The Fugitive Next Door

The Fugitive Next Door

Tim Brown seemed like a typical Florida retiree—he loved doting on his wife, fishing with friends, and flying his plane. But his life was built on a secret. 


By Greg Donahue

The Atavist Magazine, No. 127


Greg Donahue is a writer and investigative journalist whose work has appeared in New York, The Guardian, Vice, and Marie Claire, among other publications. His last Atavist story, “Porambo,” was published as Issue No. 77. Follow him on Twitter @gregjdonahue.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Alison Van Houten

Published in May 2022.


On the morning of December 2, 2020, Tim Brown got up early to start a fire. The night before, an unseasonable cold front had descended on Love’s Landing, Florida, where Brown lived with his wife, Duc Hanh Thi Vu. By 8 a.m., the mercury in the thermometer had yet to reach 40 degrees. At the bottom of the cul-de-sac where the couple lived, a thin layer of frost glistened on the long grass runways that extended through the quiet neighborhood: Love’s Landing is a private aviation community, home to pilots, plane engineers, and flying enthusiasts.

As heat from the fireplace warmed the house, Brown headed to the small hangar he’d built right outside. Nearly everyone in Love’s Landing owned a plane, and Brown was no exception. He’d just had the engine of his gleaming Tecnam P2008 replaced, and despite the chill in the air, the morning was shaping up to be calm and clear. Perfect weather to take the plane up.

A carpenter by trade, Brown had spent much of his life enjoying the outdoors. In his younger days, he was an expert scuba diver and deep-sea fisherman. But now, at 66, his age had finally caught up with him. His close-cropped hair had gone gray, and health issues had him in and out of the hospital. During the past year alone, he’d suffered two heart attacks. Flying offered the chance, as Brown put it, “to continue the fun.” He’d fallen in love with aviation years earlier, after taking a charter trip with friends in Alaska. Flying sure beat staring at the trees on either side of the road, he said. This was the kind of enthusiastic attitude that made Brown popular in Love’s Landing. Soon after moving there in 2017, he and Vu became, as a neighbor put it, “one of the best-liked couples in the airpark.”

Brown had just raised the hangar door when an unmarked Dodge Durango roared into the driveway, along with a Marion County police cruiser. As Brown turned toward the commotion, a law enforcement agent in a tactical vest leapt out of the SUV. He was pointing an MK18 short-barreled automatic rifle at Brown’s face. “Step back! Raise your hands!” the agent shouted.

Brown did as he was told. Officers from a half-dozen federal agencies were fanning out across the property. “Are you Tim Brown?” the lead officer demanded as he approached the hangar. Brown nodded. “I’ve got a warrant for your arrest,” the officer said. Agents moved in formation to clear the hangar and headed toward the main house to execute a search warrant.

Brown’s neighbors would later recount their confusion at the fleet of official vehicles facing every which way in the street. No one knew what Brown had done. But whatever they imagined, the truth was almost certainly stranger.

For the previous 35 years, Tim Brown had been living a carefully constructed lie. He wasn’t just an aging retiree with a passion for aviation. In fact, he wasn’t Tim Brown at all. His real name was Howard Farley Jr., and law enforcement alleged that he’d been the leader of one of the largest drug-trafficking rings in Nebraska history.

As he was placed under arrest, a wry grin spread across his face. “I had mentally prepared myself for being caught,” he would later say. “When it happened, with men pointing guns at me, the only thing to do was smile.”

Howard Farley’s 1965 high school yearbook photo.

Part One

Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Howard Farley was what you might call a gearhead: a blue-collar kid with a knack for the mechanical. He was born in 1948, the fourth of five children, and spent much of his youth honing his engineering skills. He built award-winning model cars and a playhouse for his hamsters dubbed the Sugar Shack. Later, he crafted an RV out of an old school bus.

Boyishly handsome, with a wide Leave It to Beaver grin and prominent ears, Farley was popular in school and had a roguish quality that endeared him to most everyone he met. He was also restless. Life at home was complicated. When he was in his early teens, his mother abandoned the family, and Farley’s father was stuck with a house full of kids. Farley was devastated. “It left a profound loss of motherly love and guidance during critical teenage and adult years,” his elder sister Beverly later wrote.

In high school, Farley fell in with a rebellious crowd. “Mine were more the fun-loving guys that rode their motorcycles to school, dated the cheerleaders, and had keg parties on the weekends,” he said. When friends came to visit him at the grocery store where he sometimes worked, he would bag up steak after steak without ringing them up. “He always had a bit of a hustle,” said one friend, intending it as a compliment.

In September 1965, Farley experienced his first brush with the law. Like a lot of Midwestern kids his age he liked cars, and in those days the best place for cruising was Dodge Street in Omaha. A generation of Nebraska youth spent their evenings making the loop between Tiner’s Drive-In on 44th and Todd’s on 77th, showing off their rides and gorging themselves on 65-cent burgers. Sometimes they staged drag races. When police arrived on one such occasion, Farley attempted to flee, driving at nearly 100 miles per hour. His date in the passenger seat begged him to stop. In the ensuing chase, police fired on Farley’s car, and a bullet hit the girl in the jaw. Farley was quickly arrested. His license was suspended, and he was sentenced to a year of probation. The girl survived, and later sued Farley for $25,000 dollars. He was 16 years old.

Farley got his act together enough to capitalize on his mechanical abilities—soon after he graduated high school, he was hired full-time at the sprawling Burlington Northern rail yards. In those days, rail work paid well. Engineers earned an annual salary of about $30,000, or $160,000 today. For Farley, the money must have felt like a dream. He quickly moved up the ladder at work. Before long he was driving trains from Lincoln to Sioux City and Creston, Iowa. The hours were long and tedious, but he was a natural. “He was built for it,” said Tyrone Baskin, a friend from high school who also worked the rails.

Farley fathered a child with Christine Schleis, a high school girlfriend, and married her. Their union was rocky from the beginning. “We were not a good match,” Schleis said. “It was just something that happened. You got pregnant, you got married. There was no question.” Schleis came from a cultured, well-traveled family. It was a world apart from Farley’s upbringing.

The couple named their daughter Amy—three letters in honor of her three-pound birth weight. While Schleis stayed home with the baby, Farley took up skydiving and partied hard. In 1969, he and another man were arrested for burglarizing a local carpeting business. It’s unclear what role Farley played in the crime; the charges were later reduced to accessory after the fact. Eventually, Farley became disillusioned with life in Lincoln. He took a job with a railroad company in Alaska, leaving behind his wife and daughter. By 1970, he and Schleis were ready to file for divorce.

Over the next 15 years, Farley divided his time between Alaska, Washington, and Florida, where he lived when he wasn’t working the rails up north. He married again, got another divorce. Occasionally, family drama drew him back to Nebraska, but he never stayed long. “He was an adrenaline junkie,” said an old friend. “I don’t think that changed.”

Perhaps he saw drug trafficking as an outlet for his restlessness. According to a source who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, Farley was introduced to a man who had experience in the drug trade. The man explained to Farley that someone who traveled as frequently as he did could make a fortune—all he had to do was bring drugs along on his trips. “That’s how Howard found out what to do and how to do it,” the source told me.

By the early 1980s, Farley had quit the railroad business and relocated to Lake Worth, Florida, a beach town about 60 miles north of Miami. He told Baskin, his high school friend, that he’d saved $30,000 dollars and was going to “go for it,” investing the money in a shipment of cocaine and flipping it for big bucks. There was no better place than Florida to put his new plan into action. It was the height of the Miami Vice–era drug boom, and Farley had little trouble finding himself a supplier. “I think an opportunity just presented itself, and he jumped on it and made the most out of it,” Baskin said.

Farley started ferrying drugs to contacts in Nebraska and Alaska. In the beginning it was a largely insular affair; he was mostly supplying former coworkers and friends— “single railroaders making a lot of money,” as one of Farley’s Nebraska customers put it. Sometimes, Farley asked friends to mail packages of coke using FedEx and kept his fingers crossed that they’d reach their destination undetected. Other times he brought the drugs with him on a plane—he booked super-saver flights to keep costs down. At least twice, according to Baskin, Farley drove his Saab from Florida to Alaska and back again, stopping in Lincoln along the way north. “He probably left some [drugs] with people to distribute here,” Baskin said. “Then he’d take what was left and transport it on to Alaska.”

Before long, Farley was laying over in Lincoln with larger and larger amounts of blow. It was the tail end of the disco era, and demand was high. But Farley wasn’t dealing grams to strangers in the bar. He sought out distribution partners among friends and family, people he could trust. His sister Mary, who at one time sold lingerie and sex toys, and her husband, Gerry Machado, got involved. According to prosecutors, Farley used their house in Lincoln for storage and sales. High school friends joined in. Among them were Baskin, Robert Frame, and John Kahler, all Vietnam War veterans who had returned from combat with varying degrees of drug addiction. Farley taught them how to cut the high-grade coke he brought from Florida with inositol, a type of sugar, to increase the volume and make more money selling it. His friends gave Farley his cut of sales whenever he was in town “He didn’t take chances,” said Baskin. “He made sure he knew the people he dealt with or they had been friends a long time.”

Farley wasn’t the only person supplying drugs in Lincoln. Coke dealing had become a cottage industry among hard-partying railroaders. Clyde Meyer, a Burlington Northern engineer, ran an operation out of his house on the city’s west side. Like Farley, Meyer had started small. “I think he slowly got into it and then got too deep,” said Colleen Nuss, whose boyfriend once lived in a spare room at Meyer’s house. Nuss was a teenager at the time. “I remember going there one night just to get a little bit of pot and there were drugs and women,” Nuss recalled. Unlike Farley’s supply, Meyer’s coke came from Colorado, but users didn’t care about a product’s origin once it hit the street.

By 1984, Farley’s efforts had paid off in a big way. An acquaintance who asked not to be named remembered going to Farley’s mother’s house and seeing bricks of cocaine piled high in a closet. “He was definitely worth seven figures by that time, easily,” the person said. Another friend remembered Farley stashing wads of cash in safe-deposit boxes across south Florida. Court records have him receiving payments of $80,000 or $100,000 in a single go.

Still in his early thirties, Farley had found a quick way to fund the adventurous life he’d always dreamed of, and he had done it on his own terms. He wasn’t flashy or aggressive. In fact, he appeared to take a generally relaxed approach to the drug trade. “There was no viciousness there,” Nuss said. Farley and his crew “were just super mellow, like hippies.”

In Florida, Farley took up watersports; he turned out to be a talented diver and fisherman. He partied at Harry’s Banana Farm, a legendary dive in Lake Worth. He talked about going legit. He wanted to buy a boat and start a business chartering passengers around Florida and the Caribbean.

But Farley also began planning for a different kind of future. In 1982, he filed an application for a Social Security number in the name of Timothy Terry Brown, a three-month-old child who had died after a short illness in January 1955. Farley found the name while looking through microfilm of old newspapers at the library. The idea of taking a dead child’s identity was less risky than it sounds. People born in the 1950s often waited until they were in their teens or early twenties before applying for a Social Security number. Farley’s fraudulent application was submitted nearly 30 years after Brown’s birth, but that didn’t seem to bother a likely overworked civil servant. After the Social Security card arrived in the mail, Farley acquired a Florida driver’s license, a birth certificate, and a passport in Brown’s name.

It’s unclear whether Farley sensed trouble ahead or was just being prudent. Either way, he was attuned to the risks that his line of work entailed. In a few years, he had become one of Lincoln’s major drug suppliers. It was only a matter of time before law enforcement took notice.

A photo of Farley circulated by the DEA in the 1980s.

Part Two

On August 31, 1983, officers from the Lincoln-Lancaster County narcotics unit raided the house of a railroader named Juan Varga-Manchego and discovered three-quarters of a pound of cocaine. The arrest set off a chain reaction. Varga-Manchego, whom undercover officers had been working for six months, started naming names. Tips from Crime Stoppers calls were folded into the investigation, as was information from the Nebraska State Patrol, which was looking into other dealers in the Lincoln area. Wiretaps were ordered for the homes of Clyde Meyer and the Machados, Farley’s sister and brother-in-law. Before long, law enforcement had fleshed out the framework of what they believed was a sprawling criminal conspiracy.

As far as investigators were concerned, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Money was pouring in to federal prosecutors’ offices as President Ronald Reagan amped up the war on drugs. Arrests helped rationalize the ballooning investment. In the summer of 1984, Nebraska officials tapped into the budgetary flow by working with federal agencies on the new cocaine-trafficking investigation. They dubbed it Operation Southern Line, because a lot of the drugs came from Florida, and because many of the scheme’s main players were current or former railroaders. (Prosecutors would later contend that Farley used trains to transport drugs, which he denied. “The railroad had nothing to do with anything,” he said. “Other than perhaps railroad workers buying grams of coke to party on the weekend.”)

Running the investigation were Duaine Bullock, head of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Narcotics Unit, and Bruce Gillan, a hard-line Lancaster County prosecutor. Gillan and Farley had gone to the same high school but moved in decidedly different social circles. Where Farley rode a motorcycle and dated popular girls, Gillan was president of the chess club and wore a flattop fade, in the style of a new military recruit. He was a by-the-book guy. “The way he saw his duty to the country was to be this aggressive prosecutor,” said Kirk Naylor, a defense attorney who had faced off against Gillan in the courtroom.

Neither Bullock nor Gillan were under the illusion that the alleged network of traffickers amounted to a sophisticated cartel operation. It was a loose-knit, blue-collar affair. But there was still a hierarchy. In meetings with the DEA, Bullock and Gillan created an organizational flowchart with the names of more than two dozen alleged co-conspirators. At the bottom were users and low-level dealers based mostly in Lincoln. The next level up included middlemen in Nebraska, Florida, and Alaska. The Machados were near the top—they had been caught discussing drug deals on the investigators’ wiretaps. Meyer was up there, too.

At the very top of the pyramid was Farley. He was the nexus that connected the web of users, dealers, and suppliers that investigators hoped to untangle. According to prosecutors, he even had a nickname: the Big H.

In 1984, Farley returned to Lincoln from Lake Worth multiple times. With each visit, law enforcement gathered evidence. In July, the DEA noted that Farley had delivered numerous pounds of cocaine to Gerry Machado and others. Investigators requested three more wiretaps on Farley’s associates. In August, they clocked Farley visiting a safe-deposit box at the First National Bank of Lincoln and leaving with what they described as a “bulging vinyl bank bag.” A few months later, he submitted to an intensive inspection at the airport in Miami after returning from a one-day trip to the Cayman Islands without any luggage.

The investigation wasn’t without missteps. On one occasion, Robert Frame’s landline started acting up, so he reached out to the phone company for help. The repairmen beat the police to the utility box and discovered the tap on Frame’s line. When word of the discovery got back to Farley, he switched to pay phones. Another time, Machado caught agents trying to install bugs inside his house, and the operation was aborted. Officials were forced to return and install the devices under the guise of a phony search warrant. At one point, officer ineptitude ground the whole investigation to a halt. Around Thanksgiving Day in 1984, Farley was in Lincoln visiting family when he discovered a tracking device on his car and skipped town.

