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Scoundrel by Sarah Weinman Book

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Scoundrel by Sarah Weinman Book Read Online Chapter One

“Where Is Vickie?”

MARCH 1957


She was the Zielinskis’ second child. Mary Faye was the eldest, given the same first name as her mother and grandmother. Victoria Ann arrived three years after her sister, born on September 6, 1941. Then came Myrna, two years later, and finally, a couple of years after that, Anthony Jr. The Zielinskis met, married, and started their family in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and had moved to Ramsey, New Jersey—after a short stint in Hoboken—when Vickie was seven or eight. Anthony’s and Mary’s ancestors had come from Poland and Austria, respectively, earlier in the twentieth century.

A nuclear family, yes. A happy one? The record says otherwise. Vickie complained about her father to her friends, usually about his curfew enforcement—always 11:00 p.m., and she had to call home if she was to be late—and sometimes about his constant drinking. Her complaints occasionally carried whispers of familial violence. That more disturbing undertone would prove important later, as would so much about what Vickie did or didn’t do, what she thought or didn’t think, what she wanted or didn’t want.

Strip all those suppositions away, and what’s left is an adolescent girl faring well by 1950s standards. “Just a kid,” insisted her best friend, Barbara Nixon, describing Vickie more than 6 decades later. Which, at age 15, a shade over 5 feet and a little more than 110 pounds, was almost certainly true.

Vickie was an honor roll student in her freshman year at Ramsey High School. She took her studies seriously and was particularly keen on learning German. The summer before her sophomore year, she split her time between Ramsey and her birthplace of Honesdale, staying with her aunt Anna, her mother’s sister.

In tenth grade, Vickie’s marks started to slide. She seemed bored and distracted in class and was often late because she loved to socialize with her friends during the breaks. Vickie’s homeroom teacher, Emily Gloekler, found none of those things too worrying, though. She told the Paterson Evening News that Vickie’s grade drop had been “typical of sophomores, who like to enjoy themselves.” Charles Schanz, the vice principal at Ramsey High, added, “She was the type who—when they say hello . . . really meant it and are happy to say it.”

And Vickie did enjoy herself. Friday nights she spent at the roller rink in Paramus or at the Corral, a hangout for Ramsey teenagers to dance to jukebox tunes. She did not shy away from having fun, though weekend dates with boys and young men never went past her strict curfew. She might flirt with boys she knew, tease them and kid around with them, but she wasn’t known to behave that way with strangers. In early February 1957, Vickie went out with a boy who had a bottle of beer in his car. “I won’t go with you unless you break that thing,” Vickie admonished him. He proceeded to smash the bottle.

One unnamed girlfriend complicated the picture with what she told the Bergen Record after Vickie was killed. The friend said Vickie had changed somewhat since the beginning of the year, suggesting that she was “wilder than she used to be”—not wild enough to get into a car with a stranger, of course, but out of step with her earlier self. The kind of girl who became the subject of lurid rumors that she fooled around with older boys.

One of the last photos of Vickie shows her standing in front of a white door. The camera peers up at her from a low angle. She holds a pair of figure skates in her left hand, the wrist adorned with a white gold Wittnauer watch. Her right hand rests on her hip—a typical pose, evident in other photos taken in Vickie’s teen years—while her left leg is bent slightly at the knee. She is clad in dark penny loafers, white socks that stop halfway up her shins, a white turtleneck sweater and a dark skirt whose flared hem brushes against her thighs; her expression is a Rorschach test for whatever one wishes to read into it.

She could be defiant or playful. Coy or confident. Childlike or dangerously mature. The gap between her front teeth, plainly visible in photos from earlier in her childhood, is harder to see, and so she seems to teeter on the edge between self-conscious and assured. In the photo, at least, she radiates promise of something far larger than whatever future seemed possible within the walls of her yellow-painted home at 496 Wyckoff Avenue.

What kind of life was in store for Victoria Zielinski? Would she have moved away from Bergen County across the Hudson River to Manhattan, that tiny isle bursting with outsize dreams, ready to spit out those who couldn’t hack it? Or would she have fled the East Coast altogether for somewhere more far-flung?

