The murder of New Jersey Police Officer Charles Bernoskie is a story so tangled that it took almost half a century to unravel.
On Thanksgiving weekend in 1958, Officer Bernoskie left home, in a driving rainstorm, for work, patrolling the streets of Rahway, N.J.
“He came home a little bit later to get his rubber boots on because it was a dark stormy night, like the mysteries say,” his widow, Elizabeth, now 70, tells > 609 Minutes II correspondent Vicky Mabrey. “And he put on his boots and he said, ‘I'll be home shortly.’”
But on patrol that night, Bernoskie interrupted a robbery at Miller Pontiac, a local car dealership not five minutes from his home. He was shot three times in the head and chest.
Those three gunshots left Mrs. Bernoskie a widow with five children and a sixth on the way. Police were left with the unsolved murder of one of their own. The storm had washed away most of the evidence. The gun was never recovered. One lone fingerprint was found on a can of antifreeze at the scene, but police could never make a match.
Over the years, Mrs. Bernoskie called police often: “I must have called, I don't know how many times. And they would tell me there is nothing new. I was embarrassing them. But I still wanted to know.”
As the years became decades, Mrs. Bernoskie, who never remarried, put herself through nursing school and raised all six children on her own . She made sure they all went to college, watched them all get married, held their babies – 16 grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Then one day out of the blue, the phone rang. – 40 years after the murder- and police told her new information had cracked the case.
On a tip, police had arrested Ted Schiffer, 63, a Pennsylvania man who had never before been arrested or fingerprinted. But his fingerprint was a perfect match for the lone print at the murder scene.
Schiffer told police that on that rainy 1958 night, he needed some antifreeze and his cousin , Robert Zarinsky, bullied him into stealing it from Miller Pontiac.
When they heard the police officer rattling the doors , the two panicked, Schiffer said, and ran to the yard next door, crouching behind a shed.
“I remembered the officer coming up behind me, nudging me in the butt with his foot,” Schiffer says. “I'll never forget that. He told me I can get up now. I froze. Then Robert said, ‘Run.’ I’ll remember that 'til the day I die. And that's when I get up. I just start running. I seen the gunfire, the flashes of the gun. Then I got shot. Then Robert caught up with me. He-- I told him, I says, ‘I was hit.’ He said he was, too.”
Unlike his cousin, Robert Zarinsky was well known to police. In the 1960s, he was a suspect in arsons, vandalism and robberies. By the ‘70s, authorities believed he was a serial killer. He was a suspect in a string of grisly murders, all teen-age girls, but he was charged in only one of them, the murder of 17-year-old Rosemary Calendriello . In 1975, he was convicted, and he has been serving a life sentence for the last 26 years.
Zarinsky wouldn’t grant 60 Minutes II an interview without being paid, but his sister, Judy, who provided the tip that led police to him, was willing to talk.
“He's an awful person. He’s the devil on earth. He's a murderer, a burglar, a cop killer,” said Judy Sapsa who says she remembers that night when her brother and her cousin Teddy came home with gunshot wounds.
Although there were other adults present, she says, her mother, the family matriarch, took charge. Instead of rushing the young men to the hospital, she took both boys into the kitchen.
With no medical training and using tweezers, tongue depressors and peroxide, Sapsa says, her mother removed the bullets.
Why did their mother do this ?
“My brother said that they were robbing Miller Pontiac and that he shot a cop,” Sapsa says.
For four decades, she says everyone kept their silence, under orders from her mother. Then in 1995, their mother died, leaving almost all of her assets, about a quarter of a million dollars worth , to the son who was serving a life sentence.
With failing health and in financial trouble, Sapsa and her husband appealed to Zarinsky for help.
“And he said, ‘No, because I'll need all the money when I get out.’” Sapsa told Mabrey.
When Zarinsky discovered $ 112,000 of his money missing. he pointed the finger at his sister and her husband, who has since pled guilty to embezzlement..
“I wanted to come forward so many times,” Sapsa says. ‘But I was scared of my mother and my brother.”
Investigators had enough to put Robert Zarinsky on trial in Elizabeth, N.J, last May. Mrs. Bernoskie was in court every day, surrounded by her children.
Zarinsky took the stand to defend himself against his sister’s charges. “I did did not kill the police officer. Definitely, I did not kill him, “ he testified.
“She did not see me come in shot by no police officer,” he said. “ She's making that up. She's lying to-- for what she did to me, stealing everything. She’s making that story up. “
Zarinsky had an answer for every challenge and an alibi involving a girl friend who, like almost everyone else in this strange case, was dead.
He also claimed his cousin Ted Schiffer was not an inept novice, but an experienced burglar with a long-standing partner-in-crime. But that alleged partner was also dead..
Zarinsky’s attorney attacked both witnesses’ credibility, saying they each had something to gain. Schiffer was promised a lighter sentence in return for testifying. Sapsa wasn’t promised anything, but she wanted to avoid being prosecuted for stealing her brother’s money.
And the jury wasn’t allowed to hear that Zarinsky had a history of armed robberies, that he was a convicted murderer and that he had lied under oath before, at a parole hearing.
The Bernoskies relived forty two years of waiting and hoping for justice during the eight hours that the jury deliberated before rendering a not guilty verdict.
Some jurors told 60 Minutes II they thought Zarinsky was guilty, but that ultimately they had to go along with the others because there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Bernoskie hasn’t given up. She’s going after Zarinsky another way, by filing a civil suit for wrongful death. Legal fees will probably bankrupt Zarinsky, but Mrs. Bernoskie doesn’t care if she never sees a dime. She says she just wants to make Zarinsky pay, literally, for killing her husband.