Vito Colucci, P.I., reopens his top-secret files for another peek into Fairfield County’s most notorious scandals
Photo by William Taufic
The private investigator Vito Colucci Jr. is a sturdily built man with a fashionably stubbled chin and neatly trimmed silver hair. He dresses, when possible, in jeans, T-shirts and sweaters, permitting only the slight extravagance of a gold chain around one solid wrist. He leads me up a stairwell and down a corridor to his and wife Joanne’s new condo on the east side of Stamford, then sits me down in his cozy, memento-stocked office, the nerve center of the now-famous Colucci Investigations. “Well,” he begins pleasantly, “we’re wrapping up the chimp case, and we’re working on Lucille Ball’s granddaughter.”
This brief, somewhat bizarre sentence suggests the astonishing range of Vito’s caseload. The “chimp case” is that of Travis the chimpanzee, who mauled and blinded Stamford resident Charla Nash last February on Rockrimmon Road. Nash’s attorneys hired Vito to “get the background on the chimp,” as Vito puts it, in preparation for a civil lawsuit against Travis’s owner, Sandra Herold, and the state Department of Environmental Protection, from whom Nash is seeking $150 million. “That case is totally out of whack,” Vito says. “The chimp just took one look at her, who he’d seen hundreds of times, and just totally demolished her.”
Travis had long taken pleasure in watering flowers, sipping wine from long-stemmed glasses and watching Yankees games on TV. But that winter morning, he threw off his civilized ways and went around moodily banging on car doors. Herold phoned Nash, her assistant, to help corral him, and upon Nash’s arrival, Travis attacked her. Nash, who lost her hands, nose, lips and eyes, is being treated at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
By November Charla had sufficiently recovered to make her first public appearance, on The Oprah Show. Oprah, with Charla’s permission, lifted the hat and veil that concealed her disfigured face. Vito watched with a mixture of interest and dismay. “I was really upset,” he told me later. “You know it’s going to be bad, but I’ve never seen anything like that. But her spunk ... incredible, after what she went through.”
Vito’s dismay concerned Oprah’s insistence on the obvious horror of Charla’s injuries. “I can see her saying it once. But she says it like four times! I’m thinking, ‘How many times are you going to express to this woman how bad she looks?’”
Vito pictures what it must have been like for the responding police officer, riding uneventfully through North Stamford when the call came in. “Maybe he’s thinking, ‘How bad could it be? Little chimpanzee’s running around, maybe it scratched or cut the woman.’ Then he gets up there, sees the victim lying there, doesn’t even know if it’s a woman or a guy. There’s no face left, nothing.” When the 200-pound Travis worked his way into the squad car where the officer had taken cover, the officer opened fire. Travis staggered from the scene and was later found dead in his cage. “It’s a sad case, but an interesting one to work,” Vito says. “We wanted to know, were there any previous incidents, any warnings about this chimp that people could have been alerted to?” A look of satisfaction lights Vito’s face. “We’ve found a laundry list of important things that the lawyers are happy with.” Already made public is a letter written by a DEP biologist five months before the attack: “It is an accident waiting to happen,” the biologist warned.
The case of Lucille Ball’s alleged granddaughter revolves around a claim by Cassandria Carlson of Schaumburg, Illinois, that in 1947 Ball and Desi Arnaz Sr. secretly put up their first-born child —Carlson’s mother—for adoption. She has hired Vito to help prove her lineage, a task made more difficult by the Arnaz family’s refusal to provide a DNA sample. Desi Arnaz Jr.’s out-of-wedlock daughter, Julia, who lives in Milford, offered to provide a DNA sample in 2008 but has since reneged. Vito, working with Greenwich attorney Cynthia Hartwell, says he’s uncovered documentary evidence suggesting that Ball was indeed pregnant in 1947, four years before giving birth to Lucie Arnaz, her acknowledged first-born. Ongoing medical problems intensify Cassan-dria’s desire to know her biological history, Vito says. “All we’re saying is, ‘Just do the DNA test.’ If she’s wrong, she’ll go on with her life.” (Because both this case and the chimp case are in progress, Vito is not at liberty to disclose specifics.)
