I worried that this moment would thwart my trip. I explained honestly that I was neither a friend nor a relative, but a reporter who hoped O’Connor would talk to me. I briefly told the story of Ronnie Gibbons, and, trying to garner sympathy, mentioned the longing of Rita Gibbons to find her son.
The sympathy approach didn’t work so I also told him that the powers-that-be in Albany were aware of my visit, had not discouraged me, and, in fact, had planned to notify the prison in advance. The officer – perhaps tired of my rambling – agreed to escort me to the visiting area.
In Clinton, the visiting area resembles a cafeteria, with long tables stretching nearly the width of a cavernous room. Visitors sit on one side of the table; inmates across.
Just as with the waiting area, there is no privacy. Each visitor and each inmate is only an arm’s length from another. Entering the room, I immediately questioned the likelihood that O’Connor and I could speak openly about Ronnie Gibbons. First, I doubted he’d be honest to begin with. Second, I figured any prisoner would be loath to talk in such tight quarters about an unsolved crime. Child molesters are the lowest of the low in prison; the next rung up is occupied by snitches.
The guard spotted an open seat very close to his station, and told me to plant myself there. There were other available seats farther from the guard’s post, but I guessed that he wanted me close by, now that he knew why I was there. It was unlikely my conversation with O’Connor would spark a scene, but the guard probably wanted to be prepared in case there was trouble.
I didn’t know what to expect from O’Connor, other than lies. My hope was that somewhere among the falsehoods would be some seeds of truth, some leads – regardless how trivial – that might point me in a productive direction. My optimism was limited, but existent. This could mean that I was an easy-to-dupe sap. And O’Connor had spent his life scamming, conning, and deceiving, so there was no reason to suspect he wouldn’t see me as anything more than another mark.
Time passed and I watched inmates and their visitors come and go. A heavy woman sat to the left of me, speaking softly to the inmate she was visiting. I didn’t want to eavesdrop, but, short of earplugs, there was no way to avoid their conversation.
The inmate urged her to marry him. She didn’t object, but simply stayed noncommittal. She’d occasionally switch the conversation to another track – what had happened during the past week, did he need more money for commissary – but he persisted.
I created scenes in my mind, wondering of the background of these two. Were they long-time lovers who’d been separated by incarceration? Was she one of those lonely women who begins a pen pal relationship with a maximum-security prisoner and finds something resembling love and affection during their weekly hour in the visiting room? Had the lover of another inmate connected them, thinking there might be a spark, and each would be good for the other?
Whatever scenario was closest to the truth, I was certain of one thing: The inmate wanted a marriage for conjugal visits. Without the legal marriage, the two could not spend time together in one of the prison trailers designated for husband and wife. It was crass of me to suspect that this was the prisoner’s endgame, but I had no doubt I was right.
She and he left, uncommitted to marriage despite the prisoner’s hard sale, and still there was no sign of O’Connor. Inmates came and went through a door that I could see with an occasional glance over my right shoulder. Most of the inmates were young and black or Hispanic, typical of the majority of New York’s prison population. O’Connor would be easy to spot; he was in his 60s, white and white-haired.
I noticed the guard looking at me, probably wondering whether I was going to abandon the visit. I had no intention of leaving until visiting hours were done and I knew for sure that O’Connor had chosen not to meet with me. But after an hour had passed, and more prisoners had cycled through, my doubts of meeting O’Connor grew.
Without a pen and pad I had nothing to occupy my time. I’d left a tiny hand-held recorder in the car, planning to use it to record as much as I could remember from the conversation with O’Connor once it ended. But my best-laid plans seemed to be of no consequence: I’d driven across the state, ventured into a no-man’s land of a town, spent hours cramped into a visiting area, all for nothing.
Then I noticed a man I was sure was O’Connor heading into the room. A corrections officer pointed me out, and O’Connor made his way to the seat opposite me. If I had any questions about his willingness to help me, or the kind of person he was, he erased them with his first words.
“Don’t try this grieving mother stuff with me,” he said. “I don’t care.”
So, as I figured, the letter from Rita Gibbons had been as useful as every other trick I’d tried.
