Brother’s Keeper

Michael Barbarino has spent most of his life in pain or in prison. Now, 36 years after his brother Vincent was killed, he is accusing another sibling of murder.

Joseph Barbarino at his November 2006 arraignment in Bergen County on charges that her murdered Vincent Barbarino in 1972.
Photo courtesy of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.). Photo by Danielle P. Richards.

Michael Barbarino picked his way through the headstones at St. Nicholas Cemetery in Lodi, and though it was night, he had no trouble finding the grave. In the 34 years since his brother, Vincent, had been savagely knifed to death, Michael had visited that grave so often he could have found it blindfolded.
Still, Michael was lost.

In the weeks before that moment in the fall of 2006, the story he had so long held inside himself had explosively become public. News reports detailed how he had watched in terror as his eldest brother, Joseph, allegedly plunged a knife into Vincent again and again. Now it was all in the open. After years of failed investigations, prosecutors in Bergen County had at long last charged Joseph Barbarino Jr. with murder.

The case, in large measure, would hinge on Michael’s testimony, and he was far from certain that he was up to the challenge. So he made his way to the tidy grave as he had done so often and sat there for the longest time. Send me some sign that I’m doing the right thing, he silently pleaded. But all he heard was the whistle of a chill wind.

The murder, Michael says, is his earliest memory of a childhood scarred by abuse and fear. Yet shards of earlier experiences still haunt him, like the terror he felt on those occasions when Joey dragged Vincent and him down into the dismal and dark basement “clubhouse” in the run-down apartment building in Lodi where his family still lives.

Even now, he says, “When I pass that door, I still squeeze my eyes.” Michael claims he remembers watching Joey allegedly sodomize Vincent, a pattern of abuse that prosectors say was later confirmed by autopsy. Physical examinations also confirmed that Michael had been raped, authorities have said.

One family member—a sister, Annmarie—further confirms for New Jersey Monthly that Michael’s memories of childhood abuse are true. But Annmarie insists that Joey did not kill Vincent and that Michael fabricated his version of the murder as revenge.
In Michael Barbarino’s mind, time begins on a warm Thursday evening in April 1972. Michael, then 4, and his brothers, Vincent, 6; Anthony, 12; Peter, 14; and Joey, 15, played outside until about 7:30, then went home. Their mother, Estelle Barbarino (Stella to her friends), was not home that night. “She was running an outing over at her aunt’s house,” Michael says. Their father, Joseph Sr., a truck driver, had come home from work and immediately bounded upstairs to his in-laws’ apartment “to have tea like he always did.”
“Joey was keeping an eye on us while my father was upstairs,” Michael recalls. Peter and Anthony were asleep when Joey rounded up Michael and Vincent. “We went…out for a walk with Joey down to the construction site a few blocks away.”

There, he says, one of the contractors had parked a red tank truck. Joey discovered that the driver’s door had been left unlocked. “That’s when holy hell broke loose,” Michael says. “We were gonna be sexually abused again.”

Michael claims he was hoisted into the cab, then Joey tried to cram Vincent in. But, Michael claims, the boy either lost his balance or resisted, ending up “toward the bottom where the brake and stuff are.” It was then, Michael says, he noticed an object on the seat, long, narrow, and sheathed. “I remember saying to Joey… ‘There’s something on the seat,’” Michael says. “He said, ‘Give it to me.’ I passed it back to Vinnie, and Vinnie gave it to him.

“I didn’t even know what was in the sleeve when I passed it back,” Michael says. “I remember him taking it out of the sleeve and saying it was nice.”

Suddenly, Michael was overcome with an urge to flee. “I started to back out,” he says, and even as he tells it in slow and measured words, his eyes dart back and forth as if he’s still looking for a way out. “I made Vinnie go out…. Joey was still pushing Vinnie in. I remember Vinnie trying to stand up. Grab the wheel. Stand up. Grab the wheel. Stand up….The knife was already out. He came back. And when he came back he landed on top of the knife.”

