6th Jun, 2022
NYT Article by Alex Traub Before dawn on Aug. 17, 1975, about 60 police officers and F.B.I. agents charged into the Brooklyn apartment of a fireman …
NYT Article by Alex Traub
Before dawn on Aug. 17, 1975, about 60 police officers and F.B.I. agents charged into the Brooklyn apartment of a fireman named Mel Patrick Lynch. The living room was dimly lit; its blinds were drawn. Mr. Lynch sat on the couch next to the unshaven, foul-smelling, bound and blindfolded 21-year-old scion of one of America’s richest families, Samuel Bronfman II, who had been missing for nine days.
The authorities arrested Mr. Lynch and an accomplice, Dominic Byrne. The men confessed to abducting Mr. Bronfman, describing the planning and execution of the crime and identifying the hiding spot of two garbage bags containing a $2.3 million ransom.
That seemed like the end of the drama. Actually, it was only a first act. The kidnapping trial turned out to have more narrative twists than the crime itself. Mr. Lynch and Mr. Byrne would be convicted of an extortion charge, but incredibly, after it seemed they had been caught red-handed, a jury pronounced them not guilty of kidnapping, a charge that could have put them in prison for life. They and their defense lawyers managed to convince jurors that there was, in fact, no kidnapping.
This miracle was pulled off in large part by Mr. Byrne’s attorney, Peter DeBlasio, who called the case “the greatest trial victory of my career.”
The Bronfman kidnapping is one of the stranger tales of New York’s criminal history, but over the following decades, hardly anyone had reason to recall the intricacies and mysteries — except Mr. DeBlasio. Even as he reveled in his triumph, he worried until the end of his life about what he had done to secure it.
Mr. DeBlasio’s mix of pride and unease combusted in July 2020, when he self-published a memoir, “Let Justice Be Done.” His book, which went largely unnoticed, reveals what he long told his two daughters was the secret of the Bronfman trial: His winning argument was premised on a lie — and he knew it.
It was effectively a deathbed confession. Just five months later, on Dec. 18, Mr. DeBlasio died of heart failure at 91.
Mr. DeBlasio’s memoir — along with an examination of 45-year-old court records and interviews with actors from this episode who are still alive — help set the record straight on a tangle of allegations. They range from a forbidden love affair to a yearslong surveillance campaign to a conspiracy that hoodwinked the nation.
On Aug. 8, 1975, Sam Bronfman was in a Tudor mansion surrounded by dense woods. This was the center of a 180-acre estate in Yorktown Heights, Westchester, owned by Sam’s father, Edgar, the patriarch of the Bronfman family. A small group had gathered for a candlelit dinner of chilled vegetable soup, roast beef and, for dessert, mousse au citron. At 11:30, Sam bade everyone farewell, got in his green BMW and drove into the night.
The Bronfman estate in Yorktown Heights, home of Edgar Bronfman, patriarch of the family and chairman of the Seagram Company.Credit…Neal Boenzi/The New York Times
That June, Sam had graduated from Williams College, where he edited the sports section of the school paper and played varsity tennis. He was about to start a job in sales at Sports Illustrated. He and his girlfriend, Melanie Mann, whom he had met freshman year, were moving toward marriage. A night out without Melanie might entail Sam cruising around a familiar set of Westchester bars.
At 1:45 a.m., the phone rang at the Yorktown Heights estate. The family’s butler answered and heard Sam’s voice. “Call my father,” he said. “I’ve been kidnapped.”
The Bronfman family owned the Seagram Company, the sprawling conglomerate that The Times described around that time as “the world’s largest distiller.” Sam was an heir to a trust worth about $750 million, more than $3.5 billion today.
His abductors introduced themselves to the Bronfman family with a ransom note. They promised that if their plan went awry, a survivor of their group would track down and kill Edgar, Sam’s father, who was the chairman of Seagram. The note described bullets containing cyanide.
In statements to the press, the Bronfman family pleaded for evidence that Sam was still alive and assured the kidnappers they would pay the ransom. Spokesmen were sent down the long driveway from the Westchester compound to more than 50 reporters camped outside the front gate. Curiosity-seekers dropped by, along with hot dog and ice cream vendors.
The Bronfman kidnapping gripped the nation for days, with TV news crews camped out at the family’s estate.Credit…Ron Frehm/Associated Press
While reporters, lacking better material, analyzed the significance of grocery deliveries, Edgar Bronfman, one of the richest men in America, spent three nights dashing between telephone booths in and around Kennedy Airport, struggling to understand terse instructions given by a man who called at prescribed times.
