My own Private Murderer, Part IV
Spahalski’s criminal activity was not limited to my business. His demons required him to be more opportunistic. In addition to his occasional murderous rant, he engaged in menacing on a regular basis: theft, burglary, etc. Terry was kind enough to keep me informed of Spahalski arrests, court appearances, and the ensuing outcomes. On a good day Terry might stop in to tell me about a 3 month reprieve in my war as Spahalski was sentenced for his latest escapade. On a bad day I was informed of his pending release date and the resumption of our feud.
I don’t recall each incident but it certainly ranged about 4- 6 months every 2 years. As a reminder to those following this saga, the war was a 7 year battle. The eventual normalization of having this guy as a factor in my life didn’t lessen the relief I felt each time Spahalski went away for a while. I could feel my blood pressure lower when I received that wonderful phone call as much as I could feel the anxiety raise it when he was released.
There are two multipart stories that I have been posting and both require the introduction of a few more characters (individuals) to best understand the gestalt of each tale. The story of my health and the ongoing battle with Spahalski both benefit from a better understanding of my relationships with these friends. This is the beginning of how those people entered my life and the role they play in each story. I will set up their existence and continue with each piece as necessary. If you can bear with me, the advantage of having a better understanding of these people will aid in the flow of all that has transpired.
It was that winter of 2001 when Michael walked into my store for the first time. Everything about his aura told me we were going to be friends. By now this has happened to me on enough occasions that I no longer doubted the energy in the air. He walked in the store with a quiet confidence that was rarely disputed. He absorbed the surroundings quickly, and picked up small details. I later learned that he can do that anywhere. Michael quickly figured out his environment, including the best time of day to experience the benefits of my neighborhood place and how to limit the negatives of a downtown lunch spot.
It didn’t take long for this became Michael’s regular place. Somedays for lunch and other days a coffee in the morning. At lunch he sauntered in casually around 1:00 p.m. and within a few visits started joining me at my table, soon to be designated as our table for the hour. Don’t undervalue the idea of being invited to my table. I have removed many people over the years from that space, sometimes with only a brief slighting, often with the end result of never seeing them again.
Michael was about 65 years old when he first started coming to o’Bagelo’s and a group of us recently celebrated his 80 birthday at a local steakhouse. He is a big man and his soft, yet prominent presence is felt by anyone that meets him. Shake hands with Michael and you will grip the largest set of hands you have ever seen. It is part of a first impression that includes his well-dressed appearance from an old Italian city neighborhood. Nothing overly ostentatious or fashionable but always appropriate and professional. But none of this is what sticks with you.
It’s his aura. Patriarchal in many senses of the word. A worldly intelligence that only increases with each conversation. Never once in fifteen years have I ever heard a boastful or condescending sentiment come out of him. Sage like criticism perhaps, but with a tone of acceptance of each person’s humanity. He is well versed in Latin, history, opera, literature and theater. He could tell you about restaurants and speak-easys in most of the big cities across the country from first-hand experience. He can just as easily quote from the seasons offerings of Shakespeare at Stratford as the craziness from some barroom sot. If for some reason he didn’t know anyone when he arrived some place, he knew most before he left.
Michael looked at everyone as though they had something to offer and he always listened. Your past or education didn’t matter, people always felt accepted. I have never seen him flustered even in the craziest of situations. A hearty laugh and a suggested path for the future, but never a judgmental attitude about the past.
By early spring my friendship with Michael was well-established. This is when another member of the office reluctantly strode into o’Bagelo’s with him. The new guy had injured his foot and a cast made it difficult to walk the snowy streets of winter. But as the weather started to break, Joe was healing and the streets were clearing.
When Joe started joining Michael for lunch it was apparent he wasn’t going to break the newly developed bond, regardless of effort or concern. Frankly I’m not so sure he could have done this even if he had started out with Michael on day one. Michael makes up his own mind. At first Joe challenged my authority on everything. Food, the place, the neighborhood, and even my relationship with his mentor. Everything. Come to think of it, he still challenges everything I say, but now it is after many years of friendship and countless adventures.
