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About the Author
Michael PhilbinTom Philbin and his brother Mike have been close to crime (and its consequences) for many years. Tom is a long-time freelance writer who has written nine cop novels. He lives in New York. Mike Philbin is a musician, and this is his first book. Mike lives in New Hampshire.
The body speaks to you.
Tom Richmond, Homicide, Suffolk County
In this unusual, gruesome, and histo...
The body speaks to you.
Tom Richmond, Homicide, Suffolk County
In this unusual, gruesome, and historic case, Tom actually got up close and personal with murder and a murderer. Indeed, we have never read of a method of murder more gruesome than this, and it took twenty-six years to file a case against the person who the district attorney felt was guilty. Today, with regular cold-case squads in police departments all over the country and older cases commonly investigated, it would not be unusual. But in 1979, it was the oldest case ever pursued by a prosecutor in the United States.
Murder in 1979
The case occurred in Suffolk County, Long Island, a sprawling county on the eastern end of Long Island. The investigation of the case—or reinvestigation as it would turn out—supposedly started in mid-January of 1979 when an anonymous female called the Suffolk County Homicide Squad and asked a simple question.
“Was there a murder in the early 1950s?” the caller asked a detective. She did not offer any details, wouldn’t identify herself, and then hung up.
The woman called again on January 19, and told cops that she once dated a man named Rudolph Hoff. She reported that one night Hoff got violent with her and told her that he had hurt one woman and killed another who resisted his advances.
It was then that the DA’s office and the homicide squad started to look into a 1954 cold-case murder.
The rumor of the anonymous caller circled for a while, but a person close to the case told me the real story. Though there was no formal cold-case squad at the time in Suffolk County, Gary Leonard, newly named to the Suffolk County Homicide Squad, was doing what all new appointees on the squad did. Leonard spent time going over old homicide cases to see if his “new” eyes could see anything that might produce a fresh lead that the original detectives hadn’t seen.
One of the cases that he reviewed was the murder of a fifty-four-year-old woman we’ll call Betty James (not her real name) on October 3, 1954. The detail that grabbed him was the method of murder. Leonard was aware that it was just like the method of assault in 1970 in Lindenhurst by a man named Rudolph Hoff, a six foot two inch muscular carpenter/cabinet maker, on a woman named Eugenia Sullivan. One doctor who examined Sullivan said that it was the most vicious assault he had seen in thirty years as a doctor. Hoff has taken his very large fist and part of his forearm and driven it in and out of the woman’s vaginal canal, macerating the flesh, damaging her cervix, causing her to lose seven of the eight pints of blood in her body, and taking sixty stitches to close. She lived, miraculously, but her mind died. The event caused her to be institutionalized in a mental facility where she passed away a few years later.
Leonard learned that Hoff had served thirty-two months in state prison for the Sullivan assault and had been a suspect in the killing of Betty James, a small woman whose body had been found sprawled on the grass in Pinelawn Cemetery in Lindenhurst. Her vaginal canal and cervix had been ripped like Sullivan’s, and she had died of blood loss (exsanguination), losing just about every ounce of it in her body.
Leonard brought the similarity of the cases to the attention of his superiors, and galvanized by them, the DA’s detectives and the homicide squad started to look into the 1954 case. Of course they were well aware that any kind of prosecution was a long shot. Twenty-five years had elapsed and witnesses were few and far between.
The case, investigators learned, had started in the Alcove Bar and Grill in Lindenhurst, on the south shore of Long Island, in the wee hours of the morning of October 4, 1954. People who were there were buzzing over a spectacular catch—still known among baseball fans as “The Catch”—that Willie Mays made at the Polo Grounds, snaring a high arcing drive by Cleveland’s Vic Wertz over his shoulder and on the dead run, his back to home plate.
The 1954 investigation said that Hoff came into the bar after midnight, and at one point offered an old man named Otto Schaarf a ride home. Betty James, meanwhile, who was an alcoholic, was sitting at a table and when he was about to leave, Hoff said to her as he passed, “C’mon Grandma, let’s go.”
They left, Hoff took Schaarf home, and then started home with Betty James, but they never made it. Instead, Hoff took her to an isolated part of nearby Pinelawn Cemetery.
