Police discover a bullet-riddled body in the backseat of a car. Jerry Tillinghast and his brother Harold are arrested. But doubts are soon raised about Harold’s involvement. And now, Jerry has a choice: break the mob’s code of silence, or allow his brother to join him in prison.
For a full list of credits, and for more information about this episode, visit crimetownshow.com.
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VINNY DEQUATTRO: Ring-a-ding. Tomorrow morning? I can do 7:30, 8:00, 8:30.
ZAC STUART-PONTIER: This is Vinny DeQuattro. He runs Vinny D’s, a barber shop in Providence.
VINNY: Yeah I can do 12:30, 1, 1:30. Okay, see you tomorrow at 12:30.
ZAC: As you can probably tell, Vinny is Italian. His shop is in Federal Hill. We’re here to talk to him about the good old days, when mob boss Raymond Patriarca ran the neighborhood. And…because Marc needs a haircut.
MARC SMERLING: Raymond used to get his haircut here?
VINNY: Yeah, once and awhile, yes. And the son used to come here once and awhile.
MARC: Tell me about Federal Hill, you moved to Federal Hill how long ago?
VINNY: 1975. Federal Hill used to be all full of Italian people.
VINNY: It’s sad but years ago when Raymond used to be alive, used to be more control, more better. Since Raymond die, lost control.
ZAC: There’s a photo hanging on the wall. Vinny is a younger man with a gold medal around his neck. Also in the photo is another guy, who we recognize.
MARC: Is this the award winning haircut?
MARC: Tell the story about how you won the gold medal.
VINNY: I won the gold medal, I take a contest, I take a model and I cut hair on a stage. And my model used to be Jerry Tillinghast.
ZAC: Yeah, that Jerry Tillinghast. Mob enforcer, Vietnam veteran, environmental inspector, and hair model.
JERRY TILLINGHAST: Vinny’s barber shop was right up the street from the lounge. Three times a week I would go get my beard trimmed.
He said one day, he says, I got a contest coming. He says, I want you to be the model. A model, what the fuck? Gay shit, you know what I mean? But I says, What do you mean? He says, Yeah a model. Cut your hair. I said really. He said yeah.
ZAC: So Jerry and Vinny drove the 50 miles north to the contest in Boston. At the contest, there were 30 barbers, each with their own hair models.
JERRY: The part that he didn’t tell me is you have to sit still. You can’t move for a few hours. I said, What? And I says, Alright, I think I got this. Which I did, I was surprised.
VINNY: I cut his hair and uh, I waited to 10 o’clock to wait for the prize. I said Jerry, I hope you know I have no chance, I don’t think but, wait, wait, wait, they call the third prize, they call the second prize, I said Jerry, let’s go home because it’s…but then they call mine, the first prize. And then I’m so happy.
ZAC: Vinny told us another story, about how, one day, Jerry came in with a friend. A friend named George Basmajian. Vinny gave them both a haircut. They chatted. And then, Vinny said, the next morning, he heard on the radio that George Basmajian was found dead, his body riddled with bullets.
MARC: He told me that the night…
JERRY: You want this on?
MARC: Yeah. Look, if you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to answer. But he told me that the night that Basmajian was killed, you guys got your hair cut. And you guys were there together. He was your friend.
JERRY: Yes he was. A lot of people were my friends that passed away suddenly.
ZAC: But in the case of this friend, Rhode Island state police say that Jerry caused his passing. That not long after that haircut, Jerry Tillinghast murdered George Basmajian.
MARC: When we last left Jerry, he’d just beaten a rap in the Bonded Vault heist. On today’s episode: the code….that forced Jerry to make a choice… between his organized crime family…and his actual family.
I’m Marc Smerling.
ZAC: And I’m Zac Stuart-Pontier. Welcome to Crimetown.
ZAC: It’s November 30th, 1978. And state police detective Vincent Vespia is tailing George Basmajian…the night he’s murdered.
VINNY VESPIA: We were following Basmajian at the time he was killed. We think that they’re going to pull a job. We didn’t think it was going to be a hit.
ZAC: You met Vespia in episode 1; he was a friend of Buddy Cianci’s. According to court documents, the night of November 30th, Vespia and the rest of the surveillance team follow Basmajian to Michael’s Lounge, a nightclub on the edge of Federal Hill. Also there…is Jerry Tillinghast.
