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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.”