I like to say suspicious was Joe’s first sentiment towards me. How could this friendship have happened without him? Who was this bakery guy that had developed a kinship with the man affectionately known as “Big Daddy”? And without his approval? When Joe was finally able to check out this situation he did so with great concern and with a protectionist attitude toward Michael, although none was ever needed. Michael rarely made a poor judgment call on anyone he encountered.
So now the two of them (and sometimes three when Michael’s son was downtown) were coming in for lunch or some other need on a regular basis. In addition, I started to see Joe in places after work. It seems we both found the same city bars acceptable to have a few drinks. It was in these places that we realized we had many friends in common.
One of these friends was Randy, a police officer in the city. Randy had worked his way up the detective ladder over the years and for as long as I have known him he was with homicide. Once he landed there, that’s where he stayed. He was even featured in a few of those T.V. cop shows that follow the path of specific crimes in certain cities. Randy grew up in the city he patrolled, and might have the most diverse connections in and around town. He is a regular everywhere, and not just in the city; clothing stores, bars, collectibles shops. His ability to establish and maintain relationships is as powerful as Michael’s, yet entirely different.
There is a dichotomy with Joe and Randy that extends beyond the work environment. Randy works on finding and prosecuting criminal activities and Joe works on defending the people accused. On many occasions Joe has cross examined Randy in court and somehow they have still remained friends. The after effects aren’t always pretty but they are always entertaining.
Their personalities mirror a similar dichotomy. People are drawn to Joe the minute he enters a room. There is no avoiding his presence. Nearly everyone in the room looks to get a few minutes of his time and he almost always obliges. One of the great qualities inherent in his persona is one that I have tried to teach my employees over the years. “If you want to continue a conversation with someone, talk about the other person. If you want to end a conversation, talk about yourself.” I have had varying degrees of success imparting such great wisdom, especially when working with young women. As they get attention without much effort, they don’t take my advice to heart. It is my hope they will remember my advice when they are not so young, if it’s not too late.
This may be one of Joe’s a priori characteristics, but if not, he had ample opportunity to learn from Michael. I consider both men experts at conversational stickiness. No matter how hard the other party may try to move away from talking about themselves, they are always distracted by the adhesive power of the talents of Joe or Michael. The conversation always focuses on the persons Michael or Joe has engaged. Sticky.
When given the opportunity to talk to either Michael or Joe you will walk away thinking “He is so interesting, and wonderful,” even though all you did was talk about yourself, and really, you had no choice in the matter. Genius. It is a marvel of social behavior to watch Michael or Joe work a room or an individual.
Randy isn’t invisible by any means but he has a conversational style that can be confusing to some, and just as remarkable for his profession. The first thing you notice is that he is scanning the room for part of a sentence, or even for a few of them. He enters a room and assess his environment. Who’s in the room and what is everyone doing. Just when you think he is being rude or inconsiderate, he zeros in on your eyes and his full attention is on you. He can push you right to the edge of annoyance, and then reach out at the exact moment you might fall away and grab hold of your attention. He smiles a great charming apologetic grin as to acknowledge that he is aware of what he did without uttering a word about it.
There is a 1970’s smoothness to Randy's style. A kind of hip older detective without the harshness of force one might associate with a cop from that era. Somehow he can move around in just about any environment and look completely comfortable, like he belongs wherever he has landed. Clothed like he cares about his appearance with an end result that looks like it wasn’t much effort. Not an easy task.
I will tell one Randy story that epitomizes all of his swagger and effectiveness. During the Jazz Fest in our city we were hanging out at one of our local places. The other members of our group had gone on to different shows and it was just the two of us. We had decided to go to a show at a new venue, one neither of us had been to. I was holding a schedule in my hand and we headed over to the small concert hall on the side of the Eastman Theater. We both knew who we were going to see as we left the bar but half way there he asked me “Is this the way to where ‘Guy X’ is playing?” I told him yes, and that I had walked by the place for the early show but decided to wait for the later one.
As we approached the venue there was a long line waiting to get in the show, a show that had already begun. I stopped at the end of the line. Randy paused and slowly sauntered up a bit towards the door. He did his usual scanning of the situation and then asked a couple in line if they were waiting to see “Guy X”. They smiled and pleasantly responded in the affirmative. The smile could have been the suburban excitement of talking to an older black man about Jazz in the city, but let’s just leave it at a pleasant smile and nod.