Jerry is wearing a dark jacket with gold lettering on the back that reads “Brass Rail,” the name of a strip club.
At 7:21, Vespia watches Jerry make a call from a phone booth. For a while, Jerry paces on the sidewalk in front of Michael’s Lounge. Back and forth. Back and forth.
A couple minutes later, Jerry and Basmajian leave the lounge and get into Basmajian’s car. Vespia follows them.
He tracks them to a bowling alley, where they switch into a different car: a stolen 1974 yellow Mercury. It’s almost 9 p.m.
VESPIA: I was behind the car. It was Basmajian in the backseat and two Tillinghasts in the front seat.
VESPIA: Harold and Jerry. Jerry was driving the car. It was a stolen car. Harold had stolen it earlier.
ZAC: You remember Jerry’s older brother Harold from episode two. He was the one standing behind the Peter Pan Diner, holding a shotgun, the night that Mousie Rotondo was killed. Jerry made a choice that night: he took the shotgun from Harold, saving his brother from doing something he might regret.
But now, Vespia saw the two of them in the stolen Mercury with George Basmajian.
VESPIA: And I start following them. And I’m all alone. I’m calling for some help, “I got him. We’re heading this way on this road.” So, I clearly see three people in the car. But I don’t want to be made and i’m doing all my maneuvers not to get made. So we get to an intersection near the airport and I’m three or four car lengths back.
ZAC: For a moment, as the Mercury turns a corner, it disappears behind a fence. Just for a moment. But then Vespia catches sight of it again and he notices that something has changed.
VESPIA: Now I’m looking in the car and I only see two people. The two Tillinghast brothers in the front seat. So I said, Oh shit, how did he get off the car? I’m talking to myself. We came off 95, we’re on an exit ramp. Where is he?
ZAC: Vespia pulls back, worried about being made. He loses sight of the car. Then he begins to criss-cross the area, trying to find it again. It’s 9:20 pm.
VESPIA: So I spot the car. The Tillinghasts are gone.
ZAC: The Mercury sits abandoned in a parking lot near the airport. Vespia gets out of his unmarked car and walks across the lot.
VESPIA: The car is steaming up on the inside. You know? Open the car door, Basmajian is in the back seat with 9 bullet holes in him. I didn’t count at the time but it turned out to be 9 bullet holes. So he’s dead. Now I know why I didn’t see him. So I [whistle].
ZAC: The surveillance team convenes at the crime scene. Blood is still gushing from a huge wound in Basmajian’s head. The medical examiner later concluded that Basmajian had been shot nine times. All nine shots were fired from the passenger seat…from the same .38 caliber revolver.
Think about this gruesome detail: .38 caliber revolvers only hold five or six bullets. Which means the gunman fired three times into Basmajian’s torso…reloaded… and then shot him six times in the face.
Detective Vespia and an FBI agent go looking for the Tillinghast brothers, and find them back at Michael’s Lounge. Where they started the night. Vespia gets there around 9:55. He walks in and sees Jerry sitting at a table in the back.
JERRY: Well we were sitting in Michael’s Lounge, talking. I was in and out like every 15 or 20 minutes. Whatever the case might have been. And in comes Vinny Vespia and an FBI guy.
They come right over to me. Right over, they push the table over and all that, you know. And they call to me and say, Jerry, get up, you’re under arrest. I said for what?
VESPIA: So I just went in there, threw the tables away and grabbed onto him, you know, put him against the wall. Arrested him for murder. As luck would have it, the jacket that Jerry had was splattered with blood. And whose blood was it? Basmajian’s.
ZAC: It was a slam dunk. Vespia saw Jerry and Harold with Basmajian in a stolen car. He followed them and found Basmajian’s bullet-riddled body. And to make things even more certain, he found Basmajian’s blood on Jerry’s jacket.
But Jerry said he was innocent. He and George Basmajian were friends.
MARC: You and George were friends at some level.
JERRY: Yes we were.
MARC: What was he like?
JERRY: George, he was a tough kid. Tough kid. We’d go out. We’d have a few drinks. We got into a lot of fights together.