Headline-grabbing cases began flying across Vito’s transom a decade ago, after the dramatic arrest of Michael Skakel for beating Martha Moxley to death in Greenwich on October 30, 1975. Mickey Sherman, Skakel’s attorney, asked Vito to burrow into the lives of the many characters who orbited the Skakel family around the time of the murder, and Vito did turn up an impressive array of oddballs. But to no avail. Skakel was convicted in June 2002 and sentenced to from twenty years to life in prison.
Skakel is among Vito’s most famous clients: better known than Jayson Williams, the basketball star who killed his chauffeur with careless gunplay, but not as well known as Michael Bolton, who believed a stalker was on his trail. It was Vito who compiled evidence against the Reverend Michael Jude Fay, a Darien priest who plundered church coffers to finance his immodest lifestyle; Vito who investigated the strange disappearance of Greenwich honeymooner George Smith from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship; and Vito who helped get Leonard Trujillo off the hook for killing Greenwich businessman Andrew Kissel. (Leonard did admit getting drawn into a murder plot hatched by his older cousin, Carlos Trujillo.) The average citizen is likeliest to feel Vito’s influence when a marriage unravels and divorce looms.
My acquaintance with Vito began with Michael Skakel. He did not comport remotely with my image of a hard-nosed private detective. The few I’d known were solitary and noirish, like cops who had been banished from the tribe and drank alone at night, thinking about sin and redemption. One might have expected Vito to be like that. A former Stamford narcotics detective now in his seventies, he had survived shootouts, death threats and his own criminal police bosses. But Vito seemed completely undarkened by heavy experience. He was jovial, talkative, gracious to reporters; he was a talented rock guitarist and a devout Christian. His favorite fictional detective was not Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade or even Sherlock Holmes, but Charlie Chan.
In 2002 I had some questions about a long-forgotten Stamford murder case, so I went to see Vito. I assumed, naturally, that the upcoming Skakel trial was strictly off-limits, but Vito blithely waded in, discussing the lead players with surprising candor. His delivery was so guileless that it took me a moment to realize he was spinning me like a dervish. As he rambled on about intriguing suspects (the tutor, the gardener), the doorbell rang. Vito went to the window and drew back the curtain. “It’s Michael Skakel!” Flustered, he walked rapidly in a circle. Did he want me to sneak out the back? Skakel knew who I was and thought poorly of my journalistic efforts. It would not do for him to find me lounging in his investigator’s office.
“Does he know your car?” Vito asked. “I hope not,” I said. When Vito went to the door, I peeked out the window. There was the suspected killer, standing on the front porch. He carried a box under his arm. “Whew,” Vito said when he returned. Michael had dropped off a cheesecake in appreciation of Vito’s hard work, unaware that Vito was working on his behalf even in his free time. Vito and I stared at the box top. It said, “Last Chance Cheese Co.”
Skakel’s last best hope at winning his freedom was the newly surfaced tale of three young men from New York who had wandered around Belle Haven on the night of the murder with golf clubs in their hands. Two of them supposedly intended grievous harm. In 2003 Vito somehow persuaded the third, Gitano “Tony” Bryant, a cousin of NBA star Kobe Bryant, to tell what he knew, or thought he knew. “As a private investigator,” says Mickey Sherman, “Vito has the uncanny knack of getting people to talk to him when there is no way in hell they ought to.”
“Of course, [Bryant’s] lawyers yelled at him afterward,” Vito adds. “So obviously they clammed him up after that.” But
Vito had it all on videotape. The tape played in a Stamford courtroom in 2007 and was a sensation on the cable news shows. Judge Edward Karazin found Bryant’s story lacking in credibility for a variety of reasons, among them the fact that nobody, then or now, remembered seeing the New York trio in Belle Haven that night. There would be no new trial. “When you’re a cop or an investigator,” Vito says, “there’s always that one case that didn’t go right. The case that sticks in your craw, that you know there should be a different outcome. And that’s how I feel about the Skakel case.”