But eventually investigators got what they needed. By early 1985, Gillan had identified about 80 people he considered indictable. Seven wiretaps had been in use, most of them for months, and bugs were installed in homes across Lincoln. Code words like “chess” had been identified as shorthand for coke, outing many of Farley’s customers. A number of low-level co-conspirators had already been brought in for questioning.

It took another nine months of legal wrangling, grand juries, and undercover work, but in the fall of 1985, authorities unsealed a sprawling series of indictments that named 74 people across five states in a massive drug-trafficking conspiracy. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, Operation Southern Line was the largest drug case in Nebraska history.

At the very top of the pyramid was Farley. He was the nexus that connected the web of users, dealers, and suppliers that investigators hoped to untangle.

The arrests started before dawn. On the morning of October 24, 1985, agents and officers from the Lincoln police, the FBI, the sheriff’s office, the IRS, the DEA, and the Nebraska State Patrol spread out across Lincoln like an occupying force. Tyrone Baskin remembered agents charging through his front door. “It was some obnoxious hour,” he told me grimly. Elsewhere, Colleen Nuss noticed law enforcement assembling outside her back window. “I said to my boyfriend, ‘I think the neighbors are getting arrested,’ ” she said. Instead, the officers pounded on her door.

It was the same story all over town. The Machados. Robert Frame. John Kahler. One by one, Operation Southern Line defendants were rounded up and taken to the federal courthouse, many of them before the sun came up. By the time authorities were finished, more than 50 people had been arrested. As one defense attorney put it, the hammer fell.

News of the bust splashed across the front pages of local papers. Reports claimed that $600,000 worth of drugs and personal property had been confiscated. Bullock told reporters that “many of those arrested were major drug dealers” and that the operation “could have a major impact on drug sources in Lincoln for years to come.” It was the kind of case that made careers. A short time later, Gillan was promoted to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

But there was a problem. Among the handful of targets not arrested was the name at the top of the trafficking flowchart: Howard Farley. Somehow authorities in Lincoln had failed to get eyes on him before unsealing his indictment, a major misstep given the document’s content. Farley was the first person in Nebraska history to be charged under what’s known as 848—a federal statute reserved for prosecuting drug traffickers who operate a “continuing criminal enterprise.” It’s sometimes called the kingpin statute, and for good reason: Prosecutors used it to put both Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Ross Ulbricht, of Silk Road fame, behind bars for life. “When you bring one of those cases,” a current U.S. attorney told me, “you are essentially establishing by virtue of that indictment that this is one of the most serious drug-dealing traffickers in the country at the time.”

At some point between the indictment being unsealed and the arrests, Farley had vanished. “Officials have no idea where Farley may be,” Gillan told reporters. Bullock conceded that he had probably fled the country. “To my knowledge, no one had ever escaped one of these dragnets,” said Kirk Naylor, the defense attorney. But Farley wasn’t the only one who’d eluded capture: Clyde Meyer had also disappeared, along with his girlfriend, the daughter of a railroad employee. (They were found two years later in Denton, Texas, living under assumed names. Meyer was sentenced to ten years in prison).

Other cracks in the Operation Southern Line case began to widen. DEA agents claimed to have tracked Farley moving multiple pounds of cocaine across state lines, but in the indictment prosecutors had only enough hard evidence to attribute eight ounces to Farley’s alleged network. Moreover, defense attorneys told reporters that the vast majority of defendants weren’t involved in the drug trade at all—they were users buying for themselves or a few close friends. It was all too easy, as Naylor put it, for small-time individuals to be “sucked into the black hole of a conspiracy.” Many of these individuals were charged with multiple felonies and faced years in prison for what amounted to low-level street buys.

Still, the U.S. Attorney’s Office pushed ahead with the case. Naylor remembered receiving calls from desperate clients. “I had to advise them that this was a whole new ball game,” he said. “They were going to go to prison, and they were going to go to prison for a long time unless they informed on their friends. This is really what it came down to.”

For some people the pressure proved too great. One woman needed psychiatric care after she agreed to make statements against her husband. Other defendants were reminded to think of their kids’ futures when they pushed back against prosecutors. “There was so much pressure,” one defendant said later. “I went off the deep end.”

Then there was John Kahler, who had been in prosecutors’ sights for months. In January 1985, his wife, Linda, got a call from an investigator with the Nebraska State Patrol. “We’d like you and John to come down and talk to us,” she remembered him saying. He wouldn’t tell her why over the phone. At the patrol office, the Kahlers were met by a group of men in suits who inquired about the health of John’s father. They had heard on a wiretap that he suffered from Alzheimer’s. The men knew about John’s drug use and that he peddled coke for Farley. They told him he faced 15 years in prison—unless he became an informant. “It’s pretty hard to walk out when you have a two-year-old son,” Linda later said. John agreed to cooperate.

For nearly five months, he met twice a week with a narcotics officer, offering up information about his friends. The duplicity wore him down. He couldn’t sleep and fell into a depression. John was a soft-spoken combat veteran who had built his own house and adopted a son after he and his wife discovered that they couldn’t have children. “I warned the guy from the State Patrol,” Linda said later, “that you better hope he doesn’t get killed.”

A week after the arrests that October, John returned home from his railroad job and took his own life with a shotgun in the backyard of his rural home. “I’m just real sorry, Ms. Kahler,” Linda remembered Gillan saying. Three weeks later, another defendant in the case, 24-year-old Phillip R. Dallas, also died by suicide.

In the end, only eight defendants arrested in 1985 did any time. The rest were sentenced to probation or their cases were dropped altogether. And while Operation Southern Line may have made careers, it did little to disrupt Lincoln’s drug trade. In 1989, authorities estimated that 55 pounds of cocaine had made its way into the city since 1986.

Farley’s whereabouts remained a mystery. Without cell phones or GPS, law enforcement was forced to rely largely on human intelligence to draw him out. Nearly all of Farley’s co-conspirators were willing to cooperate in exchange for reduced sentences, but according to Ryan Thompson, the deputy U.S. marshal who took on the case in 1986, his gut told him they were telling the truth when they said they hadn’t seen their old friend and boss. Farley’s family was equally stymieing. Thompson tried to put pressure on them, in the hopes that they might try to contact Farley, but none of them did. They were, as Thompson put it, “savvy to the whole thing.”

Over time, Farley took on a kind of mythic quality among the people he’d left behind. Some called him the D. B. Cooper of Nebraska, in honor of the hijacker who, in 1971, parachuted from a plane over the Pacific Northwest with $200,000 in extorted cash and was never heard from again. “There was constant chatter about what happened to Howard Farley,” Kirk Naylor said. “He was the guy who got away.”

Farley (left) after he moved back to Florida under an assumed identity.

Part Three

Any fugitive worth their salt will tell you that disappearing is more of a psychological act than a physical one. It takes no special skill to skip town. What’s harder is cutting ties to one’s past: adopting a new identity and remembering to stick to it; excising people, traditions, and routines once held dear; and cauterizing the resulting emotional wounds. It’s a regimen few people are able to endure.

Farley made it seem easy. He later called the decision to flee his “SHTF” moment—when the shit hit the fan. “When the newspaper reports ‘up to life in prison,’ ” he said, referring to coverage of his indictment, “it gets your full attention.” He knew he would have to break off contact with his family but that he had their support. After reading about the indictment, his mother had called him. “She said the family loved me dearly, but please don’t come home,” Farley said. “It was the only way.”

Soon after the Operation Southern Line busts, Farley reemerged as Tim Brown, a 31-year-old Florida native with a pocket full of legitimate government documents. Bullock was right when he said Farley likely had left the country. A year after the arrests, he was spotted by a DEA informant on the island of Saint Martin, a tropical paradise about 160 miles east of Puerto Rico. In addition to the excellent fishing and diving, the Caribbean was a haven for fugitives. People’s papers were rarely checked; ports of call were essentially lawless. “It was wide open,” said Bill Ware, a sailor who met Farley in the summer of 1986. Farley made good on his dream of buying a boat—a 55-foot catamaran called the Déjà Vu—which allowed him to travel freely. The DEA would later trace the boat to marinas on Saint Thomas, Antigua, and Martinique, though Farley was long gone by the time the U.S. Marshals received that information.

Within a few years, Farley returned to the South Florida coast, despite being a wanted man. “It was in the back of his mind,” Baskin said. “But he wasn’t as concerned about it as you may think he was.” In a photo from that time, Farley mugs for the camera in shorts and aviators as he hoists a three-foot-long sportfish by the gills. In another, he crouches next to a cooler full of fresh lobsters.

Unbeknownst to all but a few close contacts, Farley even risked returning to Lincoln a few times. “He wanted to be with his family when he could,” Baskin said. But these furtive visits tapered off and eventually stopped altogether. Farley got serious about staying on the run, perhaps because he had fallen in love.

Farley met Duc Hanh Thi Vu, then just 21, on Saint Martin while she was vacationing there in 1985. Whip smart and ambitious, Vu was one of the few people Farley would have been likely to meet with a background even more dramatic than his own. Her family had fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The harrowing journey included floating at sea for two days before being rescued by the U.S. Navy. After months in refugee camps, Vu’s family was resettled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she learned English, excelled in school, and graduated from college.

Farley’s charm had always made him something of a ladies’ man; as their romance developed Vu made him an honest one. On June 1, 1993, they were married by a deputy clerk at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. At one point, Farley’s mother and sister Beverly risked a visit to the newlyweds—they were told to call Farley by his alias during their stay—but that was the last time either saw him. Farley admitted to Vu that he had changed his name after getting into some trouble in Nebraska, but not that he was a fugitive. “It may seem strange,” he said later, “but I would not allow myself to even think my real name.”

Theirs was by all accounts a quiet, comfortable life. Early on, they shared a room in a rented house while Vu earned her master’s degree in computer science. Farley worked on carpentry projects and fished for lobster. To keep things simple, he often introduced himself by his nickname—“Harley”—and if his past ever came up, he simply lied by omission. “When asked, I gave my real history, without the Nebraska problem,” he said. Though he sometimes got the urge to “tell the whole story,” he never gave in.

Eventually, Vu was making good money working for Citibank. In the late 1990s, Farley built a five-acre orchard to help supplement his in-laws’ retirement income. A few years later, he and Vu moved to a 40-acre parcel in Homosassa. Farley built their two-floor kit home himself. It had a sun-washed yellow facade and a red-tiled roof that gave it an almost Tuscan feel. Off in the distance, long stands of major oaks marked the border between that end of the property and the third tee of a well-known golf course. In 2017, after he started having health issues, he and Vu downsized to the house in Love’s Landing—by then, Farley had discovered his passion for aviation.

When I talked to Farley’s friends and neighbors in Florida, none had had even the vaguest sense that Farley wasn’t who he’d said he was. Many described him as especially genuine and kindhearted. “He was very respectful of other people and what they had to say,” Pat Farnan, a retired newspaper editor who spent many nights around the firepit at Farley’s Homosassa home, told me. “He would never break into a conversation, never butt in.”

Small gestures of friendship became Farley’s hallmark. Year after year, he collected buckets of stray golf balls that landed on his property to give to Farnan, an avid golfer, when he visited. After a fishing buddy’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, Farley appeared on their doorstep with trays of food and helped their young daughter with her homework. He doted on his mother-in-law after the death of her husband, and regularly picked up trash along the main road near his home. In Love’s Landing, he happily did chores for elderly neighbors, despite the pain that racked his back after surgery. Many people remembered Farley’s enthusiasm for sharing his talents as both a sailor and a builder. “Nothing was expected in exchange other than our enjoyment in each other’s company and love of the sea,” a friend said.

Farley hadn’t been reborn as some sort of suburban Mother Teresa. His good deeds were often modest and understated. But they were also free from artifice. “I do not believe he was putting on an act for anybody,” Farnan said. “The Tim Brown that I knew, he wasn’t engaged in some game with me.” After 30 years, the lie had simply become the truth: Howard Farley was Tim Brown.

“It may seem strange,” Farley said later, “but I would not allow myself to even think my real name.”

The authorities didn’t stop looking for Farley. The case was handed off from one U.S. marshal to another over the years before landing on Zak Thompson’s desk in 2007. Thompson was a newbie—Lincoln was his first duty station as a marshal. “It was kind of, I wouldn’t want to say like a hot potato, but it was kind of a joke,” he said of the Farley case. “No spottings, no sightings, nobody’s heard anything.” As far as law enforcement was concerned, the case was stuck back in 1985. Still, Thompson was undeterred. “Sometimes all you need is a fresh set of eyes,” he said.

Thompson requested an age-progression sketch based on Farley’s old driver’s license and began scouring law enforcement files for overlooked connections. Eventually, he found Richard Hanika, a friend of Farley’s family’s whose brother Roger had worked with Farley in Alaska. During a subsequent interview, Richard mentioned that Roger had moved to St. Augustine, Florida, in the early 1990s and started managing a bar there. Maybe, Thompson thought, Farley had decided to visit his old buddy.

Thompson called the U.S. Marshals office in Jacksonville, just north of St. Augustine, and persuaded one of the agents to go down to the Sandbar Pub—Roger’s bar—to poke around and show people the age-progression sketch. It didn’t take long to get a hit. When the agent showed the rendering to the bar’s current manager—Roger by then had moved on—she knew right away who it was. “That’s Harley,” she told the deputy. “He was always talking about scuba diving.” She hadn’t seen him since the early 2000s, but she thought he had set up a charter operation in either Key West or Puerto Rico.

It was the first significant lead in decades. “I might as well have solved the case,” Thompson said of the reaction back at the office in Lincoln. “We actually had something, you know?” The discovery shaved roughly 15 years off Farley’s last known whereabouts, but there were still several years to account for.

In 2009, the authorities hoped to catch another break. When Bruce Gillan read in the Lincoln newspaper that Farley’s younger brother Ronald had died after a yearlong battle with lung cancer, he rang Thompson and told him about the memorial the family was planning on Ronald’s behalf. Thompson knew from the case file how close Farley and his brother were growing up. If Farley was ever going to resurface in Nebraska, the memorial service was probably it.

Thompson drove to the funeral home and explained the situation to the director. “This may be our best chance to catch the guy,” he said. The director was incredulous. “He’s like, ‘Look, I can’t have some big takedown happening here,’ ” Thompson recalled. The funeral home was located on the grounds of a 130-acre memorial park featuring gardens, a pond, and a family of foxes that roamed among the gravestones and mausoleums. Thompson reassured the funeral director that he would be discreet.

The memorial service was held on October 23, 2009, which was 24 years to the day after Farley was indicted. Thompson arrived early. “I basically posed as an intern,” he said. “I probably set up a hundred chairs that day.” Three or four unmarked police cars were positioned at the exits of the grounds. Several marshals as well as officers from the Lincoln police and the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office waited for Thompson to give the signal that Farley had arrived.