ZAC: So who was George Basmajian? Well, he was an outsider. An Armenian, hanging out with all these Italian and Irish wiseguys. Trying to prove his toughness.
But he wanted to be big-time… like Jerry.
JERRY: He liked to be around high profile people. You know, he had a dream to, a dream to aspire to that, you know? I used to tell him, it’s not all cracked up it is to be, brother. You know?
He had a beautiful wife and daughter and family. I felt really bad for them when it all went down.
ZAC: Why was Basmajian murdered? According to police, it was all about the mob’s code. A code that demanded loyalty above everything else. A code that required Jerry to kill his friend.
Jerry and Basmajian were suspects in several mob hits. A drug smuggler thrown out the 23rd-story window of a hotel in midtown Manhattan. A dealer strangled with piano wire and stuffed into a sleeping bag in Massachusetts. And Basmajian liked to brag, run his mouth. According to the code, people who talk too much have to go.
It’s a code that Jerry still lives by. He won’t say if he was in the Mercury that night. But he will talk about what happened after his arrest. You see, outside Michael’s Lounge… his brother Harold was arrested too.
JERRY: They took me outside. And Vinny Vespia says, no wait a minute, we need one more. My brother opened the door, stuck his head out, he said, Where are you taking my brother? He said take him too. And that’s how Harold got arrested.
ZAC: Why did he take your brother?
JERRY: Because he said we needed one more. He thought that my brother was with us in the car. So he said, take him too. He didn’t come in and say he was looking for Harold and Jerry. You know what I’m saying?
ZAC: Here’s the thing. A lot of people in Michael’s Lounge that night said Harold had never left the bar. That he spent the whole evening there, drinking, eating pizza, and watching Mork and Mindy. One of those people happened to be Paul Dimaio, Jerry’s longtime lawyer, whose office was just down the block from Michael’s.
PAUL DIMAIO: November 30, 1978. I walked down the street, a place called Michael’s Lounge. And I see Jerry’s car out in front. So I walk in, Hey, where’s Jerry? Harold goes, he was just here. Alright. So, I sit down. Michael, me, and Harold are sitting there.
ZAC: According to DiMaio, he was with Harold at Michael’s Lounge the entire evening. He says there’s no way Harold could have been involved in Basmajian’s murder. Now, you might expect him to say that about Jerry, his longtime client. But that’s not what he’s saying. He’s only talking about Harold.
DIMAIO: Sometime after nine, Jerry sits down. My back was to the door. And I do not know if he was in the place. He probably wasn’t, it was pretty small. Should be able to see him. And sat down next to us.
Maybe 10 minutes after that, in comes Vinny Vespia and Phil Reilly, FBI guy. And they grab Jerry. So I’m not gonna get involved in this. What is this about? Murder. I stay away from that kind of stuff. Ok, fine, do what you gotta do.
And Harold is always nosy. He’s sitting there and say I want to find out what’s happening. Sit down, Harold. Sit there. Do not get up. Well, what does he do? He gets up.
I find out the time of the murder. Harold was not there, absolutely not there. I‘m not gonna lie for anybody, certainly a murder, when it comes to my license and what I do for a living. He was not there. I don’t know who it was. I don’t even know if Jerry was there. But the evidence seemed pretty strong that he was. Jerry wouldn’t take Harold on a jaywalking expedition, never mind a murder. Not that Jerry committed murder. I don’t know that.
JERRY: We went down to the station and everything like that. They kept pulling him out, pulling me out. They were playing good cop, bad cop. Come on. So anyway, I said listen. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t want to be back here. Don’t be bothering me. There’s nothing to see. You know, I used to say, see you in the arena. That’s what I used to call the courtroom.
ZAC: Coming up after the break, we’ll see you in the arena.
ZAC: Welcome back. Seven months after George Basmajian was found dead in the backseat of a stolen Mercury, the state of Rhode Island vs. Gerald and Harold Tillinghast began.
Here’s what the Providence Journal said at the time:
“One brother, Jerry, is three years younger but taller, bigger and more outgoing. He is the man whom many people fear, the man who had beaten the rap more than once, the man who went free after the Bonded Vault.
