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Friday, March 18, 2011

My dad was a secret murderer

I was home in Staten Island in the summer of 2000, thumbing through a copy of the New York Post, when I saw an article on Page 24 that caught my eye.
“Inmate lookup!” the headline screamed. It said that records of everyone who had ever been imprisoned in New York state could now be found online.
I immediately thought of my father, who’d been handcuffed and taken away by the FBI when I was 5 years old. He was released five months later and my parents shrugged it off, so I didn’t ask about it.
And yet, now I was 22 and the incident continued to haunt me. Even though I was close to my parents (I still lived with them), I was curious to know what crime, if any, he had committed.
I ripped out the article and, later that day, sat down at my computer at home and entered my dad’s name into the database: John Mascia.
Suddenly his conviction appeared on my screen: murder.
I couldn’t believe it. My parents were in the next room, making dinner, going about their normal routine. Meanwhile, my world had just been shattered.
Questions spun around my head: Who had he killed, how had he done it, and why? How could my mother have stayed with him after knowing this? What else didn’t I know about my family? My life was turned upside-down as I finally began to learn the truth about my parents.
Growing up, I idolized my dad, even when he came home exhausted after a day of cleaning carpets or painting gas stations only to tell me and my mother to “stop yelling from room to room” in his thick Brooklyn accent. I had no brothers or sisters; he had three children from a previous marriage but didn’t see them much.
My father was sentimental and funny. He drew me Disney characters and snuck me candy when I wasn’t supposed to have it. He was handsome, too, with a pencil-thin moustache and prominent Italian-American features. He had a Coney Island tattoo of his first wife’s name — Marie — on his bicep.
I hardly remember the day the FBI came for my dad. I remember seeing the men handcuff him. I asked a family friend who was there if they were arresting my daddy, and he said, “No, honey, they’re just making a movie.”
My mother and I visited him in a place she told me I could call either “the facility” or “corrections.” At one facility, I could sit on his lap, but in the other, I had to speak to him on the phone through a thick plate of glass. I cried every time we left.
When Dad got out of jail after five months, my mother explained to me that they had gotten the wrong man — that was all.
My childhood and adolescence were busy; we moved around a lot, from Florida to California to New York. Sometimes we had our own house, but when times were lean and my dad’s carpet-cleaning business wasn’t doing well, we’d have to move in with relatives or friends.
Sometimes we ran up credit cards at the mall — “busting them out” because “we’re eventually gonna declare bankruptcy anyway, so, you know, what’s the point?” as my mom explained it. They also used different Social Security numbers, so they never ended up paying taxes. Other times, we were broke, like the time my mother and I were on food stamps, or the time the Toyota got repossessed.
There were always signs that something was amiss, like when my mom called my dad “John” in private but “Frank” in public — until after he got back from his jail stint, when she told me nobody would be calling him Frank anymore. Or how my last name used to be Cassese. Or the fact that my parents kept all their money in a hole cut in the carpet padding. I remember once it flooded, and we were drying out the money. It was normal for them, so this was normal for me.
And I somehow turned out to be pretty normal — I never kept my money in the carpet. I was reserved as a kid, and lived in my head a lot. My mom pushed me to be in honors classes during school. As a teenager, I was afraid to party and didn’t try drugs until my 20s. In retrospect, I was afraid to do anything without my parents — we were that close.
When I was 17, I confronted my mom about the mysterious arrest from my childhood memory. We were driving around looking for a gas station, having just moved to New York from California.
“Mom, I deserve to know what happened,” I said.
She tried to brush it off at first. She said it was because of an old parole violation. That was why we’d moved around so much when I was little — we were on the lam. She told me that my dad had a past — in fact, he’d spent 12 years in prison before I was born. She told me he’d been a low-level associate for the Mafia — a “brokester,” not a made man. (So that was why my dad knew who everyone was when we watched mob documentaries on the History Channel.)
The jail time had been for racketeering and theft, she explained, rather vaguely. I still had doubts — 12 years for stealing a car or racketeering? — but she was being evasive, and according to her, he’d long since turned his life around for his family.
I wanted to escape provincial Staten Island, so I enrolled at Hunter College, where I studied acting. I still lived with my parents and contributed my checks from various jobs to the household. My parents refused to fill out the student aid forms I brought home at first — “Jenny, they’re going to find out we haven’t paid any taxes!” my mom whispered — until I convinced her they would be safe from the IRS.
That summer of 2000, when I was 22, I worked up the nerve to ask my mother about this new, horrifying piece of information about the murder found on the Internet. We were in the car on the way to Sloan-Kettering. My dad had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer — probably a result of his lifelong two-pack-a-day Pall Mall habit. He was going to die.
“Mom, I have to tell you something,” I began, and then told her what I knew.
She was angry, but not for the reason I thought she would be; she was upset that the information was public, for anyone to find and see. She pulled over and explained the rest.
The guy my dad had killed had been an informant and an all-around bad man, she said. It was drug-dealing business gone bad. “He took him to [Owl’s Head’s Park] out in Brooklyn and shot him,” she said. (Five times, I later learned through court documents.) “He had to work himself up to do it, Jennifer. He had nightmares about it,” she said.
He was sentenced to 20 years to life, but was paroled after 12; he’d been a real mover and shaker in prison, advocating for reform and on behalf of other inmates, she said. My mom also admitted that she hadn’t really met my dad “through friends,” like she’d always told me. She met him when he was behind bars, when she was a teacher and prison reformer. She said she’d been attracted to men with a dark history, probably because of her own troubled parents.
I was horrified. I asked her if she was sure that guy was the only person Dad had ever killed. She said, “Yes, that’s the only one.”
After I found out, I can’t even recall what it was like living in the same house with my dad. I must have blocked it out. I remember looking at him and thinking, “I can’t believe he killed someone.”
Soon after, I moved out of my parents’ house. It was an agonizing decision, but I knew that if I was still living with my mother when he died, I would never be able to leave her.
He died less than a year after I found out his secret. I never let on that I knew, and I don’t think that he wanted me to know. I think that me not knowing was the way he stayed innocent, at least in someone’s eyes.
I told the guy I was dating at the time about my dad — I had to tell somebody — but I was conditioned never to tell anyone anything about my family. That info was verboten.
His death happened a month before I graduated from Hunter, and it paralyzed me; I drifted for three years, waiting tables, suffering from crushing depression. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. A fellow server suggested that I go to journalism school at Columbia since I was obviously a huge news junkie, and it clicked.
Four years passed, and my mother also got cancer. Lying in her hospital bed just weeks before her death, she said, “I have something to tell you about Daddy.”
It was another bombshell: There were other people that my father had killed. “Four, maybe five” others, drug dealers, she told me in a flat tone, as if she still wasn’t sure what to think about it. So he hadn’t turned his life around after I’d been born, I thought. Instead, he kept dealing drugs, usually marijuana or cocaine, which is how he ended up snuffing out more people who double-crossed him or owed him money. The killings had never been solved, and he had never been arrested for those crimes.
I couldn’t believe she lived with those secrets all those years without telling a soul, but I think she just couldn’t bear the burden anymore. I couldn’t believe that she had stayed with him. I sobbed, and fled from her room.
My mother had a heart attack and died soon after that confession. For years, I continued to keep her secret. But even though my mother always told me to “never tell our business to strangers” as a child, I eventually decided that I needed to write a book about it, and made her mantra the title. I needed to reconcile the side of the father I knew with the one who committed murders — and to understand my mother’s role as his emotional accomplice.
My father’s story, and the way my life turned out because of it, made me appreciate shades of gray. All that I found out about him didn’t interfere with my memories. With my dad, there’s this separate John — and the one that I knew. I’m 32 years old now, and have no full brothers or sisters, so I’m the only one who remembers our life together. Now I’m not living with our story alone anymore. It’s a burden lifted. In a weird way, my book was my way of honoring my parents — I didn’t forget what happened to us. And despite everything, I came to the end of it still loving them.



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