Around the time of the Skakel trial, TV producers noticed that Vito had a pleasing on-air persona— that of a regular joe with keen detective insight. Over the next couple of years he became a favorite of popular cable TV shows, analyzing cases du jour. “Vito isn’t afraid to tell you what he thinks,” says Rita Cosby, a former host of shows on FOX News and MSNBC, and a graduate of Greenwich High School. “He speaks from the heart, and people relate to that. But he also has incredible case sense, incredible insight.”
Today Vito may be the most widely recognized private detective in the country. In 2008 he self-published a memoir, Inside the Private Eyes of a PI, written with James Nash, and everyone from Bill O’Reilly to Judith Regan scrambled to book him. The same year bestselling suspense author Andrew Gross made Vito a character in his book The Dark Tide. Lately Vito has appeared on the Nancy Grace and Glenn Beck shows, and he’s a regular presence on the emerging phenomenon known as blog talk radio. This winter he will give talks in Nevada with Henry Hill, the former mobster and FBI informant played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, and make a cameo appearance in true-crime writer Dennis Griffin’s TV pilot, The Griffin Chronicles, which will examine unsolved crimes.
All told, Vito has made about 450 TV appearances. Often when he and Joanne go out in Stamford, somebody fixes a stare of recognition on him. “We’ll be in a store, and a lady will point to me and go, ‘Oh, oh, oh! I know who you are!’ And my wife will say under her breath, ‘Here we go.’ It’s embarrassing. It gets to the point where everybody’s turning around, and the lady’s going, ‘Laa-rrry! The guy from Nancy Grace is over here!’”
Vito insists that his media life detracts little from his work schedule. “The phone will ring, and it’ll be a lawyer. ‘Vito, I’ve got this case, but I don’t know, you may be too busy, you’re on TV all the time.’ ‘No, no, no,’ I say. ‘I’m fine. I do most of these shows from Ascent Media right down on Shippan Point. It’s like a lunch hour. I run there. I run back.’”
Vito is the first to admit that he’s risen to an unlikely altitude. His Italian-born grandfather, Salvatore Colucci, immigrated to Stamford around 1915 and set up a coal yard on Liberty Street. One by one, he sent for his wife and three sons. “Then he established each kid in his own business. Sent my father to barber school. ‘Learn a trade.’ Everything was the trade.” Vito grew up on Stamford’s west side, the second son of Sadie, an assembly-line worker at the Norma-Hoffman Bearings Corporation on Hamilton Avenue, and Vito Sr., a popular barber in the Clark’s Hill section of East Main Street. Vito Sr. is still alive and well at 98. “He still cuts a little hair, even now,” his son says. “I kid him because he’s outlived all his customers, all but one.”
The pressures of adulthood bore down on Vito early. He was married at twenty, a Stamford cop at twenty-one, the father of two girls at twenty-three. He won the prestigious Combat Cross for chasing members of an Arizona drug gang from the old Showboat Hotel in Greenwich to Rye, New York, “where they got out with guns blazing” and two bad guys fell dead on the pavement. Soon after he divorced for what he calls “no good reason.” Then he met and married Joanne, who had two daughters of her own; the Coluccis added a fifth child to their clan, a boy. To stay afloat financially, Vito played nights and weekends in rock bands.
Meanwhile, he’d been promoted to Stamford Police Department’s narcotics squad and was trying to crack the drug rings then flourishing in the city’s benighted south end. It wasn’t long before Vito and his partner, Joe Ligi, noticed something amiss. They would conduct meticulous surveillance, watching local dealers return from New York well stocked for the weekend trade. Then they would brief their boss and secure a search warrant. “These dealers would practically open the door for us and let us in,” Vito recalls. “One guy would even have a smile on his face, like, ‘Come on in, guys.’ We go through the house, we don’t find nothing! After about the third or fourth time, we say, ‘What the heck is going on? We documented all this stuff. We know everything they did.’”