The other brother, Harold, is the quiet one, the fey one, the man his lawyer called ‘a character,’ the man who one day lifted his shirt to show the press gallery the Pink Panther tattooed on his stomach.”
Jerry says Harold had always been different, even as a kid.
JERRY: He was a character. I remember, Harold used to always go out and he’d play with the girls. So my mother got mad at him one day. She put a dress on him. Straight up. Send him out like that, figured, she’d, you know, deal with some boys, hang with some boys too and stuff like that. And didn’t faze him a bit. He went right out there with the dress. It was funny as a bastard, yeah.
MARC: Was he your favorite brother?
MARC: Yeah. Sounds like it.
JERRY: We did everything together.
ZAC: And that was the question facing the jury: did Jerry and Harold murder George Basmajian together?
The prosecution relied on the testimony of the surveillance team that followed Basmajian the night he was murdered, Detective Vincent Vespia and FBI agent Phil Reily. The defense tried to make Vespia look like he was out to get Jerry from the beginning. For example, when Vespia found Basmajian’s body, he never checked to see if he was alive, as procedure required. And when Jerry’s defense asked why, Vespia said:
VESPIA: “Well look, I’ve investigated maybe five murders that I believe he affected, and he didn’t leave any of those people alive. So I took a calculated risk that Basmajian was dead.” I said, “And you know something? I was right. He only had nine fucking bullets in his head.”
ZAC: The defense argued that Harold hadn’t been in the Mercury… and several witnesses testified that he was at Michael’s Lounge the entire night. During cross examination, FBI Agent Reilly admitted that he saw Harold in the Mercury only in profile, for just a few seconds. And he couldn’t identify Harold’s clothes, or say whether or not he had a mustache.
But Vespia was more certain.
MARC: He said Harold wasn’t there.
VESPIA: Who was there? I saw Harold.
But Jerry was also certain.
JERRY: Forget me. I’m gonna claim innocence anyway, no matter if I did or didn’t do it. There’s no doubt in my mind, every cop that was involved, every judge, every prosecutor that came across that case knew he was innocent.
The way the evidence was going, they way they had it going, I swear to God I thought it was gonna be a split decision. Means one guilty, one not guilty.
ZAC: On August 11th, 1979, the verdict came back. From a Providence Journal article that day:
“At about 2:20 pm, the Tillinghasts were led into the courtroom in handcuffs. Harold looked grim, but Gerald smiled at his friends and relatives in the gallery.
The brothers exchanged brief comments with their lawyers and shook hands with each other for good luck just before the jury entered the room a minute later.
The Tillinghasts sat immobile, their faces grim, as the verdict was announced.”
Jerry and Harold were both found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
VESPIA: It was a war. We considered it a war against organized crime. It was us against them.
ZAC: Again, Detective Vincent Vespia.
VESPIA: In those days, prior to court decisions and best practices that we talk about nowadays, we, because it was a crusade, we did some things that probably would be frowned upon legally today. But why do we do it? Because it was the way to win the battle.
ZAC: What was it like when they read the verdict? Can you explain what that felt like?
JERRY: Well, you’re upset, you don’t like it, but you try to maintain composure. I know Harold was sick, sick about it.
ZAC: Think about this: If the jury was wrong about Harold, like Jerry says, that means there was someone else in the Mercury that night. Another guy… in the passenger seat… who pulled that trigger nine times. And if the jury was right about Jerry, then he could have saved his brother by giving up that other person. But guys like Jerry don’t do that. Flipping on another wiseguy would have meant breaking the code.
So Jerry and Harold both headed to Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institutions, or ACI.
JERRY: See, the first five years I was in that bit I was in denial, and not the river in Egypt, trust me. I didn’t give a fuck. I’d assault an officer as well as an inmate, anybody, I didn’t care. I was bitter, you know? Because of my brother.
ZAC: Harold Tillinghast spent more than two decades in prison. Again, attorney Paul DiMaio.
DIMAIO: Every year Harold went up for parole. I’d go up and say to the parole board, I’m here for the rehabilitation, he doesn’t need it, he didn’t do it. They finally let him out after about 25 years. He was definitely innocent of that.
ZAC: Harold’s health declined. He had advanced heart disease and he was taking medication. But toward the end of his sentence, when he was out on parole his condition took a turn for the worse.
