The Ordeal of John Cali

Police thought the deaths of his wife and daughter to be a murder-suicide—but he knew that couldn't be.

By Gerald Moore
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine January 1975

January 1975 RD ClassicsAs soon as he walked into his big white house on “millionaires’ row” in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, John Cali felt that something was wrong. Everything seemed too quiet. Renee, John’s attractive 45­-year­-old wife, usually met him at the door. He called her, but got no answer. He called Leslie, his 24­-year-­old stepdaughter. Again, no answer. Then, as he started upstairs to look for the women, the doorbell rang.

Another daughter, Jonna, stood there—nearly hysterical—with two Montclair policemen. Capt. Charles Cummings stepped forward. “Mr. Cali, a terrible thing…” he said. “Your wife—Jonna found her in the basement.”

Cali and the two police officers ran to the cellar. Renee Cali lay on the floor, her head and shoulders sus­pended a few inches above the con­crete by a hemp rope knotted tightly around her neck. Stunned by what he saw, Cali thought almost im­mediately of Leslie—Mrs. Michael Grant, pregnant with her first child—and ran upstairs to find her. He had hardly reached the first­ floor landing before Cummings called him back. Leslie was in the base­ment, too—25 feet away from her mother, hanged in a storage bin.

John Cali required every bit of willpower that he possessed to con­trol his emotions as he stood there on that hot evening of May 14, 1973. Yet, his ordeal had only begun. His faith in the sanity and decency of Renee and Leslie was about to be severely tested.

No Sense

Captain Cummings and a quickly assembled team of homicide detectives began sifting clues. The position of the bodies and manner of hanging was like no mur­der Cummings had ever seen. The rope around Renee’s neck was tied with a slipknot and attached, incredibly, to a knob on a five-drawer chest. Renee was lying flat but for the few inches of elevation caused by the rope. Leslie was in a sitting position, her buttocks just inches off the floor. A rope was looped around her neck several times and tied to a vertical beam about three feet above the floor, within her reach.

Both women were dressed in bath­ing suits, and had obviously been sunbathing on the patio before their deaths. The top of Renee’s suit was pulled down around her waist; the right side of Leslie’s suit was also lowered. But the medical report showed that neither woman had been sexually assaulted. In fact, al­though Renee had a small cut on her cheek, no signs of any physical as­sault were found. The women had died of strangulation. The cut and the bathing ­suit tops could be ex­plained if one assumed that in the final moments of life the women had thrashed about.

There were no signs of forced en­try into the house, nothing to indi­cate the presence of another person. A check for fingerprints turned up only those of the family. Upstairs, Renee’s purse was open on her bed, three dollars still in her wallet. None of the jewelry, furs and other expen­sive objects in the house seemed to have been touched.

To Cummings it made no sense for a criminal to commit two capital crimes for the purpose of robbery and then to leave so much behind, unless he was frightened away. But the autopsy seemed to contradict that possibility. The women had died around noon. Neighbors had seen no one around the house between noon and 5 p.m., when Jonna had come home. She had showered, changed clothes and was carrying her laundry to the basement washing machine when she discovered her stepmother’s body. Shaking with fright and unable to reach Cali, who was on his way home from his office, she had jumped in her car and driven to Montclair police headquarters.

Cummings’ job was made enor­mously difficult by the apparent ab­sence of a motive for the killings. As he mulled over the odd case, he be­gan to speculate. The rope around Renee’s neck was tied in a slipknot. The rope on Leslie’s neck was looped and tied where she could have reached it. Perhaps, he thought, Leslie was depressed over some as­pect of her pregnancy, her marriage or her family situation. Perhaps she and her mother had argued. Leslie could have thrown that slipknotted rope around Renee’s neck and stran­gled her. Then, repelled by what she had done, Leslie might have hanged herself. Or, perhaps, Leslie and her mother had even made a suicide pact. Either theory would account for nearly all the facts on hand and supply the only motive that seemed to make sense.

Armed With Faith

John Cali re­ceived the news of Cummings’ pre­liminary findings with astonished disbelief. “It has to be murder,” he insisted. “There was absolutely no reason for my wife and daughter to end their lives.” Renee, he pointed out, was an attractive, popular wom­an, active in community affairs, close to her family and known to be hap­py in her marriage. There were no financial problems—he was the head of a highly successful real­ estate de­velopment firm. Leslie and Michael Grant were sharing the Cali home while searching for a place of their own. “Leslie was looking forward to the birth of her baby,” Cali said. ” How can anyone suggest that this is anything but cold­blooded murder?”

As the next days passed and no new evidence was uncovered, nei­ther the police nor the county prose­cutor could see any solid reason to change their conclusion of murder­ suicide. It became clear to Cali that he must persuade them to his point of view if justice were to be done. He shook off the paralysis of grief and went to work.

First, he convened family meet­ings: son-­in-­law Michael Grant, a mortgage broker; Jonna, a nursing student; and Jo Ann Skinner, an older married stepdaughter. For lit­erally hundreds of hours they dis­cussed all possible motives that they could imagine for the killings. They listed the names of 64 people who had been to the house over the pre­ceding few years. They discussed what they knew of the mental state of Leslie and Renee. Mrs. Skinner had talked to Renee on the phone the morning of May 14. Renee had seemed in fine spirits.

Finally, Cali called on Essex County prosecutor Joseph Lordi. “To me the most impressive thing about Cali was his absolute faith in his family,” recalls Lordi. “It was just too strong to be dismissed, too well reasoned.” But Lordi’s high regard for Cali didn’t change the facts on hand. Something more than faith and logic was clearly required, so Cali cast about for another approach.

