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By Robert Mladinich Michael Benson
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2007 Robert Mladinich and Michael Benson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Parking-Lot Ambush
It was a cold winter evening in Amityville, Long Island, January 17, 2001. Even though it was only early evening, the days were noticeably short and twilight had given way to nightfall. Although it was only a few years ago, the world was a different place.
The attacks of 9/11 were still nine months away. Bill Clinton was serving his last few days as president and preparations were in full tilt for George W. Bush's inauguration on January 20. Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett, baseball stars of the 1980s, had just been elected into the Hall of Fame. The New York Giants, with Kerry Collins at quarterback, had just defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 41-0, to earn the right to face the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.
Then, as now, however, power was often determined through violence, as was evidenced by the prior day's assassination of Laurent Kabila. The leader of the Congo had been shot and killed by his own bodyguard.
On that January night, entering Amityville, two men drove in a white minivan, both dressed in zipper-up sweatshirts with hoods. Although the object of their visit was clear, they weren't entirely sure where they were.
They knew they weren't in Nassau County anymore. They'd just passed a sign that read: "Welcome to Suffolk County." Now they just had to figureout if they were on the right road. So much traffic, too much.
"Twenty-seven-A East. Where is Merrick Road?" the driver said, a cigarette hanging off his lower lip.
"There's a sign, this is Merrick Road," the other replied.
"What's the street number we're looking for?" the driver asked, even though he'd had the address memorized just minutes before.
"Right, right, right," the driver said, and then with a squint, uttered, "Shit, even numbers are on the left."
Merrick Road was a four-lane bustling major thoroughfare. There were red lights only at the major intersections. Turning across traffic was going to be a bitch. It was nighttime, but the road was well lit, both with streetlights and from the commercial establishments on either side. Plus, there was plenty of traffic providing light. Rush hour was over, but the road was still busy. One thing Long Island had plenty of was people.
They passed taverns, car washes, and a used-car lot. Before the pair had had a chance to see any other street number, their destination zoomed by on the left.
"That was it," the passenger said.
"Shit," the driver said, lighting one cigarette off another. The passenger had been teasing him about the chain-smoking. Pussy. The driver said he was nervous, hadn't done anything like this before. The passenger said relax, it was going to be a snap. Just drive the fucking car.
At the next red light the minivan turned around and headed back west. This time the driver was ready. They took a right and drove along the side of the building they needed to watch. As soon as they pulled off the main drag, the world got darker and quieter.
The place was a fitness club and it sat on the northeast corner of Merrick Road and Park Avenue. A little farther north, Park Avenue developed into the street that held the town's downtown drag, but down here, where the street started, was a quiet residential street that did not warrant its own traffic signal at Merrick Road.
This was the destination of a journey that had taken them northward, clear across the country. Now the goal was to take deep breaths, and, at least for the driver, try to keep his heart from beating clear out of his chest.
There was a parking lot in front of the club for customers, and a parking lot in the back for employees. The customer parking lot was bright and noisy. The rear parking lot was dark and quiet. The difference was dramatic, considering only one brick building separated the two.
Immediately next to the fitness club on the east was a large round-roofed building, which looked like it might have been an airplane hangar in another incarnation. The one-word sign on the front of the building read B-O-W-L-I-N-G in red neon lights.
The minivan made its second U-turn in a matter of minutes and creepy-crawled along the side of the road until it was just in front of the parking-lot entrance. Overshooting his mark, the driver threw the white vehicle into reverse and parked into place.
The view was perfect. The rear parking lot was accessible from Park Avenue only and the minivan stopped as close to the lot as it could get without actually pulling into the lot.
The lot was bordered on the south by the back of the fitness club, on the east by a screen fence separating it from the bowling-alley parking lot, on the north by an eight-foot wooden-plank fence protecting a private residence, and on the east by Park Avenue, where the minivan now sat and waited.
The back of the fitness club had five doors. Four appeared to be emergency exits and lacked doorknobs. These were painted the same dull yellow color as the rest of the back of the building.
The fifth door was made out of glass and had words painted on it. Maybe rules. Maybe the hours the club was open-something like that. They couldn't be read from the street in the dim light. Light from the inner hallway could be seen shining through the glass door. The glass door, they realized, was the one they had to keep their eye on.
They also had to look for a black Yukon. That was their man's vehicle. That wasn't hard to spot, either. The Yukon was parked with its nose pointed toward the rear of the club, just to the left of the glass door.
