These are some things Mohamed Gebeli loved: a warm feta cheese pie from Bay Ridge Bakery, hot coffee with half and half and Splenda, and the Egyptian soccer club Al Ahly. He loved greeting neighbors every morning as he unlocked the door at Valentino Fashion and waving goodbye as he closed for the night. But on the evening of July 6, 2012, law enforcement authorities say a door-to-door clothing salesman, Salvatore Perrone, walked into Gebeli’s clothing store at 7718 Fifth Ave. and shot Gebeli in the neck. Then, they allege, he covered the body with clothes, stole the money from the register and walked out. The next month, Perrone killed again, the Brooklyn District Attorney says, and, three months later, he killed once more. When the police finally caught up to him, he reportedly said he was working as a secret agent.
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Salvatore Perrone’s home sits vacant on Beverly Avenue in the Silver Lake area of Staten Island. It’s a narrow street, just wide enough for a FedEx truck to squeeze between parked cars. The homes are narrow too, mostly white two-stories with steep steps up to inviting doors and clay bunny rabbits and cozy living rooms, where TVs buzz and small dogs nap in the afternoon light. Outside, American flags dangle from square white pillars.
Terry Calano stands on her porch in white socks and leather slippers, one hand near the crucifix hanging from her neck and the other pointing to Perrone’s hulk of a home next door. The house is at least twice the size of any nearby, with three steep dormers on each side of an equally steep roof. It has no siding, only a dark grey building material and Halloween-green trim. It’s a bit spooky. In the yard, weeds grow chest-high, crowding out shrubs and what might have been a healthy red maple, and piles of brush and grass lie ready to be burned or hauled away. “I knew he was a rat from the beginning,” Calano says, gazing at the overgrowth next door. “He was probably gonna build Fort Knox over there.” She motions to piles of cinder blocks in the weeds and a partly finished cement wall parallel to the sidewalk.
Calano met Salvatore Perrone almost 30 years ago, when Perrone and his then-wife, Marie Salerno, moved in next door. It was a beautiful home, but not long after Perrone and his wife bought it, he began the extensive renovations that were ongoing until he was cited for building code violations in 1998. The Staten Island Advance reported that in 2010 the city Buildings Department placed a stop work order on the home for not conforming to zone.Calano remembers the Perrone family well. “I had just lost my husband and Marie was pregnant with their daughter,” Calano says. “I used to go over and sit with Marie and keep her company that whole summer.” What she remembers of Perrone wasn’t nice: an angry, self-absorbed man, always critical of his wife. A garment salesman, he often came home late at night. She remembers overhearing his tirades and obsessive behavior. One night in particular, Perrone loudly told Marie how much he hated the dinner she had cooked. “If my husband had done the same thing I would have dumped the whole plate on his head,” Calano says.
Frequently, neighbors saw Perrone, whom they dubbed “Son of Sal,” out wandering the streets in the middle of the night. Once, in broad daylight, Calano saw him pause in the narrow median of busy Clove Road just below his home to read a letter. As two lanes of traffic whizzed past in each direction, Perrone tore the paper into small pieces, letting the rush of cars carry them away. Around the house, his habits were just as unpredictable: instead of hiring a lawn service to trim the plants in his yard, Calano says, once in a while he’d “just hire Mexicans to come—not to cut it, but just pull out the grass.” Today, though, Perrone’s wife and daughter are gone and he sits in jail. The home is dark and empty.
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Mahmoud Hussein remembers watching Mohamed Gebeli cry. They were standing among the clothes and shoes in Valentino Fashion, watching the TV as they did together almost every day. It was 2011, and the revolution against the Egyptian government was in full swing on the other side of the world. Here, in Bay Ridge, it was a good day for Egypt.
Hussein and Gebeli were both Egyptian and in their 60s. It was Hussein who would often walk around the corner from his insurance business on 77th St. to Gebeli’s clothing store on 5th Ave. They would drink coffee and watch the television, especially if the Al Ahly Sporting Club was playing. “They were his favorite,” Hussein says. Some days, Salvatore Perrone would stop by to watch TV and chat.Gebeli opened his shop early and closed late, usually around 7:30 or 8 p.m. He had some customers, but business was slow. With time, Hussein could sense that the stress of making ends meet was getting to his friend. It was a depressed feeling that Gebeli couldn’t seem to shake. “We were standing and talking in his shop one day,” Hussein remembers. “He turned to me and said, ‘It feels like I’m gonna die in this place.’”
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Fifth Ave. in Bay Ridge is calm and well kept. Block after block of small shops, family businesses, bakeries, restaurants and banks beckon residents to leave side streets of apartments and brownstones for the bustle of the avenue. And on a fall afternoon, the temperature is mild. Two women in black burqas push strollers past an older woman wearing Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses and driving a motorized wheelchair. It’s a safe, friendly place.
