Sgt. Peter Voto, left, and Officer Gary Tedesco
Sgt. Peter Voto, left, and Officer Gary Tedesco
Photo credit: Lodi Police Department
One of the first officers to arrive at the rowdy bar on that awful night was Detective Joseph Delaney. What he saw would haunt him for the rest of his life.
"I remember walking in and the tavern being very dark," Delaney recalled in 1988, 25 years after the cold-blooded killings of two officers shocked New Jersey and the country. "My foot slipped on what I thought was spilled beer or wine.
"It was blood. The blood of men whom I'd known."
When Delaney entered, the smell of gunpowder lingered in the air. It was Aug. 26, 1963. On the floor of the Angel Lounge in Lodi, Bergen County, were the bodies of Sgt. Peter Voto, 40, and Officer Gary Tedesco, 21.
The two officers had been ordered to strip and then shot execution-style. The killers were Thomas Trantino and Frank Falco, career thugs who were celebrating a successful robbery earlier in the day.
To Delaney, who died in November 2003, the double murder was the very manifestation of evil. "The devil was there that night," he recalled on the 25th anniversary.
Two days after the killings, Falco was shot dead by police in New York. Trantino, then 25, surrendered and within six months was convicted of murder. In September 1964, Judge Joseph Marini imposed the death sentence, noting that it applied only to those whose crimes were "particularly loathsome."
His final words to Trantino: "May God have mercy on your soul."
For the families of the two officers, the decades that followed brought more injury and insult. A series of controversial legal decisions, among them the abolishment of the death penalty, spared Trantino's life and eventually set him free.
Today, at 75, Thomas Trantino leads a quiet life, working with the homeless and living in Camden. During a recent interview, he said he struggles with his dark past and the brutality of the crime. He said he prays every day that the families of the officers will forgive him.
He acknowledges, however, that his very existence is mortifying to those who would have found solace only in his execution. "I understand it," he said before offering an apology. "From the bottom of my heart, I am so very sorry for all the hurt I have caused the families."
Carolyn Voto Moticker, 67 and living in Florida, will have none of it. "He should be dead," she said.
She was 16 and the oldest of three siblings when her father was killed. A half-century later, she cannot talk about Trantino without sobbing.
"He killed my whole family, little by little," she said. "Every parole hearing, we had to relive it, explain what happened."
Quest for redemption
When he was released in 2002, Trantino had no place to go. A New York landlord threatened to evict his elderly father if he moved there. He was forced out of a Collingswood group home and one in Haddon Heights after residents in both towns protested.
Trantino found refuge at a Camden homeless shelter run by Volunteers of America (VOA). Later, he rented a Fairview rowhouse.
Trantino's home is decorated with his art, abstract portraits inspired by Picasso. He created some while on death row.
His teal kitchen is part of a colorful collage throughout the house that he said is the stark contrast he needs after decades in dark prisons.
At first, Trantino worked at the Rutgers cafeteria in Camden serving pizza, but was forced out by public pressure. He worked for a reentry program in Camden sponsored by the Quakers to help ex-cons, but funding disappeared.
Last year, Trantino applied for a job as an outreach worker with Volunteers of America, Delaware Valley, which he had seen advertised.
For the last several months, Trantino has been employed there helping care for the homeless. He is one of 450 workers employed locally by the nonprofit, which has a diverse staff, including some with criminal histories.
Relatives of the slain officers were surprised to learn of Trantino's latest job. Voto Moticker called it a sad day when Trantino -- "of murderous caliber" -- would be employed with so many others in need of work.
Rebecca Fuller, spokeswoman for the VOA of Delaware Valley, said Trantino brings "a unique perspective on working with homeless individuals in the community."
"It is Mr. Trantino's job to attempt to bring homeless people living on the streets and in tent cities into our facilities," she said.
"While we fully understand the notoriety surrounding Mr. Trantino's history, in the short time that he has been working with us, Mr. Trantino has been a good, dependable employee."
The job, Trantino said, has allowed him to fulfill his vow to help others.
Trantino recalled the moment he said his life changed, his first day in solitary confinement. Kneeling with his head to the ground, he asked God for forgiveness. He promised: "I would never, ever, as long as I lived, hurt anyone or do anything harmful to anyone again. I would not drink or drug, and I would try to help people, not hurt them."
On that August night in 1963, Trantino and Falco were on a crime rampage that started with the robbery of a woman in Brooklyn. Trantino had popped Dexedrine and downed whiskey throughout the day. In celebration, Trantino reportedly fired a handgun inside the Angel Lounge on Route 46, then known as the "sin strip."
Voto, a father of three, had been training Lodi's new recruit, Tedesco, who was days away from becoming a sworn officer.
When the officers arrived at the bar at 3 a.m., it was the third time that night they had been there. Frustrated by the commotion, Voto started checking IDs. Tedesco summoned backup while Voto searched the bar. Falco was wanted for murder in New York and was using fake identification that night. Then Voto found Trantino's gun wrapped in a towel.
