* Some names have been changed to protect survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
Years before the secret room in the garage behind his place, years before he ran around sickening the souls of untold girls in Putnam County, New York, Howard Gombert had a jones for Rachel R.* From the day he entered her life with sweet talk and presents, Gombert danced attendance on Rachel. He took her fishing on his days off from work. He bought her jewelry and showered her with lingerie. “I had my own drawer [for] slutty clothes,” Rachel said at trial.
At the time, Rachel was 10 years old.
There are people born with an extra layer, a quality we call resilience. No one knows where it comes from, but we can confirm it exists. Because Rachel is still here and can’t be silenced, though cops ignored her for a decade. “I used my voice, I told everyone,” she tells Rolling Stone. “No matter how loud I spoke, though, they just didn’t hear me.” Laney B.* is still here and can’t be silenced, though she was only seven when Gombert molested her. “The universe chose me because I was strong enough to survive,” she says. “To speak for all the girls who aren’t here.” Tina Z.* is still here and can’t be silenced, though she was all of 12 when he first raped her, she’s said. They don’t want our pity or compensation from the state. What they want is to be heard in full by men in power.
This fall, in a courtroom in Carmel, New York, their stories will once again be aired to a jury, in one of the most pivotal trials in Putnam history. A man named Andrew Krivak will seek to win his freedom after 20-plus years in prison. In 1997, Krivak was tried for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl named Josette Wright. So was Krivak’s best friend, Anthony DiPippo, who served 20 years in maximum pens before winning an acquittal at retrial. In 1994, when Josette went missing, both men were all but children themselves. Krivak was 17, DiPippo 18; they’d soon join the list of casualties. Because the evidence adduced since 1997 points away from either of those boys being involved in Josette’s death, and the abduction and presumed killing of a second child, Robin Murphy.
Instead, substantial evidence points to Gombert as the man behind those crimes. But this is Putnam County, a white-flight, Trump-allegiant nonplace in New York state, 40 miles — and 40 light-years — from the Bronx. The malfeasance is so thick here, you could crack a crown biting into it, and the way you tell crooked cops from common criminals is the size of their pension plan. So no, Howard Gombert won’t be on trial this fall. Instead, Putnam’s district attorney will fight to preserve the lies that protect the county. (Gombert, reached in prison, denied the allegations and impugned the credibility of his accusers.)
Come September, then, we’ll watch a grim reprisal of the 2016 trial that freed DiPippo. We will watch Gombert’s accusers take the stand and suffer through another public shaming. We will watch the cops who arrested the boys tell their stories again, though those tales are so shopworn and shot with holes that no jury in any county will believe them. And we will watch the prosecutor’s last key witness tell her plainly false story again. Meanwhile, Gombert will follow from his cell while keeping one eye on the calendar. In 2000, he was charged with (and later convicted of) the attempted sexual assault of a seven-year-old girl. But that was in Connecticut, which knows nothing of these crimes and which will free him in six years on time served. And then Gombert will get out in his early sixties, still young enough to hunt if he so chooses. The rope, the sash cord, the eight-inch knife: He’d know where to get new ones.
Every town in every county has its can’t-quite kids, the ones who disappear before adulthood. Girls with mood disorders and don’t-care parents; hyperactive boys who always face sideways, their feet and fingers drumming under the table. In affluent Westchester County, 10 miles from Carmel, there’s a culture in place to catch those kids before they jump the cliff: teachers and parents who pay attention, and clinicians who speak the gospel of pharmacology. But if you’re a teenager in Putnam who’s lost the plot, you find out awfully fast that you’re on your own — and that what passes for intervention is the courthouse.
That’s especially so in Carmel, the county seat — but don’t mistake it for the Carmel, California, of Clint Eastwood. It’s a scatter of dead trees and unkempt lawns, a town thrown anyhow against a hill that slides, ineluctably, toward a lake. They put the high school next to the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department, letting those problem children know what’s what. “Almost every girl I knew there was molested by an adult,” said a friend of Josette’s who moved away. “There was such a strong rape culture — and so much darkness — for one little town.”
As we cruise Carmel in his big-wheeled Benz, DiPippo points or nods to his old hang spots: “The Citgo after school, they’d let us drink a soda and smoke weed behind the station,” he says. “Behind the graveyard by Carvel, and the steps of the church on [Route] 52.” He describes the pack of unsupervised kids he ran with in the early Nineties, teens whose parents were entirely checked out or who shrugged and let them party in the basement. “There’d be 15, 20 kids drinking 40s and smoking weed and cranking up the Wu [Tang] on a Tuesday.”
DiPippo, who’s called Big Ant — he’s six feet six and 260 — has put on a few pounds since the joint. His penthouse is plastered with replicas of WWE belts, and he can’t even drive the showoff car he bought: His fear of cops and prison PTSD have kept him from renewing his license.
But what are you supposed to do when you spend half your life in prison, then someone hands you $15 million? (New York state paid him $2.9 million for wrongful imprisonment; Putnam County paid the other $12 million.) DiPippo was a teen when they locked him up, and in some ways, his development stopped there. But don’t be fooled by his $12,000 flatscreen. He’s as sharp as the lawyers who got him out of jail — and still it took three trials to free himself.
But those trials — and his lawsuit against Putnam County — yielded thousands of pages of transcripts and countless hours of testimony from the cops and his false accusers. His ordeal is the most richly documented case I’ve encountered in 30 years. I spent five months poring through those trial-tested records and talking to most of the principals in this piece. Much of what you’ll read, though, derives from court papers, including every quote from a cop — they didn’t respond to requests I sent through their lawyer to speak with me. Robert Tendy, the DA who’ll be reprosecuting Krivak, declined to be interviewed. His response, by email: “I have personally thoroughly reviewed this matter, and I am confident that our prosecution is ethical and warranted.”