Unofficial Investigation

Cali had noticed several things in the base­ment which to him indicated a struggle. Needing an expert to confirm or refute his interpretation, he got in touch with John Cronin, a highly regarded professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Cali took Cronin through the house, pointing out what he felt indicated the presence of a killer. Renee’s hair was in curlers when she died, yet several curlers were found loose on the floor. Her glasses were some distance from her body. A watering can was overturned. The assumption that Leslie had killed her mother might explain these clues, but Cronin was fascinated. The obvious conclusion, he felt, might not necessarily be the right one.

Renee’s open purse was probably, Cronin concluded, an indication of robbery. There were $3 in it, but Cali insisted that his wife had cashed a $100 check just a day or two before she died. And Jonna discovered $20 in cash missing from her room. The chest which served to anchor the rope around Renee’s neck had been empty; Cronin agreed that it would hardly support enough weight to strangle a person unless she was un­conscious before she was hanged.

Cronin finished his unofficial in­vestigation and told Cali he thought that the women had been victims of a very clever killer. The $3, he said, were left behind to throw police off. The differences in the knotted ropes showed that the killer had gone about his crime with terrible deliberation; it was double murder made to look like murder-suicide.

Turnabout

With Cronin’s reasoning to back his own gut feelings, Cali went back to Lordi. The prosecutor decided to call his own expert: Dr. Milton Halpern, New York City’s famous chief medical examiner.

In the meantime, Dr. Edwin H. Albano, New Jersey’s state medical examiner, entered the case. He had not performed the first autopsy, but the strange circumstances of the deaths caught his attention. He decided to do a second autopsy. He found several previously unnoticed bruises on Renee’s upper arms, which indicated, he concluded, a “firm, steady grip”—not, significantly, the kind of grip that Leslie would have been able to apply. Then he found smaller bruises on Leslie. He, too, was inclined to a double-murder theory.

Albano’s findings came to Lordi just as Dr. Halpern reported that a two-­hour inspection of Cali’s house had convinced him that Cronin’s findings were correct.

Cali’s efforts had finally paid off. The consensus of the three experts put a very different interpretation on the evidence. The cut on Renee’s cheek could be further evidence of assault. The fact that both women had the tops of their swimsuits pulled down now seemed an un­likely coincidence. Lordi himself became convinced that Cali’s view— double murder—was correct.

Using the list that Cali had provided, detectives began questioning everyone who had been to the Cali home in the weeks before the kill­ings. All visitors seemed to have a solid alibi for May 14.

Tension was building in the prose­cutor’s office, for investigators knew that anyone who could kill so coolly might soon kill again. And the strain on John Cali was enormous. The shock of losing his wife and daughter, the intensive, and con­tinuing, effort to clear their good names, and the pressures of running a highly competitive business were taking their toll. But constant sup­port from his family sustained him.

Chilling Reality

On June 13, Cali noticed a small item buried in a local newspaper. Robert Petrarca, a win­dow washer, had been arrested in South Orange, a few miles from the Cali home. Petrarca had gone to the home of an 83­-year-­old woman on a job and tried to strangle her with a rope.

The story sent Cali’s head reeling. Petrarca worked for the Aristocrat Window Cleaning Service, and Aris­tocrat had billed Cali for washing windows at his house on May 13, the day before the double killing. Leslie, Jonna recalled, had showed Petrarca where to store storm win­dows in the basement—in the very bin where her body was later found.

“It has to be Petrarca,” Cali insisted to Lordi.

Petrarca, 26, a dark, powerfully built man with a substantial crimi­nal record, freely admitted to police that he had washed the Cali win­dows, but steadfastly denied that he had gone back on May 14. He said he’d spent the day working, and his alibi stood up.

Because of the enormous circum­stantial evidence, however, Petrarca was brought to the prosecutor’s office for questioning many times in the next few weeks. But progress was nil—until August 3, when for no apparent reason he abruptly confessed the chilling facts of the crime.

The day after Petrarca and a part­ner had washed windows at the Cali home, Petrarca said he showed up again—alone—telling Leslie that he had lost a squeegee and wanted to look for it. She helped him in a fruit­less search. Then he grabbed her from behind in a tight hammerlock, and strangled her. Renee was at the washing machine, transferring clothes to the dryer, when Petrarca sneaked up behind her and grabbed her. Renee fought. She got his left ring finger in her mouth and bit hard, nearly to the bone. “Let go or I’ll kill you,” he growled. Renee let go, and he strangled her.

Petrarca arranged the bodies in the odd positions in which they were found, then went upstairs and searched the house. He took about $60 from the top of a dresser, $20 from Jonna’s bureau.

His sordid confession finished, Petrarca told police that he wanted to call John Cali. Cali agreed to the conversation, and asked Petrarca, “Why? Why did you kill two such wonderful, innocent people?”

“I don’t know.”

“May God help you!” Cali said and hung up.

Last spring, Petrarca was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. John Cali’s faith was vin­dicated, but there was no sense of triumph.

Outside the courtroom after the trial, looking drawn and tired, Cali said, “Society gives much considera­tion to the criminal, to his rehabilita­tion, his psychiatric state and his legal rights. Society might also con­sider the plight of the victim’s fam­ily. They, too, may desperately need emotional support in overcoming their shock and outrage and sorrow, and assurance that everything pos­sible is being done to bring the guilty party to justice.”

With that, he got into his car and drove off to rebuild his life.

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