There was nothing out of the ordinary on the night of June 11, when Howie Fried escorted Larry Sprung home from the evening minyan at the Bialystoker Synagogue on the Lower East Side’s Willet Street.
"He talked about a visit to Atlantic City, and how much he enjoyed the rugelach they served there," said Fried, 44, who often escorted the 86-year-old Sprung on the one-and-a-half block walk from shul to the Amalgamated Houses co-op on Grand Street where they both lived.
A retired postal worker, Sprung was a regular at Bialystoker on Shabbat, but rarely attended weekday prayers. That night, however, was the yahrzeit of his mother-in-law, and he had come to recite the Kaddish. As they walked, Sprung and Fried expressed their gratitude that the co-op complex had been free of crime. "We even said to each other that, thank God, there hadnít been any issues in the neighborhood," recalled Fried.
There was no way for Fried to imagine that several hours later Sprung would be brutally murdered in his own apartment by an intruder, and that aside from the killer, he would be the last person to see his neighbor alive. Also murdered was Sprung’s wife, Sarah, 88, who now shares her mother’s yahrzeit.
In a shocking series of crimes that began about 5 a.m. on June 12, a burglar entered the third-floor apartment of Raymond Damelio, 49, via a fire escape early Wednesday and shot him to death. After drinking and watching pornographic videos, police said, the assailant then descended to the Sprungs’ apartment below, again via the fire escape, where he fatally shot the couple. Investigators said Sara Sprung had been sexually abused.
Police have charged Steven Santos, 20, who has a prior record of burglary, with the crimes. He was apprehended while fleeing the scene with a handgun as well as items stolen from Damelio’s apartment, police said, and later confessed to the shootings. He pleaded not guilty in Manhattan Criminal Court Friday. Police said he had been under the influence of narcotics at the time of the crimes.
Residents of the Lower East Side are viewing the murders as an isolated incident, not indicative of increasing crime in the classically Jewish enclave, while calling on prosecutors to seek the death penalty. "This guy’s a monster," said Joel Kaplan, executive director of the United Jewish Council of the Lower East Side, an umbrella group of local social service agencies. "These were cold-blood murders."
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who lives in and represents the area, said he called the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau to ask him to seek the death penalty, but had yet to speak to him. "The death penalty bill would cover this kind of circumstances, and I believe that if any case deserves it, it is this kind of case," said Silver.
Prosecutors have 120 days to decide on a recommendation regarding the death penalty, but Morgenthau has never sought such a sentence since capital punishment was returned to New York in 1995.
The Sprungs, who had been married for 40 years, were regulars at the UJCís lunch program and longtime congregants at the 150-year-old Bialystoker Synagogue. They were known as avid volunteers who helped the shul and visited patients at Beth Israel Medical Center. Fried said that Larry Sprung would routinely identify prayer books that were frayed or tattered and bring them home for rebinding.
"They gave tremendously to the community," said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan New York Council on Jewish Poverty and a Lower East Side resident.
Fried said he was also acquainted with Damelio, who he said had lived in the area only two years, and made his living as an entertainer. He said Damelio had recently run unsuccessfully for the building’s co-op board.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited the neighborhood with Silver, calling the crime an "aberration." He added: "I cannot explain why one human being would do this to three others: nobody can explain that. It is a great tragedy, but as the speaker said, this is not something that happens frequently in New York. The murder rate is at a 40-year low. That is not going to bring back the three people that we lost so tragically today, but it does give us some solace in terms of going about our business …"
Kaplan of the UJC said that the violence was "a very unusual event in the community" and that residents had confidence in the local precinct and its captain, Al Cooper. While noting that he could not recall another murder in the Grand Street-East Broadway area, where most of the neighborhoodís Jews live, Silver said he had been assured that police presence would be increased.
"I asked Capt. Cooper to provide a visible presence because people are nervous," he said.
Heshy Jacob, who manages many of the area’s co-ops, but not the Amalgamated Houses, said the elderly residents are "very frightened and agitated. But this is an isolated incident. The Seventh Precinct has the second-lowest crime rate in Manhattan, second only to Central Park." He said the co-ops all have 24-hour security.
"It was like lightning striking," said Jacob. "This guy gets high, and this happened to be where he struck."