No one knows exactly what happened. Different theories suggest that at one point Betty James laughed at Hoff for his inability to perform sexually. Others say that she laughed because he actually could not get his erection to subside, a condition known as priapism. Whatever was said, Hoff was driven into a rage and assaulted her.
The 1979 investigators found that the 1954 investigators were severely hampered by jealousy and incompetence and too many police agencies involved in the probe of the murder. There were four separate police departments involved: Lindenhurst, Babylon, the New York state troopers, and the Suffolk district attorney’s office. The agencies failed to disclose information to one another and just generally bungled the case. Hoff was identified by a couple of bar patrons as the man who left the bar with Betty James—he had an Ace bandage on his hand and his size made him physically distinctive—and he was put in a couple of lineups but was not picked out.
The mishandling of this particular case was one of the reasons why, in 1960, a single, county-wide police department was formed in Long Island.
An Unconscionable Act
Hoff was also given vital and unconscionable help by one of the cops investigating the case. Police officer Jack Holmgren, who lived across the street from the Hoffs—Rudolph, his wife Gurli, and their three kids—recommended that Hoff hire Sidney Siben of Siben & Siben (an excellent law firm at the time) to represent him. Holmgren also tipped Hoff off to the fact that his phone—the phone of a potential murderer—was being tapped by cops to try to see if they could catch him making any incriminating statements to his attorney. Hence, any calls between Hoff and his attorney that related to the case were made from “safe” phones.
Why would Holmgren do this? There are hints here and there that he was involved with Gurli Hoff, a WWII German bride and striking woman who would ultimately divorce Hoff because of his drinking, destructive behavior, and philandering ways.
In 1971, after Hoff was sent to prison for assaulting Eugenia Sullivan, Gurli still, as Newsday said, “continued her close relationship with Holmgren.” For his part, Holmgren said that he had always been “flabbergasted” that Hoff had never been arrested, apparently forgetting that he helped get him great legal representation and warned him that his phone was tapped. Ironically, Holmgren died on January 26, 1979, the day Hoff was picked up for questioning as he left for work from his Freeport, Long Island, apartment.
The cops, aware they had very thin evidence against him, apparently planned to blitzkrieg Hoff, and they succeeded. Out of the blue he was picked up by a couple of detectives from the DA’s office and brought to the Lindenhurst precinct, where he was questioned intensely about the 1954 murder. Hoff, for all his savagery with women, seemed to be afraid of cops.
Shortly thereafter, a court hearing was held, at which Thomas Gill, a detective, testified that Hoff had confessed to the murder, and as a result he was formerly indicted. Hoff and his attorney, Jonathan Boxer of Garden City (no one can explain why he didn’t hire Siben & Siben again), argued that the confession had been concocted by the police, but the argument was rejected by the judge. Bail was set but Hoff couldn’t come up with it for sixteen months, at which time it was lowered and Hoff was bailed out by his girlfriend, Lucy Rydzylewski.
As the trial approached, the prosecution received a seemingly fatal blow: Hoff’s confession was tossed out by Judge Doyle, who said that he should have had a lawyer present when he confessed.
Steve Wilutis, the DA prosecuting the case (who was nine years old when the murder was committed), had gathered a circumstantial case, and the loss of Hoff’s confession was a horrific blow. They still had some people who would testify about their recollections from more than a quarter-century earlier—such as a nurse where Hoff worked who remembered putting an Ace bandage on his hand—but Wilutis knew his case was in serious trouble.
The miracle was to come from George Latchford, a motorcycleriding Jackie Gleason look-alike who was a detective with the DA’s office and who asked his bosses if he could talk with Gurli Hoff. They all sensed she knew more than she was saying, but so far had refused to talk to anyone about what she knew outside the family.
Latchford got permission and assaulted Gurli, you might say, with delicious strudel cake, which he brought over every Saturday morning to Gurli’s house, riding his conspicuously German-made motorcycle. Gurli said he was “persistent but very nice.”
Slowly but surely she “gave it up” as cops say, and at the trial in 1980 she showed up, making, Latchford said, a dramatic appearance as a prosecution witness.
“She was a strikingly beautiful woman,” Latchford told me, “and even with gray hair she wowed everyone, but what she had to say was stunning, the heart and soul of the case.”
As she testified, Hoff watched her carefully. She had not seen him in years and he was now white-haired, unrecognizable, and nothing like the brown-haired man she was once married to.