Randy smiled back at them and repeated the response and Guy X’s name as to confirm what they said in a nice police verification style. I overheard all of this. As he walked back towards me he then asked the same question to another man that had walked up behind me in line. Randy never asks with an accusatory tone but rather a polite informational request with a confused undertone. His repeated request for verification isn’t noticeable unless you are with him for more than five minutes.
Finally I looked at him with disbelief and said “Do you really need to ask 5 different people the same question that I, your friend holding a schedule, just told you five minutes ago?” He just smiled and smoothly laughed it off. This is Randy in a nutshell. Repetitive to a point that one barely notices that he is using a technique that has served him well as an investigator. Acting like he didn’t hear or notice your response, and then asking the same question again without sounding accusatory. Always looking for inconsistencies in the answers. I’m sure this has worked for him over the years, intended or not.
Randy easily finds his way into people’s hearts and it may only feel like it takes some time since he so often travels with “Instantaneous Joe”. There is another difference between these two characters that is worth pointing out. Randy is a great mediator. His calm and non-confrontational demeanor has both aided and failed us on a few occasions. He can bring down a tense situation quickly. Joe’s profession brings him to a confrontational point of a discussion just as quickly as others are drawn to him. This can be as innocent as a disagreement over subjective issues to the more formal identification of a social injustice. Behaviors are rarely going to be swept under any carpet with Joe. While Randy will look to avoid tense interactions, Joe uses one hand to lift the carpet and the other to point out the mess someone is trying to sweep under it. Crap that someone has tried to conceal with poorly constructed arguments or ridiculous statements are considered fuel to Joe.
It’s really entertaining to watch, and personally, even better when I am the target. We have rehashed several points over the years and sometimes it is just good mental exercise for both of us.
Somehow I have been invited into this group and the extended members it includes. Even though I don’t have as much history as most of the guys in the group, I have never felt anything other than welcome. We drink together, dine together, travel together, and often commiserate about life’s hurdlers together. The point here is that the people I have introduced in this section are important members of my social circle and to several stories. All of this prophesying will not be for naught, I promise.
Let’s get back to the Spahalski story and his perditious path. After his court appearance that left me with a personal protection device for one year, Spahalski’s travels brought him by o’Bagelo’s at least every other week while he was not incarcerated for any of his other menacing behaviors. I had eventually found the courage to stand outside my store like a guard on duty and follow his actions with my eyes as he made his way down the road.
The police were kind enough to let me know when he was sentenced for his latest antics and then when he debt was paid. Not that I needed too much lead time as I was pretty sure his weekly walks downtown during the day were a requirement to check in with probation. Their offices were close to Main street and I was pretty sure Spahalski was still living on the north side of the city and his required visits brought him past my store.
A few months in and a few months out. This was the pattern for the next 6 years. During that time I had stopped talking about the earlier incidents for a few reasons. First, I didn’t want to scare my customers or any employees. Business was tough enough without concerning others about the crazies in the neighborhood. Staff and customers needed to believe that I was going to be the first line of defense in anything that violated a comfortable environment to get a bite to eat. Any interruption of that impression could be harmful.
Secondly, as more time passed and I was still alive, people were less inclined to take seriously the impact of the threat. It had been a few years since all the real action had taken place. Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe Sam the cop was right. Perhaps the only real threat to my life existed in my imagination. I certainly didn’t believe any of that but I was certain others felt that way when I occasionally rambled on about the interactions.
I still made the effort to walk outside an eyeball the passerby whom I knew to have taken a life. A passerby found ready to barge into a back door left ajar at 5:30 am, hammer in hand and a deviant desire in his psyche. A man caught breaking into my store weeks later, then threatening me from the back of a police car when apprehended. I watched him. Each time he passed my store for the next six years.
In the seventh year nothing looked like it was going to change. It was November of 2005 and the weather was cooperating for the end the season. I saw an mounted officer approach the store on his horse as he did often. He stopped by for a cookie to take on his travels and a carrot or two for his horse. Sometimes I took care of the sidewalk delivery and other times I let the staff get a break from the bipeds barking at the counter.
