CRIMEFEED BOOK CLUB: THE TRUE STORY OF THE MIDTOWN SLASHER & A CITY DIVIDED
It’s the disturbing true story of Joseph Christopher, a white serial killer who targeted black males and struck fear into the residents of Buffalo and New York City in the 1980s. Dubbed both the “.22-Caliber Killer” and the “Midtown Slasher,” Christopher allegedly claimed 18 victims during a savage four-month spree across the state.
Catherine Pelonero’s new book Absolute Madness: A True Story of a Serial Killer, Race, and a City Divided, has been described by Investigation Discovery’s own Detective Gary McFadden as “An authentic and remarkable approach to a captivating, complex, and compelling investigation…. A superior work of investigative journalism.”
Enjoy this excerpt from the first chapter of Absolute Madness, which will be available in hardcover, ebook, and audio book on November 7.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 1980
The entrance to the Tops grocery store was less than 50 feet from where the Buick Century sedan was parked. Lieutenant William Misztal and patrolman Warren Lewis pulled into the parking lot in car L12E at 9:50 P.M., no more than two or three minutes after hearing the call from dispatch. Lieutenant Misztal and Officer Lewis were assigned to precinct 12. The shooting had occurred within the boundaries of the neighboring 16th precinct, but Misztal and Lewis had responded because of both the serious nature of the call and the location in particular. This Tops market regularly employed off-duty police officers as security guards. Misztal’s first thought was that this must be an officer-involved shooting; either a police officer had shot someone or been shot himself.
Alvin Pustulka was waiting in the parking lot and waved the blue-and-white police cruiser over to where the Buick Century was parked, by the fence that divided the lot from residential Floss Avenue. Pustulka was a police officer out of a precinct in South Buffalo but worked security at this Tops on the east side of the city as a second-front job. As Pustulka explained to Lieutenant Misztal, he had not been involved in the shooting, nor had he witnessed it. A young man had run into the store and told him that someone had been shot outside.
Despite having been just inside the store entrance, Al Pustulka had not heard any gunshots or anything else out of the ordinary before the young man had rushed in to tell him of the shooting. He had seen this same young man exit the store only a minute before and had therefore been a little suspicious, wondering at first if this was some sort of a ruse to get him outside. Pustulka had followed the young man to the green Buick Century where he observed the victim, another young male, sitting in the driver’s seat. Seeing that the young man in the Buick had indeed been shot, Pustulka had rushed into the store and told the manager to call 911 before returning to the lot to stand watch over the victim, who was unresponsive.
Peering inside the Buick, Lieutenant Misztal noted that the young man had been shot at least once in the left side of his face. The blood had thickened already, but the victim, eyes open wide and pupils dilated, was still trying to breathe. Misztal radioed for an ambulance and a tow truck, and told dispatch to notify Homicide and the Evidence Unit.
Detective John Regan arrived within minutes of the call and noted right away that the Buick looked brand new, a 1980 or possibly even one of the first 1981 models, fresh off an assembly line in Detroit. Even in the dark, the exterior looked sleek, unblemished, and the interior was pristine, except for the fresh heavy bloodstains that soaked the upper portion of the driver’s seat and headrest.
The driver’s window was open, as it must have been when the shooting occurred. There was no broken glass anywhere. There were, however, some shell casings: one on the ground, one on the driver’s side floor, and one on the rear seat of the Buick. To Detective Regan they looked like shells from a .22 caliber firearm of some kind. No weapon was present. It seemed that the shell casings were all that had been left behind from the shooting, aside from the bloody Buick Century and of course the victim, an unconscious black male with multiple gunshot wounds to the head.
This was not the scenario John Regan had expected. Regan and his partner, Detective Melvin Lobbett, had just settled down in front of the TV set at the 13th precinct, eating a late dinner of submarine sandwiches and watching Monday Night Football, when the call came of a man shot in the Tops parking lot at 2094 Genesee Street.
Details from the radio call had been sparse. Male in vehicle with gunshot wound to the head. No mention of an arrest. Regan had figured it was a suicide. The organized gang violence that exploded on urban streets in the 1980s and ’90s had not yet come. In 1980, it made sense to assume a lone male found shot in a car likely meant a suicide, more so now perhaps than ever before, given Buffalo’s dire and ever worsening economic crisis. Another depressed guy, out of work and out of hope. It wasn’t uncommon for suicides to happen this way, lives taken in parked cars or motel rooms to spare family members from finding the body.
After arriving at the scene, however, Regan immediately realized that this was not a despondent soul who had decided to end it all. Someone else had made that decision. Multiple bullets had struck him in the face and head. Fired at close range. Intended to kill.
Whoever the shooter was and whatever had led up to the murder, the fact he hadn’t bothered to pick up his shell casings was a plus for investigators. The task now for detectives John Regan and Melvin Lobbett was to find out exactly what had happened. From the start, getting any useful information proved a challenge.