DiPippo was a freshman when he started getting high. A couple of years later, the weed was switched out for “wet,” an especially noxious strain of PCP. On weekends, there’d be a hundred kids wasted at a kegger up the hill at Barker’s Field. Most everyone he knew, the girls as well as the boys, was tossed out of school by 17. Josette Wright was tracing that path, as well — till someone raped and killed her at 12.
The youngest of three girls in a chaotic house that was the hang spot for her sister’s friends, she lived with one foot out the door, always looking for someone to take her in. “She hated her whole family. Everything that happened in the family, she got the blame for,” Rachel, the alleged 10-year-old Gombert victim, told police. Josette would camp out at the apartment Rachel shared with her mom and younger brother. It was the one place Josette felt seen and safe — so much so that she begged them to take her when they moved away. “My mom loved her and she was [like] my little sister, but I was pregnant [and 16],” she says. “I said, ‘I can’t take you with me, you’re too young.’ ”
Gombert was born a trope of dime-store pulp: the drifter who wandered in and left a gouge. But because he hadn’t spoken to the press in decades till our cursory conversation in August, such facts as I have of him, beside his current address — the Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut — were assembled from victim statements and trial transcripts. Gombert was raised by an itinerant single mom who moved states five times in 12 years. At 13 or 15 (accounts vary), he was sent to live with his father, who shared a house in Connecticut with his aging mother. Young Gombert pitched a tent in the woods near his house and slept there, on and off, for years. Tina Z., Gombert’s earliest accuser to go on record, testified that he used that tent as his staging ground. It was where he took Tina, then 12 years old, while shaping up his alleged criminal MO.
“He just was giving me things I didn’t have, maybe cigarettes and alcohol,” Tina said in a 2016 deposition. From there, they began a sexual relationship that was “forceful nine times out of the 10.” By “forceful,” she meant he bound and raped a child who hadn’t yet turned 13. Gombert, who was 16 when they met, shoved her panties in her mouth before, or during, those attacks, she testified.
Gombert was jailed during his three-year run with Tina — but not for assaulting her. Thereby hangs the second horror of his story: According to Gombert’s accusers, the cops and judges who handled his crimes treated them with contempt. The Tinas and Rachels and Laneys were apparently disposable to the men who took their calls. There are too many examples to cite in one piece, so take the attack on Tammy A.* as illustration.
Tammy was exactly Gombert’s type: a short, pretty blonde going through a rough patch with her parents. Gombert, then 30, came to parties at Tammy’s house, after hiring her to babysit his daughter. Being 17, she let it slip that she’d sneak out late at night to meet her boyfriend.
Just after 4 a.m. on July 31st, 1994, Tammy crept out of her house, per her statement to police later that morning. She was several blocks from home when a man stole up behind her. He had a rope of some sort and a knife. He wore a black mask that exposed his stubbled chin: It was cleft and square, just like Gombert’s. With his knife at her throat, her attacker forced Tammy to her belly, binding her and cramming her panties into her mouth. When he was finished, he pressed the knife to her temple. “Remember,” he told her. “This is waiting for you.”
Hours later, Tammy drove to the Kent Police Department. There, she met with Detective Kevin Douchkoff, whose name is as fitting as it is unfortunate. Tammy told him everything she’d just suffered. Douchkoff sent her out for a rape kit. All that remained was to sweat the local shitheads, including, of course, Gombert. Had Douchkoff stuck a swab in Gombert’s mouth, it’s possible that Josette and Robin Murphy would be alive now. But he swabbed no one, or if he did, he never bothered to enter it in the case file. Nineteen years later, Tammy killed herself, telling her sister, just days before her death, she’d been ruined by the rape. Douchkoff, who didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, is now the Kent town justice. And that, in sum, is Putnam County: a place where young girls twist in the wind while the cops who ignore them get ahead.
One other detail to bear in mind: Nine weeks after Tammy was raped, Josette got into a car with a man she seemed to know. That car, a red coupe with a black hood, was a dead match for the one that Gombert often drove. Shortly after, Josette disappeared. It would be 13 months before a hunter found her in the woods: her hands bound behind her, her panties in her throat, and her bones picked clean by coyotes.
If DiPippo wasn’t a full-blown addict by 19, he was doing a fair impression of it for the cops. He and his buddies — Krivak and Adam Wilson — were constantly in transit to the Bronx or Harlem to buy drugs. DiPippo and Krivak were coming home from a rave holding PCP when police pulled them over. It was November 25th, 1995 — three days after Josette’s bones were found.
Her missing-person case had been gathering dust on the desk of Investigator Patrick Castaldo. A big, swaggering bull who threw his weight around, he wore his black hair up in a pompadour, performed at local functions as an Elvis impersonator, and carried himself at the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department (PCS) like he thought Dirty Harry was a training reel. He was a racist who threw around the n-word, according to his former housemate. He was caught on tape beating and kicking a man who was shackled, hand and foot, on a courthouse floor. Castaldo, nearly twice the size of the fellow he pummeled, walked away briefly to hitch his belt. He then apparently decided that his detainee needed more moral instruction. Yanking him to his feet, he punched him in the back, then put him in a chokehold for eight seconds. A security camera caught him in the act, but that didn’t stop Castaldo. He filed a false report several days later, and denied what the videotape plainly captured.
Because he was the primary when Josette went missing, Castaldo caught her case as a homicide. Neither Castaldo nor his partner, Investigator William Quick, had ever worked a murder before. Their investigative training in Putnam County consisted largely of a classroom course. We can’t know for certain what they learned there, but we do know what they didn’t: the most basic rules of detection and documentation.