In fact, Bay Ridge is the 7th safest neighborhood in New York City for violent crimes as well as total crimes. It comes in right behind other quiet areas of the city, such as Great Kills and Tottenville, New Dorp and South Beach, and Bensonhurst. If you look at a crime map for Brooklyn, it’s like someone deleted each of the little crime pins in Bay Ridge. DNAinfo, in their 2011 crime and safety report, said this:
The Neighborhood came in No. 7 in per capita crimes on DNAinfo.com’s ranking of 69 neighborhoods, with 73 crimes per 10,000 residents…All major crimes were down by 80 percent in the period 1993 to 2010, outstripping citywide averages. Robberies dropped a remarkable 81 percent, and car theft, a major concern in a community where most families own vehicles, dropped an eye-popping 92 percent in this period.
Bay Ridge is safe in comparison to most of the city, if not to many parts of the United States. But on Saturday July 7th, 2012, its residents woke up to a cordoned-off city block, a crime scene in a clothing shop and police detectives going door to door.
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Chris Kargas remembers how much his wife hated seeing Salvatore Perrone walk into their dry cleaning and alteration store across from Gebeli’s clothing shop. “He’d come in and he’d leave that black bag of his right there,” Kargas says, pointing to a small space on the floor near the glass door. Once, Perrone came to sell him thread, explaining that he was shutting down a clothing factory he owned and was getting rid of some inventory. As Kargas remembers, the spools were of low quality thread, probably already used. Kargas bought some, but the next time Perrone showed up, he told him he wasn’t interested in buying any more. “My wife told me, ‘I don’t like him,’” Kargas says. “She didn’t want me to do business with him.”
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Authorities say that when Salvatore Perrone entered Valentino Fashion with his black duffel bag in hand, Mohamad Gebeli was the only other person inside. In the bag he carried a .22-caliber rifle with a sawed off stock and a flashlight duct-taped below the barrel. He took the rifle out, shot Gebeli once in the neck, covered him with clothes, removed the cash from the register and left. Gebeli’s friends found him unconscious and bleeding hours after he should have returned home. He was 65.
It was around 11 p.m. that night when Mahmoud Hussein’s telephone rang in his New Jersey home. It was Mehany Magdy, who owns the barbershop next door to Hussein’s office, just around the corner from Valentino Fashion. Their friend Mohamed Gebeli, he said, had just been shot.
“I usually waved goodnight to him as I walked to my car,” Gebeli says. “But I didn’t park where I normally parked that day and I didn’t see him. He must have been helping a customer. I wish I had stopped.”
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Twenty seven days later, police told reporters, Perrone visited Isaac Kadare, an Egyptian-Jew, in his 99-Cent store in Bensonhurst, just 2 miles from Valentino Fashion. Perrone shot Kadare in the head and stabbed him in the neck. Kadare was 59.
On November 16th, Police charge, Perrone entered She-She Boutique in Prospect Lefferts Gardens and shot the owner, Vahidipour Rahmatollah, an Iranian-Jew, three times in the head and torso while he stood behind the counter. Then, he dragged his body to the back of the store and covered it with clothes. Rahmattollah was 78.
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Fran Vella-Marone, chair of District 10’s Police and Public Safety Committee, remembers the sense of uneasiness in the community as the murders kept happening. First, in Bay Ridge, then another in Bensonhurst and a third in Lefferts Gardens. Each was committed in much the same way: at night, with the victims alone in their shops. And each of the victims was Middle Eastern. “It was a really scary time for small business owners,” she says. “People had no idea what was happening.”
Andrea Arsoff, like many in Bay Ridge, remembers Perrone well. Arsoff works behind the counter at his brother’s pharmacy across the street from the now-closed Valentino Fashion. Here, middle-aged Arab women in headscarves with children in tow walk to the back of the store to fill prescriptions. “He’d come into the pharmacy to buy medicine and he’d check tablet by tablet to make sure it was the name brand,” Arsoff says of Perrone. “He’d demand to look at them through our loupe. He didn’t trust anybody.” Though Arsoff is friendly and talkative with customers, ever since the spree of killings last summer things have changed. “After him,” he says, “I don’t trust my own father.”
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Soon after Gebeli’s murder, police put up posters around Southern Brooklyn of their prime suspect: a young, black man with short hair and large sunglasses. But the Daily News reported that as authorities combed through surveillance video gathered outside the locations of the two other murders—both within a few miles of Valentino Fashion—they noticed another common character. He had dark hair and a thick mustache, and wore a black sweater and grey coat and was carrying a black duffel bag. They called him “John Doe Duffel Bag” and released the video to the media. A few days after the third and final murder a pharmacist in another Bay Ridge pharmacy, Farmacon, just two blocks from the first murder scene, had a realization: the black bag man was Salvatore Perrone, one of his customers. Not long after he told police, Perrone turned himself in. It was Tuesday, November 20, 2012.
Within hours, authorities had visited Perrone’s girlfriend’s apartment in Brooklyn. In one of the closets, they found the black duffel bag with two buck knives, a kitchen knife with dried blood on it, and the .22-caliber rifle in a closet. At a press conference, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said “We know he went to other locations and indicated he may have been planning to come back. It’s reasonable to assume he was going to keep doing this and by arresting him, we saved lives.”