These refer to cases that have gone unsolved for years because of lack of leads, information, evidence, or anything else detectives normally use to keep investigating a case.
“In the past decade,” as Vernon J. Geberth points out in his book, Practical Homicide Investigation, “decreasing crime rates and advances in forensics have combined to allow some law enforcement agencies the opportunity to reinvestigate older, previously investigated but unsolved homicides.”
Cold cases have given rise to a wide variety of TV shows and books, and at the center of the ability to solve old cases is, of course, DNA. And it has saved lives. Well over one hundred people, set to be executed, have walked out of the death chamber.
DNA is not alone in solving some of these cases. Over the years people change, and they become more susceptible to being cooperative. A prime example of this is when Gurli Hoff, once married to Rudolph Hoff, came into court to testify against him in a case that was over a quarter-century old, most likely because her conscience couldn’t endure it any more.
On October 4, 1954, she said, at about 4:30 a.m., Hoff came home, and she was taken aback. His hands, shirt, and pants were bathed in blood. He explained that he had been in an accident, and she helped him wash his clothes in a washing machine.
But the next morning, she knew exactly what had happened when the papers said that the bloodied body of Betty James had been found, and that she had been in the Alcove Bar, the same place that she knew Hoff frequented.
Unknown to Hoff or anyone else, Gurli produced a curledup bloodied belt that was entered into evidence, and Wilutis brought out that it was the original bloody belt that Hoff had worn that day in 1954 during the commission of the homicide of Betty James.
Gurli was asked where she had kept the belt all these years—since October 1954—and she said she had rolled it up and put it in a jar and buried it in the backyard.
She didn’t know. She just felt that some day she might need it.
“She was only on the stand for about eight minutes,” Latchford said, “but she buried Hoff.”
Indeed, the jury deliberated for twelve hours and returned a verdict of guilty of second-degree murder, which carried with it a life sentence. Hoff, manacled, was led from the court in tears.
At one point I asked Latchford why Gurli testified against Hoff. Was it because he had cheated on her so extensively? Was it revenge?
Latchford, who had gotten to know her quite well over many strudel-eating Saturdays, said “No, I think it was just a terrible burden she had been carrying, that she knew that her husband had killed a woman and assaulted another and her life ended as well. She had to let it go.”
“And what,” I asked Latchford, “did you think of Hoff?”
I remember the face of Latchford, a funny kind of guy who always seemed bemused by life, going hard and flat. “Hoff,” he said, “was a cold, vicious bastard.”
Notes on Talking with a Murderer
I had gotten a tip from a law enforcement friend about what a great case the Hoff case was, and I was looking for a good case to write a book about. I started corresponding with Hoff, who was in Attica, a maximum security facility in upstate New York, and travelled to visit him in mid-August of 1989. Hoff was excited by my visit. He thought I was going to do a story that would cut him loose.
The following are slightly edited notes I took to give readers a flavor of what Hoff and Attica are like. Hoff, interestingly, had started calling himself “John,” which is his middle name, I guess thinking that Rudolph had an evil connotation to it. After exposure to Hoff for a while, John had an evil connotation too.
Attica doesn’t look like a prison. It has high gray concrete block walls, but inside there are neat and well-maintained red brick buildings, and between the buildings there is lawn, now lush, vibrant green in summer and rich, multicolored flower-lined paths. All in all it hardly looks like a maximum security prison holding some of the most desperate men in the state, indeed, the world. However one definitely does sense intensity.
I was taken from the parking area by a battered security van with a cage fence separating the passengers and the driver (trust me folks, I wasn’t going to assault him). Upon arrival you travel through various checkpoints including the last where you are checked to see if your name is on an approved list. All the doors are heavy black-barred affairs and slide in and out of walls. I think there are four of them, though one would be enough to keep Godzilla out.
In the waiting room are signs of caution in Spanish and English, telling me that appropriate attire is required—no plunging necklines (don’t worry!), see-through clothes, or bathing suits. The visitors’ anteroom smells like an elephant house at the zoo. Walls are painted powder blue and are made of concrete block. I was surprised by the room where visitors actually meet the prisoners. It is quite large and open but manned by only two gray-uniformed guards who seem inadequate. They sit in a corner behind a tall desk and watch everything. The waiting room is painted yellow, I assume to cheer everyone up, and has a series of card-game-sized tables set in small rows where visitors and prisoners sit. There are none of those partitions with visitors on one side and prisoners on the other you see in the movies.
