The Rochester riots, the Alphabet Killer, and me

Sometimes I lie awake a night, thinking about things that surface from my subconsious totally unbidden. Last night, it was about fear.

Those of you who know me well know that I’ve suffered from anxiety issues my whole life. Those of you who don’t know me won’t be surprised to hear that earth shattering news, I’m sure. At one point, I had anxiety attacks that were so bad I couldn’t leave the house. Fortunately, that was only for a short while, but make no mistake. I’m much more comfortable in my house, in my pajamas, with the dogs.

Talking to a psychiatrist once, he asked me about my childhood, searching for a trigger for my anxiety attacks. Without going into detail about our conversation, he thought I feared “having the rug pulled out from under me”. In other words, I have control issues. Being unable to control my circumstances leads to fear and anxiety.

So anyway, I was lying in bed last night, my little brain in overdrive. I was thinking about the riots in Rochester in 1964, because Bob Lonsberry was talking about it this week on the radio.

I was thinking about the infamous “Alphabet Killer” who allegedly murdered three young girls in the early ’70s, because I’m reading a book about it. And when I bought the book, I had been talking to Shelley, a fellow writer who works at the bookstore. She and I are about the same age, and she said that she remembers the “double initial” murders and is affected by them to this day. I agreed.

And last night, while all of this was stewing around in my brain, that’s when I realized something: I was born into anxiety.

On July 24, 1964, I was less than 60 days old. My parents owned a home on Augustine St in the city of Rochester, a few miles from Nassau Street and Joseph Avenue, the epicenter for the racial violence that would change the face of Rochester forever. Over three days, the riots escalated, a curfew was ordered, and eventually then-Governor Rockefeller called out the National Guard.

My father was working for a private security firm, assigned to the old Rochester General Hospital on West Main St., near one of the places where the riots where happening. He sent my mother and I to stay with her family in Massachussetts, although I have no memory of the incident, obviously, and really know very little about the city or the riots or life on Augustine Street. I’m not saying the riots had anything to do with my anxiety; I just find it ironic that I am born and the world around me becomes chaotic.

But in 1971, when Carmen Colon, the first victim of the “Alphabet Killer”, was murdered, I was 7-years-old. Because my father joined the Gates Police Department, we had moved from Augustine Street to Gates, where I spent the rest of my childhood.

While we didn’t leave near where Carmen was abducted – or where the other two victims, Michelle Maenza or Wanda Walkowicz, were abducted either – the places where their bodies were found varied across the county and into the next. And our neighborhood tract backed up to exit 6 of I-490 – just three exits from the area near where Carmen Colon’s body was found.

I don’t recall much about the murders or the news from that time, except for one thing that is seared forever into my memory: Carmen Colon was seen by numerous drivers on I-490, running down the road half-clothed and crying for help. No one stopped, no one called the police, and two days later her body was found. She was raped and brutally murdered.

Even at 7-years-old I was able to conjure up an image of the girl, just a few years older than me, pursued by an assailant and ignored by people who saw her and looked away. To this day, I see her in my mind, running, crying, desperately trying to get someone to stop and help her. Talk about fear.

Growing up the daughter of a police officer I led a sheltered life; I would guess a lot of children of law enforcement officers had similar experiences, probably because police officers see the dark underbelly of society and want to protect their family from every possible danger. I was warned about strangers and about drugs and crime and dangers around every corner. (For a while I even attended a church that preached that the devil was waiting outside my door to pounce on me.)

So the first decade of my life was marked, even when I wasn’t concious about it, by fear. If it wasn’t a race riot, it might be a murderer. Or the Russians launching a missile; I remember practicing bomb raid drills in elementary school.

As a teenager, it got worse: “The Amityville Horror” scared me so badly that to this day I hate basements, and a movie we watched in high school health class, “Bad Ronald,” about a kid who lives in the walls of a house and spies on the family, always leaves me wondering if there’s someone lurking in the attic. Are those squirrels running around on the roof? Or is Bad Ronald coming out for a snack?

And like I said, late last night, the idea that I’ve always been surrounded by fear and anxiety may explain why I’ve always been so anxious. I think some people are influenced by their environment, their community. I apparently soak up fear and anxiety like a sponge.

Bob Lonsberry talked this week about Joseph Avenue and the Rochester riots, and how they essentially changed the city of Rochester forever; he said that Irondequoit as we know it was formed after the riots. I’d like to know more about that, since it happend so soon after I was born. What was the city like then? How did it become the cesspool of crime it is now? (Did you know, for example, that we were once a hot bed for evangelists?)

While the book about “The Alphabet Killer” is interesting, I find myself wanting to know more about that time, too. More personal stories from the people who lived in those neighborhoods, from friends of the girls, and most importantly, more about those murders affected young girls of the same age in Rochester.

Did  the “double initial” or “Alphabet” murders affect the way others look at life? Where are the friends of Wanda Walkowicz, Carmen Colon and Michelle Maenza now? How did their murders affect the police who worked (and are still working) the case, the neighborhoods where their bodies were found, other girls of the same age? What might the three girls be doing had they lived? How did life change for their parents, their siblings? There’s more to their lives then just the way they died.

Of course, at 3 a.m. my brain told me that if you can’t find the book you want to read, write it. Those kinds of ideas are always very ambitious, aren’t they?

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5 responses to “The Rochester riots, the Alphabet Killer, and me

  1. Hi,
    I was wondering if you had anymore information about this case? Any possible news paper clippings, photos, or anything at all. I am working on a cold case and I have been tasked with the Alphabet killer. I would really appreciate any information I could get from someone who was there at the time. If you do not feel you can add or want to add any information I understand.

    Thank you for you time,
    Mackenna Roth
    email: mackennaroth@gmail.com

    • Makenna, this was a huge case here in Rochester and one that’s gotten a lot of coverage, so you should be able to find a lot of stuff. If you’re here in Rochester, I suggest you go to the Rochester Public Library’s main branch downtown – the local history section. It’s in the old Rundell building, 2nd floor. They can pull all of the clippings from the story for you from over the years. That’s the best way to get started because it’ll give you all of the new stories – and there were a lot. There were also murders that were thought to may be connected but then decided not. So they can pull the “murder” files from the years of the killings, too, and you can go through them. It’s time consuming, and make sure you bring a whole lot of dimes to make copies (.20 a page, any size paper)!

      The book I read that I talk about isn’t that great – unless you know nothing about the case. Then it might be helpful in giving you really basic info. But it’s not really worth the $18. The library can give you way more information.

      Hope that helps! Let me know if I can answer other questions!

  2. I can relate to everything you said. Especially fear around the times of the Alphabet murders. we were their ages when it happened. I remember the girls in school with double initials, being especially terrified. Still, to this day, we remember those girls, and every one of their names. Those little girls could have been any one of us at that time. Born into anxierty indeed

  3. I was 15 when the riot happened. I lived on Sellinger st. It’s gone now but it was one block south of Rauber. The barracades on Joseph were less than 2 blocks from my house. It was scary. No one could sleep in the neighborhood because of all the noise. No one really knew what was going on.

  4. Pingback: On the set of the improvised cop comedy, “Midtown” | Rochester Night & Day

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