Here’s an article by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert A. Caro that appeared early in his career — in Newsday on June 13, 1964…
Anatomy of a $9 Burglary
By Robert A. Caro
The crime was burglary, and the amount involved was $9.
According to police, the thief knocked on the door of a house and, when no one answered, walked inside and stole the money — a $5 bill and four singles — out of a wallet lying on the television set. As he was leaving, he was spotted by a teenage girl and, after trying unsuccessfully to explain his presence, he ran away. When detectives came to arrest him, he didn’t resist at all, and when his case went to trial in Mineola, the newspapers all but ignored it. Even the old men who hang around the courthouse to watch trials didn’t watch this one. Says the assistant district attorney who prosecuted: “Story? What story? It was just a $9 burglary.”
This, then, is the story of a $9 burglary.
How it really began may be a matter for the psychiatrists — one of them later was to say that Joey Solta’s problems went back to guilt feelings developed during his boyhood — but for Marsha Cooperman, then 17, and her mother, Eleanor, then 48, it began at precisely 11:25 AM on Sept. 9, 1958.
Marsha and her mother were standing on the front lawn of their $43,000 Colonial-style home in Flower Hill. Mrs. Cooperman was working on flowers she had planted and Marsha, just returning from a trip to the dentist, had stopped to talk for a moment before going into the house. “All of a sudden,” she recalls, “I looked up and I saw something — a shadow really — flash by the front windows inside.”
Marsha thought the shadow was one of her friends who often dropped over to visit. To surprise the friends she ran into the garage, from which a side door opened into the kitchen. She stepped into the cool gloom of the garage and there, standing at the open side door, was a strange man.
“What are you doing in my house?” Marsha asked the man. He answered quickly, “I was looking for Mrs. Johnson,” and was smoothly polite. But when Mrs. Cooperman asked him the same question, he said nervously, “My car overheated; I was trying to get some water for it.” And when Mrs. Cooperman said to her daughter, “Call the police,” he ran frantically to his car, jumped in and sped away. He left Mrs. Cooperman standing behind him in the road trying to memorize his license number.
Repeating the number over and over so she would remember it, Mrs. Cooperman ran into the house and found that Marsha had the police on the phone. Mrs. Cooperman gave them the number and then, she says, noticed that $9, all the money in her wallet, was gone.
Detectives Arrest Suspect
Checking the license number, the police found that the car belonged to a man named Joey Solta — and that Joey Solta had a record a mile long for similar minor crimes. “He was the kind of sharp guy who thought he could talk his way out of anything,” one says. “But he was a bad one, a sneak and a thief.” Detectives went to Solta’s home at 62 Amsterdam Ave., Ronkonkoma. They waited in two patrol cars hidden up the street, watching his wife work around the kitchen and his two daughters play with friends in the yard. At 4 PM, Solta drove up and went into the house. The police drove up after him, and he was arrested.
After repeated postponements, Solta’s trial on charges of third-degree burglary (for entering the Coopermans’ house) and petty larceny (for stealing the $9) began on June 15, 1959. The trial lasted three days — mainly because of the vigorous attempts of the defense counsel, a young lawyer handling his first felony trial, to shake the Coopermans’ testimony. Although Solta was acquitted of the petty larceny, he was found guilty of the burglary count.
Judge Paul J. Widlitz gave him a rather routine sentence. Since Solta was out on parole for a previous crime, he had to return to serve out the two years of that term and he received a suspended sentence of 10 to 15 years at hard labor for the new crime.
The case was one of more than 1,000 house burglaries committed in Nassau County during 1958 and the assistant district attorney, jurors and police agree the verdict was “open and shut.” The only other item of note was that the Coopermans later received several anonymous telephone threats, but the police say that even this is routine, that cranks invariably call persons identified in any way with crimes.
These are the facts of the case. They are all you will find in the files of the police and the district attorney’s office, in the brief newspaper accounts of the trial or even in the 308-page, word-for-word transcript of the three days of testimony.
The Women of His Family
But is the story quite complete? Only two females, the Cooperman mother and daughter, have so far been discussed in the case, and yet, to some observers, four others might be considered worthy at least of mention. They are Joey Solta’s mother, his wife and his two little girls.
Joey Solta’s mother, Mrs. Paula Solta of Queens Village, has very little to say. “I don’t want to talk about it, and I don’t want to think about it,” she says. “Nobody could ever tell how a mother feels.” What were the circumstances of her son’s arrest? “I don’t remember. I really don’t remember. You know, there are certain things your memory sort of closes on.”