Trantino rushed Voto, grabbing his gun. Trantino pistol-whipped Voto in the face as he and Falco also snatched the officer's sidearm. Tedesco returned. The officers were ordered to strip to their underwear and drop to their knees. Voto was barely conscious, slumped on the floor. Both were shot several times.
The handful of witnesses there when more officers arrived gave conflicting stories about who shot Voto and Tedesco.
At his trial, Trantino testified he left before the officers were killed. After two days of deliberation, Trantino was convicted. The jury decided he deserved the death penalty.
Trantino's defense attorney, Albert Gross, argued otherwise at sentencing.
"I hope to see the day when the death penalty is abolished," the attorney said. "The very salvation of mankind depends on love, compassion, and understanding."
Trantino stood silently, guards at each side.
Carolyn Voto Moticker said she will never forgive Trantino. She does not believe he has changed. He is living off his notoriety while those he harmed suffer, she said.
Her mother never recovered from her loss and was left to care for three children. She was 16, with two siblings, 13 and 10. Her mother, she said, had a stroke one night after attending a parole hearing. She died several years later.
"He didn't rob somebody because he needed money to buy bread for his family," Voto Moticker said, her voice filled with anger as though the slayings were yesterday. "He killed them for fun. He tortured them."
Elaine Tedesco Harvey, 70, also can't forgive Trantino for killing her brother.
"He destroyed my entire family," she said, recalling answering the phone that night and seeing her father go into shock, and her mother hysterical.
Tedesco Harvey said neither parent recovered. Her father held a doctorate in education and was an accountant who lost his drive, she said.
"He cried all the time," Tedesco Harvey said. "He died of a broken heart. And I can prove it because I watched it happen."
A different man
Trantino said he cannot remember all that happened that night in Lodi, but insists, "I'm not the monster the media created." He thinks Falco killed the officers, but it could have been him. He was responsible nonetheless, Trantino admitted.
"Under the law, and morally, I would be guilty even if I didn't pull the trigger," he said, expressing remorse and acknowledging the harm done to so many families. "The moral part is the more difficult part, and that's where I live today, and where the contrition comes from."
On Trantino's first day on death row, "I just started walking back and forth," then he began praying. He said he had an epiphany so powerful it felt volcanic. He no longer felt like an inmate, but rather "a free man imprisoned."
"Old Man Jack," a prison guard, told him he would get out if he persevered. "He was insisting I eat something, and I thought in my head that he's sounding like a Jewish mother -- 'Eat something, you'll feel better.' "
Trantino's mother was Jewish. Her ancestors emigrated from Russia. His father's family emigrated from Sicily. They lived in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood where Jews did not associate with Italians.
Trantino, who had been a heroin addict, spent five years in prison for robbery. Afterward, he said, he lived two lives. He married, worked in a print shop, and had a son on the way. He was handsome and dressed well. He also was in and out of drug rehab, lost his job, and got back into robberies with Falco.
End of death penalty
To many, it appeared justice had been served for the slayings of the two officers when Trantino was sentenced to death. But New Jersey later abolished the death penalty, as did the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1972, after Trantino had spent eight years on death row, his sentence was commuted to life with eligibility for parole after 25 years.
In prison, he divorced and told his wife to tell their young son he died in the Vietnam War.
Trantino became a model prisoner and started several programs, such as one to help inmates prepare for a crime-free life. The praise he received for his first book, Lock the Lock, autobiographical writings, and artwork outraged his victims' families. He married his attorney's ex-wife while still in prison and divorced again.
Repeatedly, in response to public furor, the parole board rejected Trantino's requests for release. In 1988, thousands protested when the board first gave consideration to his application.
Nine requests prompted renewed furor.
Voto's now-deceased brother, Andrew, had served with his brother and had become Lodi's police chief. "These were not murders per se. It was slaughter," he said in 1998, explaining why Trantino should never be freed.
Andrew Voto repeatedly appeared before the parole board in Trenton, imploring that Trantino stay jailed.
Trantino was the state's longest-serving inmate until the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled he was entitled to parole after meeting all conditions for release.
In 2002, Trantino was freed. Andrew Voto died two years later at 77.
His daughter, Louise Voto Clarke, said closure will come when Trantino dies.
"We had hoped that his dying breath would be in prison," she said. "That will be the end of it, when he has taken his last breath."
A promise to change
Trantino swears he has kept the vows he made on death row.
"I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't do drugs," he said. He's proud of his art, the flowers he grows in his small backyard, his basement/studio, second-floor office, and third-story loft.
"I'm into my Zen mode," he said of his current life.
Harold Miller grew up in Camden and is the VOA outreach manager who supervises Trantino. Earlier this year, Miller and Trantino filled a van with supplies for the homeless. They visited Camden's outdoor encampments.
They encouraged those living in tents to go to a shelter. They handed out sleeping bags, hats and gloves, and Sterno burners. Trantino said he knows their struggle.
"It's not easy," he said of his own life. "Some days are dark, but I don't let myself stay there."
Copyright 2014 - The Philadelphia Inquirer
McClatchy-Tribune News Service