JERRY: He had got out. He wanted to go to the mall, the Providence mall, to buy some jeans. My sister didn’t want him to go out she wanted him to stay home but he was determined he wanted to go, but when he got to Filene’s, I think it was right in front of Filene’s, he had the heart attack.
We talk about him all the time. My theory is this, as long as you talk about ‘em, they’re in your heart and they’re in your life. We keep them alive. If you don’t talk about anybody anymore, eventually it passes.
ZAC: The world changed while Jerry was behind bars. As the 70s stretched into the 80s, the federal government was cracking down on organized crime. Prison sentences were getting longer. And more and more mob guys started to rat, to flip. The code that Jerry sacrificed his brother for suddenly didn’t mean as much.
JERRY: The bad thing is, when you grow up with a code, and you stick to it, then you see people that invented the code, go the other way, it pisses you off.
ZAC: And then, in 2007, after almost thirty years in prison, Jerry got out.
ARCHIVAL REPORTER: Mr. Tillinghast, can you tell us what you’re thinking now? Fresh air?
ARCHIVAL TILLINGHAST: I just wanted to get in the car and go home and enjoy the moment.
ARCHIVAL REPORTER: State prosecutor and the state police say Jerry Tllinghast is one of Rhode Island’s most notorious mob murderers.
ARCHIVAL POLICE OFFICER: He was a feared street enforcer, and hopefully prison has mellowed him. We have reports that he is.
ARCHIVAL: Mellow now, maybe, but a convicted murderer, always.
ZAC: Today, Jerry Tillinghast is 70 years old. He lives in a nice suburban house on the outskirts of Providence. He became a Wiccan in prison, and there are books about magic on the shelves. He spends his time playing Dungeons and Dragons. He has a cat.
And he says he no longer blames the cops for anything. Not for arresting Harold back in 1978, and not for putting both of them away for decades.
JERRY: Life’s too short to hold grudges. Listen, they do what they gotta do. I don’t hold grudges against Vinny or anybody. They’re doing their job. If I put myself in a position where I have to worry about the law, that’s on me. Choices.
I made a choice. My favorite word is choices. It should be everybody’s in this fucking world. You make it, you own it. You reap the benefits, suffer the consequences. You made the choice. Be man enough or woman enough to take the pain as well as the gain.
MARC: Hey listeners, we’re taking the next few weeks off, for the holidays and to work on the rest of the season. But we’ll be back on January 22nd with much more from Providence, Rhode Island and this season of Crimetown.
ZAC: Crimetown is me, Zac Stuart-Pontier, and Marc Smerling.
We are produced by Drew Nelles, Austin Mitchell and Mike Plunkett.
With additional production by Laura Sim.
We’re edited by Alex Blumberg and Caitlin Kenney.
Fact-checking by Mick Rouse.
This episode of Crimetown was mixed, sound designed, and scored by Matthew Boll.
Sound design by Ted Robinson at Silver Sound.
Our title track is “Run To Your Mama” by Goat.
Our credit music this week is “Into the Grey,” by Vanessa Bley.
Original music by John Kusiak, Jon Ivans, Edwin and Bienart.
Our ad music is by Matthew Boll.
Additional sound design by Tim Robinson at Silver Sound.
Additional mixing by Martin Peralta and Enoch Kim.
Our digital editor is Kate Parkinson-Morgan.
Our design director is Ale Lariu.
Alex Blumberg is The Podfather. We wouldn’t take you on a jaywalking expedition.
This season of Crimetown is dedicated to the memory of Zachary Malinowski. We miss you, Bill.
Shoutout to Matt O’Connor, for teaching us that the ACI is plural.
Thanks to the Providence Journal, WPRI, Julia Heymans, Emily Wiedemann, Tim White, Dan Barry, Lisa Newby, Mary Murphy, Greg Mallozzi, and everyone who shared their stories with us.
For a full list of credits, visit our website at crimetownshow.com. And you can find us on Twitter @crimetown, and on Facebook and Instagram @crimetownshow.
And if you’re enjoying Crimetown, leave us a rating and review on iTunes. It really helps others find out about the show. Thanks.
Providence is a special place, and we’re honored to tell a part of its story. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks.