ADIRONDACKS – People old enough to remember can vividly recall the “summer of terror” the Adirondack Park experienced nearly 48 years ago, when serial killer Robert Garrow was on the prowl and on the loose.
Garrow’s upstate killing spree was already underway, but began to come to light only after July 14, 1973, when Daniel Porter of Boston was tied to a tree and brutally stabbed to death in the woods near the Warren County hamlet of Wevertown. His 20-year-old girlfriend, Susan Pelz, a promising Boston University student with whom he had taken a weekend camping trip, was missing.
Police didn’t yet know what they were dealing with, and started down the wrong path.
Porter, 23, was a business partner of the celebrated young Democratic political pollster Patrick Caddell, who was famed for having been George McGovern’s 21-year-old pollster during the 1972 presidential election. He and Porter were under consideration to advise Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy if he ran for president in 1976.
After police found Porter’s car, Caddell came to the Adirondacks. It was he who discovered Porter’s body in the woods. Caddell had called police very quickly when Porter and Petz didn’t return from their camping trip, so he immediately became a suspect, though he wasn’t detained. “Suits” from Kennedy’s office dropped by the Warren County district attorney’s office, though nobody says they interfered.
Two weeks later, four hippieish young people from Schenectady and Amsterdam headed up Route 30 with vague plans to find a camping spot in the Adirondacks.
Tenting at a wooded spot between Route 8 and the Sacandaga River north of Wells, they were surprised by a middle-aged visitor. Things turned vicious. Phil Domblewski, 18, a recent graduate of Schenectady’s Mont Pleasant High School, was tied to a tree and stabbed to death. The others were also tied up, but one slipped free and drove to Wells — where, initially, nobody believed the hippie’s wild story.
“This was so shocking up there. The last murder trial [in Hamilton County] had been in 1929,” said Jim Tracy, the author of a new book on Garrow and his notorious murder spree.
The similarities of the stabbings and Garrow’s abandoned car quickly let police know they were looking for the balding 38-year-old, who had already done prison time for an Albany rape.
The murders of Porter, Pelz and Dembrowski led to a massive 12-day manhunt across the Adirondacks, searching for the psychopath — perhaps the most notorious murder search in Adirondack history, one that terrified the entire region in the heart of the summer tourist season. The case remained in the headlines for months, as Garrow was located, wounded while fleeing and apprehended, tried for murder in tiny Lake Pleasant, and sent to prison for 25 years to life. He was killed outside the Fishkill prison in 1978 after an escape.
The entire story is told in vivid detail in “Sworn to Silence: The Truth Behind Robert Garrow and the Missing Bodies’ Case,” a new true crime book written by Tracy, a former reporter at the Glens Falls Post-Star who lives in Saratoga County.
Tracy wrote an award-winning six-part series about the case for the Post-Star in 2000, and has spent the last nine years on the book. He lauds the work of the late state police investigator Henry McCabe of Wilton, who was assigned to the Warren County murder, and subsequently oversaw the investigation of all the Garrow-linked murders.
“I felt the Garrow saga needed to be told in a good, factual narrative, with a heartbeat, written and reported in journalistic fashion,” said Tracy, 56, of Greenfield Center, who left journalism after a decade to work in harness racing. “There’s been a lot of local interest, and I thought it needed even more exposure across the country because of its compelling nature.”
The title of the book comes from the dilemma faced by the two Syracuse lawyers who represented Garrow. Frank Armani had represented Garrow on some previous matters, but knew he was in over his head defending a murder charge. He called on his friend Frank Belge, a respected defense lawyer.
Under hypnosis by Armani while at a Plattsburgh hospital, Garrow told the lawyers where to find the bodies of Pelz and of Alicia Hauck, a 16-year-old girl he had raped and killed that July 11 in Syracuse. At the time, Hauck was a missing person, but suspected by authorities of being a runaway. The lawyers went to the respective locations and confirmed what Garrow had told them; Tracy says the attorneys were deeply troubled, but felt they couldn’t tell police without violating legal ethics.
“This tore the lawyers apart. His wife said Belge would come home and cry, and Armani couldn’t sleep at night. It was destroying them,” Tracy said.