In 2019, when DiPippo sued them for rigging his wrongful conviction, Castaldo and Quick were forced to account for their conduct. As they ran through their far-fetched story, they both made some damning admissions: Neither seemed to grasp the terms “Brady material” or “witness-impeachment statements.” Brady has been the law since 1963, when the Supreme Court ruled that cops must disclose proof if it points to a defendant’s innocence. A few years later, cops were further compelled to tell a defendant when a witness against him lied. But when asked by DiPippo’s lawyer what “Brady” meant, Castaldo said, “I’m not familiar.” Know what “impeachment evidence” is? “Yes,” said Castaldo. “What they are trying to do to the president of the United States.”
From the outset, the two cops seemed to have convinced themselves that DiPippo and Krivak were killers. All that remained was to prove their theory — even if that meant spinning proof from thin air. They already had them in custody, having pinched them for PCP. But those boys both had priors and a certain cool around cops. The third guy with them had neither. Dominick Neglia was a sweet but slow-witted giant who’d been struggling in special-ed classes. Castaldo went after him like an orca does a seal. He stalked Neglia at his job and got him fired, Neglia later testified. He repeatedly rousted him out of class, then hauled him in and cracked him over the head. Over two months, Neglia gave him several statements, each more outlandish than the last. In the end, Neglia proved worthless — but he named a second teen for the cops to crack.
Denise Rose, a hangout friend of DiPippo’s, was short and heavyset, coarse and loud; she beat up mailboxes with a bat for laughs. According to her own courtroom testimony, she dropped out of school at 16 and was addicted to crack by 17. Like DiPippo, she had a budding criminal record — and no apparent fear for her personal safety. She drove to New York City by herself with wads of cash to buy drugs. For addicts, though, the only thing worse than death is a bid upstate without your works. That is where Castaldo started with Rose. He threatened her with a conspiracy-to-murder charge, which carried up to 25 years.
On April 2nd, 1996 — 18 months after Josette Wright vanished — Rose agreed to talk to the two cops. According to Rose’s father, who went to the station to retrieve her, she was interrogated for six hours. She’d later admit that Castaldo fed her crucial “facts” (the date and place of the murder), and that he showed her crime-scene photos of the dead girl’s garments. He said he’d arrest her “by five o’clock tomorrow” if she “didn’t get her story straight.”
At length, Rose gave him a cockeyed statement that got key plot points wrong. She claimed the rape happened in DiPippo’s Bronco — a car he didn’t buy till months later. She claimed they were joined by a teen named Jason Gray, who’d actually been in jail that night. She claimed they were hanging at the diner, and barely mentions the Citgo station across the street. No matter that these lies were easily disproven; the cops crossed out her flubs and wrote in different details. It was the first of many crumbs they would sprinkle for DiPippo’s lawyers to follow. By the time they were done, they’d leave a bakery, not a bread trail — and their conduct would cost the county a fortune. If Krivak wins his retrial, Putnam could write him a check that dwarfs what it paid DiPippo. That could leave the taxpayers holding the bag for a lesson that officials never learn: It is very expensive to employ bad cops.
Meanwhile, Howard Gombert was keeping busy. From the time of his alleged attack on Tammy A. till his arrest in Connecticut in 2000, Gombert was a crime wave in two states. Three women would later testify that the self-proclaimed warlock — he wore pentagram pendants, threatened to hex women, and had a car decal reading 100% evil — raped and beat them on a regular basis. There was Rachel R., now a mom at 16, who said she’d been raped by Gombert while pregnant. There was her mom, Sheila*, a depressed single parent supporting a family on her laundry-worker earnings. Before long, she would testify, he was restraining her with zip ties and rope — “[He’d] tie me to the bedpost,” Sheila said in depositions. According to Rachel and Sheila, Gombert, the avid woodsman, used complex knots that tightened when they resisted. He punched or choked them in the act; his eyes would turn pitch-black in fissile rage.
Then there was Ann-Marie D.,* who was 16 when Gombert wooed her; she’s said the rapes and beatings commenced forthwith. “He would pretty much just hold me down and force me to do it; he has sodomized me,” Ann-Marie told an investigator. That went on for years and got increasingly brutal. She finally had him arrested in 1995. (Ann-Marie, who has left the state, could not be reached.) It was his second arrest for rape in four years in Putnam; both victims were minors when the alleged rapes began. But nine months later, when Josette’s body turned up, Castaldo and Quick never brought in Gombert to ask him about her death.
“The information we got, Gombert was not in the picture,” Castaldo claimed, though there’s nothing in the case file to support that. No alibi for Gombert; no statements to suggest he was home when Josette vanished; no eyewitness accounts that place him out of town on the night in question. He’s just a hole the size of a Mack truck in this case.
The murder of Josette Wright was front-page news, a cause of alarm among county parents. A second girl, Robin Murphy, had vanished in the spring of 1995 and was presumed dead. The pressure on PCS was immense. At least seven detectives were assigned to Josette’s case. Two of them — Anthony Nappi and Ronald Watkins — turned up lead after lead that pointed to Gombert. When they told Josette’s mom that her child had been found dead that morning, the first words out of her mouth, per the two cops’ notes: Howard Gombert killed her daughter.
Watkins and another investigator also talked to Sheila R., who’d left town with Rachel to flee Gombert. She told them about the red-and-black coupe Gombert drove, which matched the description of the one Josette was seen getting into. Ann-Marie told cops that Gombert admitted to giving Josette a ride on or about the day she disappeared. Those leads, and a great deal more, were given to Castaldo by Nappi, Watkins, and others. They saw Gombert as a suspect in the case and thought Castaldo, the lead detective, would follow up. Instead, he ignored every fact that pointed to Gombert.