The people closest to it all, the ones inside the Tops market—and eventually, in desperation, police would track down every soul who had been there that night—had heard nothing at all. Despite the proximity, not a single employee or patron had been aware of what was happening outside, least of all Larry Robinson, the young man who had alerted Officer Pustulka. Robinson now sat shaking in the drizzly night air, speaking as calmly as he could with police.
“I don’t know what happened,” Larry said, looking at the official faces standing above him. John Regan noted how Robinson rubbed his forehead, as if he were trying to rub out what he had seen in the Buick. Who could blame him? To Detective Regan’s veteran eye, there was no evasiveness here, no disingenuous performance; Larry Robinson was genuinely shaken to the core.
“I don’t know what happened. He was fine. We were talking. I went inside the store . . .” Larry paused. He seemed to be trying to make sense of it himself. “I don’t know what happened,” he repeated. “I didn’t even know anything was wrong until I saw the blood….”
An hour earlier, Larry Robinson had been on his way here, the Tops market on Genesee Street. Larry was 24 years old. He lived nearby. He had been walking near the intersection of Genesee and Fillmore when he saw Glenn drive by in the Buick. Larry had waved and Glenn had pulled over and offered him a ride. Glenn agreed to take him to Tops, where Larry planned to withdraw some money at the store’s service counter.
Glenn, the young man whose heart paramedics were now furiously trying to restart, was only an acquaintance, Larry told police. Just a guy from the neighborhood. How old is he? Larry didn’t know. Where was he coming from? Larry didn’t know that either. Like he kept telling them, Glenn was just someone he knew from the block, one of those guys who’s always just around. They didn’t travel in the same circles nor did they have the same friends, but you get to know people’s names and faces when they live in your neighborhood. Where Glenn lived was about the only solid detail Larry could offer. He gave them an address and added that he thought Glenn lived with his parents. An officer was dispatched to the home.
Glenn Dunn did indeed live with his parents. Glenn was only 14 years old. He had just begun his freshman year at nearby Kensington High School.
Larry Robinson meanwhile explained to Detective Regan and colleagues that he had only accepted the ride from Glenn because of the car. It was really sharp looking, roomy and plush, and it had that unmistakable new-car smell, a scent Larry didn’t come across very often. He didn’t know many people who had new cars, much less a $10,000 Buick.
That was easy enough for police to believe. Expensive new cars were generally not found in driveways over here on Buffalo’s east side. Crumbling houses and overcrowded flats, yes. Poverty, unemployment, and deprivation, sure. The east side had plenty of all that.
John Regan had grown up in the city’s First Ward, a solidly Irish working-class neighborhood south of downtown. Regan was 38 years old and had been a detective since 1971. He had entered the Buffalo Police Academy in 1962, mainly because he needed a job and had no interest in college or a trade. Now he thanked God he’d chosen a profession in which he didn’t have to worry about his employer shutting down or moving out of state. Many of his boyhood friends had not been so lucky. As a result, there were fewer and fewer of them around.
The 1970s had been the worst. The city had lost almost a quarter of its population in that 10-year span, mostly middle-class people leaving for opportunities in other states or fleeing to suburbs to escape the decay and rising crime in the city, not to mention the oppressive dark mood. There were actually billboards that read, Will the last person to leave Buffalo please turn off the lights?
In truth, the decline could be traced not to the evaporation of a single industry but to a variety of shifting technologies and calamitous policy decisions, the combination of which had effectively stripped Western New York of both its economy and charm. Olmsted parks had been carved through with expressways. Neighborhoods of single-family homes had been bulldozed to make way for high-rise public housing projects. Skyrocketing taxes—the highest in the nation—were the icing on the lousy cake. Buffalo thus began the 1980s with a population of 357,870, a good portion of whom were living below the poverty line and a great many of whom were living with constant uncertainty and fear.
The east side, where Detective John Regan and his colleagues now found themselves working not a suicide but a crime scene, had perhaps been hit harder by the downturn than anywhere else. The changes here had been especially dramatic, both economically and demographically.
The east side had one of the highest crime rates in the city, although this particular area, the easternmost point near the city line, was not among the most stricken. It was, however, undergoing a major racial transition.
Up until a dozen years ago, the neighborhood had been largely populated by families with working-class Italian roots, surrounded by larger sections of residents with German and Polish ancestry. Though never a high-end part of town, it had been comfortable and safe, at least for residents who looked and lived like their neighbors, which was pretty much everybody. Things were changing, though.
As the city’s African-American population grew—and as civil-rights legislation had legally broken the boundaries of where they were permitted to live—Black families had gradually begun moving from “their own” section of the lower east side (the area where Blacks had traditionally lived since the 1800s) into adjoining communities. Throughout the 1970s, more and more Black families had moved into homes vacated by whites.
There still were, of course, white residents to be found here, many of them from older generations who stubbornly resisted the efforts of their children or grandchildren to relocate them to suburbs like Amherst or Kenmore. They proudly declared that they had lived here for decades, refusing to move while at the same time lamenting the demise of the neighborhood, wistfully recalling how “it used to be so nice over here.”