The tragedy of early, violent death is that it strips away the person and leaves only the act, the making of the dead girl, rather than the celebration of the lived life. The killer has the power. The one who dies loses it all. Victoria Zielinski not only lost her future, her power, and her promise on the night of March 4, 1957: she lost her existence, overridden by the needs and wants and desires of the man who murdered her.

* * *

AT 7:30 THAT EVENING, Vickie and her younger sister, Myrna, walked down Wyckoff Avenue to where Ramsey ended and Mahwah began, small towns linked by the same street. Vickie was heading for Barbara Nixon’s house, where she and her best friend were going to do their bookkeeping homework together and then study for a test the following morning. She and Barbara couldn’t have been more different. Vickie was short, dark, fun loving. Barbara was taller, blonder, less inclined toward humorous hijinks. But once their friendship took hold at the beginning of their freshman year, it stuck.

Since the streets were poorly lit and sidewalks were scarce, the Zielinski girls often kept each other company at least partway on any evening walk. When cars zoomed past on the two-lane road, pedestrians barely had time to jump out of the way. The girls felt unsafe walking alone, but what they were afraid of was being hit by a car, a far more common event in Bergen County than being murdered. As on other nights, once Vickie got close to the Nixons’ place, Myrna turned around and walked back home. She arrived before 8:00 p.m., giving her a half hour of homework time before she was due to go back out to meet her older sister.

Vickie wore blue jeans, a coral cardigan sweater, her navy blue Ramsey High jacket, and red gloves, her customary silver heart chain adorning her neck. She arrived at Barbara’s house on the corner of Fardale Road and Chapel Street at around a quarter to eight. The girls did their homework and then listened to the radio and talked for a little while.

At about 8:30, Vickie left the Nixons’ for home. Myrna, still deep in her own homework, needed a nudge from her mother to remember that it was time to go. She left the house ten minutes late, at twenty to nine. She figured she would run into her older sister along the way.

She did not. Myrna kept walking but saw no sign of Vickie. She made it all the way to the Nixons’ by ten of nine, thinking that Vickie might still be there. She was not. Barbara’s family told Myrna that Vickie had left, on schedule, twenty minutes earlier.

Myrna walked back home, confusion and worry mounting. There was still no sign of Vickie or anyone else walking along Wyckoff Avenue. A two-tone green Ford, going well over fifty miles an hour, zoomed past her where Wyckoff met Crescent Avenue, and Myrna recognized the driver: an older boy named Donald Hommell.

Myrna had met Hommell the previous year after he and his family moved to Ramsey from Vero Beach, Florida; Don, nineteen at the time, had just been honorably discharged from the navy and now worked at a local drugstore. Good boyfriend material for her sister, but Myrna was sure that they had never dated, because Vickie’s dates had to come inside the house and meet at least one of her parents. Don hadn’t done that. Even Myrna knew he cared less about girls than playing baseball; he dreamed of a tryout with his favorite baseball team, the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Where is Vickie?” her mother asked when Myrna walked in the door.

Myrna had no answer. They waited an hour, and then another. Her mother didn’t want to wake her husband up quite yet. He’d gone to sleep not long after Vickie had left the house, exhausted from his work as a truck driver for the borough of Ramsey, and had to be up early in the morning.

At midnight, when Vickie was an hour late for her curfew, Mary went upstairs and woke up Anthony.

“She’s not home? Maybe she’s down at the ice cream parlor,” he said. But Mary, Myrna, and eldest daughter Mary Faye, who was staying at the house that night, insisted otherwise. “Daddy, Vickie is missing,” Mary Faye insisted.

Anthony took Mary Faye’s car, parked closest to the road on the driveway.  He drove down Wyckoff Avenue and bumped into a couple of police officers he knew, alerting them that his daughter was missing. From there he drove into downtown Ramsey, in case Vickie was out and about somewhere. When he didn’t see her, he drove to the Nixons’. Anthony decided not to knock on their door “because there was no light.” (Later, Barbara would tell the Passaic Herald-News that she had heard a car horn not long after Vickie left and later heard the sound of a car slowing down near her house.)