The lawyers offered to provide the information as a potential plea-bargaining chip for a reduced charge against Garrow. When prosecutors angrily rejected the offer, they felt bound by attorney-client confidentiality not to disclose what they knew.
Both were publicly condemned for their position after it emerged during the trial, during which the defense argued insanity, and Garrow on the stand admitted to other murders in an effort by the defense to show how “crazy” he was.
Afterward, the Onondaga County district attorney brought a charge against Belge for a public health law violation concerning human remains — leading to a landmark ruling from the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, that upheld the lawyers’ right not to incriminate their client. The decision in what was called the “Buried Bodies Case” is still taught in law schools today.
Armani and Belge were in their mid-40s at the time, and the controversy would follow them for life. Belge, according to Tracy, retired from the practice of law, moved to Florida, and “drank himself to death” at age 63. Armani is still alive at age 93, and today is seen by many lawyers and law students as a hero, for standing up for the principle of attorney-client confidentiality.
“I think an important lesson, especially in the current state of American affairs, is what the two lawyers tried to do was the antithesis of self-serving,” Tracy said. “By following the rule of law, they took a path that they knew was going to be extremely detrimental to themselves.”
Story of manhunt
The story of the manhunt is a terrifying tale in its own right, as Garrow used his wiles to break into hunting camps and survive in the woods despite roadblocks and searches. He was eventually able to steal a car, run a roadblock and make his way 60 miles north from Speculator to Mineville, his hometown in the eastern Adirondacks.
Tracy has a small personal connection to the search. His father had a hunting camp in Speculator, and as an 8-year-old Tracy remembers the evidence he saw after police told them Garrow had broken in.
“While he was on the loose, my father and I went on a hot summer August day and saw how he had taken a table and placed it in front of the door of the camp, stepped up, and slithered into the building via the transom above the door,” Tracy recounted. “I vividly remember seeing the outline of his huge, dusty boot print on the table. I also remember how much fear permeated our small village of Fort Edward and the surrounding areas during this time.”
The search for Garrow, overseen by state police, was the most extensive and expensive the state had seen up to that time. On Aug. 9, in Mineville, police tracked Garrow down and he was shot as he tried to flee by state Environmental Conservation Officer Hilary LeBlanc Jr. Using a shotgun, LeBlanc hit him in the ankle, back and shoulder. Garrow would claim paralysis — but many in law enforcement believed he was faking. His 1978 escape would prove them right.
As it turned out, Garrow had kidnapped Pelz after murdering Porter. He drove her north to Mineville, where he raped and killed her. Teenagers would find her body stuffed into a mine ventilation shaft on Thanksgiving Day 1973 — and in another bizarre twist, adults didn’t believe the teens, who nevertheless took their friends to see the body. After eight days, one teen’s mother agreed to their insistent pleas and followed them to the mine; the police were notified.
Hauk’s bones were found by a Syracuse University student that December, hidden in an unused section of a cemetery near the campus.
Like police investigators and many others close to the case, Tracy believes Garrow was responsible for many more rapes and murders than he was ever charged with — that he used his days off from a Syracuse bakery job to travel and find victims to attack, and get away with it.
“He tested average or above average IQ, but anything he puts his mind to he was a genius at,” Tracy said.
Garrow was born in 1936 in Dannemora, and raised 50 miles south of there in Mineville. In 1961, he was convicted of raping a woman in Albany, but his 20-year sentence was reduced to seven years because he was a “model prisoner.” When he got out in 1968, he took a job maintaining equipment at a Syracuse commercial bread bakery. In July 1973, something in him must have snapped.
Initial reader reviews for “Sworn to Silence” have been superlative, with some readers recalling their own fears the summer Robert Garrow was on the loose, or enjoying a final section that updates readers on what became of various people who figure in the narrative.
“I was in the military when Robert Garrow was terrorizing the area in New York where I grew up,” one reader/reviewer on Amazon wrote. “I do remember how scared people were to leave their homes. Jim Tracy does a marvelous job bringing the facts of the case to light.”
Published by Post Hill Press and distributed by Simon & Schuster, “Sworn to Silence” is widely available in a 368-page paperback or in e-editions.