Murder victim's family says prayers were answered
By Joseph Kellard
Perhaps no statement encapsulated both the brutality of her son's murder and the deep pain she and her family feel than the one Kathy Calabrese read to Judge Meryl Berkowitz while her son's killer, Herve Jeannot, sat nearby, awaiting his sentencing.
Noting that the bullet wounds her son, Robert Calabrese Jr., sustained to his head left the family no choice but to have a closed-casket funeral, Kathy leaned on the podium and, fighting back tears, cried, "I couldn't even see my son after he died. I couldn't even kiss him, I couldn't even touch him."
Calabrese, 24, a Long Beach native, was Kathy and Robert Calabrese's oldest son, brother to Gina Cuenza, 28, and Chris and Nick Calabrese, 23 and 20. Only Nick was absent from the Mineola courtroom on Nov. 1 when family members asked Berkowitz to give Jeannot -- convicted of first-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon in August -- the maximum penalty. Berkowitz sentenced the 25-year-old Deer Park man to life in prison without parole for his execution-style shooting of Calabrese in Island Park in December 2004.
As each member of the Calabrese family read an emotional statement, Jeannot, an ex-Marine dressed in a black suit and blue collared shirt and tie, sat motionless, staring straight ahead.
Robert Calabrese Sr., noting that "Bobby" loved to laugh and play practical jokes, stressed the numbness and pain his family has suffered since his son's murder. "Today, in my house," he told Berkowitz, "laughter is the exception, not the rule."
A boy who grew up playing football and baseball, Robert Jr. made many friends with his generous demeanor. He saved birds with broken wings and captured flies in cups to set them free outside, his sister once noted.
Wearing a gold crucifix over a brown sweater, Cuenza asked Berkowitz to consider, above all, the emotional impact her brother's murder has had on her family, described as painful and disastrous. "When we're not crying on the outside, we are crying and sick inside," she said, calling Jeannot "downright evil."
"None of my children have that sparkle in their smile anymore," Kathysaid as friends and family members cried.
Before making her statement, Kathy read another prepared by Nick. “I'm weak, emotionally unstable and messed up,” he wrote. “I'm at the lowest point in my life, and I don't think it's going to get any easier ... I don't want to live anymore.”
Nick and Chris both idolized their older brother, a champion wrestler at Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale who transferred to Long Beach High, where he graduated in 1998. After working at various jobs, Robert was planning to take the police test to become an officer and follow the path of his father, a retired officer with the Long Beach Police Department. He was murdered the day before the test.
Jeannot's family sat silently in the courtroom, his parents wearing blank expressions. After Jeannot declined to speak, Berkowitz mentioned the many letters she had received from his family and friends, who pleaded for compassion and leniency.
The judge drew parallels between the victim and his murderer, including their similar age, good looks and families who loved them. "But on Dec. 3, 2004," Berkowitz said, "Jeannot chose to turn his back on the love his family gave him." Instead, she said, he turned to Mark Orlando.
Orlando, 36, of Bayshore, worked with Jeannot at Professional Credit Services, a Farmingdale collection agency where the two accomplices were arrested and charged with Calabrese's murder on Dec. 9, 2004.
During their trials -- three for Jeannot and one for Orlando -- prosecutors argued that Calabrese, a Garden City mortgage broker, placed bets for them on sports events in the fall of 2004, and Orlando accumulated a $17,000 debt and Jeannot $1,000.
That Dec. 3, Orlando called Calabrese to request a meeting in Island Park under the pretense that he would pay him his debt. At around 8:30 p.m., prosecutors said, Orlando lured Calabrese away from heavily traveled Austin Boulevard behind stores on Broadway.
Once there, Calabrese got out of his 2003 Infiniti and approached Orlando, believing he was to receive a payment. The two men hugged and, prosecutors said, Orlando grabbed the victim's shirt and yanked it over his head to immobilize him for Jeannot, who emerged from a hiding spot, came up behind Calabrese and shot him in the back of the head with a .44-caliber Magnum revolver. After Calabrese hit the ground, Jeannot shot him twice more in the head, and the two men fled in Orlando's car, according to the prosecution.
Soon afterward, residents who had heard the gunfire found Calabrese lying face down in the street.
During Jeannot's trials, his lawyer, Daniel Hochheiser of Manhattan, argued that his client was merely a witness to the crime and failed to report the murder for fear that Orlando would harm him and his family, and that police coerced a confession from Jeannot.
Jeannot confessed that Orlando paid him $4,000 to kill Calabrese, and he said he tossed the murder weapon off the Sloop Channel Bridge. The Marine Bureau recovered the gun, and police found the cash in Jeannot’s bedroom closet.
At his first trial in September 2005, a jury deliberated for 71 hours and was deadlocked in a 10-2 vote to convict before Judge David Sullivan declared a mistrial. In February 2006, Jeannot's second trial failed to yield a verdict, only this time the jury voted 11-1 not to convict. "At that point, we all questioned whether justice would be done," Robert Sr. said.
Jeannot's third trial, this summer, lasted more than four weeks. After deliberating for less than four hours, the jury convicted him on Aug. 11.
For Chris Calabrese, the most difficult part of all the trials was listening to the presentation of evidence. "Just hearing some of the physical evidence of how my brother died was hard," said Chris, who told Berkowitz his brother was caring, intelligent and loved life.
During Orlando's trial in June 2005, his attorney, Dennis Lemke of Mineola, argued that Orlando was unaware that Jeannot planned to shoot Calabrese, and he never called police about the murder because Jeannot had threatened to kill him and his wife if he revealed the crime. Orlando was convicted of second-degree murder in June 2005, and two months later he received the maximum sentence of 25 years to life.
Jeannot's lawyer at his sentencing, William Aronwald of White Plains, asked the judge to give Jeannot the same sentence, arguing that Orlando had the relationship with Calabrese and that Jeannot was merely the hired gunman. "Consider the fact that Mark Orlando is the one who actually made the plans to kill him," Aronwald said.
"Murder for hire certainly deserves life without parole," SherylAnania, executive assistant district attorney for litigation, argued.
Berkowitz told Jeannot that if he had only asked for $50 each from all the people who wrote her letters, he could have paid off his debt. But the judge stressed that she thought his motives ran deeper than money. "I believe this was a cold-blooded murder to impress Orlando," Berkowitz said.
Robert Calabrese Sr. told Berkowitz that, since New York state is without the death penalty, "[Jeannot] deserves every year, every month, every day, every minute, every second of his sentence," stressing each unit of time with a raised voice. As he finished speaking, he shot a stare at Jeannot. "Remember," he said, "there will always be a Calabrese waiting to prevent you from getting out."
When Berkowitz announced the sentence, the Calabreses shouted with joy and applauded briefly. Jeannot's family sat dazed, and then some began to cry as court officers took him away in handcuffs. The Jeannots left the courthouse without comment.
Outside the courtroom, hugging relatives and friends, Kathy Calabrese and her daughter said that their prayers were answered, and Robert Sr. expressed relief that he no longer had to come to court.
Chris, who had asked Berkowitz to sentence Jeannot to an upstate prison, not the county's "country club" prison, said he wanted Jeannot to serve his sentence far away from his family and know the real meaning of hard time. "I'm just happy to know," Chris said, "that he¹s going to be treated like a girl the rest of his life."
Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.
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