But Joey Solta’s wife remembers. She remembers well. “The girls were outside playing with some friends,” she recalls. “All of a sudden Joey drove up fast. He ran in. He was all excited. He said, ‘Hon, you have to believe me. Something’s happened. I know the police are coming. I had to tell you before they came.’ He became incoherent, almost. He handed me all the money he had in his pocket — I guess it was about $45. I was standing in the kitchen. He was standing right beside me and there was a big window that opened out on the street. Two police cars came around the curve. I guess my main worry was that while they were arresting him the kids would run in with all the kids they were playing with. While they were taking him, I went outside and told the kids to play outside for a while.”
Ann Solta, now 35 years old, is plumply pretty, poised and bright-eyed. She is personal secretary to the administrator of a Suffolk hospital, who says of her: “She’s about the nicest person you’d ever want to meet. And the best secretary. She keeps the whole office running smoothly.” Ann Solta relates the story of her husband’s arrest in a calm, low voice. Only when she finishes does she suddenly put her clenched fists over her eyes and press them fiercely up against her forehead. To begin to fully understand this $9 burglary, you have to see Ann Solta put her fists over her eyes.
To begin to understand, you also have to ask other people about what the case did to Ann Solta. Says her boss: “She was so sensitive about publicity. I was the only one here who knew about the case. But even if we were all just sitting around talking, if someone mentioned — you know, just in a natural way — a robbery or any other kind of trouble, she’d blush and become very quiet. You could almost see her going into a shell. You could almost see an actual physical change in that woman. It was a bad thing to see.”
And most of all, to understand the case, you have to listen to Ann Solta tell the story of her 14 years with her husband. For if the case was, unfortunately, just another small tile in the mosaic of that 14 years, it was, nonetheless, the tile that completed the pattern.
“That case was what made me get the divorce,” Ann Solta says today. “I had always stuck with him before, no matter what. This time, I said, ‘Joey, I’ll stay with you until the trial is over, but then I’ll go my own way.’”
“We met in December and we were married in June,” Ann Solta recalls. It was 1949. “After we started going around, he told me he had been in jail, but the way he described it to me, he took a car and went on a joy ride. It sounded like, well … it didn’t sound so bad. Joey was dynamic, a lot of energy, he could do anything he wanted; he was boyish looking and he had this big grin. We met in December and we were married in June. In July, he was arrested.”
What boyish-looking Joey hadn’t bothered to tell his bride was that the arrest for the “joy ride” had been his third encounter with the law. Twenty-three years old when he was married, he had already been convicted, under youthful offender treatment, of forgery and petty larceny in addition to the auto theft, which had earned him a two-year sentence in Elmira Reformatory. In July, 1949, one month after he and Ann were married, he broke into a house in Hawthorne, N.Y., and had to spend a month in jail.
“Then there was no trouble for six years,” Ann says. “You know, Joey and me, we seemed to get along so well sometimes. But the worst part about living with him was that he’d tell you one story and then later he’d tell you another story — completely different — and he’d swear he never told you the first story.” Two brown-haired girls, Margie and Betty, were born. In May, 1955, the Soltas moved into a little, rickety summer bungalow in a wooded, lonely area of Ronkonkoma, intending to buy a house in the autumn.
Sentenced to Five Years
When autumn came, Joey was in jail. In September, 1955, he broke into a store in Huntington, was arrested, pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny and was sentenced in December, 1955, to five years in Elmira. He was to serve three years of that sentence, and while he was in jail, Ann and her two daughters were still in that bungalow.
“The girls were little,” Ann says. “We had no money. We had to go on welfare. God. Just terrible.” She had no car, and the nearest stores were seven miles away so she had to depend on a woman who lived about a mile away to drive her to shop. “For weeks at a time, I didn’t talk to a soul, just the girls,” she says.
After serving three years, Joey was paroled for the remaining two in December, 1958. He got a $70-a-week job in a defense plant in Smithtown, began fixing neighbors’ televisions sets at night to earn another $30 a week, scraped together $200 and used it for a down payment on the red-brick, white-shingle, $11,000 house on Amsterdam Avenue. “We couldn’t afford a house,” Ann says. “But Joey, well Joey was the kind of person, his mother had a new house, his brother had a new house, he had to have a new house.” Joey got his new house and moved his family in. That was Sept. 2, 1958. Exactly one week later, nine months after he had gotten out of jail, he broke into the Cooperman home, and was arrested again.
“At the time he was arrested, we had about $15 in the checking account and the money he gave me while the police were coming,” Ann says, “and about $250 worth of stock. That was all there was.” She sold the stock and, persuading a neighbor to look after the two girls, began to look for a job. She finally found a job, as a secretary in a bank, but there was a problem. The other people in the bank knew her name.