One night Colucci and Ligi arrested a low-level dealer named Arvil Chapman, who wanted to make a deal: “If I give you something good, will you talk to the prosecutor for me?”
“Depends what you got,” was the reply. “Your boss is dirty, man. Runs the whole drug empire. Larry Hogan. I sit with him in the same room when he’s cutting up the drugs with Duke Morris, the sergeant.”
“Right away it clicked,” Vito says. “That’s why we weren’t hitting these big guys.”
Colucci and Ligi built a case, not knowing whom to trust or where to take their information. They went to police commissioners who promised bold action but did nothing. One morning Vito was backing out of his grandfather’s driveway on Liberty Street, his young daughter Melodye sitting beside him. “And there’s Duke Morris standing right there, with his hand in his pocket. Duke Morris was a notorious, mean, evil guy. The street lore was that he had shot many people. And I’m thinking, ‘My gun’s under the seat, I’m dead.’ Now, at the same time, my little girl pops up in the seat and looks at him. Everything is frozen. Finally he just turns around and walks back down the street. He was there to kill me, I have no doubt.”
Soon police corruption stories dribbled into The Advocate (reporter Anthony Dolan would win a Pulitzer in 1978), and the police chief quietly retired. The new chief, a hard-liner from California, asked Vito to go undercover to investigate his own people. “So I put in a fake resignation, like I was quitting, and went out on the street as a disgruntled ex-cop. I wore a wire, and the FBI was backing me up.”
The end result: Larry Hogan was indicted for murder (and died of brain cancer while awaiting trial) and Duke Morris went south and was killed in a drug-related shootout. Vito? His cover got blown at a picnic attended by high-ranking mob figures. It seems that when his name came up, the mobsters noted, probably with approval, that Vito had left the police department. “A lady who was there worked at Town Hall. She says, ‘He’s not off the police. I do his check every week.’”
Death threats followed against him and his family. Vito decided the time had come to find a new line of work. These days when he looks in the mirror, he sees a man who is lucky to be alive. He plans to recount his adventures in Stamford’s underbelly in a book called Roguetown.
Sometimes cases that appear dire have unexpectedly happy resolutions. One rainy afternoon Vito received a phone call from Mickey Sherman, who announced grimly that a friend, the singer Michael Bolton, appeared to have a stalker. Vito grabbed his trench coat and drove up to Bolton’s Westport compound. Once there he suggested that Bolton brief him outside in the rain, for a dedicated wacko (or particularly aggressive tabloid reporter) could slip into a house and install hidden recording devices. “Before I knew it, we were outside, Michael holding an umbrella, a little too stingily, I thought.”
The previous day Bolton’s stalker had been especially brazen. Bolton had been golfing at Rockrimmon Country Club with friends, including Barry Levinson, the director of such films as Diner, The Natural and Rainman. After Bolton took his leave, he noticed that a big black sedan appeared to be tailing him. Cautious by experience, Bolton made a sharp left onto a country lane. The sedan still followed. Bolton hit the gas and made ever-obscurer turns. The sedan followed. Bolton found a parking lot, hoping to flag down a security guard, but no human was evident. The cars circled each other warily in the empty lot, then Bolton punched the gas, making successfully for the Merritt. When the sedan pulled alongside him, Bolton braked hard, and the sedan went sailing past. He was safe for the moment.
Bolton did manage to record his stalker’s license plate number. It was registered to Barry Levinson. The great director evidently had no sense of direction, and had decided to follow Bolton back to the Merritt, no doubt wondering at the eccentric route. Sherman later advised the singer, “Next time Coppola or Scorsese is following you, don’t call me, just call Vito.”