The private investigator Vito Colucci Jr., a burly man with a fashionably stubbled chin and neatly trimmed silver hair, threw out his arms in effusive welcome. Then he led me through his living room to the cozy, file-stacked office that is the nerve center of Colucci Investigations and the repository of Fairfield County’s best dirt. “Michael Skakel sat right where you’re sitting, and I asked him the hard questions,” Vito was saying. “I said to him, ‘Let’s talk about this masturbation thing, because it’s gonna be big.’ And you know what he told me?”
Michael Skakel is among Vito’s most famous clients: better known than Jayson Williams, the basketball star who allegedly killed his chauffeur with careless gunplay, but not as well known as Michael Bolton, who believed a stalker was on his trail, or Woody Allen, who hired Vito during his acrimonious custody battle with Mia Farrow. It was Vito who compiled evidence against the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, the Darien priest who plundered church coffers to finance his immodest lifestyle, and Vito who investigated the strange disappearance of Greenwich honeymooner George Smith from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. The average citizen is likeliest to feel Vito’s influence when a marriage unravels and divorce looms: You might be the one hiring him to catch your cheating spouse, or you might be the one in the eye of his microcamera.
My acquaintance with Vito began with Michael Skakel. In the late nineties while writing about the Moxley murder in Belle Haven, I had tracked Skakel from Massachusetts to Florida but found him to be immune to my reportorial inquiries. There was no question Skakel had lied about his actions on the night of October 30, 1975, the night Martha Moxley was pummeled to death with a 6-iron from the Skakel household. Would he never have to explain himself? After his arrest in January 2000, his attorney, Mickey Sherman, did what any smart Connecticut lawyer would do: hired Vito to burrow into the lives of the many odd characters who orbited the Skakels.
I met Vito during preliminary court hearings. He did not comport remotely with my image of a hard-nosed private eye. The few I’d known were gruff, solitary and noirish, like cops who had been banished from the tribe and drank alone at night, thinking about sin and redemption. One might have expected Vito to be like that. A Stamford narcotics detective in the seventies, he had survived shootouts and death threats and his own criminal police bosses. But Vito seemed completely undarkened by heavy experience. He was jovial, talkative and friendly to reporters; he was a talented rock guitarist and a devout Christian. His favorite fictional detective was not Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade or even Sherlock Holmes, but Charlie Chan.
In 2002 I had some questions about a long-forgotten Stamford murder case, so I went to see Vito. I assumed, naturally, that the upcoming Skakel trial was strictly off-limits, but Vito blithely waded in, discussing the lead players with surprising candor. His delivery was so guileless that it took me a moment to realize he was spinning me like a dervish. As he rambled on about other suspects (tutor, gardener), the doorbell rang. Vito went to the window and drew back the curtain. “It’s Michael Skakel!” Flustered, he walked rapidly in a circle. Did he want me to sneak out the back? Skakel knew who I was and thought poorly of my journalistic efforts. It would not do for him to find me lounging in his investigator’s office.
“Does he know your car?” Vito asked. “I hope not,” I said. When Vito went to the door, I peeked out the window. There he was, the suspected murderer, standing on the front porch in a worn leather jacket and an old baseball cap. He carried a box under his arm. “Whew,” Vito said when he returned. Michael had dropped off a cheesecake in appreciation of Vito’s hard work, unaware that Vito was working on his behalf even now, in his free time. Vito and I stared at the box top. It said, “Last Chance Cheese Co.”
Now it was six years later, and Vito was revisiting the case in his mind, recalling the hard questions he’d put to Skakel. “And you know what he told me? He said, ‘Vito, you’ve got to remember something. I’m woken up the next morning and I’ve got to go give an interview at the police station, like everybody else. I’m at the police station as a fifteen-year-old kid, sitting between my father and my sister. So if you think I’m going to say that I was masturbating in a tree outside Martha’s window, you’re crazy.’ ” Vito, an expert at picking apart fabrications, saw a pattern of logic in Michael’s responses and believes today that he was wrongly convicted. (Others believe the tree story was a hedge against incriminating DNA evidence, which never emerged.)
Skakel’s latest best hope was the astonishing tale of three young men from New York City who had wandered around Belle Haven on the night of the murder with golf clubs in their hands. Two of them supposedly intended grievous harm. In 2003 Vito persuaded the third, Gitano “Tony” Bryant, a cousin of NBA star Kobe Bryant, to tell what he knew, or thought he knew. “Of course, his lawyers yelled at him afterwards: ‘Tony, you’re saying you walked around Belle Haven with a fricking golf club in your hand? You nuts? Black guy, with a golf club in your hand?’ So obviously they clammed him up after that.”