Here’s the master irony of DiPippo’s story: Had he not been framed for murder, he’d most likely be dead by now. He was a kid on a hotfoot run to hell, angry and rootless and pulling madman stunts that got the cops’ attention. He had brains and talent, but didn’t know that yet. Only prison — and the gift of purpose he got from being wrongly done — freed up the time and space to evolve, to become the best version of himself. Now, at 45, he has the earned nobility of someone who’s saved his own life.
Like a lot of Carmel kids, DiPippo’s youth was undermined by a parent’s selfish behavior. He was eight when his construction-worker father took up with the receptionist at his job site. Anthony and his mother, Mollie, bounced around the area for the next year, on and off welfare and food stamps. DiPippo got fat, trying to eat his way through it — bullies called him DiPippo the Hippo. Then, in sixth grade, he shot up half a foot and got very good at backyard wrestling. But shame and rage had twisted a screw in him, made him a too-tall bruiser with a grudge. By high school, he was the kid tossing trash cans into the path of oncoming trains.
Likewise his best friend, Andy Krivak. His mother walked out on him when he was young. The house she left behind stunk of mold and pet waste. “You’d have that smell on your clothes for days,” says DiPippo. Krivak was shunted off to alternative schools for kids with behavior disorders. In bad-cop lingo, the boys were “soft targets,” kids who’d cut no ice with jurors. “They knew us, and they hated us,” says DiPippo, who fled Putnam for good after acquittal. “To them, we polluted everything but the lake.”
The boys were arrested on July 1st, 1996, and charged with the rape and murder of Josette Wright. The story the prosecution landed on was this: On the evening of October 3rd, 1994, DiPippo and Krivak rang Rose’s doorbell and persuaded her to hang with them. Josette was in Krivak’s van already, sitting on the floor because the rear seats had been removed. The four kids drove to the Citgo station in town, where — according to Rose — there were 20 teens partying in the lot. Over the next two hours, they drank beer and got high in full view of passing cops and drivers. Then, at 9:30 p.m., Rose asked to go home. She got back in the van with Josette and the boys. They were joined by two guys who needed a lift.
Instead of taking her home, though, Krivak parked on Fields Lane, a dirt-road cut-through with no houses or streetlamps. Krivak passed around a 40 and a dusted blunt, then suddenly leapt at Josette. He yanked her jeans and underwear over her shoes and stuffed the blue panties in her mouth. Seizing a rope that appeared from nowhere, he tied her hands and raped her while Josette fought back. After Krivak finished, DiPippo took his place. In total, the double-rape took several minutes — and Josette wasn’t breathing when it ended. Again: Each of these “facts” was furnished by Rose, after Castaldo and Quick pressured her for weeks.
Her story — which Rose has sworn to five times, at four different trials and a deposition — was absurd on its face. Krivak’s van was an ashtray on wheels, an old Econoline with busted dome lights and burn holes. It hadn’t been washed, let alone detailed, in ages when the cops pulled it apart. They combed every inch for fibers or fluids, but could find no trace of Josette’s blood, hair, or skin cells in the seats or carpet. There were other flaws in this part of Rose’s story. The van had four seats, not two, when cops seized it, and it had been off the road, with four flat tires, through the fall and winter of 1994. (A mechanic corroborated those details at trial.)
But it’s the next part of the narrative that really jumps the rails. Rose has claimed that she stayed in the van while the boys dragged the corpse to its resting place. She further claimed that there was a full moon out the night of October 3rd, 1994. That was how the boys were able to navigate woods that are treacherous and foreboding — in daylight. When I walked those woods, they were impassable. There are thorns and nettles every step of the way, a creek that suddenly opens under your feet, and old stone barriers built to divert the flow of water to the road. Somehow, says Rose, the boys hiked hundreds of yards through that before laying Josette down. They covered her corpse with leaves and twigs, then made their way back to the van — in “10 to 15 minutes,” she said during the 2016 trial. It’s hard to imagine a woodsman who could replicate that feat. Particularly one high on PCP.
Then there’s the final nail in Rose’s story. There was no moon — none — on the night of October 3rd, one expert would testify in court. It rose and fell in a 20-minute span just before dawn the next morning. DiPippo and Krivak were either blessed with bat vision or the whole thing never happened. But when asked about the striking errors in her story, Rose, through her lawyer, declined to comment.
Rose’s statement would have sufficed to charge the two boys, but Castaldo and Quick were just warming up. They dragged in other friends of DiPippo and Krivak and coerced them into giving false statements. First, they picked up Adam Wilson. Per Wilson, Castaldo and Quick fed him three statements, then told him to pick one and sign it. Likewise a guy named Bill MacGregor, whom they browbeat and menaced for many hours, according to his 2016 testimony, before he agreed to say he was in the van, asleep. They flipped DiPippo’s ex, an addict named Lisa Murphy, whom they confronted in her jail cell in a neighboring county. According to Murphy, she drove to the Citgo station with her new flame, Michael Sep. There, she claims, she bumped into Rose and got high with her. This was an easy lie to disprove: Murphy was living with DiPippo that fall as his full-time girlfriend, and they were staying at his family’s camper in Danbury, Connecticut, on the night in question. Neighbors at the trailer park confirmed that fact — but their statement never got to DiPippo’s lawyer.