O’Connor went on to explain why he’d been so slow in coming to meet me. He hadn’t balked when told that I was there to see him. Instead, as he prepared to be escorted to the visiting area, a fight broke out in his residential block. Officers quickly got the inmates controlled, but the area was locked down until the fisticuffs were settled. O’Connor had to wait nearly an hour before he was permitted to move to the visiting room.
I figured I’d let him lead the conversation, and I’d wait to find a natural transition point to talk about Gibbons. He had the charming qualities typical of some sociopaths, and I would eventually be convinced he belonged in those ranks.
He also had another quality typical of sociopaths: He lied so commonly that, I believe, even he couldn’t separate what was real from what wasn’t.
For the first 10 minutes, O’Connor focused the conversation on his anger at his rape conviction. The woman had gone with him willingly, he said. (Trial evidence told a very different story.) She did not know her husband was dead. O’Connor said he had a private investigator willing to look into his conviction, and he would push for its reversal.
Finally, during a pause from his irate soliloquy, I asked about his other crime: the murder of the woman’s husband. O’Connor was slow to answer, finally claiming that he did not commit the killing. But his denial was half-hearted, an admission in its hesitancy of his guilt. He recognized this, and didn’t bother to try to convince me that he was not a murderer. In his mind, that minor fact did not alter the injustice done to him with his rape conviction. He was a victim as much as anyone else – even as much as those he’d killed - and the wrong must be righted. He encouraged me to look into the rape charges against him.
He’d made similar claims in letters to me, and I reiterated what I had told him in response: I was more than willing to dissect the allegations against him, but first I needed proof of his claims to have buried Ronnie Gibbons’ body.
There was a new inmate next to O’Connor, and a new woman next to me, but both seemed uninterested in our conversation and O’Connor seemed not to care.
Finally, he talked about Gibbons – cryptically and haltingly – but he did talk.
I would later fill in the blanks on the story he told, because he told it in such fits and spurts. But, he said, again repeating what he’d written, he knew Tom O’Connor from the 1960s. O’Connor had been a young cop, stationed outside of Gerald O’Connor’s hospital room after O’Connor had been shot trying to rob a bank. Gerry – and I will use the first names here just to keep the unrelated O’Connors distinctive – said he’d collaborated on the robbery with another city cop, who’d tipped him off on the prime time for a heist. Whether true or not, I don’t know. I’d later find the cop living in the Midwest, but I was unsuccessful in my attempts to reach him.
Once, Gerry said, Tom O’Connor came into the hospital room just to chat. The youthful cop was curious because they shared last names. They found no relation connecting them, but both had long been interested in tracing their genealogy back to their Irish homeland. As they talked, they realized that both, while studying their heritage, had a small Irish village in common where family had lived.
This conversation sparked a friendship of sorts, Gerry said, though the two didn’t see much of each other. Gerry’s life trajectory would include addictions to booze, pills, and crime. An alcoholic, with a mean streak that always accompanied his drunkenness, Gerry would bounce in and out of prison for short stints until the fatal shooting of his girlfriend sent him away for (how many) years.
Meanwhile, Tom O’Connor continued his law enforcement career, from patrol cop to detective. But he, too, had his brushes with crime, Gerry said, though he was less than clear on how the police officer morphed into a criminal. As I would later learn, there was probably a good reason he was murky on the details: He was lying.
Occasionally, through the years, Gerry said, Tom would call him because he’d need help burying a body. Gerry provided no more specifics than he had in the Buffalo News article, but insisted he’d told the truth then and was telling it now.
Gerry knew many places on farmland and in the woods of rural Orleans County where corpses could be buried. Gerry said he’d buried four bodies with Tom, including the woman from Arizona. The one whose identification he knew for sure was Ronnie Gibbons. Ronnie had caused problems for those involved in the Brinks robbery, and needed to be taken care of.
Ronnie was already dead, stuffed in the trunk of a car, when Tom came to him, Gerry said. The two found a location in Orleans County to dispose of the corpse, and then went their separate ways.
Gerry had little more to say about this. I asked him where the body was, why Tom had trusted him to help get rid of the slain individuals, whether anyone else was involved in the burial of Ronnie. He was done with the conversation, however.