But Vito had it all on videotape. It played in a Stamford courtroom in April of last year and was a sensation on the cable news shows. Judge Edward Karazin found Bryant’s story to lack credibility for a variety of reasons, among them the fact that nobody, then or now, remembered seeing the New York trio in Belle Haven that night. There would be no new trial. (This and other elements of the judge’s decision are under appeal.) “When you’re a cop or an investigator,” Vito said, “there’s always that one case that didn’t go right. The case that sticks in your craw, that you know there should be a different outcome. And that’s how I feel about the Skakel case.”
Around the time of the Skakel trial, TV producers noticed that Vito had a pleasing on-air persona — that of a regular Joe with keen detective insight. Over the next couple of years he became a favorite of cable TV shows (Larry King, Rita Cosby, Nancy Grace, Shepard Smith), analyzing cases du jour. “Vito isn’t afraid to tell you what he thinks,” said Rita Cosby, former host of shows on FOX News and MSNBC, author of a best-selling book about Anna Nicole Smith, and graduate of Greenwich High School. “He speaks from the heart, and people relate to that. But he also has incredible case sense, incredible insight. He always adds another layer.”
Today Vito may be the most widely recognized private eye in the country. “I did twenty shows last week,” he told me in March, sounding a little tired. He had just self-published a memoir, Inside the Private Eyes of a PI, written with James Nash, and everyone from Bill O’Reilly to Judith Regan was scrambling to book him.
There’s no denying that Vito has the rock musician’s love of the spotlight. But so far he hasn’t let his growing celebrity give him a big head. His family sees to that. In his book, Vito describes returning to Stamford via network limo “kind of full of myself,” millions of viewers having just absorbed his shrewd commentary. His wife Joanne promptly deflates Vito by telling him to take out the garbage and walk the dog while he’s at it. Vito is left to wonder, “Can’t a guy soak up a little limelight without being told to pick up his socks?”
Actually, Vito, who is sixty years old and Stamford-born, learned about humility a while ago. His adult life started smoothly enough: He was married by twenty, a Stamford cop by twenty-one, and the father of two daughters by twenty-three. He’d won the prestigious Combat Cross after chasing members of an Arizona drug gang from the old Showboat Hotel in Greenwich to Rye, New York, “where they got out with guns blazing” and two fell dead on the pavement. Soon after, he divorced “for no good reason.” Then he met and married Joanne, who had two daughters of her own; the Coluccis then added a fifth child to their clan, a boy. To stay afloat financially, Vito played nights and weekends in rock bands, hoping for a break that never came.
Meanwhile he’d been promoted to Stamford Police Department’s narcotics squad, trying to crack the drug rings then flourishing in the town’s benighted south end. It wasn’t long before Vito and his partner Joe Ligi noticed something amiss. They would conduct meticulous surveillance, watching as local dealers returned from New York well stocked for the brisk weekend trade. Then, certain of their information, they would brief their boss and get a search warrant. “These dealers would practically open the door for us and let us in,” Vito recalled. “One guy would even have a smile on his face, like, ‘Come on in, guys.’ We go through the house; we don’t find nothing! After about the third or fourth time, we say, ‘What the heck is going on? We documented all this stuff. We know everything they did.’ ”
Then Colucci and Ligi arrested a low-level dealer named Arvil Chapman, and he wanted to make a deal: “If I give you something good, will you talk to the prosecutor for me?”
“Depends what you got,” Vito replied.
“Your boss. Your boss is dirty, man. Runs the whole drug empire. Larry Hogan. I sit with him in the same room when he’s cutting up the drugs with Duke Morris, the sergeant.”
“I looked at my partner,” Vito said, “and right away it clicked. That’s why we weren’t hitting on these big guys.”
Colucci and Ligi built a case, not knowing who to trust or where to take their information. They went to a police commissioner, privately, at night, who promised action but did nothing. Meanwhile their boss Lieut. Larry Hogan grew suspicious and left a note on Ligi’s desk: “Joe: What’s this secret investigation you and Colucci are doing?” When Ligi failed to answer, Hogan had Vito and Joe busted back to uniform. Their narc days were over.
But police corruption stories began dribbling into the Stamford Advocate (reporter Anthony Dolan would win a Pulitzer in 1978), and the police chief quietly retired. The new chief, a hard-liner from California, asked Vito to take on the risky assignment of going undercover to investigate his own people. “So I put in a fake resignation, like I was quitting, and went out on the street as a disgruntled ex-cop. I wore a wire, and the FBI was backing me up — they’d be way down the street as I’d walk into a certain diner or club.” The end result: Larry Hogan was indicted for murder (and died of brain cancer while awaiting trial). Duke Morris went south and got killed in a drug-related shootout. Vito? His cover got blown at a picnic attended by high-ranking mob figures. It seems that when his name came up, the mobsters noted, probably with approval, that Vito had left the police department. “A lady who was there worked at Town Hall. She says, ‘He’s not off the police; I do his check every week.’ ”
Death threats followed, against him and his family. Vito decided it was time, finally, to find a new line of work. These days, when he looks in the mirror, he sees a man who is lucky to be alive.
