Found Murdered and Dismembered, the Bodies of 4 Gay Men Put Police on the Trail of a Serial Killer
As the bodies pile up in author Elon Green's gripping true-crime book Last Call, there is growing alarm not just in their numbers but in the similar state in which they are found: dismembered, in layers of plastic trash bags knotted at least twice, their body parts often severed with precision.
But there is another commonality among the bodies found between 1991 and 1993 in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania: All four victims were all older gay men during a time of homophobia supercharged by the AIDS epidemic. New York City's gay piano bars seemed to offer a safe harbor — until a serial killer began frequenting them.
The first, Peter Anderson, 54, was a largely closeted banker, separated but still married, who was visiting Manhattan from Philadelphia on May 3, 1991. Two days later, a maintenance worker on the Pennsylvania Turnpike found his remains in a 55-gallon rest area trash barrel. He'd been stabbed, and his penis had been severed and stuffed in his mouth.
Within a year his case had gone cold.
Then, in July 1992, New Jersey State Police turned up another victim: Thomas Mulcahy, 57, whose body parts were dumped in two separate rest areas. The closeted father of four from Massachusetts had disappeared while on a business trip to the city. He'd also been stabbed and dismembered, his bones cleanly separated from their joints, with his limbs washed clean before they were discarded.
The murders suggested a link, and a possible serial killer: Both men had last been seen at a gay piano bar on East 58th St. called The Townhouse. "Quiet and respectable, with red wallpaper, leather chairs and oil paintings, The Townhouse was invariably described as well-appointed," Green writes. It was also "a place where older gentlemen pursued younger men, and vice versa."
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A third victim 10 months later challenged the profile. Although he was known to linger in and around Midtown gay bars, Anthony Marrero, 44, was a sex worker, with previous arrests in and around the Port Authority Bus Terminal for pandering and solicitation. But the fatal stab wounds and horrifying manner of his disposal on the edge of a New Jersey forest — in trash bags and sliced into seven parts — echoed Mulcahy's killing. As did the bagged remains of a fourth victim, Michael Sakara, 55, a beloved patron last seen at the Greenwich Village piano bar Five Oaks, whose remains turned up in July 1993 in the trash near a waterfront overlook an hour north of Manhattan.
Subtitled A True Story of Love, Lust and Murder in Queer New York, Last Call is both a riveting whodunnit and a broad cultural history of the times. Along the way Green chronicles the rise of the New York City Anti-Violence Project — "at heart, a reaction to systemic apathy to queer life" — and the perceived indifference of law enforcement to threats against the gay community.
"It was an awful quandary," he writes of targets hesitant to report attacks: "Victims who told the truth would be outed, potentially have their lives ruined, and possibly not see justice done; but if they kept quiet, the perpetrator would remain free."
Yet as a task force investigating the killings comes together, is abandoned, and resumes again, police find their way to a suspect: a nurse in Mount Sinai hospital's surgical intensive care unit who has a dark past. But his arrest on an unrelated charge, which came as a surprise to the murder investigators, was a mixed blessing. On one hand, it took the suspect off the streets. On the other, it short-circuited a planned surveillance effort by investigators, who hoped that by following the suspect, he might lead them to a location where the murders occurred — and possibly open the door to more victims.
Green masterfully stitches his tale together with real-time, in-the-room scenes heavy on the recall of investigators and bar regulars. Yet the impressive sweep of his reporting can at times pull the reader away from the central narrative. While discussing Manhattan's gay gathering spots, for example, he dives deep into the itinerant past of a specific piano bar musician (the chapter is named after him) who barely registers elsewhere in the book.
But where it's focused on the mysteries of the mounting clues and the four murdered men whose deaths 30 years ago "had all been forgotten," as Green writes in an epilogue, Last Call serves up a compelling read.
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