Throughout the service, Thompson did his best to blend in to the background while scanning the faces of Farley’s friends and family. At one point, he caught the eye of Richard Hanika, who recognized him immediately. “I just walked up to him,” Thompson said. “I’m like ‘Is he here?’ ” Hanika said no.

Farley never showed. Thompson didn’t feel like he’d totally struck out—he was still the only agent on file to ever dig up a real lead—but afterward there was a sense among the marshals that the search for Farley had come to its natural conclusion. It wasn’t even clear that, if he was caught, he would be convicted. Conspiracy cases are often built around witness testimony, and a number of the sources had died in the decades since Farley’s disappearance. The hard evidence, too, was compromised. “Cocaine can’t last forever, even in bags,” deputy marshal Will Iverson said.

In fact, for years some marshals had questioned why the warrant for Farley was still open at all. Iverson told me there’s usually a ten-year window before prosecutors consider dismissing charges against a fugitive offender. “I’ve had old cases that were dismissed and two years later I get some info,” he told me. Iverson said he’d once left an ex-fugitive a voicemail saying, “Hey, you’re not wanted anymore, but I found you.”

When it came to Farley, there had been no such reprieve. “I’m going to prosecute the son-of-a-bitch if we ever catch him,” Thompson remembered Gillan saying. Agents in the Lincoln office were aware that Gillan and Farley knew each other growing up, and they wondered whether a personal vendetta was driving Gillan’s pursuit. “Like, he must have really hated him in high school or something,” Thompson said. Gillan would later file an affidavit with the court explaining that as a teenager he knew Farley only by reputation. “I am well aware of my ethical duties as an attorney,” he said. “It would be a violation of those duties to handle the prosecution of a person with whom I had a personal dispute, and I emphatically deny that any such violation occurred.”

It took five more years, but in January 2014 Gillan finally relented; the charges against Farley were dismissed. The evidence was simply too old, and Gillan himself was preparing to retire in a few years. After that happened, even if Farley was caught, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would likely decline to prosecute him.

For the dozen or so marshals who had worked the case since 1985, the decision marked the end of an era. After 29 years on the run, Farley was no longer a fugitive. “I remember when it was dismissed,” Iverson told me. “We were like, Well, I guess he won.”

Farley was an avid fisherman.

Part Four 

In February 2020, special agent Kevin Grant was in his office at the Miami division of the Diplomatic Security Service—the arm of the State Department that handles passport fraud—when Tim Brown’s name popped up on his computer. It had been red-flagged by fraud prevention managers, who had found an obituary for Timothy Terry Brown and confirmed with Florida’s vital statistics department that a death certificate existed. They knew that Brown’s identity had been stolen. Grant’s job was to figure out who the person using it really was.

A nine-year veteran of the DSS, Grant had spent part of his career working at a consulate in Pakistan and an embassy in Denmark. But what he really liked was criminal investigation. “I kinda have the knack,” he said. Brown’s case struck him as peculiar right off the bat. The most common passport fraud perpetrator is a foreigner who steals the identity of a U.S. citizen. That didn’t appear to be the case with Tim Brown, however. Grant suspected that the imposter might be on the run from the law.

Grant put in a call to Michael Felicetta, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida assigned to the case, and explained the situation. “We started to brainstorm,” Felicetta said. “Just based on our own experience, why do we think he’s using this name?” Felicetta wondered if Brown, whoever he was, might have escaped from prison. He and Grant also considered the possibility that Brown was AWOL from the military. “He’s about the age of someone who would’ve served in Vietnam, he married a Vietnamese woman. I mean, that’s possible, right?” Felicetta said. Grant checked the picture on Brown’s passport application against those of pilots who’d gone AWOL during the Vietnam War, but that was a dead end.

Grant kept digging throughout the summer of 2020. He tracked the tail number on Brown’s plane and unsuccessfully fingerprinted a rental car after Brown returned it. He got authorization to intercept Brown’s mail, though not to open it. He even located the real Tim Brown’s burial site in Lake Worth. “I just feel like we should try every effort we can to identify someone before we send law enforcement potentially into harm’s way,” Felicetta said. He wondered whether Brown might be “like a Whitey Bulger type of guy.” He didn’t want to risk losing a big target.

Eventually, Grant and Felicetta agreed that the only way to accurately identify Brown was to get their hands on him. “John Doe or not, let’s do it,” was how Grant described the decision. Two days after getting his warrants, Grant was prepping an arrest team at a gas station ten minutes from Love’s Landing. Nerves were high. What if Brown was armed? “There are a lot of people in Florida who like firearms,” Grant said. The county agreed to put its medical helicopter on standby in case things went south.

Just before 8:30 a.m., Grant’s radio crackled to life. “Hey, there’s smoke coming from the chimney,” reported an agent watching Brown’s house from a distance. “Someone’s home.” A few minutes later, a convoy of law enforcement vehicles rolled quietly through the front gate of Love’s Landing and approached Brown’s house. “He knew the jig was up,” Grant said of the moment he confronted Brown in the hangar. “When you turn around and smile to somebody that’s pointing a fully automatic machine gun at you, the run is over.” A fingerprint expert rolled Brown’s fingers, then headed to a lab to process the results.

Grant joined the agents interviewing Vu inside the house. Initially she had frozen in place at the sight of the task force on her front lawn; the agents had to physically move her from the doorframe before they could search the house. But eventually the shock wore off and she opened up. “She was the one that said Nebraska,” Grant told me. “And that was the first time Nebraska had popped up on the radar.” Other clues revealed themselves. In the house, agents found the names “Howard” and “Ronald” scrawled on the back of an old photo of two young kids. They found birth announcements and worn-out family photos. Little by little, the agents pieced together the backstory of the man handcuffed in the driveway.

Grant was on his way to the courthouse when Brown’s identity was confirmed; his prints matched a set on file from Farley’s 1969 burglary arrest. Grant sent Farley’s biographical details to Felicetta, who googled Farley’s name along with the word “fugitive.” Farley still maintained that his name was Tim Brown. As the search results filtered in, it was easy to see why: He had become a singular figure in the annals of Nebraska law enforcement. A white whale. The uncatchable man.

As it turned out, Felicetta had worked an unrelated drug case with Bruce Gillan years earlier and recognized his name at the top of the 1985 indictment. Felicetta called him with the news. “He was just kind of stunned and chuckled a little bit,” Felicetta said. Then Gillan explained that the case had been dropped several years earlier.

The news struck a heavy blow. “I’ve had fugitives before,” Felicetta told me. “But never one this significant and with a run this long.” He felt that Farley had robbed the government of its day in court. “He got the best thirty years of his life,” Felicetta said. “Those were years that in all likelihood he would’ve been spending in prison, and instead he was out living a very comfortable lifestyle and doing a lot of things that most Americans only wish they could do.”

Farley’s passport photos.

Part Five

Eight days after his arrest, Farley appeared in federal court for the first time, at a hearing to decide whether he’d be released on bond. He could no longer be tried for any of his alleged offenses in Nebraska, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be charged with fraud and identity theft for his use of the name Tim Brown. As he shuffled to the defense table, Farley waved toward the gallery. Vu sat with a dozen of their neighbors, who’d come to show their support.

At first, many people in Love’s Landing had been confused about what was happening in their community. When Marianne Reynolds saw all the unmarked vehicles in the street around Farley’s property, she thought he and Vu were having a party. But soon everyone in the quiet, conservative area knew the truth: that their neighbor had been living a double life. Farley’s neighbors searched their memories for clues to his past. Had he said or done anything that now, in a different light, seemed suspicious? The answer was a resounding no.

If anything, the soul-searching only hardened his neighbors’ resolve to support the man they knew as Tim Brown. In addition to attending the hearing, many of Farley’s neighbors submitted letters to the court. One described him as a man who “exudes generosity, both in deed and, particularly, in spirit.” Another said they “had never met a finer man.”

The judge wasn’t sympathetic. Despite Farley’s strong ties to the community and the fact that law enforcement was now in possession of his only—albeit fraudulent—passport, he was denied bond. “The government and the court cannot ignore the fact that the last time the defendant faced federal charges, he had the sophistication, the will, and the means necessary to flee and remain in hiding,” the judge explained. “That information overwhelmingly weighs against a community who didn’t otherwise know who was living next to them.” Vu cried when she heard the decision.

While he sat in Marion County Jail, Farley’s emotions ping-ponged between fear and something like relief. Until his arrest, he hadn’t been aware that the Nebraska case was closed. “Every year I would think about contacting an attorney to check what my status was,” he said later. “But having such a good life, I kept putting it off.” Still, he was worried about spending his remaining years behind bars. Operation Southern Line was in the past, but the authorities could nail him on other charges.

On December 30, Felicetta returned with a multiple-count indictment including passport fraud, aggravated identity theft, Social Security fraud, and using a fake airman’s certificate. Farley was also charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, the result of a conviction related to the 1969 burglary. He faced a maximum of 30 years in prison.

Farley’s lawyers approached the case as if they were going to trial. With his health in decline, anything more than ten years was basically a life sentence. Plus, one of his lawyers, Fritz Scheller, had a reputation for winning federal cases. In 2018, he represented Noor Salman, the wife of the shooter in the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando; Salman was acquitted of terrorism charges. “He can squeeze blood from a stone,” a fellow attorney said of Scheller to a reporter. But the evidence against Farley was overwhelming. There was no reasonable way to argue that he hadn’t stolen Brown’s identity.

Adding to the pressure to plead out, Felicetta had decided to pursue charges against Vu. On the morning of Farley’s arrest, she had maintained that his name was Tim Brown despite knowing that he’d changed it decades prior. According to Felicetta, that made her criminally liable. “You had every right to sit there and not say a word,” he said. “But you chose to try and help him by continuing to cover up who he is.” Before then, Vu’s only involvement with the courts had been a single traffic ticket. Now she could go to prison for 18 years. “I think it was leverage,” Scheller said.

If so, the ploy worked. On April 20, 2021, Farley pled guilty to three counts: passport fraud, aggravated identity theft, and fraudulently operating an airman’s license. The maximum sentence was 15 years, but only the identity theft charge had a mandatory minimum: two years. Anything beyond that would be up to the judge.

For the prosecution, the plea presented an opportunity. If the case had gone to trial, Operation Southern Line might have been off limits as a matter of discussion in court. Farley had never been arraigned, let alone convicted of the charges against him. He will “remain innocent of them until the day he dies,” Felicetta said. But at a sentencing hearing, hearsay is permitted. Operation Southern Line was fair game. Farley’s past would have its day in court.

As Scheller put it, “I wish he had stolen bread instead of selling cocaine, but in the end he’s more Jean Valjean than Pablo Escobar.”

On July 15, 2021, Farley arrived to a mostly full courtroom. By then he had been in jail for more than seven months. He was using a cane and suffered from a lingering cough after contracting COVID-19. Many of his neighbors were once again in the gallery, this time alongside members of Farley’s family, including a granddaughter he’d never met.

As the hearing got underway, Farley’s daughter from his first marriage, Amy, stepped to the podium to ask Judge John Antoon II for leniency on her father’s behalf. “I haven’t seen my father in close to forty years,” Amy began. “I would love nothing more than to have a relationship with him outside of this.”

Judge Antoon was moved by Amy’s words. “You understand, of course, that you did nothing to interrupt that relationship,” he consoled her. “It’s not your fault.”

She nodded. “I know that,” she said quietly.

It was an emotional introduction to what would prove to be an unusual sentencing hearing. In identity fraud cases, these hearings are generally straightforward affairs that take less than an hour. Farley’s was spread out over three sessions and interwoven with larger questions about the nature of punishment and rehabilitation.

The initial session lasted nearly an hour and a half, and focused largely on Felicetta’s request for an upward departure—a sentence greater than the recommendation. In Felicetta’s view, Farley had committed identity theft every time he signed a banking statement or renewed his driver’s license. Moreover, his past suspected criminality spoke to the kind of man he was. The prosecutor compared Farley to Sal Magluta, a notorious drug trafficker from South Florida who was arrested in the mid-1990s for falsifying documents and jumping bail. In Magluta’s case, probation officers had recommended a sentence of 15 to 21 months. Prosecutors asked the judge for more than 21 years.

Andrew Searle, one of Farley’s lawyers, argued that he was a far cry from one of the most infamous cocaine cowboys. The original Operation Southern Line indictment documented only a few ounces of cocaine being trafficked. Magluta had trafficked 75 tons. What’s more, Farley’s alleged criminality was far in the past. For nearly half his life, he had committed no crimes aside from the identity-related ones, and he’d built long-lasting relationships in his community. As Scheller put it, “I wish he had stolen bread instead of selling cocaine, but in the end he’s more Jean Valjean than Pablo Escobar.”

Two weeks later, the hearing continued with Scheller at the podium. “What we tried to do is walk the narrow line,” he told me. He couldn’t pretend the Nebraska case didn’t exist—that was the motive for Farley stealing Brown’s identity in the first place—but he didn’t want to litigate it either. “So what do you do in that situation?” he asked. “You undermine it.”

Scheller attempted to show that Farley’s cocaine operation was hardly the sprawling, sophisticated drug ring prosecutors in Nebraska had made it out to be. He outlined the pressure campaign waged against the other Operation Southern Line defendants and dug into John Kahler’s suicide. According to Searle’s math, some 80 percent of those defendants had their charges dismissed or served no jail time. “I have never seen that,” Scheller told Judge Antoon. “And I don’t know if the court has seen that in a federal case.”

As he approached the end of his statement, Scheller’s tone softened. The real question, he argued, was one of moral character. In the literary-infused sentencing memo he had submitted to the court, Scheller referenced Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Kurt Vonnegut, among many others. To him, Farley’s case represented something essential about the human condition. “Redemption is a path,” Scheller told the judge. “And what I would say to this court is Mr. Farley’s life has been defined not only by his criminal conduct but by a series of actions he’s done for others. He’s a radically different man.”

In one sense, Felicetta agreed. “I’d probably like him if I met him at a bar,” he said of Farley during his closing remarks a few minutes later. But Felicetta couldn’t square Farley’s likability with how he’d abandoned his family. “You can’t be a good man to your neighbor and reject your own children,” Felicetta said. “You can’t be a welcoming and caring son-in-law to your wife’s parents while not even acknowledging your own and not being there when they died.”

The statement seemed to send Farley reeling. After Felicetta was done, Farley asked to speak directly to the judge. “I cannot express how much remorse I feel for my family,” he said after apologizing to the court and the government. “I abandoned them and I betrayed them.” He struggled to keep his composure. “I would not have held it against anyone if they would not have chosen to come today,” he continued. “But the fact my family traveled so far to support me and my wife, Hanh, gives me hope for the future.”

The following week, on August 6, 2021, Antoon sentenced Farley to four years in prison. “Defendant cites Victor Hugo,” Antoon wrote in his decision. “But Defendant is no Jean Valjean.” In his final analysis, Scheller called the decision “just.” Felicetta, too, was satisfied. “We work this hard on cases where people get 25 or 40 years,” he said. “We did everything we could have done.”

Farley took it in stride. “I look at this as another life experience never to be repeated,” he wrote in a letter from prison. “I have spent the last 35 years trying to be the best person I can be and have no grudges against anyone.” All he cared about was getting back to his “loving wife, good friends, and great neighbors.”

In December, Vu appeared in court for her own sentencing hearing. It lasted all of 21 minutes. She pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return and was sentenced to two months’ probation. Andrew Searle called it “the lowest sentence he had ever seen in federal court.”

Afterward, I met Vu on the street outside the courthouse and asked to interview her for this story. She demurred, telling me that everything I needed to know about Farley’s life, about their relationship, and about their future together was in the court documents submitted by friends and family on his behalf. “Everything said in those filings, everything in those letters, is a testament to the kind of man he is now,” Vu told me. She reminded me that two months after Farley’s sentencing, she had petitioned the court to have their marriage license amended with his real name and date of birth. “When he comes home again,” she said with a smile, “my life begins again.”

Farley’s neighbors said they were also looking forward to welcoming him back. No one I spoke to thought he belonged in prison. “I think that what matters most in life is being kind and caring toward other people, and not some sort of details of whatever someone did in their past,” said Kathleen Safford, a Love’s Landing resident. She said that she believed Farley’s health problems were the result of a broken heart from living with the guilt of not being able to see his family. “He’s obviously not a career criminal in any way,” said Chuck Tripp, another neighbor. “I’m sure when he gets back, we’ll have some stories to listen to.”

Pat Farnan agreed. After hearing about Farley’s arrest in the news, he recalled an interaction they’d had years earlier during a get-together at Farley’s Homosassa house. Farnan had noticed a framed photo of a massive warsaw grouper in Vu’s office and asked Farley where he had caught it. To Farnan’s surprise, Farley grew emotional. “As he told me the story,” Farnan said, “he began to tear up.”

Farley explained that years earlier, he’d been spearfishing off the coast of Florida and had discovered the monster fish hiding in the hull of a ship that sank offshore. The first time he tried to shoot it, his spear bounced off its body. So he went to the surface, changed up his gear, and returned to the wreckage, carefully waiting for his moment to strike. Eventually, he brought the speared fish to the surface.

It was very sad, Farley told Farnan quietly as he looked down at the photograph. It was just living out its life, without bothering anybody or hurting anything. And he had ended that.


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Porambo

Porambo

A fearless journalist wrote a seminal account of police brutality during the 1967 race riots. Then he wound up on the wrong side of the law.

By Greg Donahue

The Atavist Magazine, No. 77


Greg Donahue is a writer and documentary filmmaker based in New York City. He has produced stories about refugees, vertical farms, North Korean abductions, and youth boxing. You can see more of his work at gregjamesdonahue.com.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Cover Image: Essex County Files

Published in March 2018. Design updated in 2021.

1983

The night Ron Porambo was shot in the head, he told his wife that he was going out to meet a friend. It was late, but that was when the 44-year-old newspaper reporter did his best work. As he had countless times before, Porambo slid into his Volkswagen hatchback and cruised through the dark into downtown Newark.

Outside the car windows, Newark’s row houses looked like gathering ghosts. Block after block, the battered wooden structures loomed three stories tall. Their facades caught the dull glow of the streetlights that flickered on when the sun set each day; the broken lights—and there were many—had been that way for as long as Porambo could remember. Below sagging front stoops, where cracked asphalt met stained sidewalks, garbage clogged the gutters.

Newark had been decaying for decades. Crime, corruption, and disenfranchisement had led Harper’s magazine to dub it “the worst American city.” Porambo, though, saw it as scrappy and resolute. He saw himself in much the same way: as a man with something to prove.

Porambo drove to 186 Ridgewood Ave., the address where he was supposed to meet his friend. After pulling to a stop at the curb, he cut the ignition and waited. He’d made a career out of consorting with hustlers, sex workers, and drug dealers to unearth gritty investigative stories about the city’s poorest residents. Most of his sources and subjects were black. Porambo, who was white, wrote about the people he believed had the most insight into suffering, inequality, and resilience in America. “They know,” he once told a fellow reporter.

Find hundreds of hours’ worth of longform stories read by audiobook narrators in the Audm app for iPhone.

A man approached his passenger-side window. It wasn’t the person Porambo had expected to see—or if it was, the greeting was a terrible shock. The man raised a .38-caliber handgun and pulled the trigger.

Three bullets penetrated Porambo’s skull. Another lodged in his left leg. He slumped over the steering wheel, filling the streets of Newark’s South Ward with the drone of a car horn. The sound must have scared off the attacker before he finished what he’d come to do. A rag was later found stuffed in the car’s gas tank; lighting it on fire would have blown the hatchback, and Porambo, to oblivion.

As blood poured from his head and thigh, Porambo struggled to open his door. A 16-year-old girl who lived down the street walked by just as what remained of the bullet-riddled window shattered onto the pavement. She ran home to call the cops. By the time they arrived, Porambo was unconscious. He would later recall feeling like he’d slipped into a dream. He was weightless, flying.

The crime, committed on May 19, 1983, made headlines in New Jersey. It wasn’t the first time Porambo had been in the news for finding himself at the wrong end of a gun. His meticulous reporting on Newark’s 1967 race riots had culminated in his opus, No Cause for Indictment, a book that implicated law enforcement in the unjustified killings of nearly two dozen black residents. The New Yorker heralded it as “probably the most moving and instructive book yet written on any of the bloody civil disturbances of the sixties.” After it was published, an unknown assailant caught Porambo in his car unawares and shot him in both legs. Porambo claimed that the attack was retribution for his reporting. His publisher took the opportunity to place a full-column ad in The New York Times promoting the book in block letters: “LAST WEEK THEY TRIED TO MURDER THE AUTHOR.”

In a different world, Porambo might have joined Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, and Jimmy Breslin in the pantheon of 20th-century journalism’s giants. No Cause for Indictment might have become mandatory reading in classes on investigative reporting and urban studies. Today, it might be referenced in articles about police brutality—a subject Porambo covered relentlessly—and Black Lives Matter. Instead, scarcely anyone knows Porambo’s name.

That’s because, by the time he was shot on Ridgewood Ave., his life had gone off the rails. Porambo seemed to carry two opposing selves, one as bitter as the other was generous; his wife sometimes called him Jekyll and Hyde. During the years that should have been his journalistic prime, his dark side won the battle for his soul. On that particular night in May 1983, he wasn’t attacked for his reporting, but for his second, unlikely career.

When he awoke after surgery in a Newark hospital, Porambo still had a bullet in his brain. Doctors couldn’t get it out, leaving him with permanent speech and motor deficiencies. He couldn’t remember who’d shot him, but that didn’t matter. Porambo had been handcuffed to his bed. The cops who’d pulled him from the Volkswagen were investigating the fearless writer for murder.

1965

The bar where Porambo spent late nights while working at his first full-time newspaper job, in Kingsport, Tennessee, was called the Bloody Bucket. The name honored the vicious brawls that frequently broke out there. Little more than a two-room shack that looked like a place where firewood would be stored, the bar teemed with sex workers, johns, and moonshine bootleggers. In 1965, the year Porambo arrived in town, police arrested the Bloody Bucket’s owners for “running a Negro house of prostitution catering mostly to white customers.”

It was exactly the kind of rough-and-tumble joint where Porambo liked to cultivate sources for his stories in the Kingsport Times-News. Municipal buildings and politicians’ offices he could do without. The same went for the manicured suburban existence of his childhood.

He was born in East Orange, New Jersey, on Thanksgiving Day in 1938, to Millie and Frank Porambo. They owned Franchett’s, a wholesale bakery; his father had patented a device to manufacture double-twist crullers. The Porambos were traditional Italian American Catholics, hardworking and dutiful. Thanks to the doughnut business, they were also quite wealthy. As a kid, Porambo liked model boats and comic books, and he developed a fascination for the culture and history of Native Americans. He considered their collective plight to be America’s original sin and was apt to decry it to whoever would listen. “He was always for the underdog,” Ron’s uncle Mike Magnolia once told a reporter.

By his early teens, Porambo was restless. The sober experience of Catholic school was becoming unbearable for the energetic, socially conscious kid. Hoping to find their son an outlet, his parents encouraged him to sign up for a youth-boxing program in nearby Newark, run by Jack Reno, a police officer and local sports legend. Most of the young men Porambo encountered in the gym came from Newark’s poor black neighborhoods. In the ring, the hierarchies that plagued society fell away. A boxer proved his worth by fighting and winning, nothing more. Porambo was enthralled.

At first he came off as a rube to the native Newarkers. “He used to show up at the gym, and he’d be wearin’ these big thick suspenders and plaid shirts,” sparring partner Chico Belleran told a journalist at New Jersey Monthly years later. But his opponents quickly found out that Porambo could punch. After only a year in training, he won the 1955 New Jersey Golden Gloves. He turned pro and earned a reputation as a middleweight who, rather than use footwork to avoid getting hit, relished slugging it out. When Reno asked Porambo why he didn’t try to out-box his rivals, the young man replied, “You know, Jack, that’s my style.”

“He’d get to talking to his opponents before a fight, get to feelin’ sorry for the guy and all that. Then he’d go out an’ lose.”

The teenager was fiercely independent, and his time in Newark created a gulf between himself and his family. He started dating black women and brought them home to meet his stunned parents. He asked Reno to save his boxing earnings in an account to help him pay for college, so that he wouldn’t be beholden to anyone. Supporting himself as a prizefighter, he explained to a friend, was the “right thing to do.”

Porambo landed a few big fights in his early twenties, including bouts at Madison Square Garden and one in front of John Wayne on the undercard before the historic Ingemar Johansson–Floyd Patterson heavyweight championship in Yankee Stadium. His softer side, though, derailed his career. “He was a terrific puncher, but he didn’t have that killer instinct,” Belleran said. “He’d get to talking to his opponents before a fight, get to feelin’ sorry for the guy and all that. Then he’d go out an’ lose.”

As his boxing ambitions waned, Porambo looked for other ways of making a living. He joined the military, but that ended abruptly in 1963, after he rowed a boat away from his posting at Fort Slocum, New York, for a midnight rendezvous with a woman he’d just met. He toyed briefly with joining his older brother, Carl, in the family business, but Carl was as eager a rule follower as he was not. Finally, Porambo settled on attending Rutgers University’s journalism program. He later told The New York Times, “I knew that was the only course I could conceivably pass.”

After graduating, Porambo took to his new profession with characteristic doggedness and an instinct for landing a knockout punch. Within a year of starting the job in Kingsport, one of his features won a state journalism prize. He was willing to cover topics other reporters wouldn’t: Kingsport’s black neighborhoods, for instance, and the city’s homeless population. He once wrote a story about an abandoned parking lot nicknamed “the jungle” where alcoholics drank grape juice mixed with Solox, a shellac and paint thinner consisting of ethyl alcohol, methanol, and gasoline. Ingesting it caused the individuals to fall into a nearly comatose condition. During his reporting, Porambo counted some 75 empty cans of Solox scattered around the jungle. Kingsport’s public-safety director called Porambo’s report an exaggeration, so the journalist went back to the lot and gathered every can he saw—76 this time—and photographed them stacked neatly in the Times-News’ offices. The image ran in the paper with the headline, “All Right, Jim, You Count ‘Em.”

Porambo was also audacious when it came to love. One night at the Bloody Bucket, the 27-year-old spied a pretty, stylish young black woman across the room. She eyed him, too, the white guy with a roguish grin and heavy-lidded brown eyes. Thanks to a strict routine of push-ups, sit-ups, and running, Porambo’s coltish, five-foot-eleven frame remained chiseled, though he’d given up boxing. His lips were thick and his ears misshapen from getting knocked around the ring, giving his visage the raw look of a sculptor’s first pass at a clay bust.

The woman’s name was Carol Scott, and she was 19, with a seven-month-old daughter named Glenna. Porambo liked Carol because she was strong-willed and curious. She liked Porambo’s intellect and brio. Soon after they met, she started wearing his college ring on a chain around her neck. “It just got serious right away,” Carol told me in a recent interview, snapping her fingers. “I didn’t have a fear of going out with him.” Her attitude was bold, given the politics and social mores of Tennessee. Interracial marriage was illegal. Six months after meeting Carol, Porambo proposed anyway.

In early 1966, the couple drove to New Jersey and holed up in a motel near Porambo’s parents’ house. He called his uncle Mike to the hotel and asked him to break the news of the impending marriage to the rest of the family. Maybe hearing it from him would help smooth things over, he thought. It didn’t. To Porambo’s parents, dating black women when he was a rebellious teenager was one thing; marrying one was another.

Porambo argued with his mother about the relationship over the phone. When his parents finally had the couple over for dinner, Carol sat uncomfortably at a table as the hosts, who barely addressed her, disparaged black people. Porambo admonished them. “What do you mean by ‘those people?’” he demanded. “They’re people just like we are!” By the time the dinner ended, it was clear that he and Carol would be getting married without his family’s blessing.

1966

For all the time he spent in dive bars, Porambo rarely drank to excess. Yet he showed up to his own wedding plastered. He and Carol had recently moved to Albany, because it was legal for them to marry in New York. As Porambo staggered into the Catholic church, the quick-thinking priest corralled him into a side room to offer some counseling—and, in all likelihood, a large glass of water.

Carol waited patiently at the altar, beaming in a blue chiffon dress and white veil. Glenna, whom Porambo had adopted, played on the floor with the young son of the wedding’s only invited guests: Fred Bruning and his wife, Wink. Bruning and Porambo both worked at the Knickerbocker News, a local paper, and the two had become fast friends; their families spent evenings together cooking Italian food or playing marathon games of carom billiards. Because the Brunings weren’t Catholic, the priest had asked two female church employees to serve as witnesses. They looked on wide-eyed as Porambo eventually emerged from the side room and walked unsteadily across the sanctuary’s marble floor to his southern bride. When the priest asked Porambo if he took Carol to be his lawfully wedded wife, Porambo threw back his head and yelled, loud enough to shake the rafters, “I do!” After the ceremony, the newlyweds returned to their basement apartment with the Brunings to celebrate. The party quickly shrank to three as Porambo found a comfortable spot on the bathroom floor and slept through his wedding night.

Family photos. (Courtesy: Carol Porambo)

Porambo cut an equally blunt figure at the Knickerbocker News. On his first day in the office, he wore a black beret cocked sideways across his forehead and carried an electric teakettle tucked under one arm. A full-bend pipe was clamped between his teeth, and a wake of spicy tobacco musk trailed him through the newsroom as he walked to his desk. Before long, water was boiling in the kettle and Porambo was on the phone hunting for stories. He hadn’t yet introduced himself to his coworkers.

In the 1960s, city newsrooms hummed with excitement; they were the beating hearts of a robust industry. Reporters bustled down narrow aisles yanking sheets of copy paper from messy desktop stacks and hammered away at Underwood typewriters. Ink from hot-metal Linotypes hung in the air in thin clouds. Writing styles were evolving, particularly at big New York outlets. Journalists were becoming household names by bringing personality to formerly stodgy newswriting. They experimented with voice, perspective, and structure. Porambo read and idolized hard-nosed, humane writers—Jimmy Breslin, in particular—for providing an unflinching glimpse into the lives of blue-collar workers, marginalized minorities, and crime lords. He promised to bring a similar voice to Albany, which he saw as a launchpad for fame in a bigger market.

In exchange for his talent, he wanted autonomy. “He was going to write what he wanted to write, in his own particular way, at his own particular length, at his own particular rhythm and rate,” Bruning recalled. But Porambo’s editor, Bob Fichenberg, didn’t agree. Fichenberg was a by-the-book executive who wasn’t impressed with his new hire’s independent streak. Porambo’s first drafts were often an ungainly mess, and he was savagely unyielding when copy editors altered his work. Time and again he found himself in Fichenberg’s office, engaged in a shouting match over the timeliness of an article or the quality of his prose. In a matter of months, Porambo was fired.

Over the next year and a half, he bounced around half a dozen papers: the Morning-Journal in Lorain, Ohio; the Suffolk Sun in Deer Park, New York; and the Toronto Telegram, to name a few. Editors tried to tame him, but Porambo grew increasingly arrogant and unmanageable. Sometimes his tenure lasted only a few days before he got fed up or was canned for refusing to neuter his style for a publication he considered unworthy of his talent.

Eventually, he landed back in his home state, at Camden’s Courier-Post. He wrote articles about work programs for the handicapped and rural land grabs. Most of his reporting, however, was set in the black slums of nearby Philadelphia. Porambo had long believed that the front lines of America’s most vital news cut through the tenements, factories, bars, and back alleys where the oppressed fought against the grinding teeth of poverty and prejudice. This proved true in what came to be known as the long, hot summer of 1967, when simmering racial tensions boiled over in some 159 cities. From Atlanta to Buffalo, Tampa to Detroit, black residents took to the streets to protest police brutality, segregation, housing discrimination, and other wrongs.

“Color breeds hatred in this country, and we’ve never known just how deep it went until 1967, the year of the riot.”

Porambo watched the events unfold and covered the impact they had in Philadelphia, where a riot three years prior had left hundreds injured. Authorities feared a repeat incident. For one story, Porambo visited a craps game at an apartment in north Philadelphia, where police claimed that dangerous militants were living. In the building, the reporter found only weary, poverty-stricken black residents whom city planners and social services had all but forgotten. “Color breeds hatred in this country,” Porambo wrote, “and we’ve never known just how deep it went until 1967, the year of the riot.”

He also noted that “stories are starting to come out about needless shooting” by police—injustice magnified by tragedy. Some of those stories were emerging from Porambo’s beloved Newark.

1967

A rebellion was all but inevitable. The immediate post–World War II economic boom had attracted workers to Newark and helped grow the city’s industries, but white residents soon began deserting the crowded urban landscape for the suburbs. After surging for decades, Newark’s population shrank by nearly 8 percent in the 1950s. Black residents, who had a harder time finding jobs and affording homes, stayed behind, and Newark soon became one of America’s first majority-black cities. It was still run by a white power structure, however, and corruption and inequality ballooned. Poor black neighborhoods were home to some of the highest rates of crime, unemployment, substandard housing, tuberculosis, and maternal mortality in the country. Residents’ patience with the status quo stretched thinner with each passing year.

The city was a combustion chamber primed for an explosion. All it needed was a spark. One finally came on the evening of July 12, 1967, when a man named John Smith flashed the high beams of his cab and drove around a police cruiser that was blocking his lane at the intersection of South Seventh Street and 15th Avenue. The cops quickly pulled him over. Smith was a reserved black man in his forties, originally from North Carolina. He lived alone, and when he wasn’t driving his cab, he enjoyed practicing the trumpet. He explained to the white officers that he thought he’d passed their cruiser legally, but they arrested him anyway. They told the woman in the back seat of Smith’s car that she’d have to find another ride home.

A few minutes later, an incapacitated Smith was dragged through the rear door of Newark’s Fourth Precinct. Residents of the Hayes Homes project across the street from the station watched it happen. Smith had been battered with a nightstick in the ribs and groin. Yet a rumor quickly spread that the police had beaten him to death.

Within an hour, dozens of people had gathered to protest outside the Fourth Precinct. The crowd quickly grew into the hundreds. When someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the building, police stormed out, batons swinging. The crowd dispersed, but later that night angry looters took to smashing liquor-store windows. Police director Dominick Spina advised his officers to let the situation lie, “because once you begin to look at problems as problems, they become problems.”

The plan backfired. Police stood by for nearly two days as the looting spread. White-owned stores were targeted; to signal plunderers away, black business owners scrawled “Soul Brother” on their windows with soap. When mayor Hugh Addonizio called in state troopers and the National Guard, he said in dismay to an arriving officer, “It’s all gone, the whole town is gone.” The sense of alarm spiked even higher when word came across the police radio that someone had swiped 24 rifles from inside a Sears-Roebuck. “The line between the jungle and the law might as well be drawn here as any place in America,” governor Richard Hughes told the press.

Over the next three days, Newark became a city under siege. Bridges were barricaded. Tanks rumbled down thoroughfares, cracking the pavement with their armored weight. State police converted a stadium into barracks and marched through the streets in formation, rifles at the ready.

Many of the officers were reservists, and their inexperience showed. They were quick to fire their weapons. They sprayed the Hayes Homes with bullets in response to suspected sniper fire, killing three women in their apartments. In another incident, ten-year-old Eddie Moss was shot in the head and killed as his father slowed the family car before a roadblock on the way home from a meal at White Castle. Michael Pugh, 12, was shot to death while taking out the trash. Jimmy Rutledge, 19, was left with 42 holes in his body after he was caught looting a liquor store. The majority of the wounds were shotgun blasts to the back. Six were in the rear of his skull.

All told, over five days, 13,319 rounds of ammunition were fired in what authorities described as a peacekeeping effort. Twenty-six people lay dead, ranking Newark’s riots among the deadliest in American history. Among the casualties were a cop, a fireman, and 21 civilians, all shot by police or guardsmen.

Governor Hughes extolled the outcome. “I felt a thrill of pride in the way our state police and National Guard have conducted themselves,” he told the media. As for the roots of the unrest, authorities dismissed the notion that racism, economic disenfranchisement, and state-sanctioned violence were to blame. Instead, they accused communist agitators, paid protestors, and criminal thugs of stirring unwarranted rage among the city’s poor.

It was a time before cell-phone videos and body cams, and the accounts of white officers met with little resistance, trumping those of black citizens. No one in the state or local government was charged with wrongdoing. Not everyone, however, could accept the whitewashing these events received. Among them was Porambo.

1968

Six months after the riots, Porambo left the Camden paper for a gig at the Daily Journal in the town of Elizabeth, a few miles south of Newark. The paper had long been a stepping-stone for cub reporters who went on to bigger and better things. Carl Bernstein had just departed for The Washington Post. Porambo wanted to follow a similar path.

His first piece was about a candy-store robbery. He transformed the story of a petty crime into something bigger by writing it from the imagined perspective of the thief, describing what it was like to need money so badly that you’d take a gun into a shop catering to children. He followed that with a story about a family of 17 living in four rooms—“the bare edge of civilization,” he called it—whose patriarch was murdered in a dispute over a billiards game. Next came a profile of a black building superintendent who, after saving the lives of 20 residents when the structure he maintained went up in flames, was fired and evicted for demanding that the landlord improve the property’s conditions.

Joe Jennings, the executive editor, loved Porambo’s unorthodox style. “He was one of the best pure writers I’ve ever seen at a newspaper,” he said years later to New Jersey Monthly. Thom Akeman, a fellow reporter, described Porambo’s work as having “a lot of leeway and imagination,” which made it compelling. “I’d never stopped to think about looking at a robbery from the point of view of the guy who has the gun,” he told me.

Porambo and his growing family—he and Carol had two more children togetherlived in a house in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, a middle-class, mostly black area. He was happy to be home, but he found the city of his youth irrevocably changed, tattooed with a post-riot identity. Burned-out buildings dotted downtown, citizens projected an air of defeat, and the city’s reputation lay in ruins. The New York Times described Newark as a “nightmare … finally succumbing to America’s catalog of urban ills.”

One day, Porambo covered a meeting of the Newark Human Rights Commission, a community group that advocated for police reform. He watched as witness after witness took to the floor to recount beatings and shootings perpetrated by police during the riots. The stories had been circulating through Newark’s black neighborhoods for months. In his article about the meeting, Porambo noted, “It was the first time these things were said in a public auditorium,” but the black survivors of the riots “heard nothing they didn’t know.”

He was determined to put the stories he heard on the front page. So he got to work on what the Daily Journal dubbed the Post-Riot Notebook, a 15-part series intended to introduce readers to the people living in the areas of Newark most affected by the unrest. Porambo knew that something bigger than the color and detail of individual lives was at stake in his reporting. The governor, the mayor, cops, and public prosecutors had all denied complicity in what had transpired in July of 1967. Now, in the name of justice, Porambo wanted to expose it. In the introduction to the series, he promised that “those within the power structure will not like what they read because it will be too close to the truth.”

To get the story, he did what he’d always done. He became a regular at Newark’s roughest watering holes, sitting on stools and slouching in booths at establishments with names like Dick and Ann’s and the R&R. He frequented pool halls and sweaty go-go joints. He told regulars everywhere he went that he wanted to hear what really happened during the riots—what the people who lived through those harrowing five days witnessed. That Porambo was married to a black woman gave him extra cachet in the establishments where he spent late night after late night.

“Those within the power structure will not like what they read because it will be too close to the truth.”

People talked. Over hot dogs and games of nine-ball, he heard desperate scenes recounted, like the one on Beacon Street on the evening of July 14, when state troopers opened fire for no apparent reason. In the melee, James Snead, 36, was shot in the stomach while repairing his car. Karl Green, 17, was shot in the head. Both survived. Seventy-six people signed an eyewitness petition demanding an investigation into the shootings, but no action was taken. For the series’ fifth installment, Porambo drove with 22-year-old Mack Tucker to the spot where police shot him while he sat in a friend’s car. Tucker bore the scars of slug wounds on the side of his face and neck.

The death of Jimmy Rutledge, a looter discovered with 42 bullet wounds, was perhaps the most damning. In the series’ eighth installment, an anonymous police detective walked Porambo through the shooting. Cops on the scene had claimed that Rutledge brandished a butcher knife before they opened fire. But the detective was incredulous: somehow, Rutledge had found the time to wipe his fingerprints from the handle of the blade before falling to the floor dead. According to witnesses, his last words were “Don’t shoot. I’ll serve my time in jail,” followed by “I will come peacefully.”

The more he heard, the more Porambo’s outrage grew. The Post-Riot Notebook consumed him. At a certain point, he took up residence in the Daily Journal’s office, sleeping at his desk and showering in the bathroom the next morning. His union reps fumed over his unlogged overtime. But his dedication was about to pay off.

The New York publishing house Holt, Rinehart, and Winston got wind of the series and offered Porambo a modest $7,500 advance to expand his investigation into a book. He jumped at the chance. He was eager to leave newspaper work behind for a while. No more battles over word count or whether he had to cover a school-board meeting. No more destabilizing hired-and-fired cadence to his life. Just a chance to make it big. “This was going to be the vehicle for him becoming famous and important and influential,” Fred Bruning, Porambo’s old friend from Albany, told me. “He wanted all those things badly. But I think that his first priority, always, was to give voice to this stuff that he felt so passionate about.”

1970

Nearly every morning, Porambo donned a heavy gray sweatsuit, leashed up Ralph, the mutt he’d rescued in Tennessee and loved so much that he’d contemplated listing him as a dependent on the family’s taxes, and jogged several miles through Newark’s South Ward. On his way home, he always picked up fresh bread, tea, and the first editions of the local papers, which left ink stains on his hands. Porambo ate breakfast with his wife and children, Glenna, Franklin, and Ronda. Then he went into his small, book-lined office and shut the door. He was not to be disturbed while he wrote, connecting the dots of the scrupulous reporting he’d compiled over the previous two years.

Unraveling the facts of the riots wasn’t easy. Many of the surviving victims and the families of those killed moved frequently and rarely filed a change of address. Porambo had worn through shoe leather ringing doorbells all over the city. In the process, he fell more deeply in love with Newark. “Everything’s so personal,” he told a reporter, “because everybody’s crushed together, deprived of human rights, down to life itself.” He was as likely to interview a community activist or business owner as a career criminal or drug addict. He described the array of characters he encountered as the personification of “much of black Newark as it was six months after its riot.… Black men sell women and white men buy them. Black children shoot heroin and white politicians give the city away to the mobsters who supply the narcotics.”

Of course, not every pimp and pusher was interested in talking to a reporter. While pounding the pavement, Porambo was threatened more than once, and he kept a revolver close at hand: sometimes under the seat of his car, other times hidden in the light fixture on the living room ceiling. When muggers demanded his grandfather’s pocket watch, they discovered the ex-boxer still had a nasty left hook.

Early in the summer of 1970, Porambo turned in a 700-page draft to his publishers. It landed on the desk of Warren Sloat, a laid-back, 35-year-old editor. “I was appalled by some of the writing,” Sloat later said. “It was just all over the place.” He spent several weeks poring over the text, crossing out digressive rants about conservatism and Richard Nixon. Beneath the vitriolic fat, though, he found a lean narrative of authenticity and verve. “The voices of the people he spoke with rang true,” Sloat recalled. “And his description of how he found them was terribly interesting.” Porambo described it as “sifting through the ashes.”

The book was a scathing account of police brutality, corruption, and cover-ups spanning several years before and after the riots. Porambo chronicled, for instance, the shooting death of 22-year-old Lester Long Jr. on June 12, 1965. Cops pulled Long over because his car had a noisy muffler. Suspecting that his license might be fake, they put him in the back seat of their cruiser. The stop happened across from the Happy Inn Tavern, and a crowd, including some of Long’s friends, gathered outside to watch. After 45 minutes of being detained, Long made a break for it. He got about 30 feet from the car before a bullet hit him in the back of the head. At first the local papers reported the police’s version of events as fact: Long had tried to cut an officer with a knife, the officer had stumbled out of the car bleeding, and a gun had gone off accidentally. But the crowd that watched the events unfold claimed there was no knife, no blood, no accidental shooting. Bystanders saw an officer square up and gun down a fleeing man.