“I knew it was going to be in the paper because of Joey,” she says. “I was working in the bank then. There was this old lady, a real old gossip, in the office. Every afternoon, the newspaper would be delivered to the office and she’d go all through it, saying, ‘Oh, look at what this guy did.’ She didn’t miss an article, no matter how small it was. The afternoon the trial started, I figured it would be in the paper. I was sitting there. She was going through the paper, talking loud, and then suddenly she was very quiet and nothing was said any more that day. Nobody ever said anything to me, but it became very strained.”
Ann’s salary at the bank was only $55 a week.
Believed He Was Innocent
The situation became a little better when Ann’s doctor, who knew of her financial troubles, got her a higher-paying job as a secretary at a hospital where he practiced. Then the trial started. “I thought he was innocent in the beginning,” Ann says. “I just believed him, I don’t know, it sounded like it could have happened the way he said … I just didn’t believe that someone who was just out nine months could walk into someone’s house and do something like that. But he always had a different story. No, after a while, I didn’t really think he was innocent.”
At the trial, Joey’s lawyer, Thomas P. Repetto of Mineola, told her it might help Joey win sympathy from the jurors if she sat in court with her children.
“We sat in court,” Ann recalls, “but I don’t remember much about that trial. The only part I remember was when the judge was sentencing him. It’s a funny thing — all I remember was the judge saying, ‘10 to 15 years in Sing Sing,’ and the next thing I knew Mr. Repetto was standing over me and saying, ‘Ann, it’s all right. It’s all right. He suspended it.’ I was still sitting up straight, but I guess my mind had stopped.”
When Joey was sentenced, Ann kept writing him in jail. “I knew no one else would,” she says. “I knew he’d be lonely.” But she also made up her mind to get a divorce. “I was in a hospital four times in a row,” she says. “It was for various things, but the doctor told me it was all due to nerves. He came in one day — he had known Joey and me for years — and he said, ‘Ann, he’s killing you inch by inch. You’ve just got to tie up your heartstrings.’”
The same doctor had given her the same advice before, but Ann had always stayed with Joey. “It’s the way you’re brought up, I guess,” she says. “I felt that when you get married, it’s forever.”
Joey refused to give Ann a divorce unless she paid half the expenses involved. She borrowed money from a finance company to pay her half, and then Joey refused to pay the other half. She borrowed more money — “I just had to be free,” she says — and the divorce came through in April, 1962. Joey, who had gone to Mexico after he was released from jail, promptly married an 18-year-old Mexican girl.
After about a month, he returned to Ronkonkoma, living with his mother, and opened a television repair business. Some of his customers began to complain about things being missing from their homes, and he left Suffolk abruptly. During 1963, instead of the regular child-support payments he was supposed to be making to Ann, she and her daughters received one post card from Joey. It was sent from Mexico and bore no return address.
Last month, Ann refinanced her mortgage, raised an additional $2,000 on the house and “finally got all the bills paid off.” Now, she says, “I can manage nicely on my salary ($118 a week). This will be the first time I’ve ever been able to relax and just enjoy the girls. Now the case is closed for me.”
But is it — even now? Will the case ever really be closed for Ann Solta? Talking about the possibilities of her marrying again, Ann Solta stops abruptly and says, “I don’t really want to, you know.”
Explaining why she doesn’t have many friends, Ann says, “When you have to explain, it’s worse, right? So you don’t make friends. To tell you the truth, I’m still sort of afraid to make friends.”
And often, when she is talking about her life, Ann Solta pauses for a moment and then says quietly, “Older people, we can handle things, but little children … what about little children?”
The last time their father was arrested, Betty, then 4 years old, hadn’t started school yet. But Margie, then 6, was in the first grade. Recalls her mother: “One day on the bus, the kids all made fun of Margie. You know, ‘your father steals’ — that kind of thing. She came home crying. I was working and the neighbor was babysitting for me. Luckily, she [the neighbor] got out a telephone book and said, ‘Look at all those Soltas. That’s not your father they’re talking about.’
“But eventually, they find out. The neighbors talk to one another, the children overhear, I guess, and when the children have a fight, it comes out. I told them Daddy was sick and that made him do things wrong sometimes, that he was still their Daddy, that he was a kind man — and that you had to take people the way they are. But they loved him so much, they were crazy about their Daddy, he was so handsome and always playing jokes. When he went to jail and I told them that he wouldn’t be back for a long time, I’ll never forget the way they cried.”
The two girls haven’t seen their father for more than a year now. They knew he was in Mexico, but Margie’s 10th birthday was May 22. Says Mrs. Solta: “For two weeks before, every afternoon when she came home from school, she’d run over to the mailbox, and when there was no card … On her birthday, I took her to the [World’s] fair. Then we stayed that night with my mother in Kew Gardens. I thought I took her mind off it. But on the way home, Margie said, ‘There should be some cards in there for me today, shouldn’t there, Mommy? Shouldn’t there?’ I tell you, older people can handle things, but little children — they’re at the mercy of circumstances.”