Today was my day. I walked out the door with the usual treats for both of them. The horse ate his snack immediately from my hand and his rider pocketed the cookie for later. I hung out for a few minutes catching up on the days news and watching for falling debris from the four legged officer. It was a regular occurrence to have a few of the mounted officers pass by the store from the barn to monitor downtown and leave a little reminder of their existence. Some of the guys would try to manage the situation themselves but as long as it wasn’t noon, we made use of the shovel in the back room designated to handle the mess.
It was a clear day and we were all enjoying the last few warm days of the season. That was until I noticed Spahalski heading towards the three of us on a bicycle. Not only was the mode of transpiration an odd site but he had a companion with him as well. He and a woman, both on bikes, riding down the sidewalk, heading out of downtown on my side of the street.
The police officer and his horse had their backs to Spahalski and his companion but I quickly informed him of the oncoming duo. The rider looked back to check out the pair, the horse remained uninterested. This particular cop knew my story well and although he may not have completely felt the threat, he didn’t dismiss it entirely either. He wanted his cookies and sidewalk service so it was in his best interest over the years to at least act concerned.
The pair on the bikes stopped a few storefronts before o’Bagelo’s. This was getting stranger by the minute. They paused and were staring at the back end of the horse and at me. I could tell they were having a quick discussion about what had prompted their delay as the woman looked confused. They both got off their bikes and started walking into the street and heading in our direction. This time he didn’t bother to cross the street but traipsed by myself, the cop, and the carrot chomping horse.
I’m not sure what alleviated my concerns about the situation more, the rider with a gun or the horse in his command. If you have never seen a well trained police horse use his size and strength to detain a menacing suspect, you are missing out on a great force and talent. It is amazing how well they can deescalate the most violent of assholes.
Either way, it wasn’t fear or anxiety that prevailed at the moment. Shock and surprise were at the forefront. What was this guy doing? Granted, the order of protection had expired years ago but I was standing with a cop. This was the first time in years that he has made any type of aggressive stance or statement. What’s going through his mind?
So Spahalski and companion walk right past us with their bikes in hand in the middle of the lane of a busy street. When they get to the next intersection they return to the sidewalk and pause again. Before they get back on their bikes they are eyeballing us and pointing as their conversation continued. A minute later the two of them get back on their bikes and ride on down the road. I looked at my cop friend with great confusion and as he just peered at them with the standard cop stare. I’m sure you have seen the look. It’s an investigative look without concern for being seen by either the person being watched or anyone else that may be watching them.
As the two bike riders faded into the curves of the street, the three us left standing on the sidewalk went about our day. The cop and his horse heading into the city, and I back into my store. For some reason this interaction didn’t unnerve me as much as it had in the pass. Maybe it was the remaining deference Spahalski showed as he altered his path in my presence. Maybe it was being seen socializing with a police officer. Maybe the years of relative calm had made me callous to the idea of being threatened by the likes of him. It was something, but I wasn’t sure it was anything helpful or positive.
The story from here on out is all verifiable using several different sources. It is often hard to believe, but it is all very true. Some pieces of the story will not be found as I have had some inside lines to the process and interactions.
The following day Robert Spahalski walked into the Rochester Police headquarters and approached the front desk. A uniformed cop asked how she could help, just like you see on the T.V. shows. Sphalski asked to speak to a homicide detective. The gatekeeper asked what this in reference to and if possibly she could help him out.
I can’t be certain but from the telling of the story from other cops, the officer on duty was doing her duty as a triage agent of the walk-ins. Spahalski told her that he just killed a woman and repeated his request to talk to a homicide investigator. Now the cop may have been more interested in the man that stood before him but I understand it had more to do with his sanity than his proclaimed actions. “Let me see if I can find someone to help you out.” As she got on the phone to convince one of the guys to come talk to the nutcase in front of her, a homicide detective was walking into the building. The desk cop hailed him down and asked him to take over the discussion.
This is the beginning of a chapter in this story that has been documented by many other media outlets, including books, T.V. shows, and newspapers. I am going to do my part to describe the next set of events using all the connections that I have alluded to in the past. Coincidence, Karma, Connectivity, or some combination, it’s up to the reader to decide.
Next up: The Interview