Another decades- old murder case is being re-opened, this one right in our backyard: a 37-year-old worker at the Princeton Forrestal Center, found dead in her apartment in Hunters Glen in Plainsboro. The attorneys are filing motions, forensic scientists are poring over blood evidence and DNA analyses, and journalists — principally those at the New York Times, which broke the story in the Sunday New Jersey section on May 15 — are interviewing old acquaintances of the victim.
And I’m back at the house, looking through those dozens of musty old boxes containing reams of raw notes and yellowed clippings from old stories reported and written over the past 40 years or so.
Didn’t I have a box with the name Irene Schnaps written on it? Though I don’t remember doing any significant reporting on that case, I remember taking more than a casual interest in it. U.S. 1 was less than a year old when the murder occurred in 1985, and I was delivering the paper personally to her office at RCA Americom. For all I knew the victim was one of our early readers.
Last week I wondered in this space why some of us cling to our houses, even when common sense tells us that we should cash them in like an overvalued Internet stock. This week I wonder why some of us cling to our old books and papers, even when we know they are growing in mold, not in value.
This is one of those moments when I’m glad I’ve got the boxes, when all the work of hauling them out of the basement of the old house, and lugging then up into the attic of the new house, seems worth it.
If the newly reopened case had been the murder of the University of Florida’s “junk food professor,” Howard Appledorf, who became famous for finding some nutritional value in fast food but who was murdered by some teenage male prostitutes — if that had been the case I could come forward with reams of interviews with the friends and family of the accused.
Back in the notes there’s always some kernel of reporting that adds perspective to the old case. Sifting through the boxes that contain the interviews, I recall the trip to the suburban Connecticut home of the harsh father whose son was one of the accused. As I stepped onto his property the door opened and two Doberman Pinchers raced out to confront me. “They’ll tear you apart if I tell them to,” the father snarled.
If the reopened case had been the Lindbergh case I would have gone back over my notes. I thought about that case the other day when Court TV aired its special reexamining the charges against Bruno Richard Hauptmann. My only original reporting was an interview with his widow, Anna, who lived well into her 80s in a quiet neighborhood in Philadelphia, steadfastly proclaiming her husband’s innocence.
“They always referred to him as Bruno Hauptmann,” Anna Hauptmann told me. “But he was never Bruno, he was always just Richard.” Court TV came down solidly in favor of the conviction, but you wonder if the young German immigrant on trial in 1935 would have had a chance in any case.
The case of Jeff MacDonald, the Princeton-educated Army doctor, convicted of murdering his wife and two children, just came up the other day, when MacDonald had a parole hearing. I’ve got a boxful of material on the case, the best of it an interview with the victim’s mother and stepfather, the late Fred Kassab, a Cranbury-based egg salesman. Kassab at first defended his son-in-law, but then began to doubt his story. Over the years the persistent Kassab doggedly put together the case that led to MacDonald’s trial and conviction.
In our interview I asked Kassab about his early life. He mentioned his own military service in passing. “Tell him the whole story, Fred,” his wife interjected as the modest Kassab skirted the question. Finally it came out: As a volunteer in the Canadian Army Intelligence, Kassab had parachuted behind German lines to gather information and make contact with the French underground. The army asked its paratroopers to take this risky mission once and only once. Kassab had done it again and again — six times in all. MacDonald had picked the wrong father-in-law.
So now the case is the Schnaps case. The New York Times has brought it back to public attention and the other papers are bound to jump on it sooner or later. The acquaintance of the victim, once considered a suspect by police until the arrest of the man now on death row at Trenton State Prison, still lives in Plainsboro.
The Times further reports a claim that this Plainsboro man, now 61, may also have had a connection with another murder victim, Donna Macho, 19, of East Windsor, who was murdered in 1984. The Plainsboro man attended classes at Mercer County Community College at the same time Macho did. After the death of the woman, he stopped attending classes. Coincidence, or some evil connection? The Times just reports it.
I trudge up to the attic and root through the relocated basement boxes. Nothing, it seems, on Irene Schnaps. Now, and only now, I turn to Google.