The Devil You Know
Why were two teens in Carmel, New York, locked up for murder, while a local criminal with a mile-long rap sheet was never even questioned?
Two New York state teens were locked up for murder, while a local criminal with a mile-long rap sheet was never even questioned.
Years before the secret room in the garage behind his place, * Some names have been changed to protect survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
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.
Contributing editor Paul Solotaroff wrote about corruption in the Chicago PD in December.
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, Trumpallegiant 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 i n 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