The victim in this shooting fit the profile of both the typical resident and typical victim of crime on the east side. Glenn Dunn was Black, as was his traveling companion, Larry Robinson.
According to Larry there had been nothing remarkable about the ride he and Glenn had taken that night in the Buick. Not until Glenn revealed to him that the car was stolen.
They had been riding around for a while, just enjoying a leisurely cruise, when Glenn hit him with this news. He hadn’t given Larry any details about the car theft, and Larry hadn’t asked for any. He didn’t want to know. It was after learning this that Larry asked Glenn to stop at the store, as he had intended to do all along. He was already in the hot car now. Might as well get the errand done and then have Glenn drop him off at home.
They pulled up in front of the store and Larry hopped out. Glenn promised to wait for him. No more than 10 or 15 minutes had passed before Larry exited the store. He didn’t see Glenn or the Buick at first, but looking around he spotted the car parked by the fence. Larry called Glenn’s name as he walked toward the car. Glenn did not respond. Larry approached the driver’s side, where Glenn was sitting behind the wheel. He called to him again, louder this time, but Glenn only moaned.
Glenn was sitting very still, staring straight ahead at the windshield. Larry reached in, nudged his shoulder. Glenn’s head tipped to the right and Larry saw what looked like blood. He also noticed a hole in the side of Glenn’s head.
Larry ran back to the store and alerted the police officer. That was all he knew.
Stolen car. Bingo, thought John Regan. There were a few auto-theft rings operating on the east side. Glenn Dunn must have been involved. And gotten on somebody’s bad side.
But still, something didn’t fit. Regan had never known the car-theft rings to exact this kind of revenge, an execution-style hit. And if they were going to deal with an errant member that way, it didn’t seem likely they’d kill him in one of the cars, if for no other reason than it ruined the inventory.
Had Glenn Dunn been an informant, killed for working with the cops on the side? A quick call to the robbery division could answer that, and did. No one in robbery had ever heard of Glenn Dunn. It looked like the Buick Century was his first stolen car. And quite likely his last, considering the severity of the bullet wounds.
As detectives were listening to Larry Robinson give his account of his last ride with Glenn Dunn, a woman named Madona Gorney sat in her idling car. Her groceries were in the trunk; she was ready to drive home. But she hesitated, staring at the flashing lights through her rain-streaked front windshield. She wanted to talk to the police. The store manager had fluffed off her inquiries and told her not to bother the officers. Still, something made her feel that she should. She didn’t know exactly what was going on but thought maybe she should tell them about the black man she saw standing under the lamppost when she had pulled into Tops. She didn’t see him now. And that car that the police were gathered around; it hadn’t been there when she pulled in. Madona also recalled the odd man who had been sitting outside the store entrance when she went in, the young white guy wearing glasses and a blue jacket, with a paper bag by his feet and such a dazed look on his face. He had not looked well to her, not at all.
The ambulance carrying Glenn Dunn had already departed for the hospital and John Regan was preparing to follow when Lieutenant Misztal brought a young man over to speak with him. He was a slender white kid with a mop of dark brown hair. He said his name was Kenny Paulson. He was 17 years old and lived a few houses down on Floss. He said he had been in the parking lot, coming out of the store, you know, when he saw a man walk up to that car, the one the police now had cordoned off, and shoot the driver.
Kenny Paulson described it for him. The guy who got shot, the Black guy, was standing next to his car smoking a cigarette when Kenny first saw him. He tossed the cigarette and got in the driver’s seat. About a minute later another guy, a white guy, walked up and shot him through the open window, then ran away.
He hadn’t heard any arguing. He hadn’t heard either of them say anything, in fact. The white guy just walked up, shot the guy in the car, and left. Kenny had been close enough to see the fireballs bursting from the barrel of the gun.
After the shooter took off there was no one else around—except for the guy in the car, of course, who didn’t move or make any sound that he could hear. Scared, Kenny immediately ran home. Shortly after, though, he thought he’d better come back and tell the police what he had seen.
Detective Regan thanked him for coming back. He could understand why the kid’s first instinct was to run home. It must have been a pretty shocking sight, especially for a teenager. Regan had him tell the story again. Kenny Paulson had no idea what kind of a gun it was, but he described the shots as four quick, loud blasts.
Once again, he described the yellow flash of fire from the barrel, the way the shooter had walked up to the car, and the direction that he ran.
When it came to describing the shooter himself though, beyond saying he was a white guy, Kenny could not be at all specific. He was quite vague, in fact, not even willing to commit to whether the man was short or tall, thin or heavyset. He couldn’t remember what the guy was wearing. He wasn’t sure what color his hair may have been. He just didn’t have any descriptive details for them at all. He even seemed sketchy on whether the shooter was indeed white.
At the time, Regan had no reason to believe Kenny was lying.