This, then, is what a $9 burglary did to a mother, a wife and two daughters. But what of the other persons involved in the case? The jurors? The young defense attorney? The persons who witnessed the burglary? To this day, almost six years after the crime and five years after the trial, most can easily remember what that burglary meant to them.
Of the 12 jurors who sat on the case, five have moved away from Long Island and cannot be contacted. Of the remaining seven, two say they can hardly remember the case. But the other five remember — and they all remember the very same thing.
As one, Donald Cohen of 1483 Peacock Lane, Great Neck, puts it, “It was that wife and the two little girls. She’d come to court every day and sit in the back of the court, such a sweet-looking girl, with her two daughters, one sitting beside her, the other was so small the mother used to hold her. It got around among us that she was his wife. There was no doubt that the guy had done what they said he did. But when I saw the wife, I kept thinking, ‘It could happen to your own boy, you know.’ And you know, I was really on a seesaw there. But you had to say he did it. Whenever I read in the paper about some young guy doing wrong, I remember her. To this day.”
What about the defense attorney? For Repetto, the Solta case was his first felony trial. A young lawyer just setting up practice, he had been assigned the case by the judge when Solta said he had no money to hire an attorney. There would be no fee.
“I had long talks with him,” Repetto recalls. “I tried to determine for myself what kind of a guy he was. He said he went to that house only to get some water for his car, and that he never went inside, and after I went all through that case, I believed him. I thought he was innocent.”
To try to prove it, Repetto spent hours driving around Flower Hill, memorizing the area of the crime so that he could handle all details about it that might come up in court. He drove, over and over again, along the route Solta said he had taken from the Coopermans to his home to clock times and distances. When Solta told him that he had been in the Flower Hill area to look for a job, Repetto found the man to whom he had applied and persuaded him — “I pleaded with him” — to appear on the stand. Trying to get all the facts about car over-heating, he talked to auto mechanics. He checked all available public records on the Coopermans and on all witnesses — including his own character witnesses — to see if they had any criminal records that could be used for or against them when they took the stand.
“I dedicated myself to the defense of this fellow to the exclusion of all my other cases,” Repetto recalls today. In court, his involvement was obvious. As he cross-examined Mrs. Cooperman, the judge had to caution him, “Relax. Just relax.”
Summation Stresses Doubts
In his summation, Repetto’s feelings spilled over. “With you,” he told the jury, “sits the 13th juror. He is the presumption of innocence. The defendant is presumed innocent. If you have any valid reason in doubting his guilt, you must acquit him.” Over and over again, he pounded at the doubts the jurors might have. How could the two women be sure the shadow Marsha saw inside the house wasn’t just a shadow? How could they be sure the garage door hadn’t been left open? How could they be sure that Solta wasn’t just standing by that door and had never actually entered the house? The jury found the defendant guilty, but Repetto planned to appeal. “I still believed with all my heart that he was innocent,” he recalled.
But then, something happened. On the day that Solta was sentenced, the day that his wife’s mind “stopped” as she sat in the courtroom, Solta stopped for just a second as he was being led from the courtroom to prison. He leaned over and whispered something to Repetto. “Listen,” he whispered. “So what if I was inside that house? Big deal.”
“Yes,” Repetto says today. “I guess you could say that case had an effect on me.”
And what about the victims, Marsha and Eleanor Cooperman? Their glimpse of Solta insider their home was as flickering as a shadow, their conversation with him lasted no more than two minutes, their financial loss was small.
Criminologists talk about an “element of fear” that enters even the smallest crime when there is an actual confrontation between the criminal and the victim, an actual meeting face to face of the innocent and the person who is trying to do them harm. But, you wonder, will there be any fear in a case this small?
“Please don’t ask my wife about it,” Alex Cooperman says. “There had been an instance once before of prowlers in the house. And after the trial started, there were these phone calls. They would come in at midnight, at two in the morning, at four. A voice would say, ‘We’ll burn your house down,’ or ‘You’ll be lying out in an alley someplace.’ The police said it was cranks, but my wife …”
Today, six years after she encountered Joey Solta on the lawn of her home, Mrs. Eleanor Cooperman won’t go outside without locking all the doors behind her. The locks are big double locks and there is a chain lock on the Coopermans’ bedroom door. Says her daughter: “Mother was always nervous and this case had made her more nervous ever since. She doesn’t talk about it any more, but you can see it’s in the back of her mind every time she walks into the house. To tell the truth, I think that no matter how long she lives, that case will always be with her.”
The case began with a shadow. It lengthened somewhat.