Corrupt political machinery quickly hijacked the narrative. Police advocates claimed that Newark’s finest would be devastated if one of their own were charged with murder. Long had a criminal record, they pointed out. The accused cop went so far as to sue a citizens group for handing out leaflets that labeled him a killer. “What should have been an issue defined by facts had become an ideological conflict with ‘police morale’ as the main issue,” Porambo wrote. “Any action was permissible if it maintained so-called law and order.” This same thinking, he believed, led to the bloody display in 1967.

“If there are two occupational groups that can be expected to lie with abandon on the witness stand,” Porambo wrote, “they are hardened criminals and experienced police officers.”

“If there are two occupational groups that can be expected to lie with abandon on the witness stand, they are hardened criminals and experienced police officers.”

One chapter in the book was dedicated to the trial of John Smith, the cab driver whose arrest had sparked the riots and who had been charged with assaulting two police officers. He claimed that the officers had brutally beaten him; they countered that Smith was the one doing the beating. That Smith had injuries requiring hospitalization and the officers seemed unharmed didn’t shake the court’s opinion. An all-white jury convicted Smith, who after appeals served just under a year in prison.

Porambo broadened his reporting to examine corruption in law enforcement beyond the riots. A heroin dealer went on record to say that he was occasionally supplied by an officer in the city’s vice squad. Porambo unearthed Mafia campaign contributions that had helped elect Mayor Addonizio. And he didn’t hesitate to name names as he laid out kickback schemes that traveled all the way up the chain of command to police director Dominick Spina.

Warren Sloat knew he had something astonishing on his hands. When his heavy edit made it to Porambo’s desk, however, the writer reacted with typical outrage. He’d never met Sloat. Who was this son of a bitch carving up his book? He jumped in his Oldsmobile and raced the ten miles down Route 22 to Plainfield, New Jersey, where Sloat lived on a tree-lined street in a stucco house with a play set in the backyard. Porambo marched up to the door and rang the bell.

After ushering the livid writer inside, Sloat gathered his revisions and Porambo’s original material. For two hours, they sat at a table comparing the texts line by line. The changes were justified, Sloat explained, if only to distill the most important and convincing aspects of the work. “I’ve never read a book quite like this,” he told Porambo. It was going to be valuable to the people of Newark. It might garner national awards.

For the first time in his career, Porambo bought into the editorial process. He headed back to Newark sure that he was on the verge of fame and fortune. He’d been driving a soft-drink delivery truck to make ends meet since his advance ran out. Now he began dreaming of a Pulitzer Prize.

While Sloat put the finishing touches on the manuscript, Porambo hustled to secure what he believed would bring his reporting into perfect focus: photographs taken by the county coroner’s office of bodies with wounds in their backs, sealed by the courts from public view, showing beyond a doubt that many of the riot’s victims were shot as they fled police. Porambo was willing to do anything to obtain visual proof of police brutality, even pay one of the force’s own. In November 1970, he approached officer John Balogh, a hard-bitten veteran whom he’d interviewed during his reporting, and made an under-the-table offer: ten photos for $10 apiece.

At first, Balogh appeared agreeable to the offer, and he provided half the requested the photos. But it turned out to be a ruse. Balogh recorded their conversations and shared them with public prosecutors. One day at a local restaurant, he passed a second stack of images to Porambo, and the writer chose the ones he wanted. As the final payoff went down, Porambo found himself in handcuffs. Balogh was arresting him for bribing a police officer.

Porambo seemed unfazed. “The worst I can get is six months,” he mused in an interview with Thom Akeman, his ex-colleague from the Daily Journal. “Unless I get one of those judges I wrote about.”

1971

The book was published, without photos, while the bribery case was still pending. It was a masterpiece of urban reporting, as raw as it was authoritative. The first page alone must have caused jaws to drop and eyebrows to jump as readers, particularly white readers, took it in. Porambo began his 398-page investigation with a description of a black dancer:

She was ghetto Newark and her brown arms glistened and drops of sweat covered her bare stomach. They formed trickles that dripped into her navel and on down into what little there was of the bottom half of her dancing costume, down into black Newark, a place where tattered kids play on dirty brick streets; where, at the first light of dawn, working people rise for another day’s labor and junkies look for anything worth stealing to feed the needle; where locked warm thighs in the restless morning start the cycle all over again, bringing screaming infants into a cramped jungle that now must be called post-riot Newark. … Keep moving, brown-skinned girl, you are Newark and you are beautiful and the place you call home has a primitive beauty and allure of its own.

In the next paragraph, he called the deaths caused by police during the riots “homicide,” an unflinching accusation that he later unpacked in the book’s most devastating chapter, entitled “Nailing the Lid on a Coffin.” Porambo outlined each of the killings brought before grand juries after the riots. He described eyewitness accounts in meticulous detail—people who’d watched the violence from apartment windows and fire escapes and street corners—and revisited the police’s own investigatory materials. The picture he painted was at best one of police misconduct, at worst one of a murder spree. Yet in case after case, the authorities had proved immune to prosecution. “Due to insufficient evidence of any criminal misconduct,” courts ruled, “the jury found no cause for indictment.” The phrase became the title of Porambo’s book: No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark.

The city had placed fault for the deaths on the shoulders of the looters and protesters who’d flouted the law in the first place, and on individuals not sufficiently cognizant of the war zone Newark had become during the riots. Porambo declared this nothing short of craven racism. “The inference was clear that the guilty included Eddie Moss’s father, for taking his son out for hamburgers,” Porambo wrote, “Michael Pugh’s mother, for telling her son to carry out the garbage, and Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Spellman, and Mrs. Gainer”—the three women killed in their Hayes Homes apartments—“for being the same color as the rioters.”

When the book hit shelves, Porambo became a household name in Newark overnight. “It was a reference point,” Amiri Baraka, a poet and community activist who featured in the text, later told the Star-Ledger. “One had to be able to say, ‘Yes, I know that book,’ whether you had read it or not.” A review in the Baltimore Sun noted, “Even if Mr. Porambo is wrong ten per cent of the time, and that is unlikely, his is still a very serious indictment of the Newark police.” Kirkus heralded, “Porambo is energetic, angry, and he spares no one.”

“It was a reference point. One had to be able to say, ‘Yes, I know that book,’ whether you had read it or not.”

Frustrating to the writer, most of the major New Jersey papers didn’t review it—perhaps because he’d reserved disdain for his own tribe in the book, dubbing the local press “the whorehouse’s blushing counterfeit virgins.” Porambo believed newspapers had done little to investigate violent incidents, instead parroting police accounts. When evidence proved those accounts wrong, the stories often went uncorrected. In one case, Porambo confronted a reporter who’d written about the shooting of 17-year-old Dexter Johnson after an alleged struggle with police. Witness accounts made it clear that a fence standing six feet high separated Johnson and the cop who’d shot him; a scuffle between the two would have been physically impossible. The reporter was shocked when Porambo told him about the contradictory evidence. In his book, Porambo derided lazy reporting as the reason “why whites, who read once again of a ruthless punk and a valiant police officer, remain so uninformed.”

No one demanded retractions or sued. Still, Porambo was prepared for backlash. “I wrote a book about how people were murdered during the riot,” he told a reporter. “I also wrote about corruption in city government and the police department. It’s only natural that I join the victims.”

Three weeks after his book’s release, in December 1971, Porambo was driving in the thin light of dawn along a desolate street abutting Interstate 78. In his rearview mirror, he saw a car with its headlights switched off surge toward him. It veered left and pulled alongside his window. The driver whipped out a pistol and sent seven bullets into Porambo’s Oldsmobile before speeding away. Porambo lost control of the car and jumped a curb. He stayed crouched in his seat, covered in broken glass and too afraid to move, for a solid ten minutes.

Afterward, Porambo told reporters that he was certain the attack had to do with his book. He even insinuated that the police were trying to shut him up. “Newark is the way it is,” he said. “Nothing should be surprising in Newark. Nothing.” A sluggish investigation turned up no suspects or evidence.

Soon after, Porambo got a job as a correspondent for 51st State, a program that aired nightly on public television in the New York City area. The show offered “news from the bottom up,” told through the perspectives of the people who lived it, and reporters weren’t afraid to be provocative. Porambo fit right in. He spent most of his time in the field but sometimes came to 51st State’s headquarters above Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Producer Gary Gilson remembered him as a “madman genius” and “like a member of an Italian street gang. He was rough, but he was an artist.” It showed in his segments. One of Porambo’s investigations, about the ease of buying illegal guns on the streets of Newark, opened with the camera zoomed in on a man leaning into a car window, seemingly doing business with the person behind the wheel. As the camera pulled back, viewers saw that Porambo was the buyer. He turned to face the lens, lifted the pistol he’d pretended to purchase, and fired several shots. It was unnerving stuff, and it has been lost to history: When the station that aired 51st State moved offices in the 1990s, it recorded over or lost almost all of the show’s archive.

On January 14, 1972, Gilson, who was in charge of Friday programming, answered his desk phone. When he did, it threw his scheduled lineup into disarray. Porambo was on the line. “It’s Ron,” he said. “I can’t come in. I’ve been shot.”

The night before, around 11 p.m., he’d gone to Dick and Ann’s, one of his favorite bars. He’d ordered a drink from waitress Sherry Rivers, who mentioned that a man had been in earlier asking about a “white guy.” The stranger was talking about Porambo, who took the news in stride. Maybe it was someone out to get him, like whoever had shot up his car a few weeks prior, or maybe it was someone who just wanted to talk. After Dick and Ann’s, Porambo went to Tony’s Tavern, where the bartender told him that someone had been asking around for a “white dude shooting pool.”

The cover of the original paperback. 
The cover of the original paperback. 

At 1:30 a.m., Porambo paid his tab and went to his car. The driver-side door was still busted from the shooting, so he climbed through the passenger’s side. As he slid across the bench seat, a heavyset white man pushed through the open door behind him and leveled a pistol at his head. Porambo kicked and fought, but he couldn’t get away. The attacker fired seven times, and bullets penetrated both of Porambo’s legs. Blood began soaking his pants. He had his own gun under the seat, which he managed to grab and discharge at the fleeing assailant. But the man got away, leaving only a brown loafer in his wake.

At the hospital, after doctors bandaged his legs, Porambo held court with journalists who’d gotten wind of the shooting. “I don’t think they’re trying to kill me,” he said. “They just want to terrify me.” Newark cops were stationed at his door, and as visiting hours ended, they tried to escort the interviewers out. Porambo argued that the journalists should be allowed to stay. Neither side would back down, so against the wishes of his doctors, Porambo checked himself out of the hospital. In a fury, he grabbed some crutches and hobbled out the building’s double doors.

Over at 51st State’s offices, Gilson rushed to put together a new opening segment with the title “Our Man in Newark Has Been Shot.” TV crews showed up on the steps of Newark’s police headquarters to demand answers. Suspicious that he might have staged the shootings, officers asked Porambo to take a lie-detector test. He refused. “The cops just want to try to discredit the book,” he told a reporter, also noting that a polygraph would be “very unreliable for someone with my temperament.” One of the bullets in the second incident had narrowly missed an artery. He took chances, Porambo insisted, but he wasn’t stupid.  

Or was he? The night of the second shooting, before Porambo went to Dick and Ann’s, he and a friend whom his kids called Uncle Artie sat in his office sipping scotch and milk. Carol was in the adjacent living room listening to Roberta Flack on the record player, and in between tracks she caught snippets of the two men’s hushed conversation.

“Come on, man. You’ve got to do this for me, man,” Porambo said.

“What if I mess up and do something else?” Artie responded.

“I need you to do this,” Porambo implored.

Eventually, the men left the house together, Porambo telling Carol that they were off to play some pool. Unsure what her husband was planning, Carol brushed off what she’d overheard and turned up the volume on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” When the phone rang several hours later, and a voice on the other end told her that her husband had been shot, Carol’s first thought was, I can’t believe he convinced Artie to do it. She and Glenna grabbed the three portable TVs in the house and lined them up on the wide kitchen counter, tuning them to ABC, NBC, and CBS. They sat at the kitchen table watching as Porambo talked with newscasters in the hospital.

Quietly, Carol told Glenna what she suspected had happened. But she had no plans to tell the cops. Glenna understood why. In the Porambo household, loyalty was to the bone. If one of the kids snitched on another for breaking a rule, the tattler caught it first with a wooden ruler. So mother and daughter tacitly agreed to keep their lips sealed about what in retrospect may have been a warning sign of Porambo’s deteriorating grasp of right and wrong.

Others soon followed. No Cause for Indictment sold out its initial run of 7,500 copies, and the publisher ordered a second printing. The critical success buoyed Porambo’s belief that he would win a Pulitzer. He already felt that he’d earned it by dedicating years of reporting to his book and even risking his life for it. “He used to talk about it all the time,” Carol told me. In the spring of 1972, however, a jury of his peers decided that another book was more worthy of nonfiction’s highest honor: a history of General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell’s exploits in the Far East by historian Barbara W. Tuchman. Porambo was heartbroken. “He didn’t have another dream to replace that one,” Glenna told me.

Intensifying his pain and frustration was Porambo’s realization that his book wasn’t having the tangible impact he’d hoped, however naively, it would. Newark had elected its first black mayor while he was writing it, a development that Porambo lauded. During the mayor’s first year in office, however, eight black people were shot dead by police for petty crimes, six as they fled scenes. Soon after, the Evening News and Star-Ledger decided to cut back on crime reporting, because editors worried that stories of violence were becoming repetitive for readers. In his book, Porambo had pilloried Tony Imperiale, a Stetson-wearing, race-baiting rabble-rouser who’d encouraged white citizens to take up arms against rioters in 1967 and once referred to the civil rights movement’s most prominent leader as “Martin Luther Coon.” In 1970, Imperiale was elected to the city council; three years later, he became a member of the state senate.

Porambo had written a seminal text about urban America. He’d used bold tactics. He’d positioned himself on the right side of history. It hadn’t been enough to move Newark’s social needle. Would anything?

When a source gave him documents outlining corruption in city contracts, Porambo saw it as a chance to at least force some discreet change. According to the documents, officials were approving payouts for demolition contracts on buildings that didn’t exist. Porambo trusted his source, a 23-year-old city employee named Aleck Grishkevich. The two men were drinking buddies. Porambo produced segments on 51st State based on the papers and demanded that officials state on the record when indictments would be forthcoming. He confronted representatives of the mayor’s office and the demolition company that had allegedly drawn canceled checks for the work orders.

Then one day, Porambo received a call from Grishkevich’s mother. Her son had been arrested on forgery charges, she said. The documents used in the segments were fakes. When Porambo reached out to the prosecutor’s office, he learned that a warrant had been issued for his arrest, too. He pleaded ignorance about the forgery, and ultimately the charges against him were dropped. But he’d put his colleagues’ credibility in jeopardy by failing to corroborate the details of the materials provided by his source. The show fired him.