He moved back to talking about his life, and the conversation oddly detoured into Rochester’s organized crime factions of the 1960s through 1980s. I knew the history of Rochester’s Mafia, having written about it in connection with some recent crimes involving paroled mobsters who’d slipped back into their criminal ways. So, I kept this thread of conversation going, hoping we could return to the issue at hand.
Gerry said he’d run with some of Rochester’s most prominent mobsters. They’d been his friends, his allies in crime. His record had indicated none of this. Instead, his criminal past was that of a doped-up alcoholic with a hair-trigger temper. In my search through his record, and my conversations with those who knew him, nothing had come up about organized crime connections.
Gerry reeled off the names of his OC friends, repeatedly mentioning the tandem of “Torpey-Taylor.” This was Tom Torpey and Tom Taylor, both who were serving 25-to-life for setting up the killing of a union boss with mob ties. (Their history – and a brief interlude about Rochester’s Mafia – is warranted here because Tom Taylor will later become an important ingredient with this tale.)
Torpey and Taylor had been the strongarms for Rochester’s most charismatic mobster, Salvatore “Sammy G” Gingello. They were his shadows, his bodyguards.
They were also there when Sammy G stepped into his (what) on April 23, 1978 and the car exploded. Torpey and Taylor were lucky to survive blast; Sammy G was not so lucky.
Gingello was alive when taken to the hospital, but died as surgeons tried to remove his leg. There is a story – perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not – that Gingello fought with the surgeons and gave them the finger as he died, because he did not intend to live without his leg (and possibly other lower extremities with doubtful functionality after the bombing).
Gingello’s murder had a rich history that predated it. He and five others had been convicted in 1976 of the execution-style slaying of a low-level mob enforcer, Jimmy “the Hammer” Massaro. There was a problem with the convictions, however: The cops had fabricated evidence – in particular surveillance notes claiming the men had met together to plot the killing. The cops had been particularly careful with the falsified surveillance logs, even crumbling them and (what) to make it appear they were the faded notes tucked into a police folder. Unfortunately, some of the cops got squeamish and squealed.
The fake surveillance notes were the handiwork of a detective, William “Backroom Bill” Mahoney, who was notorious for his brutal “backroom” interrogations.
Mahoney was charged with fabricating evidence, and convicted. The imprisoned mobsters were freed, only to ignite an internecine war with their former allies who now had control of the town and did not want to relinquish it.
Mayhem – in the form of bombings and shootings – ensued. Sammy G was one of the victims of that mayhem.
Gerry O’Connor and I revisited some of this history in our conversation. He seemed to lighten up, as if his friendship with these men who were woven into an ugly chapter of Rochester’s history somehow elevated him, made him more than the pill-popping killer he was.
I tried to swing the conversation back to Gibbons, with no luck. Then our time was up, and I was unsure I had much more than I had before I’d come to prison.
I left the prison, and returned to my car, planning to spill what I’d been told into my handheld tape recorder.
The recorder did not work; the batteries were dead. I jotted into a note pad the specifics of the conversation, even the detours into organized crime.
Weaving through portions of the majestic Adirondacks, the long drive back to Rochester was helpful to clear my mind and focus on just where to go next. For a while, I’d intended to contact Tom Taylor in prison. While researching Rochester’s mob, I’d heard allegations that the police may have been alerted to the Gingello bombing, had pulled their surveillance back that night and done nothing to stop the killing. This scenario seemed unlikely, but a retired cop who was convinced of this had suggested I contact Taylor. Taylor, he said, might know nothing of this. But, of all the mobsters, Taylor was the smartest, the former cop told me. He may have some theories on police involvement with the bombing.
I now had two reasons to reach out to Tom Taylor – to ask about the Gingello slaying and to see whether he knew Gerry O’Connor. I decided to write a letter to Taylor and ask about both.
I’ve always considered myself a fairly meticulous reporter, though perhaps less organized than I should be. I’d researched every nook and cranny of O’Connor’s life before visiting him. This had helped some with the conversation.
Somehow I’d missed a significant detail: When Ronnie Gibbons visited Rochester in August 1995 – the visit I was sure coincided with his disappearance and, if Gerry O’Connor was truthful, Gibbons’ burial – Gerry O’Connor had in fact been in prison on a parole violation.