When I arrived in the visitor’s room, only a few of the tables had people sitting at them, but then as time went on more and more folks showed up. I also noticed that the room had one wall lined with twentyfive or thirty vending machines, which I found out from “John” were where you could get everything from cigarettes to hot soup to affidavits.
I was assigned to table three by the two smiling guards in their early thirties, I would say, and before I was seated I recognized Hoff coming through a door, heading right over toward my table. I was surprised how thin he was—he had always been described as a brute of a guy (he told me later his thinness was caused by him only eating twice a day and doing hard labor) and the first thing I sneaked a peek at as he came over was his hands, to see if they were, as described by a Newsday reporter orally to me, as “big as garbage-can lids.” Indeed, they were large.
I also expected Hoff to be a very old man (he was born in 1924 and this was 1989) because I remembered the comment his wife, Gurli, had made when she came to testify against him after not seeing him for years and didn’t recognize him. Hoff was tall, slim, and looked good. His hands were huge.
I took note that he had bushy eyebrows and deep-set fairly light blue eyes. His face was just short of handsome—but I could imagine that at 6'2" and thin, he could do well with women.
I had half expected to see a drooling, fanged monster, but he wasn’t. He looked ordinary enough, except there were moments when he would stare at me as we worked our way through the oral clichés on the way to the meat of our conversation, and I’d get a dropping feeling in my gut. There was one moment when he seemed really scary to me and this was when I put on my reading glasses and realized that I had not been seeing him that clearly. Suddenly, he seemed a lot fiercer. His attorney, Jonathan Boxer, had said he was the “fiercest looking white man I ever saw.”
Right up front Hoff told me he was nervous, and I told him I was nervous too (I want to live!). But right away we established the themes of our conversation: He was innocent of the killing, everybody was screwing him, and he wanted me to investigate the case so he could walk out the gate a free man. During the course of our conversation he instructed me on talking with jurors about whether or not they had heard Steve Wilutis, the prosecutor, say that Hoff had also killed his current girlfriend, Lucy Rydzylewski, because she was missing for a couple of weeks and Hoff was driving her car. This would be legally relevant, he thought, because it would be part of the “fruit of the poisoned tree,” which I didn’t understand. I was supposed to coax jurors to talk about this, and then get them to give affidavits stating that they heard Wilutis say this. He also talked about a jailhouse witness against him named Joseph Indell and how Sheriff Finnerty was always at odds with the district attorney. Hoff said Indell had turned on Wilutis and maybe that could lead to something.
Then, quite off-handedly, I mentioned Richie Reck, who had been one of the detectives on has case.
His eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
“Yes,” he said.
“He’s dying of cancer,” I said.
Abruptly, Hoff beamed, turned his face heavenward, thrust a fist into the air in a cheer, and said, “Thank you God.”
As I talked with him I thought that he should have been an actor, and it occurred to me that he was probably acting now. So was I.
I found Hoff’s drinking habits a complete shock. He told me that he drank Seven and Sevens—rarely if ever had beer—and that he could polish off a quart in two hours. Could this be true?
Hoff said that in the transcript it mentions that the cops got his name off the bell at his apartment building. But there are no names on the bells, he said, only on the mailboxes and you have to open a door with a key to get to them. It was something else for me to investigate.
Another one of Hoff’s beefs—on the transcript it said that a Detective Dunn was at the scene of the arrest. But Dunn wasn’t there. There were only four cops at the scene: Reck, Gill, Leonard, and Scallert.
Hoff said the reason he went with them was because he didn’t have much of a choice. He then demonstrated how one detective got on one side of him and the other detective on the other and grabbed him near his armpits with one hand.
Before I came to Attica, Hoff had not had a visitor in ten years. But he provided an explanation. In 1983 Gurli Hoff had sent him a picture of his first grandchild from his son Michael and he had written back that he had no children.
He said he was sorry that he had done this, and that a priest he had talked to said it was wrong, but when I suggested that he tell Gurli that, he said he wouldn’t do it.