Literally gutted by the knife that Michael says was in his brother’s hand, Vincent let out a piercing scream: “Mommy!”

“I’ll never forget the screams,” Michael says. Nor will he forget what he saw next. “[Vinnie] was out of the truck, on the ground, and when he buckled over, Joey [grabbed] Vinnie’s arm” and, according to Michael, plunged the knife into the dying boy just beneath his left arm. (An autopsy determined that Vinnie sustained multiple stab wounds and a fractured skull.)

Michael hid behind a pile of rocks and bricks, then bolted, his dying brother’s screams mixing with Joey’s howls of “Michael, come back! Michael, come back!”

“I ran and ran, it seemed like forever,” Michael says. Though he claims he had just seen his brother murdered, and though he believed that Joey would try to kill him, too, Michael never called for his mother, never tried to find his father. Instead, he burst into the apartment and raced down the hall to the room where the babies, his twin sisters, Annmarie and Mary Ann, were sleeping. “That was the safest place in the house…. I ran in there. I remember looking under the door, looking under the door. And I fell asleep.”

A few hours later, Michael awoke to his mother’s anguished screams. She had come home a little before 10:30 pm and found Vincent missing. She called police, and after a frantic search, they found the boy’s partially naked body. His clothes were found a few yards away underneath a trailer. The murder weapon was never recovered.

The way Michael tells the story, the family’s first instinct was to tamp down any evidence that might link Joey to the crime. The clan’s matriarch, Tessie Como, Michael’s maternal grandmother (now deceased), carefully laundered Joey’s clothes, using an old washboard to remove any trace of blood, Michael says.
Almost immediately, authorities zeroed in on Joey as a likely suspect.

The teen drew suspicion to himself with his bizarre behavior just minutes after Lou LoScialpo, then a Lodi patrolman, and his partner, Frank Luciano, found Vincent’s bloody remains. In those days, LoScialpo says, beat cops did not carry walkie-talkies, so he had to trek across the construction site to his squad car to radio for backup. As he neared the car, he saw Estelle Barbarino walking toward him.

Right behind her was Joey. LoScialpo insists he said nothing about what he and his partner had just seen. “Estelle Barbarino had a look on her face when she saw me,” LoScialpo recalls. “Maybe a mother could sense [the truth from the] look on my face. But Joseph was behind her, and before I said a word, he started carrying on… ‘I’m gonna get a gun! I’m gonna kill him!’”

Joey suddenly fled. LoScialpo, then 28, ran after him, finally tackling Joey as he bounded up the steps to his apartment. The policeman handcuffed him and was surprised when the boy did not struggle against the cuffs. With all the thoughts racing through his mind at that moment, LoScialpo did not immediately think that Joey might be the killer. Instead, he thought, Joe Barbarino… is going off the deep end here, let me just for his own protection put handcuffs on him.

That night, Joey was held in a Lodi jail cell. Cops and prosecutors were already familiar with various members of the Barbarino family, including Joey. Herb Allmers, who was then a Lodi detective, administered a polygraph test. “He failed it, and I tried to get him to confess, but I couldn’t,” Allmers says. The family, according to investigators who worked the case then and later, was less than cooperative. “He was well protected,” Allmers says.

In the first days of the investigation, Joey was admitted to a state psychiatric facility in Menlo Park with his parents’ consent. While there, psychiatric professionals dosed Joey with sodium amytal, a so-called truth serum, so he could be questioned about the murder. Joey’s statements from these interviews and others conducted without the drug remain a carefully guarded secret. However, authorities who have reviewed the tapes from the sessions say that Joey never admitted to killing his brother but gave at least five different accounts of the evening, each contradicting the others, and all later determined to be false.

With no hard evidence, no murder weapon, no bloody clothes, and the only known witness to the slaying too young and too frightened to talk, the cops were stymied, and the investigation ground to a halt.

The next several years are, in many respects, a blur to Michael Barbarino. More than anything else, he says, he remembers the terror of living in the same house with Joey and parents who, in his mind, were unwilling to admit that their eldest son might be a killer. Michael says he is willing to forgive his mother. “Do not accuse my mother of shit,” he sputters angrily when asked if he believes she knowingly covered up for her son. “My mother, I can honestly say…in her heart, she really don’t know.”