The Amityville branch of the Dolphin Fitness Clubs of Long Island was one of the largest. It was an L-shaped building, and among the services offered there-beyond the usual cardio- and strength-training equipment-were full-court basketball, racquetball courts, an inside running track, and steam rooms.
At that moment, inside the gym, the place was jumping, a beehive of activity. The co-owner of the place, thirty-two-year-old businessman Alexander Algeri, would have been out of the fitness-club business months before, if business hadn't been so damn good.
On this night Alex was standing behind the counter just inside the front entrance. Alex looked good. For that matter, so did just about everyone else. The gym, in every nook and cranny, celebrated beauty.
Womanly beauty. Manly beauty. Everyone was ripped and good-looking, The gym was a very hip spot. Customers were twenty-somethings. The music was usually hard rock, not the disco crap one got at a lot of places.
It was a friendly place, with a lot of chatting and laughter mixed in with the music and the grunts of exertion. There were regulars. Mostly regulars, in fact. To a large extent, the patrons of Dolphin's had melded their physical-fitness program and their social life into one.
Stacked on the counter in front of Alex were the gym's attractive pamphlets, which showed a muscular man bursting out of a blender, a visual tribute to a better-living-through-chemistry philosophy. It was chemistry under the guise of nutrition, but chemistry nonetheless.
The cover of the pamphlet read: "Dolphin Fitness Clubs Present Revolutionary Blendz." Inside the pamphlets were advertisements for Revolutionary Supplements, including power protein, weight gainer, whey protein, fat-burning protein, and creatine complex.
They also advertised Revolutionary Additions, which they encouraged to be added to one's "Blendz." They were nonfat yogurt, calcium, vitamin C, Turbo Charge, flaxseed oil, wheat bran, spirulina, rice bran, and oat bran.
The chemistry wasn't limited to superquick muscle-building nutrition combinations. Alongside the "menu" atop the gym's front desk was another leaflet, this one for "Glam Tan By Tiki," which involved bronzing the skin through the application of dihydroxyacetone.
According to the advertisement, the product "leaves a natural glowing look. Get that vacationed look without taking off of work. Stay healthy and glowing throughout the winter months."
Next to the tanning ad was a schedule of classes that could be attended. Just about every evening there was a class of some sort, earlier on weeknights, a little bit later on weekends. The classes had names like "Power Pilates with MaryAnn," "Abs with Nadia," "Yoga with David," "Body Sculpting with Lanya," and "Express Sculp with Eugenia." That night it was an aerobics class, and Alex could hear the instructor keeping up the banter of instruction, encouragement, and rhythm.
Alex was a social guy, so he left the front desk-one of his employees was working there anyway-and began to wander around chatting with folks, shouting out encouragement to the hardworking and sweaty customers.
He walked past the large flat-screen TV that was mounted on the wall. ESPN was usually on, a sporting event of some sort. On the left, Alex passed five rows of stationary bicycles, stepping machines, treadmills, and rowing machines. Almost all of them were being used. Yeah, he wanted to get out of the business, but ... kaching! How could he unload a gold mine like this?
To the right of the desk was a cavernous room full of free weights. In the northeast corner of the gym, to the left of the weight room, was a huge circuit-training area.
Algeri was known to his friends and acquaintances as "Papa Smurf" because he was a gentle bear of a man, known for his kindness and affability. His dad, Sal, had once grown a white beard and was the first to be called "Papa Smurf." Later, the nickname was passed down to Alex.
As Alex passed the aerobics class, a female patron asked, "Hey, Alex, how about that CD you played last night for later? I got a great workout to that."
Alex remembered which CD she was talking about.
"It's in my car. I'll go get it," he replied cheerfully.
To retrieve the requested CD, Alex didn't bother to put on a coat. He was wearing a long-sleeved black knit shirt and tight-fitting jeans. Besides, he'd only be outside for a second or two. Even with his clothes on, there was no mistaking the fact that Alex was heavily muscled. He had a bodybuilder's physique.
His SUV was in the parking lot out back. The disc was in the compartment between the front seats of his black GMC Yukon.
Algeri emerged from the rear door of the Dolphin Fitness Club. Since he took an immediate right, he probably did not notice that all of the vehicles behind the gym were empty except for one-the minivan parked on the street, which held two men. No one had noticed, even though the men had been there for some time, lying in wait.
Algeri was focused on his task and headed straight for his car. He had just reached his Yukon, and opened the front door so that the interior light had gone on, when he heard a voice from a few feet away.
The approaching man said something, but Alex didn't quite catch it. "Hey, Paul," the guy might have said.