At about 3 a.m. on Aug. 16, Edgar met the man below an aqueduct in Woodside, Queens. Edgar delivered the ransom. Lurking in the background were about 100 F.B.I. agents idling on motorcycles, in trucks, in a van, on at least one helicopter and in at least two decoy taxis. Yet after the handoff was made, the brigade of federal agents somehow allowed the rust-colored Oldsmobile that picked up the ransom to elude them and make a clean getaway.
The F.B.I. was saved by a revealing blunder made by their target. The bagman had driven to the handoff in his own car; all the agents had to do was look up the license plate number.
They traced it to an apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn belonging to Mel Patrick Lynch, an Irish immigrant from the tiny village of Banagher. Mr. Lynch was 37 years old and a tall, broad bachelor who was losing his hair. His neighbors, who called him Fireman Lynch, said he was polite and reserved. When the guys at his fire company watched “Jeopardy,” Mr. Lynch knew all the answers.
The F.B.I. staked out the area around Mr. Lynch’s apartment. One car with two agents parked around the corner — improbably, right outside the home of a man named Dominic Byrne, Mr. Lynch’s partner in crime.
Federal agents outside the Brooklyn apartment of Dominic Byrne, an accomplice in the abduction, after Sam Bronfman was rescued in August 1975.Credit…Associated Press
Mr. Byrne found himself unnerved by the mystery car. He sent his daughter, Mary, to a police precinct a few blocks from their home. She told officers there that her family feared two hit men were lying in wait on their block.
Like Mr. Lynch, Mr. Byrne was an immigrant from rural Ireland, in his case a village called Taughnarra. In other respects, Mr. Byrne, a 53-year-old limousine service operator, was the opposite of Mr. Lynch. He was about 5-foot-4 and known for theatrical blarney, greeting friends with a “top o’ the morning” while on walks with his dogs. A family man and joiner of civic groups, he attended Mass with his wife every Sunday.
The police quickly realized the hit men in the idling car were F.B.I. agents, and they all converged on the Byrne family home. Mr. Byrne confessed on the spot, telling officers and agents that he had been forced into participating in the kidnapping. He persuaded officers that storming Mr. Lynch’s apartment could lead to violence, whereas following his normal protocol by giving Mr. Lynch a call to say he was on his way would smooth over the moment of their entry.
But on the phone, Mr. Byrne took a deep breath and tipped off his partner. “It’s all over, Mel,” he said. “They are coming over.”
Mr. Lynch’s place was two blocks away, and when the officers burst into the apartment, they found him and a blindfolded Mr. Bronfman sitting next to each other on the couch.
After being arrested, Mr. Byrne and Mr. Lynch explained that they had been friends for years and formally confessed to the crime. Their statements, coupled with a corroborating account from Mr. Bronfman, enabled the authorities to piece together a clear story about what had happened.
“With the Bronfman kidnapping,” The Times editorial board wrote, “the men of the F.B.I. did the job that American society expects and needs them to do.”
Despite its speedy conclusion, it was a crime long in the making. Years before the actual abduction, Mr. Lynch persuaded Mr. Byrne that a kidnapping would be easy to pull off without hurting anyone. One night late around summer’s end in 1973, they took their first trip to the house where Sam lived with his mother in Purchase, a hamlet in Westchester County, N.Y. Mr. Lynch pointed out that no fence separated the house from its border on the Hutchinson River Parkway. Over the next two years, the men took 30 or 40 trips.
Mel Patrick Lynch in custody on Aug. 17, 1975. He would soon recant his quick confession.Credit…Barton Silverman/The New York Times
The final visit was Aug. 8, 1975. Mr. Lynch watched Sam pull into the garage in Purchase after the dinner with his father. He seized the moment. He ran toward the BMW, and as Mr. Bronfman emerged, he announced, “This is a stickup.” He handcuffed Mr. Bronfman and put a .38 automatic into his captive’s ribs.
Mr. Bronfman spent days begging not to be killed and struggling to go to the bathroom while restrained. After picking up the ransom, Mr. Lynch told Mr. Bronfman he suspected that the F.B.I. was on to him and that he was thinking of fleeing the apartment and taking him hostage on the road. He said he would kill Mr. Bronfman and himself before going to jail. Then came Mr. Byrne’s call.
“They’re on their way,” Mr. Lynch said.
“Who?” Mr. Bronfman asked.
“The F.B.I.,” Mr. Lynch replied.
Mr. Bronfman steeled himself. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
“We’re going to give up,” Mr. Lynch said. He gave Mr. Bronfman his sneakers back and told him to put them on. He sat next to Mr. Bronfman on the couch. Moments later, federal agents, guns drawn, barged in.
The mood of celebration started to sour at the bail hearing a month later. The two defendants had retained separate counsel, and Mr. Lynch’s lawyer made the remarkable claim that Sam Bronfman had masterminded his own kidnapping.
The ransom money and the guns used in the kidnapping on display at the New York headquarters of the F.B.I.Credit…Paul Hosefros/The New York Times
The prosecution called the allegation “absurd,” and Mr. DeBlasio portrayed Mr. Lynch as the mastermind, arguing that the fireman was guilty of “coercion” in forcing Mr. Byrne to participate in a real kidnapping.
By the time the trial began in October 1976, Mr. Lynch had rejected the confession he gave to F.B.I. interrogators. He had a new story to tell.
Mr. Lynch said he and Mr. Bronfman were, in fact, lovers: They first met at a bar in June 1974 and shortly thereafter began having sex, he testified, often in the pool house of the Bronfman property in Purchase. Mr. Byrne drove Mr. Lynch there because he owed Mr. Lynch favors, and Mr. Lynch made the trips to meet Mr. Bronfman, not surveil him. The reason he entered Mr. Bronfman’s property from the highway through the woods was for the sake of secrecy. Their conversations, he told the court, focused on Mr. Bronfman’s desire to shake down his family for cash; it was Sam’s idea to stage his own kidnapping.
Mr. Lynch agreed to join the caper, he explained, because Mr. Bronfman threatened to inform the fire department that he was gay, which he said would jeopardize his employment.
Mr. Lynch’s tale lacked basic information. He could not offer even a motive for the crime, like Mr. Bronfman’s need for immediate money. Asked what he and his lover talked about, Mr. Lynch referred to “things in general.” He said nothing about romance or desire beyond the clinical phrase “we had sex.”
Mr. Lynch, shown in his firefighter’s uniform, was described as mesmerizing on the witness stand.
Yet the prosecutor, Geoffrey Orlando, an assistant district attorney in Westchester, never broached the supposed love affair.
“Being called gay was much, much worse then,” Mr. Orlando said in a recent phone interview. It was 1976, and the topic of homosexuality was so taboo, he decided, that directly challenging the claim of an affair would be pointless.
Despite what his story lacked in logic or evidence, Mr. Lynch, the notably taciturn fireman, was mesmerizing as a storyteller during four days on the witness stand. N.Y.P.D. officers and F.B.I. agents would contradict themselves recounting basic police work; Mr. Lynch, whose story alleged an intricate hoax, could not be tripped up. “Anybody else join you at the table?” Mr. Orlando asked Mr. Lynch about his first meeting with Mr. Bronfman. “No, sir,” Mr. Lynch replied, confirming a minor detail of his testimony. “We were at the bar.”
Preparing for the trial, Mr. DeBlasio planned to attack Mr. Lynch as “a monster who preyed upon his feebleminded friend Dominic, forcing him under duress to aid in the most terrible of crimes imaginable.” Then he saw Mr. Lynch on the stand.
“I can look back now after a 50-year, 600-trial career and say that among the thousands of witnesses I observed, nobody approached the magnificence of Mel Patrick Lynch,” Mr. DeBlasio wrote. “He was the Arturo Toscanini and Enrico Caruso of witnesses. He turned a horror story into a tragedy of operatic dimension. The jurors were mesmerized. If they could have, they would have exploded in applause and cried for an encore.”
Mr. Orlando agreed with that assessment. “He was a great liar, absolutely positively, and a sympathetic character,” Mr. Orlando said of Mr. Lynch.
Mr. Bronfman, conversely, looked to jurors like a man caught in a nightmare, fighting back tears and biting his fingernails while on the stand. Following a torrent of accusations about secret sexual escapades and plans to film pornography, the judge halted proceedings, took Mr. Orlando aside, accused him of a “lack of propriety” and said he was “amazed” Mr. Orlando had not objected when the defense made “smearing innuendos” about Mr. Bronfman.
After enduring nine days in captivity, Sam Bronfman found himself accused in court of masterminding his own kidnapping.Credit…Teresa Zabala/The New York Times
“In a case like this, the victim gets put on trial and yet he has no means of making a defense,” Mr. Bronfman said after the trial.
Mr. Byrne did not testify, but he appeared strangely disassociated, indiscriminately beaming smiles at everyone in the courtroom: the jurors, the journalists, his co-defendant and even the Bronfman family.