He is less forgiving of others, particularly his father, who died in 1995. “We never had that father-son bond, because I guess over the years I held him responsible,” Michael says. But one afternoon in 1994, their truck broke down on Long Island, stranding them in a diner for nine hours. Joseph Sr. and his son talked about the murder and the failure to solve it. “Between you and me,” Michael says the older man told him, “I know your brother….If he didn’t kill him, he was involved in it.”

That acknowledgement, Michael says, was no compensation for a childhood spent in terror. Though he willed himself to forget, he says the images haunted his dreams.

When he was eight, Michael found a temporary escape. Or, more to the point, one was found for him. Social workers who evaluated the obviously disturbed child recommended that he be placed in Building One at Bergen Pines, a county psychiatric hospital (now called Bergen Regional). Michael says that from the minute he arrived there, he felt safe.

At other times, when he was home with his family, Michael claims Joey sexually abused and beat him. More than once, Michael says, Joey threatened to castrate him.

Michael says he soon realized that the best way to escape the horror of home was to be incarcerated. Beginning when he was a teenager, he bounced among a string of residential facilities for troubled youths (including Bergen Pines), juvenile detention centers, and his troubled home. He had come to realize there were only two ways he could stave off the flashbacks. One was heroin; by his own account, he developed a seventeen-bag-a-day habit. Getting locked up was the other.

Shortly after he turned 18, Michael was arrested for burglary. According to state Department of Corrections records, he spent more than half of the next two decades in state prisons and the Bergen County Jail on charges ranging from arson and burglary to weapons possession.

By 1988, however, neither narcotics nor jail could hold back the memories. Michael was at Trenton State Prison doing five years for burglary when the flashbacks returned, more fevered than ever. Michael sat down at a prison typewriter and poured everything out. He says he sent the letter to the Bergen County prosecutor’s office.

At about that time, new information became available, and the Bergen County prosecutor reopened the case.  Dennis Calo, the assistant prosecutor who headed the homicide unit, enlisted his two most experienced detectives and met with Michael in jail. Though they believed his story, they knew that Michael’s criminal record undermined his credibility as a witness.

The prosecutors needed witnesses to corroborate Michael’s story, so Calo empaneled a grand jury, hoping to use its power of subpoena and grant immunity to loosen tongues. Even that failed.

Finally, investigators fitted Michael with a wire and placed him in the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, where Joey was being held on minor charges. As Michael tells the story, Joey saw the wire, foiling the investigators’ plan. The authorities who were listening have a different view. “He told his brother he was wired,” one official says. “He blew the whole thing.”

For most of the next two decades, Michael and Joey managed to avoid each other with the help of the judicial system. Between prison terms for burglary (twice) and arson, Joey found time to woo Michael’s wife, Patty, who left Michael and married Joey, a development Michael says he ultimately accepted with a measure of relief.

In 1997, on one of those rare occasions when both he and Joey were out of jail, their volatile relationship exploded into a fistfight while they were visiting their sister Annmarie. There is no record of how that fight turned out. But a few days later, Michael used his street connections to buy two .22 caliber handguns—a semi-automatic and a revolver. He then contacted Joey. “I told him about it,” Michael says. “I said, ‘When I come for you, be ready, ’cause one of us ain’t gonna walk out of this house.’” He dropped off one of the guns for Joey to use.

But the showdown never came. As his sister Annmarie recalls, when Michael showed up at her house, Joey was nowhere to be found. What Michael did not know was that earlier that day, “my older daughter found the loaded gun in the shed,” Annmarie says. Annmarie telephoned police to warn them that Michael was on a rampage. The moment he stepped out of her house, armed officers surrounded him. After a brief standoff, Michael surrendered. He later pleaded guilty to weapons charges and spent the next six years in prison.