Before Alex had a chance to say that that wasn't his name, five loud reports cut through the night. The sounds had come in rapid succession. All five bullets found their target. At point-blank range, Alex Algeri was a tough target to miss.
All five bullets tore into Alex's neck and upper body. Lead slugs with a copper wash perforated his heart and both of his lungs, but he was tough and he did not drop. Algeri, bleeding profusely and choking on his own blood, managed to stagger back into the gym. Once inside, with clients and employees already starting to gather to see what was wrong, he gasped, "I've been shot."
Then he collapsed to the floor and lay still. Blood flowed from his wounds and into the carpet near his shoulder and neck. Someone called 911 and summoned an ambulance. There were two clients in the gym that knew CPR. One was Peter Casserly, who at the time was a member of the Village of Amityville's Board of Trustees, the body that met on the second and fourth Mondays of the month to govern the seaside community. Casserly was a member of the Board of Trustee's Fire Protection Committee. The other customer who knew CPR was a nurse who was never publicly identified.
An ambulance siren could be heard almost immediately. The emergency vehicle did not have far to go. It arrived at the gym minutes later. Painted on its side were the words AMITYVILLE RESCUE.
After the shooting, both men were once again inside the minivan. The urge was to tear out of the parking spot, and get the hell out of there as fast as possible. But that would tend to attract attention, and that was the last thing they wanted. Besides, the turn onto Merrick Road was only a few feet up ahead.
No point in peeling out and laying a patch if one is going to have to wait in the next five seconds to merge into traffic. The men turned left when they got to the road, and there must have been a solid reason. It would have been much easier to turn right, which didn't involve crossing traffic. Even though they did not want to draw attention to themselves, they also wanted to distance themselves as quickly as possible from the fitness club and the bleeding body they had just left there.
So maybe they turned right and then made a U-turn, or maybe they waited until there was a break in the action and turned left. Whichever, they were headed east. The next order of business was to get rid of the gun, preferably in a place where it would not be found for a very long time, if ever.
Right behind the ambulance pulling into the gym parking lot was an Amityville Village police car. Officers and paramedics arrived on the scene almost simultaneously. Paramedics worked on Alex for a moment or two; then he was loaded up and taken to Brunswick Hospital Center, less than a mile away.
The ambulance, like the minivan, had pulled onto Park Avenue, but they did not make a U-turn. Instead, after Alex was loaded in the back, the ambulance headed straight north on Park Avenue. At the point where it merged with Broadway, where the white gazebo was, Park Avenue changed and became Amityville's downtown drag. The large private houses, now at least partially converted for commercial use (an attorney, an optometrist, a florist, and a funeral home), gave way to downtown, where both sides of the street were lined with adjoining shops.
The ambulance raced under the Long Island Railroad overpass, and then took a left into the Brunswick Hospital grounds before taking an immediate right into the parking lot outside the emergency area and ambulance entrance. The ambulance had called ahead. The emergency room was alive with activity, ready for a patient with serious gunshot wounds.
Amityville Village police chief Woodrow Cromarty later said that when officers arrived at the scene, Algeri was still alive.
"He had a weak pulse," Chief Cromarty said. "He had been shot around the neck and head, but was still breathing."
It didn't take the doctors in the emergency room long to realize that there wasn't much they could do. There was no hope. Algeri was pronounced dead at the hospital. On his death certificate, the cause of death was listed as "multiple gunshot wounds."
As was true of all homicides, an immediate autopsy would be performed.
The minivan with its two adrenaline-jazzed occupants rolled east on Merrick Road, which was also Route 27A. And, once one crossed the border ending the Village of Amityville, it stopped being called Merrick Road and became the Montauk Highway. If the men had stayed on that road heading east, they would have ended up at the easternmost tip of Long Island.
They passed a bank, an antique shop, and a series of white houses with long driveways leading to carports in the back. Some of those garages were visible from the road and looked like they had been converted from the original carriage houses.
Then came a strip mall, then a well-kept park with a small white monument of some sort. A little farther down the road, the van paused and pulled halfway onto the shoulder. The gun was hurled into a body of water that passed under the road.
Before the splash of the gun hitting the water could be heard, the van was back on the road and moving with the flow of traffic. They probably didn't notice it, and wouldn't have appreciated the irony if they had, but the next tavern they passed on their left was called the Jailhouse Inn.
Excerpted from Lethal Embrace by Robert Mladinich Michael Benson Copyright © 2007 by Robert Mladinich and Michael Benson. Excerpted by permission.
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