Following Mr. Lynch’s commanding performance, Mr. DeBlasio tailored his defense to fit with the hoax angle, telling the court what he knew to be an outright lie. “There was no kidnapping,” he said, addressing the jury. As for the F.B.I., he offered, “They should have been checking Sam Bronfman.” Mr. DeBlasio portrayed the Seagram heir as resentful that he had not “grown up the way the father wanted him.” Calling Mr. DeBlasio “brilliant,” Newsweek wrote that he “stirred jurors to his summation.” Two jurors told The Times they believed that Mr. Bronfman had indeed “engineered his own kidnapping.”
Mr. De Blasio waited nearly 45 years to reveal that he had no doubt the story that convinced those jurors was false.
“About Sam,” Mr. DeBlasio wrote toward the end of his memoir. Noting that Mr. Lynch and Mr. Byrne were both dead, he felt compelled to set the record straight before his own death. “I want it to be clear to all who may ever read these pages that Samuel Bronfman was not a part of the kidnapping.” He added, “Neither he nor Lynch were gay as far as anyone ever knew and certainly they were not lovers.”
This kind of admission from a lawyer, even in a tell-all memoir, is extraordinary. Experts say Mr. DeBlasio’s ethical breach did not come in his cunning courtroom argument, but rather in his attempt to clear his conscience.
“His obligation to his client continues forever, even after his client’s death,” said Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University who specializes in legal ethics. “He’s saying, ‘My client, who was acquitted of kidnapping, is really a kidnapper.’ That’s exactly what he’s not allowed to say.”
Mr. DeBlasio’s daughter, Alessandra DeBlasio, notified Sam Bronfman about her father’s book. In an email to The Times, Mr. Bronfman responded to what he called a confession by Mr. DeBlasio. “I was really kidnapped in 1975 and his and Lynch’s defense was a fraud,” Mr. Bronfman wrote. “I am glad he acknowledged this fact.”
According to Ms. DeBlasio, Mr. Byrne’s signed confession to the F.B.I. (a document that Mr. DeBlasio managed to suppress in court) made an overwhelming impression on her father. “He knew all along from Day 1 that his guy had done it,” she said. She added that at no point in the trial did Mr. Byrne tell Mr. DeBlasio his confession was false.
Mr. Byrne in 1977, at a party in Brooklyn the day he was released from prison. Credit…Carlos Rene Perez/Associated Press
Then there was the blindfold Mr. Bronfman wore. It was a “putrid mess” with “ripped-off pieces of Sam’s flesh and his facial hair growing into the adhesive tape,” Mr. DeBlasio wrote. “What hoax? Nobody faking their own kidnapping would wear a blindfold.”
Following Mr. Lynch’s and Mr. Byrne’s exoneration as kidnappers, the Bronfman family held a news conference at their corporate headquarters, the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in Midtown. “I went into this kidnapping a little boy,” Sam Bronfman said, “and I came out a man.”
Despite his escape from a harrowing ordeal, the resolution was disturbing for Mr. Bronfman. However baseless, the charges that he had hatched a conspiracy with a lover to defraud his family lingered in the decades to come.
“It poisoned the atmosphere forever for Sam,” said Mr. Orlando, the prosecutor, who became friendly with Mr. Bronfman during the trial. “He will forever be tagged with that allegation.”
Mr. Bronfman declined to comment on the impact the episode made on the rest of his life. Mr. Orlando said Mr. Bronfman, now 67, recently told him that his adult children “have no idea” the kidnapping took place.
After the trial, Samuel Bronfman, left, spoke alongside his father, Edgar, at the Seagram Building. “I went into this kidnapping a little boy,” he said, “and I came out a man.”Credit…Robert Walker/The New York Times
Ten years after the trial, Edgar Bronfman named Sam’s younger brother, Edgar Jr., head of Seagram, in what Fortune magazine called a “surprise.” Sam had worked at the company longer; unlike his younger brother, he had a college degree; and his elevation would have continued the tradition of the company’s passing to the eldest son of the family.
Edgar Jr. oversaw a series of questionable investments and sold the company in what came to be seen as a financial debacle.
The title of Mr. DeBlasio’s book, “Let Justice Be Done,” was also his favorite legal expression. He used the “plain but powerful” phrase to conclude all of his closing arguments, including in the Bronfman trial. Yet something about that “greatest trial victory” caused him to question his credo.
“Whether justice was done in this case,” he wrote, “may not be for me to say.”