By the time Michael completed his sentence in 2004, a new Bergen County prosecutor, John Molinelli, had started a cold-case squad. Later that year, with the backing of the new police chief in Lodi, Vincent Caruso, the team decided to tackle the Barbarino case. It took nearly two years to compile their facts. To their surprise, investigators say, people previously unwilling to speak appeared ready to come forward.
What’s more, Molinelli says, prosecutors had found new evidence.

Neither Molinelli nor assistant prosecutor Wayne Mello, who is handling the case, would elaborate, and much of the evidence in the case is sealed. But both say that modern forensic science has given them a clearer picture of the slaying, providing details which, if corroborated by witnesses—including Michael— could help convict Joey.

On October 16, 2006, two years out of prison and taking whatever jobs he could grab, Michael, remarried with two young children, was having a hard time getting by. The way he tells it, in order to raise cash he took some of the sixteen prescription drugs he uses for a variety of maladies and trekked down the hill to Hackensack to sell a few in a local park. It was typical of Michael’s luck that undercover officers from the Bergen County police immediately arrested him.

That same day, investigators from the prosecutor’s office arranged to interview him.  They told Michael that they believed they finally had enough evidence to charge Joey with murder. But they needed Michael’s testimony to pull it together.

They offered him nothing in return—no deal on his drug charges, no real protection from the consequences he would face within his family or on the street.

He agreed to do it. A month later, 34 years after Vincent’s death, Joseph Barbarino, then 50, was arrested and charged with murder. Two years after the arrest, it is yet to be determined whether Joey will be tried as a juvenile or as an adult. The decision may not be made until another set of charges against Joey is resolved. In 2006, Joey was arrested and charged, as an adult, with aggravated sexual assault and child pornography in a case involving an 11-year-old girl who was, for a time, under his supervision.

Motions in the case were pending as New Jersey Monthly went to press. If proven, those charges alone could land Joey behind bars for the rest of his life, authorities say. Joey’s attorney, Ray Beam,  did not return calls for comment.

“I feel sorry for him because he’s in jail,” Michael says of Joey. “But it’s like I’m being tried for murder along with my brother. I’ve lost my job, and I’ve lost a lot of good friends.” Most of his family, he says, shuns him.
Estelle Barbarino would not comment for this story. But Michael and Joey’s sister, Annmarie, agreed to speak for the family. She maintains that Joey—“Jo-Jo” as she calls him—is innocent. “There is no way, shape or form my brother Jo-Jo did this,” she tells New Jersey Monthly.

Annmarie insists that Michael is wrong. The physical and sexual abuse Michael endured as a child—abuse she says no doubt occurred—has twisted his mind, she says. She believes Michael concocted the story and is targeting Joey in part because “Michael always wanted to be Jo-Jo.” Further, she says, “every time [Michael] gets in trouble, every time he goes to jail, it’s like he has a get-out-of-jail-free card because he always says that he knows Jo-Jo killed Vinnie.”

But there is one person, Michael believes, who supports what he is doing. He realized that after trudging to the cemetery on that cold autumn night two years ago. “I sat there for like two hours…and I said to Vincent, ‘If I’m doing the wrong thing, let a car pass, send some kind of sign.’ No car passed. So, by the same token, I said, ‘If I’m doing the right thing, send a sign.’”

The next day, outside his duplex in Lodi, Michael says he spotted a sparrow standing on the ground beside him. “It didn’t do nothing. It just looked up. It didn’t make a chirp. I figured the little bastard was hurt.” He carefully brought the bird inside and placed it in a covered box near the kitchen window. “A couple of hours later, I heard this scratching. I thought, Oh, he must be dying.” But when Michael opened the box, the sparrow cheerfully leaped on top of it. “He didn’t fly away. He just sat there….I started petting him.” Michael opened the window, and watched the bird flutter away. “He didn’t even stop. He flew right out,” Michael says. “I named him Vincent.”

Seamus McGraw is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly. His first book, Pipe Dreams, How the Frantic Hunt for Natural Gas is Transforming Small Town America, will be published by Random House.

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