Around the same time, the longstanding bribery charges were finally brought to court. Porambo was found guilty and served three months behind bars. He emerged jaded and indignant.

1973

The renowned psychoanalyst Alfred Adler believed that the need to cope with feelings of inferiority drives human behavior. We work hard in personal, professional, and communal spheres to develop self-assurance, and we establish goals that might compensate for our perceived deficiencies. When people can’t overcome or process these flaws, however, they can grow depressed, anxious, and insecure. Some channel their frustrations into manipulating or dominating other people. They become, in a word, bullies.

Porambo fit that mold. The one-two punch of losing the Pulitzer and his job at 51st State proved too much for him to bear, and his psyche cracked. He’d always been argumentative, volatile, and domineering. Now he could be vicious. Even his eyes changed. The brown wells that had always seemed attentive became cold and unfeeling. He looked “like nobody loved him,” Carol told me.

When he got back late and found his kids’ clothes and toys left in piles on the floor, Porambo would wake them, even in the middle of a school night, and demand that they clean their rooms. He would holler at his wife and dump laundry she’d folded down the stairs. He could be physically abusive, too, often reserving his fiercest anger for his son Franklin. “He would slap him in the nose and then look at me and say, ‘See what you made me do?’” Carol recalled. “I would go off to a motel with the children until he calmed down.”

Despite his professional blunders, Porambo still had plenty of admirers. He got a job as a field producer for City-TV in Toronto and moved his family to Canada. His kids gathered around the television at 7 p.m. each night to watch their father, wearing his signature black beret, unleash blistering reports. Carol worked as a photographer at a mall, and the family lived in a roomy two-bedroom condominium with floor-to-ceiling windows. On Sundays, Porambo planted himself in front of the TV to watch football. He always rooted for the underdog. The family seemed to friends and neighbors like the picture of domestic bliss. Privately, though, Porambo was becoming increasingly erratic.

One day, Carol came home to find that he’d painted the exterior of their home a rusty red, because he was sick of it being uniform with the condos around it. The paint job lasted only as long as it took the community board to have it sandblasted off. Porambo made good money, roughly the equivalent of a $150,000 annual salary today, and his parents regularly deposited money into the family’s bank account. But Porambo was reckless with cash and fell into debt. He maxed out two credit cards to buy Carol a $1,500 blue and gold macaw named Harold for her birthday. He taught the bird to sip wine from a glass until it skulked off-balance along the edge of the dining table. He refused to cage it, even outside. Once, during a family barbecue, Harold flew up into some trees, and the fire department had to come retrieve him.

Losing his job didn’t scare him straight. It only pushed him deeper into vice.

Rather than pay off his credit cards, Porambo sent letters to the banks pretending to be an attorney. He claimed “Mr. Porambo” had fallen ill and couldn’t pay his bills on time. Eventually, he wrote that his client had died. At work, Porambo began taking small payoffs from stringers at the TV station in exchange for guaranteeing that their clips were broadcast. When their segments didn’t show as promised, the freelancers alerted executives to the scheme. Soon after, the station discovered that Porambo had been cooking his expense reports. Once again he was fired.

The question of why a reporter who’d built his reputation skewering corrupt systems would lie to banks, to say nothing of swindling fellow journalists for a few bucks, is difficult to answer. Maybe he genuinely believed that his family needed the cash. Or maybe he feared that he was living the cookie-cutter life he’d always dreaded and broke the rules just to prove that he could. Either way, losing his job didn’t scare him straight. It only pushed him deeper into vice.

One day in March 1978, Porambo dyed his hair a garish red—or donned a wig that color, no one can remember for sure—and drove to the parking lot of Toronto International Airport. He carried a toy gun that he’d spray-painted to look real. Porambo approached a parking attendant, demanded money, then ran away with the cash. A few days later, police tracked him down and arrested him. Porambo claimed that he’d robbed the attendant to make a mortgage payment. “I just did the wrong thing,” he told a reporter several years later. “I was real messed up.” Yet the crime was so preposterously amateurish, so cartoonish, that it seemed engineered to fail.

One theory, now shared by Carol and Glenna, is that Porambo intended to get in trouble with the law, or at least flirt with the prospect. The seed of this theory is a book. In 1968, writer Nathan Heard had published Howard Street, a hyperrealistic novel set in Newark. It was about sex workers, pimps, and pushers, and it was hailed for its raw honesty. Boosting the book’s profile was the fact that Heard wrote it while he was finishing an eight-year stint in prison for armed robbery. His vivid prose and personal story wowed readers and the literary world. Howard Street sold a million copies. Porambo kept a copy on his shelf, where it became an object of envy for him. In Toronto, he started working on a novel he titled Walker’s Last Stand. No one ever read the draft—Porambo was protective of his work, and the manuscript was later lost—but his family gathered that the plot centered on a criminal enterprise. Perhaps, Carol and Glenna told me, No Cause for Indictment had made him realize that, despite his reporting chops and ear for gritty, untold stories, he lacked the profile to launch a book about urban life into the commercial stratosphere. In which case, maybe he thought that crossing the line into criminality would give his writing authenticity.

The idea sounds farfetched. Then again, Porambo was notoriously rash. And the theory brings to mind the first story he wrote for the Daily Journal, about the robbery at the candy store. On its face, the article reads like a remarkable feat of empathy with the thief. But could its perspective have been a sly confession about how Porambo got the story? Given the trajectory of the writer’s life, in hindsight it seems plausible.

Following the stick-up at the airport, Porambo was found guilty of armed robbery. Carol packed up the family car and headed back to Newark. She was fed up with her husband’s antics, but she still loved him. She’d be there when he got out.

Porambo kept working, taking inspiration from his circumstances. He was allowed a typewriter in his cell and published a piece in the Toronto Star on the endless boredom of “dead time,” the days that convicts spend before sentencing that may or may not count as time served. After nine months, he was released and deported to America, where he reunited with his family in Newark. It wouldn’t be his last stint behind bars.

1980

Porambo was determined to sell Walker’s Last Stand. The manuscript was finished, and he wanted it to win the accolades that No Cause for Indictment hadn’t. He commuted into Manhattan for long dinners with book publishers at Italian restaurants in the West Village, with Carol by his side. He was so pushy when promoting his work, so sure of his brilliance, that she was sometimes embarrassed for him. “Ron had no shame, so nothing was awkward for him,” she said. When nothing came from a meeting, he would mutter to his wife under his breath, “I hate people.”

Without a book deal or steady work, Porambo began leading a double life. By day he worked on his novel and pitched freelance articles. By night he descended into Newark’s underworld—this time not as a reporter but as a participant. In 1980, the city was posting some of the highest crime rates in the country, and Porambo joined the fray by reviving the stick-up routine he’d tried in Toronto. Glenna, with whom Porambo was close, helped him. She rode with her stepfather to nice neighborhoods and cased potential marks. When Porambo bought wigs and fake mustaches for the disguises he wore when holding people at gunpoint, he paid Glenna $10 to trim them so they’d fit his face. “It was a lot of money back then,” she told me.

Porambo pocketed modest amounts of cash from his robberies, but that didn’t seem to be his main motivation. Like his parents all those years ago, Porambo fumed about “those people,” except he was referring to whites who worked in Newark during the day and returned to their cushy suburban homes at night. He ranted to Carol about how the rich never spent their money where it was needed.

“He thought he was getting back at rich people and society,” Carol confided in Fred Bruning, who’d kept in touch while building a respectable career at papers up and down the East Coast. Or maybe, Carol added, her husband was just unwell.

There was a Robin Hood quality to his logic, but Porambo didn’t spread the wealth he pilfered. He seemed more vindictive than benevolent.

There was a Robin Hood quality to his logic, but Porambo didn’t spread the wealth he pilfered. He seemed more vindictive than benevolent.

Porambo made friends with street criminals willing to team up with him on jobs. One night in June 1980, he and an accomplice, 20-year-old Richard Norman, staked out the parking lot of Snuffy’s, a restaurant in the town of Scotch Plains. It featured faux marble colonnades, lobster buffets, a plate-breaking show with cries of “Opa!” and a “sit down eating clam bar”—the greatest hits of Greek American hospitality. Their stomachs full of surf and turf and two-dollar glasses of wine, a couple named the Kilpatricks were walking to their car when Porambo and Norman approached. One of them pistol-whipped Mr. Kilpatrick, and the attackers made off with $277 in cash. Fifteen minutes later, the police pulled them over in a car matching the description the Kilpatricks had provided. Porambo later admitted to being a little “high on alcohol” during the slapdash heist. Once again the weapon he used was a toy gun.

Porambo was sentenced to seven years for robbery and assault and shipped off to Leesburg State Prison, a medium-security lockup that employed inmates in good standing on a working farm. Porambo did well inside, and he even gave his investigative career another go. He began looking into the prison’s bloated work contracts and compiled a 16-page report on fraud and kickbacks. He tried to mail it to a newspaper, but prison authorities discovered the draft and confiscated it. Despite the provocation, he earned early release to a halfway house in less than two years.

As a parolee, looking for a job was a legal requirement. Asking Newsday to hire him was ballsy. The Long Island daily was cherry-picking writers and editors from bigger, better-known outlets. Murray Kempton, the former editor of The New Republic, came on board as a columnist in 1981 and won a Pulitzer four years later. Breslin jumped ship from the Daily News and worked at Newsday until he retired in 2004. Porambo secured an interview with Tony Marro, one of the top editors, and hoped he could convince the paper’s leadership to help him stage a comeback.

When he visited Newsday’s offices, Porambo’s first stop was at the desk of Fred Bruning, who’d recently joined the staff. Over the years, in phone calls and at dinners when the men found themselves in the same city, Bruning had been a calming influence on his friend. He’d always been jealous of Porambo’s talent. Now, as they sat in the Newsday cafeteria, Bruning realized that the journalist he’d long admired was no longer there. Personal demons had done their worst; the conversation was brutal. “Looking grim and exhausted,” Bruning later wrote, “Porambo told me he was going to give newspapers one more try. But, he warned, if he couldn’t find a job at a prestigious place like Newsday, if the business rejected him again at this late date, he was returning to his avocation—to crime.”

The gig at Newsday didn’t materialize. Over the next few weeks, Porambo appeased his parole officer by picking up work at the Atlantic City Press. Then, in January 1982, he missed his nightly sign-in at the halfway house. He explained that he was late because he’d been at work—the very work that the legal system required him to have. It didn’t matter. He was charged with attempted escape and shipped back to prison. When he got out a few months later, he made good on what he’d told Bruning he would do.

1983

Porambo rubbed spirit gum along the contour above his upper lip and pressed the flimsy mustache into place. He pulled the wig, selected from the Headstart Hair for Men line, over his scalp. He’d bought it a few weeks earlier at a store called Town Wigs in Irvington, New Jersey, where he’d told the salesman his name was Ron Pope. The wig made him look like Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. He glanced in the mirror to make sure he was unrecognizable. Then he grabbed his brown overnight bag and stuffed his supplies inside: silver .32 revolver, duct tape, ski masks, fake police badges, bullets, and makeup.

Carol was crying. She pleaded with him not to go. They had money; they would make rent. And there were consequences to the dangerous game Porambo was playing. “God don’t like ugly,” she told her husband.

Since getting out of Leesburg the second time, Porambo had settled into a new line of crime: taking down drug dealers. It was a high-risk, high-reward business. The upsides were cash and other items—cocaine, marijuana, jewelry—with serious street value. Plus, Porambo’s marks rarely called the police. But there was little room for error in robbing hustlers. One mistake and you could wind up dead.

There was little room for error in robbing hustlers. One mistake and you could wind up dead.

Porambo didn’t work alone. His accomplices were the same sort of people he’d once relied on for news tips. There was Eddie Crawford, who supplied Porambo with information about targets—where they lived, what they were carrying, when their shipments came in. Larry Page and Bob Windsor, two men Porambo had met in prison, helped him do the dirty work: While he held a dealer at gunpoint, they would shake the target down. After making their getaway, the team would divvy up the spoils. Jewelry got fenced through Willie Rabb, the owner of a We Buy Gold outfit in Newark.

Carol disliked her husband’s new friends so much that she quit her job as a nanny to make sure her kids were never alone when Porambo brought the men around. Windsor was from south-central New Jersey and had been in and out of jail for the past decade. He was 38, white, and a little overweight. Porambo sometimes scolded him for being a junkie. Page was black, a few years younger, and imbued with a cruel streak. According to Carol, “He was the devil.”   

There was no better proof than what happened on April 10, 1983. It was a rainy spring day. Water dripped from trees and gutters as Porambo and Page walked toward a five-story redbrick apartment building in Newark. They had to pass the entrance a few times before someone who lived in one of the units came out. Porambo, wearing a blue uniform jacket, smiled and tipped a fire-marshal hat toward the tenant. Then he stuck his foot between the door and the frame; he and Page slipped inside.

Three floors up, Sidney Davis and his girlfriend, Betsy, were naked and doing cocaine on Davis’s big circular bed. A 34-year-old drug dealer, Davis wasn’t the richest or flashiest guy pushing coke in the neighborhood, but he moved a decent amount of it. Just after 2 p.m., there was a knock at the door.

“Did you hear that?” Betsy asked.

Davis stuck his head out from the bedroom. “Who’s that?” he yelled.

“Fireman,” was the answer. Davis hadn’t heard an alarm in the building. Still, he threw on a robe and opened the door.

He instantly knew he’d been set up. These guys were no firemen. Porambo pushed past him and pulled a revolver from his jacket pocket, which he pointed squarely at Davis’s chest. Then Page barged in, and the robbers forced Davis to lie facedown on a couch.

Porambo kept his gun trained on Davis while Page scoured the apartment for money and drugs. In the bedroom, he found a few thousand dollars, diamond-studded watches, and Betsy. She was trying to hide from the intruders. Page started to force her into the living room, then changed his mind. He pushed her back onto the bed and raped her.

When Page finished, he dragged Betsy out to the couch and threw her on top of Davis. Then he shoved a pillow over her head and demanded that Porambo shoot them both. For all the mayhem Porambo had caused in his life, he’d avoided crossing the line that divides threatening deadly violence and committing it. Davis, though, couldn’t have known that. Lying on the couch under the weight of his girlfriend’s battered body, he decided that he wasn’t going down without a fight.

Davis roared up from the couch and lunged at Porambo. Betsy did the same, clawing wildly at the faces of the two surprised robbers. In the ensuing fight, bottles were smashed, furniture was flipped, and skin was torn open. Then a crack of gunfire split the air. A downstairs neighbor heard it and stuck her head into the hallway. She listened as two men raced to the exit on the floor above her, one of them shouting, “Hurry up, I’m hurt!”

As Porambo and Page bolted from the building, Betsy called the police. When they arrived, the officers found Davis laying in the hallway, his bloodstained robe trailing behind him. He had a gushing wound in his chest. Adrenaline and shock had kept him awake long enough to tell the cops that a white man had shot him. He was pronounced dead within the hour.