“I don’t hate her…” he said. It’s just that he was still angry about what she had done in testifying against him. He thought she had great gall to visit him in prison after testifying against him.
This does seem a bizarre thing for Gurli to do. Her testimony put the man in prison for life, and then she goes and visits him. Hoff was asked why he thought she did this and he said he thought that she didn’t want anyone else to get him. If she couldn’t have him, no one could. (What an ego!)
At one point in the interview, he said he didn’t want me to think he was using me. I told him I didn’t think he was, which was a lie, but I was using him as well.
He smoked constantly during the interview, something called Class A cigarettes, and smoked them pretty low. I bought him a couple of packs of Marlboros, which are gold in prison.
He told me his mother, Bertha Pallas, was ninety-one and in a nursing home in the Bronx. He said his mother was a very good woman, good “homemaker.” But he described a rather bizarre sexual episode—his first—that occurred with his mother in the house.
“There was this Jewish girl named Irma,” he said. “She used to clean the house for my mother. She was about sixteen—a little heavy in the legs, but nice. At the time we had no extra beds so I told my mother that I wanted Augie (his sister Augusta) to sleep on the couch because I wanted to sleep with Irma.”
His mother objected but, in a rather graphic instance of parental permissiveness, allowed him to do it.
He got tears in his eyes when he told me about Augusta. She died when she was forty-five, he said. She was an alcoholic.
“I would have married her,” he said, “if she hadn’t been my sister. I loved her. And I would kill anyone who would hurt her,” he said, looking straight at me, his face flat and baleful.
I had no doubt that he was serious.
There was a clear implication that he had sex with and had sexually abused his sister Augusta.
“We used to huddle together on the bed when my father beat mother. Once I remember we were sitting on a couch together,” he said. “I was about fifteen and she was thirteen and she sat close to me and touched me…” He had a look on his face like he was going to say more. He didn’t and I didn’t push it.
(Later I talked to Gurli, who had moved to the Southwest, and she confirmed the abuse implicitly.)
Hoff got very animated when he said that Judge Doyle had reduced his life to a tiny cell.
I asked him about Eugenia Sullivan. He nodded and said he was guilty of the assault on her. He explained that he was driving along with her and when she tried to jump out of the car, he grabbed her vagina and this caused her injuries. (Sure, like that would take sixty stitches to close.)
At the end of the interview, we promised to stay in touch. We did, but see the postscript for how it all turned out.
I never wrote the book that I wanted to do on Hoff. In fact, at one point I just walked away from it. Not that there wasn’t a great story there. There was, but during my research I discovered a couple of things that if I revealed them would have given Hoff a shot at walking out of Attica. But that I couldn’t do, because I came to believe that he was guilty as sin and possibly a serial killer. Just think about the MO for a moment. That’s the kind of rage that serial killers have inside them, and it is rage that never goes away. Hoff eventually left Attica in 2008—in a box out the back door.
We live in a projected world, I think, and the world that Hoff projected was of a female he hated, no doubt that old lady sitting in the nursing home in the Bronx.
Whatever she did to him, he would carry that around with him his entire life. And every now and then he would meet a woman who would enrage him, and then the attack would commence. Indeed, his rage is easy to see: you don’t destroy someone like he did unless you bring some other baggage to the situation.
Detective Latchford and Hoff’s attorney Jonathan Boxer also believe he was a serial killer. Cops checked out some of the towns he had travelled to during his life, particularly in Connecticut, but did not come up with anything.
Conversation with Jonathan Boxer, Lawyer for Hoff on March 21, 1989
During my research for the book I spoke with Hoff’s attorney. When I commented to Boxer that he did a good job defending Hoff, he said he did the best he could—there was nothing there to defend him with.
Hoff, Boxer said, was known as an alcoholic wild man. His crime went undetected because people were afraid to say anything.
Boxer met Hoff when he was in his fifties, but said that he was 6'2", solid muscle, but had the hands of someone 7'2".
During the trial, and because it was alleged that he had killed Betty James by ripping her insides out with one of those huge hands, he kept his hands under the table. “But the jury saw them,” Boxer said, “and it was one reason why they convicted him.”
Boxer said that at one point in the trial he was being investigated by Suffolk County Police. They followed him everywhere.