When Anthony returned home on the chance that Vickie might have shown up, he was gravely disappointed. Neither he nor Mary could bring themselves to go to sleep. They stayed up all night, worrying, fearing the worst, hoping for the best.

The next morning, just after daybreak, the Zielinskis went out again to find their daughter. Anthony drove his own car this time, his wife beside him in the front seat. They searched in circles, starting small, then making progressively larger circuits of the neighborhood. At the point where Ramsey ended and Mahwah began, they noticed a scarf lying in the mud at the intersection of Fardale Avenue and Chapel Road, near the home of S. C. Kromka, whom Anthony and Mary knew slightly.

Anthony wanted to keep searching, since the scarf wasn’t far from a sand pit, a swath of excavated earth fashioned into a seven-foot quarry. It had become a lovers’ lane because it was just far enough off the road to afford privacy for the amorous. He told Mary to call the police at the Kromkas’ house and stopped the car to let her out. Mary knocked on the Kromkas’ door and asked to use the phone. She also asked if Mrs. Kromka had seen any sign of Vickie, but the woman had not.

When Mary made the call at 9:12 a.m., the responder told her to wait by the car for an officer to arrive. But Anthony had already driven across Chapel Road to the sand pit. He stopped the car when he saw something on the ground. Here was a black loafer. There was one of the red gloves Vickie had been wearing. Then her father found her necklace, the silver chain that should have been around her neck but now lay in a sand pit off Fardale Avenue. Knowing that the police would be on their way to the Kromkas’, Anthony decided to walk back to his wife. He arrived just as Mahwah Police Department captain Edmund Wickham pulled into the driveway at 9:20 a.m.

The police captain told Mary to stand by the Zielinskis’ car and “not to let any traffic go by” lest the crime scene be corrupted. He and Anthony headed back to the sand pit to continue searching. Wickham started walking slowly toward the lane, where he noticed a trail of tire tracks leading to the pit. They followed the tracks toward the pit, which was about 250 feet from the road. Anthony noticed blood and footprints on the ground and then spotted the other black loafer.

They found Vickie’s body at the bottom of the embankment. She was facedown in a jackknifed position, “as if she had been rolled down from one of the stony mounds,” a reporter would later write. Her sweater still covered her arms but had been pulled up to reveal her torso. Her bra was pushed up, the straps broken. There were bite marks on her exposed right breast, but her dungarees were still in place. An autopsy would later confirm that she had not been raped and that her hymen was intact.

It was the damage to her head that revealed the brutality of Vickie’s murder. Her nose and jaw were severely fractured, with several teeth broken, and her skull had been crushed. Two blood-drenched rocks, one of them weighing as much as twenty-five pounds, sat nearby, pieces of brain spattered around them. Raphael Gilady, the Bergen County medical examiner, later characterized what happened to Vickie in a single, awful word: decerebrated.

Her father could hardly comprehend what he was seeing. Fourteen hours earlier, the Zielinskis had been eating dinner and Vickie had been talking about going to her best friend’s house to study. To her father, Vickie had been the “jolliest, nicest, smilingest kid in the world.” Now someone had destroyed her.

When he saw Vickie’s body, he called for Mary. “She came over,” Anthony told the Bergen Evening Record, “and I tried not to cry but I couldn’t help myself.” The paper didn’t report what Vickie’s mother had said—or felt.

It was obvious from the evidence on the ground that Vickie had struggled mightily with her killer. Her dad had taught her judo so she could protect herself if necessary, and it was clear that she had tried. It looked as though she had managed to escape from a car and run to the top of the embankment, where her killer had caught her. Only a couple of heavy rocks had stopped her struggle.

“I’ll find the guy,” Anthony later told reporters. “I found her and I’ll find him and I’ll tear him limb to limb.” Neither he nor the police believed they’d have to look far. Guy W. Calissi, the Bergen County prosecutor, told reporters, “I would say at this point that this vicious slaying was done by someone she knew.” Someone sadistic enough to murder a fifteen-year-old in such a manner. Someone in the grip of incomparable rage.

Less than twenty-four hours later, police would have a suspect. 

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