The Daily News later reported a police source saying that as they took Perrone to be questioned he said “I’ll talk to you, I want to talk to you,” and “I’ll be out of here in the morning.” But once the cops took him to police headquarters he closed up about the murders, the Daily News reported. He ate pizza, a sandwich and smoked a cigar during the 24-hour interrogation but didn’t admit to anything. He told the interrogators he was a secret agent working for the Italian CIA. A police source said that Perrone was expecting a payment of $800,000 for completing his “mission.” So, as the Huffington Post reported, the NYPD got smart: they called in two Italian-speaking agents “posing as Italian special agents sent in from Rome to pretend to praise Perrone’s work and get him to start talking about the killings.” He opened up, confessing to all three.
In court a few months later, after doctors examined him, Perrone was found mentally fit to stand trial. The Daily News quoted Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Alan Marrus as saying, “According to the doctors, that thought process reflects a grandiosity on his part that is more consistent with a personality disorder rather than a mental disease or defect.” Perrone is charged with three counts of second degree murder as well as a count of first degree murder. In addition, he is charged with three counts of criminal possession of a weapon. He faces life in prison.
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On the other end of the phone line there is pause and then William Martin continues speaking. “There’s nothing society is prepared to do to begin to address mental health issues,” he says. “It’s frightening because living amongst us are people who are ticking time bombs and are just waiting for the time and place to explode.” On July 22, 2013, a full year after the first alleged murder, Salvatore Perrone fired Martin, his attorney. It’s something the court system deals with occasionally: the defendant decides, against the advice of the judge, to defend himself. But, it seems, without an understanding of how to present his case, the odds are against Perrone. “It seems like the government has a solid case against him,” Martin says. “He stands the chance to spend the rest of his life in jail.”
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It’s September 20th, and Howard Kirsch, Perrone’s newly appointed legal advisor, is standing in the back of the courtroom. He’s waiting for Perrone to enter. In July, after Perrone decided to begin representing himself, Judge Marrus assigned Kirsch to Perrone’s case. But Kirsch doesn’t seem eager to help the convicted killer navigate the legal hoops he’ll have to jump through in the coming months. “He’s the lawyer,” Kirsch says. “I’m just the legal advisor. But at some point I’ll have to look over the case because he has no idea what he’s doing.”
A few minutes later, three bailiffs walk Perrone into a wood-paneled courtroom on the 21st floor of the King’s County Supreme Court building in downtown Brooklyn. He’s traded his trademark all-black attire for grey sweatpants and a tan collared sweater. His hands are cuffed behind him. As the proceedings begin, he takes a look around the courtroom, but few people are present. After the cuffs are removed, he sits and sets his red tortoiseshell reading glasses on the table. His black hair is combed back and his thick bristle-comb mustache juts out from beneath a large nose. He’s a slight, 64-year-old man, with sad, sunken eyes. The prosecutor stands and delivers a summary of the evidence that’s been gathered since the last hearing, then hands Kirsch a thick stack of papers. It’s the evidence.
“I don’t know what to say,” Perrone says to the judge a few minutes into the proceedings, unable to answer a legal question. Kirsch leans forward and whispers in his ear. Then, he steps back behind him and to the side. As Perrone asks another question of the judge, Kirsch turns to the row of reporters on the front bench, rolls his eyes, then stares at the floor. According to Perrone, video surveillance and cell phone records will prove he was never near the murder scenes when the murders occurred.
A few minutes later, there’s an outburst from a frustrated Perrone. He doesn’t have access to the evidence, he says. “I have been given nothing,” he says toward the bench.
“Look at the table,” Judge Marrus says. “Look at the table. Don’t tell me you haven’t gotten anything.”
Perrone looks in front of him at the stacks of papers—literally hundreds of pages, turned over in the pre-trial discovery by the prosecution—and is quiet. The court will reconvene November 15th.
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Zein Rimawi is a cofounder and member of the board of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. He sits in a gray shirt and gray slacks inside the carpeted office. Like everyone in the mosque, he is wearing only socks. Leatherbound volumes on Islam line the shelves around the perimeter of the office, and photos of bearded imams stare from pamphlets.
As 5 p.m. nears, men in working clothes and jeans walk into the open mosque a few at a time from 5th Avenue. They remove their shoes at the entrance and place them in white cubbyholes. A few check to make sure their cellphones are silenced before putting them back in their pockets. They line up on the wide carpet, rows of beards and slacks and socks, and face northeast toward Mecca. The prayer begins. When it’s over a few minutes later, a reverent crowd of men turn to replace their shoes and un-silence their cell phones and head back outside.
The service for Mohamed Gebeli was held here the day after he was killed, before family members flew with his body to Egypt for burial. When the conversation turns to the alleged killer, Perrone, Rimawi is relaxed. He doesn’t harbor ill feelings toward him. In Islam, he says, the faithful must pray five times each day, must confess their faith to Allah and their belief in Muhammad, must fast during the holy month, give alms and eventually make the trek to Mecca. But for those who are mentally sick, he says, these requirements don’t apply.
“I pray for him,” Rimawi says. “I don’t have anything against him. He’s a victim like his victims.”