Inside the apartment, there were blood smears on the floor and coffee table, and a long streak on the wall where a hand had reached for support. In the bedroom was an extensive stash of cocaine and drug paraphernalia. Betsy was hysterical and unable to describe much of the robbery, except to say that she’d been raped. On the floor, detectives found a black wig, a blue fireman’s hat, and a silver .32-caliber revolver with two spent cartridges.

When Porambo returned home later that night, he was bleeding from a gash on his head and wearing different clothes than he’d left in. “Whose sweater is that?” Carol demanded. All Porambo would say was that he’d borrowed the shirt from Page. “What have you done?” Carol asked. Her husband stood in front of a mirror trying to pull off the gluey wads of wig hair matted together with dried blood. Someone had smashed his head with a vase, he replied. She didn’t believe him. “I can’t help you,” Carol said, throwing up her hands. He’d made his choices.

Porambo packed a suitcase and disappeared for a couple of weeks, staying at Windsor’s bungalow in southern New Jersey. A seismic shift had occurred: Porambo was now a killer, and it was likely only a matter of time before Davis’s associates came looking for him. His nerves were raw. He told Carol and his children not to open the door for anyone they didn’t recognize. “You could sense a little change in the way he felt about it. He said he might’ve stepped a little too far,” Glenna told me. Before long, though, he started lining up a slate of new jobs back in Newark. He was like an addict convinced that he wouldn’t overdose a second time. “I went about it the way I did everything else,” Porambo later told Bruning of his criminal exploits. “If there had been eight days in a week, I would have done it eight days.”

One month after Davis’s murder, Porambo and Windsor robbed a major drug dealer named David Williams, a job that involved dressing as cops and tying up Williams’s domestic help in a brazen midday home invasion. The pair made off with a briefcase of cash, jewelry, and drugs. When Porambo delivered the jewelry to Willie Rabb, his longtime fence, Rabb had a choice to make. Porambo had been a reliable partner, but Williams was a fearsome guy. If the drug dealer found out that Rabb had flipped his possessions, it could spell the end for the We Buy Gold proprietor. Rabb picked up the phone, called around until he got Williams on the line, and told the dealer how the job had gone down.

A few days later, on the night of May 19, Porambo was home with his family when the phone rang. He answered it in his office and kept his voice low while he talked. “All right, I’ll see you there,” was all Carol caught of the conversation. After Porambo hung up, he told his wife that he was going out. As usual, she begged him to stay and he brushed her off, telling her that he’d be back soon.

It was the same thing that Eddie Crawford, Porambo’s tip provider, had told his girlfriend a few hours earlier. After taking a phone call, Crawford had left home and gone into Manhattan, where he’d been gunned down by an unknown assailant. By the time Porambo got in his Volkswagen and drove to 186 Ridgewood Ave., Crawford was in a Harlem hospital, brain-dead. Maybe the person who’d called Porambo’s house had warned him that he was in danger, too. Or maybe it was the same individual who lured Crawford out. Nobody knows for sure, because the next time Porambo spoke to anyone, he was under arrest in a hospital bed, with a bullet lodged permanently in his brain and little memory of how it got there.

The cops who responded to Porambo’s shooting searched the Volkswagen where it had happened and found a bag containing wigs, fake badges, and two loaded pistols. The accessories linked Porambo to several unsolved crimes, including the murder of Sydney Davis. A rent receipt led police to an apartment in Belleville, New Jersey, where they found cash, stolen driver’s licenses, maps with homes and addresses circled, passports and birth certificates with random names, and more guns and disguises.

To some people, the scope of Porambo’s crimes seemed implausible. His parole officer told police that he’d had “no inclination that [Porambo] was doing anything wrong.” Local newspapers covered the story, listing the pending charges against him and referencing Porambo’s renown for his “controversial book.”

Carol’s reaction to the scope of her husband’s deceit was stoic. Nothing surprised her anymore. “It was just so hard for me to even cry tears,” she told me. In a final act of spousal loyalty, she dug through Porambo’s office and found a fireman’s uniform he often wore during robberies. She burned it in their apartment building’s incinerator.

1984

While he sat in jail awaiting trial for felony murder, acclimating to life with a chunk of metal in his head, Porambo’s moods were fitful. Sometimes he was chipper, like the day a detective visited him with a nurse to take hair and blood samples. The nurse patted one of Porambo’s muscled forearms in search of a vein, and the inmate bragged that he’d been doing lots of pull-ups lately. At one point, he said to the detective, “It’s really nice to make your acquaintance. I only wish it had been under different circumstances.”  

“You’re the first guy in seven years in your situation that ever said that to me,” the detective replied.

When the nurse turned her attention to his hair, zeroing in on a strand to pluck, Porambo said, “Don’t take the gray hairs! Those are special to me.” When the nurse asked why, he glanced up with a scampish grin, “I got them from all of my unpublished works.”

In other moments, Porambo was matter-of-fact. Page and Windsor had given statements to the police implicating him in multiple crimes, including Davis’s murder, in order to protect themselves. He assumed they did so because they were sure he would die of his gunshot wounds. “How can you hurt a man who’s already dead?” he explained in a letter, one of hundreds he wrote while awaiting trial. The letters piled up on his lawyer’s desk, in the prison warden’s office, and at the newsroom of the Star-Ledger. He wrote so many to Richard Newman, the judge assigned to his case, that Newman was forced to recuse himself after prosecutors complained that the accused’s overwhelming contact might influence the trial.

Some of these letters revealed another side of Porambo—a peculiar, perhaps delusional one. He claimed that Jesus Christ had been whispering in his ear since he woke up in the hospital. He carried a small crucifix to legal meetings and signed correspondence “Sincerely and Faith in Christ.” Before a pretrial hearing, as he was preparing “notes” for the new judge on his case, he suddenly switched to writing that Jesus had told him, “No, no, run. Go to court! Why write the judge when you can tell [him] face to face.”

When the trial finally began, in July 1984, two of Porambo’s letters became focal points for the prosecution. In one, Porambo offered to testify against Page in exchange for a plea bargain; it was a tacit admission of guilt. In the other, he stated that he was “the only person who can or will recount the last moments of Mr. Davis with the dignity with which he deserves.” That sentence placed him at the scene of the murder.

Porambo’s defense was based largely on the precariousness of circumstantial evidence. His blood type was found in Davis’s living room, for instance, and Betsy identified the disguises in his car and at the secret apartment as looking similar to those worn by her attackers. Porambo’s lawyer also contended that the Newark police were framing his client as payback for No Cause for Indictment. The corrupt system Porambo had exposed, the attorney argued, had finally found a way to silence him. There was no proof to support that claim, however.

Porambo’s guns and disguise materials. (Essex County Files)

As the trial dragged on, the damage to Porambo’s neurological system caused spittle to collect at the corners of his mouth and sometimes drip down his chin. He was prone to bursting into tears unexpectedly. When he was called on to don the disguises allegedly used in his crimes, the moisture on his face rendered the glue used to attach them useless. Cheap beards and mustaches drooped pathetically off his visage as he stood before the jury. His lawyer later described it as “almost a sick kind of scene.”

Carol came to the hearings. She knew that their marriage was over, but she wanted to be present for her husband’s reckoning. Nervous that whoever had shot Porambo—a crime the police never solved—might come after her, she kept a low profile by sitting in the back row and avoiding the press. She never spoke to her husband. She can’t remember even making eye contact with him.

On October 2, 1984, a jury of eight women and four men found Porambo guilty. He was sentenced to 30 years to life. Though he never admitted to killing Davis, as the trial came to a close, Porambo made a statement before the court. “I am two people,” he told the judge. “I’m a good person and a bad person. I know that now.”

2006

For the first few years of his sentence, as he passed through bland prison hallways on his way to eat or shower, Porambo bounced awkwardly on the balls of his feet. Brain damage had spoiled his equilibrium. Below his black, thick-framed glasses, his chin jutted out at a strange, painful-seeming angle. He still drooled. Yet he kept in shape by jogging for an hour every day in the recreation yard, stopping to change into dry sweats halfway through. And he loved to shadowbox, doing the footwork that, as a teenager, he’d shunned in the ring. His moves inspired shouts of “Rambo!” among fellow inmates, who liked the smart, funny, and accomplished guy from Newark. Prison officers were less enamored: Porambo once threatened a hunger strike, detailing a “suicide schedule” in a letter, unless they provided him with speech and occupational therapy.

Eventually, Porambo began to wither, emotionally and physically. Outbursts of anger at his brother’s family, who tried to maintain contact with him, drove them to cut off communication. (Family members I contacted either did not reply or declined to comment.) His psyche took a major hit when, in 1989, his daughter Ronda slipped into a coma during routine surgery related to rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors said she was unlikely to survive. Prison authorities told Porambo that he could either visit her in the hospital or go to her funeral. He chose to see her before she died.

Carol heard her husband before he entered Ronda’s hospital room: his shuffling footsteps in the sterile hallway, the clanking shackles on his wrists and ankles. During the 15 minutes he was allotted for the visit, he wept over Ronda’s inert body, gripping it as tightly as he could. Then he trundled out. It was the last time Carol ever saw him. Years later, Porambo would remember Ronda’s death and say simply, “Lost without her.”

The trapped bullet eroded Porambo’s memory and his ability to speak and move. In time he was relocated to a prison unit for people with permanent health problems. When he could no longer jog, he took to walking the yard. When speaking more than a few words at a time became difficult, he scribbled on a pad of paper. Another prisoner helped him do basic tasks like tie his shoes and type.

In the summer of 2006, after Porambo had been behind bars for 23 years, Fred Bruning paid him a visit. They hadn’t seen each other in decades. Bruning found his old friend a shell of his former self, a desperate man who alternated between boisterous fits of laughter and racking sobs when talking about the past. Responding to questions, Porambo mostly grunted, roared, or scratched words onto his pad of paper. His phlegm-rattled breathing made him sound like a predator on a phone call in a horror movie.

Bruning had come to interview Porambo about his life. “Where’s Carol?” Porambo wanted to know. Bruning had no idea. They talked about what Porambo would be doing if he were free. “Work,” he managed to say. Then, putting pen to paper that was wet with his saliva, he continued, “Work is everything.” Bruning mentioned that two of his children, including Porambo’s own goddaughter, taught in minority schools. “God bless her,” Porambo wrote. When Bruning brought up the most painful subject of all—how his friend had wound up disabled and serving time for murder, how a life of such promise had come to this—Porambo let out a series of mournful cries before managing a single word: “Mistake.”

Porambo let out a series of mournful cries before managing a single word: “Mistake.”

Three months after Bruning’s visit, on the morning of October 22, a corrections officer peered through the cutaway glass window of cell 2C. Inside, Porambo was on his knees with his upper body bent over the metal frame of his stiff cot, as if in silent prayer. An hour prior, he’d had his breakfast. The officer knocked on the door. Porambo didn’t move.

The guard called in a “53,” the code for a medical emergency, over his walkie-talkie, and the lock on Porambo’s cell thudded open. Paramedics rushed in and dragged Porambo’s unresponsive body onto his mattress. They began chest compressions. Thirty-three minutes after being discovered in his cell, Porambo was pronounced dead.

At first it wasn’t clear what had killed him. The medical examiner saw no signs of physical injury: cuts, scrapes, bruises, torn fingernails. Porambo’s gray hair was shorn nearly to his scalp, and there was no visible head trauma. It wasn’t until the examiner conducted a full autopsy, cutting open his body, that she found the cause of death. The reporter once hailed as “a truth-seeker above all,” the criminal deemed by Newark prosecutors as “an extreme risk to society,” the erratic father, husband, friend, and colleague who’d been shot six times, had choked on a slice of orange. He was 67.

Finding any next of kin was difficult. No one could figure out where Carol was; she’d long ago ceased interacting with Porambo and anyone who knew him. When I tracked her down for this story, she was living in Kingsport with a second husband, in a cramped, homey apartment across the street from where the Bloody Bucket used to be; the place was filled with pictures of grand- and great-grandchildren, stacks of DVDs, and several pet cats. Carol told me that she and her children finally learned of Porambo’s death months after it happened, when Glenna searched for her stepfather’s name online and came across an obituary. By then, lest Porambo wind up in a pauper’s grave, his brother had claimed his remains.

Cleaning out the dead man’s cell, at least, was easy. Everything he owned fit into two plastic bins: a few books, a black-and-white portable TV, an electric typewriter. And a letter.

It had arrived in June 2006, a second chance in a white envelope. “Dear Mr. Porambo,” it read. “I was very moved by your book, No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark. It’s an important piece of journalism and an enlightening read.” The sender was an editor at Melville House, a small publisher, who’d found a used copy of Porambo’s book on a sale rack at a local library. “I write to ask if you would allow us to bring it back into print,” the editor went on, remarking that the following year would be the 40th anniversary of the Newark riots. “We believe the book deserves a new life.”

With the help of another inmate, Porambo had typed a reply accepting the offer. The paper was taut and stained with tears.

When the book was reissued in 2007, its publisher crowed of the author, “His life … had this one great piece of work. And, by God, if you accomplish one great thing like that in your life, is it really a wasted life?” Warren Sloat, the original editor, penned a new introduction. “There’s nothing to compare with Porambo at the top of his form,” Sloat wrote, describing No Cause for Indictment as “borne aloft by an authentic literary voice.” That voice reverberated through time, with a righteous fury as widely relevant in the 21st century as it was when the book first appeared. Porambo wrote of “two distinct worlds,” one “rented to the city’s poor, a sprawling mass of slums and high-rise prisons,” the other for prosperous white people who “retreat” from facing up to pernicious realities in which they are complicit. Racist public policies cemented the divide, and bigoted law enforcement patrolled it. “Violence perpetrated on ghetto people is condoned by police superiors,” he said, “if not by overt action then at least by silence.”

Sloat pondered the book’s limited success—“maybe [it] was too late to be journalism and too early to be history”—but not Porambo’s existential downfall. That task fell to Bruning, whose prison interview formed the reprint’s poignant epilogue. He cycled through possible psychological explanations, concluding that nobody could say for sure what went wrong in Porambo’s life, not even Porambo himself. Bruning then quoted Spanish author Miguel de Unamuno, who once wrote, “At some point, it is inevitable that you find yourself and it is up to you to determine whether that moment, that encounter will be about gladness or about sorrow.” Bruning wondered. “Did gladness spook Porambo? If so, sorrow awaited.”

When I spoke to Bruning on the phone in the fall of 2017, he told me, “There is a starting point to this somewhere, somehow. Without knowing it, there’s going to be a hole in every story done about Ron.” Perhaps, though, that hole is the point—the counterintuitive thing that makes the narrative of Porambo’s life both universal and complete. We all have cracks, some wider than others, through which devils can creep to fight our better angels. And as Porambo wrote in his book, “There are no such animals as ‘minor corruption’ or ‘little lies’ … since both evolve into predatory monsters.”