A separate piece could be written about the evidence the cops ignored, but for the purposes of this story, one fact will do. Weeks after Josette’s body was found, Castaldo and Quick talked to a guy named Charlie Clarkson, the counter clerk at the Citgo station the night Josette went missing. Castaldo and Quick showed him Josette’s picture and asked if she’d been with the group of kids gathered outside the store. Clarkson said he’d never seen her before — and that no group of kids that size had gathered there. According to Clarkson, Quick took notes of that conversation — but those notes were never passed to the boys’ lawyers. DiPippo only learned of them seven years later, when an investigator he hired tracked Clarkson to Pennsylvania and took his affidavit.
But false and missing statements weren’t enough for those two cops. They had to do something with the pair of witnesses who saw Josette alive after her supposed death day. Both her sixth-grade teacher and a summer-school friend bumped into her at local malls. They were sure about the dates: It was Columbus Day weekend. They’d told this to Castaldo within days of her disappearance and signed sworn statements in 1994. A year or so later, he had to track them down and convince them to change their stories.
Castaldo tricked the summer-school friend with a stub from an eyeglass store, dated September 30th, 1994. She’d gone there to get fitted for contact lenses, so that was when she’d seen Josette, Castaldo told her. He skipped over her second visit on October 7th, the day she actually saw Josette — four days after her supposed death-day. He pulled a similar stunt with the sixth-grade teacher. He and Quick pressed her again and again: Her statement didn’t sync up with their timeline. Finally, she agreed to say that she’d encountered Josette during the “Jewish holiday” in September. Both women testified at the boys’ trials in 1997 that they hadn’t seen Josette after October 3rd. But 20 years later, they each came forward to stand by their original statements. They weren’t the only witnesses to recant. Bill MacGregor, Dominick Neglia, and Adam Wilson took the stand at DiPippo’s retrial in 2016. Each of them testified that Castaldo and Quick — neither of whom responded to requests for comment through their lawyer — bullied them into bearing false witness. After more than 12 hours of interrogation, “I decided to go along with the dirty game they were playing,” Wilson testified. “It was almost like a badly written movie . . . where somebody said, ‘You’re going to tell us what we want to know, whether you like it or not.’ ”
With the clarity of hindsight, it seems preposterous that a jury could have convicted either teen of murder. There was no DNA evidence or weapon produced, and the only witnesses were teenage stoners making oafs of themselves on the stand. But DiPippo and Krivak were convicted at separate trials in the summer of 1997. Bad lawyering played a part in it, particularly for DiPippo. His attorney, Robert Leader, had been Gombert’s lawyer in two prior sexual-assault cases in Putnam County. The first was Rachel R.’s: Rachel tells Rolling Stone that she’d reported Gombert in 1991, when she was a seventh grader. But the judge at her hearing forced her to face down Gombert, she says, rather than testify on video in a separate room. Rachel panicked and fled the court; the charges were dropped. Likewise, the Ann-Marie D. rape case in 1995. At the time, Gombert handed Leader a photo album that he shared with the prosecutor of that case. It consisted of snapshots Gombert took of Ann-Marie in varying states of undress. Leader claimed the pictures proved the sex was consensual; the charges were quickly dropped.
That information might have saved DiPippo if his lawyer had been candid with him. But coming clean to his client would have disqualified Leader for a fatal conflict of interest — and the DiPippos had paid him a fortune already. So he kept their money and never raised the conflict to the judge. Then he conveniently ignored all of the evidence that pointed to Gombert. An appeals court condemned Leader’s conduct and granted DiPippo a new trial — 15 years after his conviction. It seems almost redundant to report Leader’s status: He is a judge in Patterson, New York. (Leader, to Rolling Stone: “I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I’ve decided not to comment on the case.”)
When DiPippo went to prison, he was a boy amongst men, chum for the murderers at Shawangunk. But he had, beside his size and combat skills, an ample war chest to back him. His mother had come into a sizable sum of money, and spent the large bulk of it on his post-conviction lawyers and his walk-around cash in jail. Very few convicts have the funds for outside counsel, let alone run a tab that came to $3 million by the time DiPippo was freed. Fewer than 3,000 convicts have won exoneration over the past three decades, and money’s the largest, but not last, of the snares. They must also have the stomach to fail and fail for decades: lose every legal motion, waste every outreach to media, before someone sees the justice of their claim.
For 20 years, DiPippo lost every way you can. He acted as his own lawyer in the early going, teaching himself the trade as he went along. “I learned from the few guys fighting their cases: You had to fuckin’ live at the law library,” he says. From his prison cell, he resolved to nail his betrayers, beginning with the lawyer who sold him out.
First, “I got hold of my case file,” says DiPippo. There, he found evidence that pointed to Leader’s ex-client, Gombert. DiPippo tasked his team to build a file on Gombert, talking to anyone who’d mentioned his name to Putnam County detectives in the 1990s.
Soon, his investigator tracked down Rachel R. and slowly drew her out about her past. By and by, the details emerged: the rope, the gag, the rapes and threats, and the secret room in the garage behind her house. Per the sworn testimony of Rachel and her mother, who’d watched from their rear window, girls were locked into that room by Gombert, and wouldn’t be let out until the next morning. “They would vary [in] ages … 16, 18, around that period,” said Sheila in a 2016 deposition. For years, she’d been silenced by shame and guilt. By DiPippo’s retrial, though, she’d found her voice, a dying woman testifying from a wheelchair.
Meanwhile, there’d been breaks in the Robin Murphy case. On April 9th, 1995, Murphy had vanished from a strip-mall lot. She was another Carmel teen trying to find her lane, having dropped out of school the year before. She had a job at the ShopRite, where she befriended Ann-Marie D., a part-time clerk. A hundred yards away was the laundromat where Gombert worked; Murphy had befriended him, too. At the time, Gombert was estranged from Ann-Marie, who had him charged with rape just two months prior. She’d fled to Connecticut and was hiding in women’s shelters, but he tracked her through her other job, at Sears. Per Ann-Marie, he’d dyed his hair black and left flower bouquets on her car. Then, in early April, he abducted her, putting a knife to her throat, she told cops; when she “screamed bloody murder,” he ran away. Several nights later, Murphy went missing — and Gombert wound up in an ICU, having overdosed on booze and sleeping pills.