Boxer said that during trial he used to pick up Hoff every day and transport him to the trial. “I’m only 5'5" and there he was sitting beside me, this hulk of a man with his hands always crossed on his lap. I figure that anytime he wanted to he could grab me by the neck and squeeze me to death.
“Hoff was always very pleasant, easy to get along with. But if you looked at those deep-set blue eyes, you could see something sinister, something evil in them.
“The kids didn’t come to the trial,” Boxer said. “They hated him like a pariah.”
Wilutis once threatened Boxer with taking him before the grand jury, but Boxer complained to a judge and they ceased and desisted.
Boxer, as mentioned above, shared my suspicion that Hoff had killed more people, that his actions and the murder and assault smelled like the actions of a serial murderer. Detective Tom Gill thought so too, that he had killed sixteen more women. All his victims were old. Our suspicion is generated by the type of MO used. Just imagine the rage you would have to feel to drive your hand and powerful arm up and down a vaginal canal with such force that when you were finished, blood pouring out of the victim, the canal would require sixty stitches to repair, which is what happened to Eugenia Sullivan.
One sees this kind of rage in serial killers all the time. For example, Ted Bundy murdered a twelve-year-old girl in Florida and beat her so badly in the face that he knocked out twelve of her teeth. John Wayne Gacy would torture his young victims by driving an eighteen-inch wooden dildo into their rectums. And a serial killer in Texas would tie his young victims to plywood panels and then torture them with various devices and, finally, emasculate them.
Just what, one must ask, is going on in the mind of someone who is capable of doing such things? And how is Hoff’s act any different?
Who Am I?
1. I was born in Northern Ireland in 1966. I would grow to be 6'4" and 220 pounds, handsome and athletic, very popular with my friends. The girls loved me.
2. I moved to New York when I was very young. My father traveled and was not in my life very much. I was raised by my mother, who was a private nurse. She established her practice among New York’s elite families on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
3. Despite her efforts to give me the best education she could afford, I continually exhibited behavioral and disciplinary problems. I flunked out of several schools. I became a habitual drug user and was involved in theft and burglary. I stole from schools I attended and even stole from the wealthy families of some of my friends.
4. I hung out at a trendy East Side bar called Dorrian’s Red Hand. It was there that I first met a pretty, outgoing eighteen-year-old student named Jennifer. There was a strong mutual attraction and we subsequently had a fling. Jennifer described it as being “the best sex she had ever had.”
5. One night at Dorrian’s, Jennifer told my girlfriend right to her face that she wanted me. There was an ugly scene and my girlfriend stormed out of the bar. Jennifer and I talked the whole night and we finally left together about 4:30 a.m.—and headed for Central Park.
6. A little after 6:00 a.m. on August 26, 1986, a woman riding her bike through the park discovered the body of my victim. With her clothes disheveled and red bruises on her neck, it initially appeared that she had been raped and strangled. As a crowd gathered to watch the police proceedings, I stood back by a nearby stone wall, watching as well.
7. Eyewitnesses told investigators they had seen us leave the bar together. When police came to my house and saw scratches on my face and arms, I was brought in for questioning. I eventually confessed about the whole incident. Yes, she was with me. Yes, she was dead—but it wasn’t my fault.
8. At my trial, my defense team claimed that Jennifer had died during rough sex. She had playfully bound my wrists with her panties and straddled me. Her overly aggressive sexual groping, however, really hurt. I managed to free my hands, get her in a choke hold and throw her off in self-defense. It was at that time that she sustained fatal injuries.
9. Although the prosecution would show Jennifer had actually been strangled, the jury was still deadlocked after nine days. A deal was struck in which I pled guilty to manslaughter. I got five to fifteen years.
10. I served out the full fifteen-year sentence before being released in 2003. My old drug habits would come back to haunt me. In 2008 I was convicted of selling heroin and am currently serving a nineteen-year sentence.
Answer: I am Robert Chambers.
“Those who truly are “fans of murder” will enjoy all the extra goodies. Like their earlier Killer volumes, the Philbins again deliver great ghoulish fun for true crime fans.” -...
“Those who truly are “fans of murder” will enjoy all the extra goodies. Like their earlier Killer volumes, the Philbins again deliver great ghoulish fun for true crime fans.” - Library Journal
Length: 9 in
Width: 6 in
Weight: 10.56 oz
Page Count: 272 pages