Heights History: Murders in Brooklyn Heights

While authorities have ruled out criminality in the death of Brooklyn Heights resident Graham Barnett,  the thought that it was murder shook many neighbors to the bone Tuesday night.

For many long time residents, the shooting of investment banker Sarah Auerbach in broad daylight at Best Cleaners on Henry Street fourteen years ago is the most memorable murder in Brooklyn Heights.  The killer, ex-boyfriend Rick Varela had stalked her after their break up.  On April 9, 1994, The New York Times described the series of events that led to her murder:

Two weeks ago, he got the gun in Illinois. Last weekend, he rented a car to stalk her. And on Thursday, as she passed two silk blouses across the counter of her neighborhood dry cleaner, Mr. Varela — disguised in a ridiculous wig, sunglasses and a military trench coat — strode up behind her, the police said, and killed her with six bullets to the head and body.

Then he drove away, returned the car to a midtown agency, went to a movie about Nazi Germany’s film maker Leni Riefenstahl, had a few beers in a Greenwich Village bar, called his former wife and daughter in Illinois to say he loved them and, sometime after midnight yesterday, went to the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, overlooking the towers of lower Manhattan, and fired a single shot into his right temple.

In 2002, Louis Echavarria a 34 year old homeless man went to visit his grandfather Michael Rodriguez at Pierrepont House (55 Pierrepont).  Echavarria smothered Rodriguez to death and left the building.  He was arrested and told police that he was “mentally ill”.  The New York Times reported on neighborhood reaction on May 5, 2002:

Neighbors recalled seeing police cars outside the Pierrepont House for the Elderly on April 24, but hadn’t been concerned. Some residents in the building attended the funeral. But even a week after the murder, some workers in the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange, a gift shop that rents space from the building, were shocked to learn of the crime.

Part of that is because Brooklyn Heights is not a place where one expects violence. The local 84th Precinct reports only a couple of murders a year. By contrast, the borough of Brooklyn reported a total of 253 murders last year.

One particularly bizarre murder happened at 62 Montague Street in October of 1973. Renee Hoffman was killed by her boyfriend Raul Colon, who kept her body — wrapped in aluminum foil and painted with varnish — in their apartment for 10 days after strangling her to death. Police claimed the pair were junkies arguing over money.

And then there’s this 1997 murder that happend in front of the Park Plaza Diner.  New York Times city editor Wendell Jamieson wrote about it in the Columbia Journalism Review:

To get to my apartment in Brooklyn by car, you take the first exit off the Brooklyn Bridge onto Cadman Plaza South or onto Henry Street. The first route passes the Park Plaza Diner, deep with booths and mirrors and always lit up. As I go by, I often think of Anthony Palumbo and Kathleen D’Angelo.

They were engaged when I got to know them. He was a clerk at the city Board of Elections; she was an aerobics instructor on Long Island. He had recently been promoted, and thought it augured great things, so in August he took her out for a big night to celebrate — a rented limousine; dinner, and champagne; a stop at city hall, the engine idling, so he could show her where he planned one day to work.

But a hint of desperation colored this relationship. He was forty-four, she was forty. Friends would later say that he was abusive, and that they doubted the wedding would ever take place.

When the limousine pulled up outside the diner at 4 a.m., the two seemed to be dozing in the backseat. The chauffeur went to wake them; Palumbo came groggily to life, but neither the driver nor Palumbo could wake D’Angelo. Someone called the police. Soon radio cars with flashing lights crowded Cadman Plaza South and detectives were interviewing the Board of Elections clerk. Kathleen D’Angelo was dead.

Palumbo was held for twelve hours at the 84th Precinct stationhouse near an entrance ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Then they let him go. For a week, the story simmered.

Then the Daily News reported that the medical examiner had ruled the death a homicide — not a criminal charge, but a medical determination that another person had caused D’Angelo’s death (she had been strangled). I responded to the scoop by using a reporting trick known only to veteran journalists: I opened the phone book. Anthony Palumbo was listed in Queens. I called the number. He answered.

“I had nothing to do with it,” he said. He started sobbing. He went on and on. “This woman was my life. This woman was the best woman you would ever want to meet. This is driving me crazy. We opened the back door. She wasn’t breathing. We gave her resuscitation. We tried to put air in her mouth. We tried to wake her up.”

Then he had to go, someone was at the door.


Anthony Palumbo pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree on January 17, 1997, and was sentenced to fifteen years to life in prison.

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  • T.K. Small

    Sometime during the late summer of 1973 there was also a murder in the lobby of 19 Grace Court. I was and Mount Sinai Hospital for a major surgery and my mother came to visit as she did every day. She told me that something terrible had happened on our street. As only an obnoxious eight-year-old could speculate, I said “was there a murder?”.

    The event sticks in my memory because of the eerie coincidence of having guessed correctly on such a gruesome matter. In fact it was so unusual and out of character to the neighborhood that Mayor Lindsay visited the scene of the crime.

  • Homer Fink

    TK you are correct…. it will be in part two.

  • nabeguy

    For the life of me, I can’t seem to remember any murders while growing up in the Heights , except the Auerbach one of ’94 which I had the misfortune of coming upon less than 10 mintues after it happened…I was, in fact, stopped by the police and questioned since I was wearing a silvery gray raincoat similar to the murderers.

  • yo


  • http://adsformyself.blogspot.com Tim N.

    Hey, nabeguy… Is the the cleaners off Clark next to the framing place, or the one off Montague next to what used to be the Waldenbooks? The Times article mentioned a bakery across the street, I seem to recall a bakery near where Ann Taylor Loft is now.

  • nabeguy

    It was at the one off of Montague Street. Horribly tragic situation, that was. Even though the violence was not a random act, the combination of a murder/suicide left a tangible pall of fear over the neighborhood for a while.

  • Made In Brooklyn

    i was eating a cheese danish in the bakery — as i often did on my way to work — when it happened… truly horrific.

  • Made In Brooklyn

    i also recall a homeless man having his throat slit on the steps on saint ann’s church by an ex-military guy who worked at key food… can anyone collaborate this?

  • T.K. Small

    Can you remember approximately what year?

  • CJP

    And if I recall the killer in the Sarah Auerbach murder then took his own life on one of the benches at the far end of the promenade; not the Remsen end but the other end. I think of that every time I’m down there.

  • nabeguy

    Correct CJP. Having been at the scene of the murder the previous day, I was drawn to that spot when I heard about the suicide on the early morning news. It proved to be as equaliy sad a tableau of a blood-stained bench on which sat an empty pack of gum and about 20 half-smoked cigarette stubs on the ground.

  • Made In Brooklyn

    TK: i’m going to guess the supposed saint ann’s murder was around ’86 or thereabouts.

    and yes, the suicide spot was definitely not at remsen but at the circle at the far end of the promenade.

    another crime waiting to happen: something via big lou the electrician. he’s already been arrested for assaulting his mother a year or two back and is back around the neighborhood again despite the restraining order.

  • CJP

    NabeGuy— So this guy was a killer AND a litterer?

  • nabeguy

    CJP, I’m going to let that one pass, given the nature of the story at hand. And MIB, I noticed him back as well, still with the pants tucked inside the combat boots. Given what she spawned, maybe it’s the mother that needs restraining.

  • examiner

    I noticed he was back, but didn’t know the back story – anyone care to explain?
    Any other updates about neighborhood fixtures?
    I saw one of the Goggle Bros. around Borough Hall on Monday, after a very long absence.