He was recovering in a Danbury hospital when Carmel police grilled him about Murphy. (They had caught the case, not PCS, because she vanished within Carmel town limits.) He admitted being the last person to speak to her, then lawyered up and refused to cooperate. But Murphy was never found and the case stalled out — though for no lack of pressure from Murphy’s family. It became a grim ritual in the local press: Every couple of years, her mom would denounce the cops and report her frantic efforts to learn the truth. She hired psychics, and dive crews were dispatched to the local quarry. Those dives have become a ritual themselves, an annual excavation of love and rage, and a sorrow that never seems to touch bottom.
In the interim, Gombert slipped away, moving across state lines to Connecticut. There, he met a nurse named Paula Q.* who was living on disability. A couple of months later, she would eventually testify, the usual horrors began. But women were only a delivery device, a pass-through to their preteen daughters. Paula was childless, but her best friend, Martha, wasn’t. Laney B., Martha’s seven-year-old, would sometimes stay with Paula, whom she thought of as an aunt. One day, Gombert bought Laney a bikini and took her to a pond for a swim, Laney would later testify. He molested the child in a clearing above the water and photographed her naked on the grass. Holding up the Polaroids, he burned them in front of her, Laney said. Then he flaunted his viciousness, walking her down the hill to take a dip.
Time was, Gombert did his dirt in secret, taking pains to cull girls from the pack. But by now he’d grown brazen and careless. A year later, Laney reported him; the cops were quickly summoned. They didn’t have far to look for Gombert. He’d already gone to prison for brutally raping Paula. That attack, in 2000, was the act of a man who was too far gone to care.
For his crimes against Paula and Laney, Gombert got 30 years; it was a gift in gold wrapping for a devil. But his conviction in 2002 was the break DiPippo needed; it yanked back the veil on Gombert’s past. When they busted him in Connecticut, the cops searched Gombert’s houses. From Paula’s place, they found the trunk full of panties he’d stashed there as trophies; DNA tests proved that one of the pairs belonged to Robin Murphy. They also seized his hunting knife and his treasury of homemade porn — snapshots he’d taken of “every girl he ever did, including [Rachel] and [Ann-Marie],” Paula told me. (A Carmel official confirmed that, telling me he had “nine boxes of photos” seized from Gombert.) Gombert, being Gombert, sued the New Milford cops; they’d overstepped their warrant by searching his car. The case went to trial and a jury awarded him damages — but once again, his gain was DiPippo’s windfall. The transcript of that trial led DiPippo to Paula and Laney, who poured out their hearts to his investigators. Now, he had four women swearing affidavits that Gombert raped and gagged them — and that his distinct criminal signature rarely varied.
DiPippo was barely literate when he got to Shawangunk in 1997. But for a young man bent on freeing himself, jail was a place to learn to think as well as read, to interrogate the county that sent him down. By the time he finished his report to the attorney general — a forensic history that took him years and is a painstaking portrait of Gombert — he could write like a novelist, not a novice. He could also take a stab at the imponderable: why the cops in Putnam gave Gombert a free pass. “The short answer is, they didn’t care about those girls: They were troubled chicks who deserved whatever they got,” says DiPippo. But the broader truth, he thinks, includes race. “I know from their notes that they called me and Andy ‘wiggers.’ We dressed ‘Black’ and sold dope, we listened to rap music. So they decided to make examples of us.”
Up against this culture, it’s a wonder DiPippo ever found daylight. But in 2007, Putnam elected a DA who had no prior investment in the case. “If DiPippo was guilty, I hoped he’d die in jail,” says Adam Levy, who served two terms in that post. “But if he wasn’t, I didn’t want him doing another night for something he didn’t do.” Levy’s office consented to a hearing on his conflict-of-interest claim; DiPippo deposed Leader, his former lawyer. Leader denied tanking the trial in 1997 but admitted that he’d never investigated Gombert. That statement should have won DiPippo a new trial, but once again, a judge ruled against him. DiPippo was devastated — then got up the next day with a plan to draft a motion.
“You either keep going or you die,” he says. “Prison’s like a cemetery for the living, but I wasn’t giving up. I refused to let those punk cops beat me.”
Besides, each loss was a gift of time to build his case against Gombert. By 2011, when the appeals court granted him a retrial, the proof he’d compiled was staggering. That year, for instance, Gombert allegedly crowed to a fellow inmate that he may have raped and killed two girls in Putnam County. He said Josette was “a slut” who’d “flirted with him a lot.” She “offered to babysit” his toddler daughter, which was how “he could get her in his car.” The inmate, Joe Santoro, pressed him for details. “At first, she didn’t want to do it,” Santoro remembered Gombert saying. “I had to persuade her.” He “ended up fucking her in the car,” a red coupe with a black hood. Santoro asked him if this happened around the time Josette died. “He said, ‘It don’t matter anyway, they already got those other guys’ ” for that crime. (From prison, Gombert denied raping Josette, calling her “somebody I didn’t even know,” though he admitted to meeting her once.) Then, Santoro said, he talked about the second “body,” a “chick he used to know,” named Robin. “They won’t find her if they didn’t find her yet,” he boasted, which left him “in the clear.” Santoro ran to his cell and wrote down those details; he later passed them to DiPippo. In 2016, Santoro took the stand and testified to his story at trial. (Gombert disputes Santoro’s account, alleging that Santoro was paid off, but produced no evidence to support this. Gombert also points to the fact that, in April 2021, Santoro was arrested on federal extortion charges for allegedly threatening to recant his prior testimony unless he was compensated. According to the complaint against him, he confirmed the testimony had been truthful. That case is ongoing.)
In the run-up to the 2012 trial, DiPippo presented everything he’d put together against Gombert. Affidavits from four victims, Gombert’s alleged confession to Santoro, and the trunk of panties seized from Paula’s. But the judge at his retrial blocked every shred of evidence against Gombert. Once again, DiPippo had to fight for his life in a courtroom tilted against him. Barred from even raising Gombert’s name to jurors, he lost his retrial in 2012. He was 16 years in and millions of dollars out; no one would have blamed him for folding. Instead, he doubled down, hiring one of the most pugnacious lawyers in New York City.
Ben Brafman had made his bones repping Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, Jay-Z, and Sean Combs. Brafman put his post-conviction partners to work, tasking them to rethink the case from scratch. Mark Baker, the appellate lawyer on the team, read the Gombert file and had a radical thought. “There’s a weapon DAs have called the Molineux Rule, to include prior bad acts against defendants,” says Baker. He cites Bill Cosby as an example. At Cosby’s second trial for sexual assault, the judge let his previous victims take the stand to establish Cosby’s MO. “I figured, why can’t we do a reverse Molineux?” says Baker. “Bring in Gombert’s history as a criminal pattern — but use it on behalf of our defendant?”
The ploy either hadn’t been argued before or had never prevailed on appeal. Because it was a novel issue of law, a judge in New York’s Court of Appeals granted him a hearing. Baker persuaded that judge to have the full court review it. He argued his case before the seven-member panel in January 2016. There’s only a two percent chance of getting the entire panel to hear your argument, but Baker got to make his case — and the court agreed with him. It issued a precedent-setting decree that gave DiPippo a third trial while opening the door for others wrongly accused. It found that the judge at his 2012 trial had wrongly barred his introduction of evidence against Gombert. He was entitled to make a “robust defense,” they said — and if that meant accusing Howard Gombert of murder, well, then, a jury should hear it and decide.
DiPippo was ecstatic. The ground had moved beneath him. Alas, it had moved below the DA’s office, too. Levy had been replaced by Robert Tendy, who was bent on sending DiPippo back to prison. (He’d been released to home confinement, pending trial.) Tendy brought on a shark to handle the case, a prosecutor from Manhattan named Larry Glasser. Glasser’s first act was to phone his star witness. Denise Rose lived anonymously in small-town Florida, an unstable single mother who couldn’t keep a job and was on probation for public drunkenness. A year before, a lawyer from Levy’s office had flown down to see her, wanting to know how she’d hold up at a third trial. He’d found her “really damaged” and deeply dishonest, a woman he wouldn’t trust to tell the time.
That lawyer, a veteran prosecutor who asked not to be named, walked her through her account of the murder. He tells Rolling Stone he grilled Rose about what the victim wore, right down to her earrings. At the one-hour mark, he hid his wrist from Rose. “What color is my watch?” he asked her. Rose, sitting smack in front of him, said she had no idea. “Exactly,” said the lawyer — “that’s how I know you lied. Witnesses never remember pointless details.” Rose broke down and blurted out “Castaldo.” He was the one, she said, who gave her all those facts — but she insisted, against all proof, that she’d seen a crime.
It was this version of Rose who took the stand a year later. Marc Agnifilo, DiPippo’s trial lawyer, tied her up in knots, then poked huge holes in her story. Over 20 years, she’d told three juries that she feared DiPippo would kill her. But Agnifilo wrung from her the shabby truth: She’d spent every free evening — after the murder — clubbing and copping drugs with DiPippo. By the time she confessed to having sex with him once and often cooking dinner for the two of them, the jurors had heard enough. “Not only did they not believe her, they wanted to get the truth,” says Agnifilo. “What actually happened, and who did what to whom?”
With the stage now set to address those questions, Agnifilo called Gombert’s accusers. Laney B. talked about being raped at seven, then sobbed as she described what happened next. “He took pictures of my vagina, and he made me look,” she said. When she cried, “he just lit them on fire.” Getting off the stand, she was “destroyed,” she says. “I ran to the bathroom and was wailing so loud that security came to check on me. It was the rawest moment of my entire life.”
Then came Rachel R., a stunning but doom-struck woman, having led a life deformed by rape. She’d been taken from her mother and placed in care when she reported Gombert at age 13. A bright, beautiful girl, she’d left school in ninth grade to birth and care for her daughter. That was about the time she fled Carmel, but, she testified, Gombert always managed to hunt her down. The last time he did so, she was sound asleep: “He woke me with his hand over my mouth.” He snatched her baby from her crib and threatened to take her if Rachel didn’t submit. “[He said] I was just worth a couple thousand dollars, so he wouldn’t care if he killed me,” she said, weeping. But the kid was worth more to him — at least “$25,000”; Rachel did as instructed. She also described an earlier beating in which he punctured her kidney. “Did you report that [to the cops]?” Agnifilo asked. Yes, she said, she did — but “nothing was done.”
By now Agnifilo had swung the jury to his side. But the coup de grâce witness was Dom Neglia, the disabled former friend of DiPippo’s. Neglia, like every teen hounded by those cops, had been shattered by the lies they had him tell. He’d been in and out of jail for most of his adulthood. As he talked about the ways Castaldo tortured him, and about the pain he bore for framing his best friend, Neglia looked over at the jury. The women on that panel turned to DiPippo. Several of them were weeping. “There was so much sadness, even I fogged up,” DiPippo says. “That’s when it hit me: I’m going home. And nothin’ they can say now’s gonna stop that.”
Two weeks later, the judge was handed a slip of paper. He read it to himself, then stared at Josette’s family. “There’ll be no outbursts in my court,” he warned. The foreman read the verdict. The room erupted — screams of rage from Josette’s mom and sisters (when reached for comment, her mom called his acquittal a “miscarriage of justice”); shrieks of joy on DiPippo’s side. He found himself swept up in a wave of hugs, deaf to everything but his pounding heart.
“I don’t remember nothin’ till I got outside, then suddenly it hit me: color.” For 20 years, he’d lived in a wash of gray. He couldn’t stand the brightness as his family drove him home, the intensity of life pouring in. “When you’re drowning, all you see is the water,” he says. “Then someone throws a rope and drags you in the boat, but still all you see is that water.”
His chest heaves a little as he sends himself back there. It takes a man ages to trust that he is free after half a life in prison, years before he grants himself a wider circumference than his own four walls. Even now, DiPippo worries when he steps outdoors, scanning the distance for a cop. It’s no way to live, but he knows he can’t stay home. There’s a purpose in this somewhere, and on better days he grasps it: a life of staunch service to men like him. For now, though, there’s a story he must see to the end. It begins with freeing his best friend, Krivak, whose pathway home is blocked by Bob Tendy, the Putnam County DA.
From the start, Andrew Krivak’s road was harder than DiPippo’s: The cops dredged a confession from him. They detained him for hours, denied him a phone call, and lied that DiPippo snitched on him, according to his lawyers. Krivak asked to take a polygraph test; the cops told him that if he passed it he could go home.
Krivak was handed off to their supervisor, Dan Stephens. Stephens, an operator from a politically potent family, had built a tidy sideline over the years. He leased himself out as a “polygraph examiner” to police forces in downstate New York. Walking into a room with his ancient lie-detector machine, he’d strap detainees to it for many hours. Then he’d conduct a forensic Q&A that was a confession-extracting ploy dressed up as science.
Much of what is known about Stephens’ methods surfaced in a landmark lawsuit in 2014. Jeffrey Deskovic was a teen suspected of raping and killing his classmate, though DNA traces on the girl’s remains clearly ruled him out for the crime. But Stephens pried a false confession from him in an “abusive” and “outrageous” procedure, as an expert would later describe it. He used a technique called the Arthur Examination Procedure, which had long been debunked by the profession: He strapped Deskovic to the machine, without food, for at least five hours; told him he’d failed when, in fact, he’d passed the test; then promptly “lost” the results. Deskovic served nearly 16 years behind bars before the Innocence Project brought forth his appeal. Retesting the DNA, they matched it to a murderer who promptly confessed. Deskovic sued the county, targeting Stephens as lead defendant. Jurors were so appalled by Stephens’ misconduct — fabricating evidence and coercing a false confession — that they awarded Deskovic the highest personal damages in the history of such cases: $41.6 million.
So it apparently went with Krivak. Though Stephens’ machine malfunctioned halfway through, he told Krivak that it had caught him in lies about the murder. That was false; Krivak gave truthful answers, as an expert would certify years later. But Krivak broke down then and signed a confession that Quick wrote out for him. (Stephens did not respond to a request for comment through his lawyer.)
Putnam officials flinched when DiPippo sued the county for $30 million. After haggling with him for years, they settled his case before his lawyers could depose Stephens. All of which raises a burning question: What is left for DA Tendy to try, given the state of “the facts” against Krivak? “Despite overwhelming evidence that Gombert alone committed this horrific act, the Putnam DA insists on retrying [him],” says Karen Newirth, Krivak’s current co-counsel. “That decision victimizes not only Andy, but all the other victims of Gombert who’ve never received justice.”
Five of the witnesses at his first trial recanted, and three of them testified in court that cops bullied them into signing false statements. There is Krivak’s confession, though the cops who allegedly coerced it have already cost the county tens of millions. There is Castaldo, who was off the force by 2015 after being caught on camera beating a shackled defendant. He was arrested and charged with three counts for that stunt. The most serious was a felony for “filing a false instrument”; he lied about the assault in his report. In a sweetheart deal, though, he pleaded to a violation, which carried no jail time or cut in pension.
And then there is Rose, the last accuser, as wounded as any victim in Gombert’s wake. When the lawyer from Levy’s office went to Florida to see her, he stopped by her parents’ place first. They told him they’d seen “a huge change in their daughter” after her second sit-down with Castaldo, in 1996. She’d been “very badly shaken” by that encounter. Her parents were so distressed, they spirited her out of state, but they said Rose insisted on going back. “They’ll bring me back and arrest me,” she said. Three weeks later, Castaldo squeezed from her the statement that enabled him to arrest the boys. There were dozens of such statements taken by Putnam cops. Rose’s was the only one not sworn.
Was that the one concession she wrung from Castaldo, DiPippo and his team still wonder — she’d lie if it didn’t cost her perjury charges? Should the state ever name a special master to exhume the possible crimes of Gombert’s enablers, Rose’s name will surely make the punch list. Or — not. Alone among the victims and survivors of this horror, Rose has the power to end it here. With two words, “I lied,” she can speak for the women who dread the day Gombert gets out. “Twenty years later, I still wake up screaming if I forgot my [sleep] medication,” says Laney B. They know what he is, they say; they know he hasn’t changed. And they know, with the terror of having lived this before, that no cop will believe them if he comes.
This story appears in the September 2021 issue of Rolling Stone. The online version has been updated to include additional comment from Howard Gombert.