Sometimes cases that appear dire at first have unexpected resolutions. One rainy afternoon Vito received a phone call from the criminal defense attorney Mickey Sherman, who announced grimly that a friend, the singer Michael Bolton, appeared to have a stalker. Vito grabbed his trench coat and drove up to Bolton’s Westport compound. Once there, he suggested that Bolton brief him outside in the rain, for a dedicated wacko (or a particularly aggressive tabloid reporter) could slip into a house and install hidden recording devices. “Before I knew it, we were outside, Michael holding an umbrella, a little too stingily, I thought.”
The previous day, Bolton’s stalker had been especially brazen. Bolton had been golfing at Rockrimmon Country Club in Stamford with friends, including Barry Levinson, the director of such acclaimed films as Diner, The Natural and Rainman. After Bolton took his leave, he noticed almost immediately that a big black sedan appeared to be following him. Cautious by experience, Bolton made a sharp left onto a country lane. Still the sedan followed. Bolton hit the gas and made ever-obscurer turns, and still the sedan followed. Bolton found a parking lot, hoping to flag down a security guard, but no human was evident. The cars circled each other warily in the empty lot, then Bolton punched the gas, making for the Merritt. When the sedan pulled alongside him, Bolton braked hard, and the sedan went sailing past. He was safe — for the moment.
Bolton did manage to record his stalker’s license plate number. It was registered to Barry Levinson. The great director evidently had no sense of direction and had decided to follow Bolton back to the Merritt, no doubt wondering at the eccentric route. Mickey Sherman later advised the singer, “Next time Coppola or Scorsese is following you, don’t call me, just call Vito.”
Some cases aren’t so easily solved. One of the saddest and most confounding of Vito’s career was that of George Smith, who disappeared from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Brilliance of the Seas on July 5, 2005. Smith, a popular twenty-six-year-old from Greenwich, had embarked on a twelve-day cruise of Greece and Turkey with his new bride, Jennifer Hagel Smith. A night of partying ended in drunken confusion: Smith returned to his stateroom in the company of three young men from Brooklyn, and Jennifer passed out in a corridor on the other side of the ship. From the stateroom, witnesses reported, came sounds of unrest and arguing; then a lone voice talking aloud. At around 4:20 a.m., Smith plunged over his balcony into the Aegean Sea, leaving a big smear of blood on a metal canopy below his stateroom. An accident? A murder? Smith’s body never washed ashore, and investigations by Turkish police, the FBI and Connecticut’s own forensic wizard Dr. Henry Lee failed to break the case.
By the time Smith’s parents George and Maureen called Vito in, it was probably far too late to make a difference. “It was just hard to do anything,” Vito said. “Crime scene’s gone, it’s washed down; the evidence is gone, the room is packed up and boxed. Very hard to prove anything without any evidence.” At least Vito was able to use his TV appearances to pressure the cruise line for what he considered its lax performance. “I blasted Royal Caribbean for their lack of work and their attitude: ‘Okay, we had an accident last night, but today we’re moving on to a different port. Go play shuffleboard, go back in the pool.’ Like everything’s back to normal. Nothing will ever be back to normal for the Smiths.”
In the spring of 2006, Bethany D’Erario, the bookkeeper at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Darien, and the Rev. Michael Madden, the parish’s parochial vicar, came to Vito with a disturbing story. St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, was embezzling tens of thousands of dollars — parishioners’ weekly offerings — to keep himself and his boyfriend living in luxury.
“Even with all the different things I’ve worked on in life, I was shocked,” Vito said. “I’m sitting there making them repeat things because I can’t believe it. He goes to Tiffany and buys $14,000 worth of stuff for him and his boyfriend, and he just puts it on the church Amex card? And they proceed to bring me a whole file of all the Amex bills.” That, of course, was but a fraction of the offense: Parishioners paid for Father Fay’s habit of limos and meals at fine restaurants; for the highlights in his hair; for goodies bought at Cartier, Hermès and Bergdorf Goodman; for a black tie bash he threw for himself at the Pierre. Believing their money was going to the needy, parishioners also footed the bill for Father Fay’s ocean-view condo in Florida and his luxury apartment in Manhattan.
Vito documented about $200,000 in suspicious expenditures before turning over his evidence to the FBI. “We gave them everything on a silver platter,” Vito said. Eventually the fraud was estimated to have cost the parish about $1.4 million. Fay was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison, and only experimental prostate cancer treatments can prolong this fate.
An unexpected loser in the case was the upright Father Madden. His early complaint to church officials had gone unheeded, he believed. Only when he and Bethany D’Erario could no longer stand to watch parishioners unwittingly drop cash into Father Fay’s silk pockets did they seek out Vito. Father Madden confessed hiring a private eye from the pulpit, much to the chagrin of Bishop William Lori, who, by all appearances, dressed down the vicar for his actions. Father Madden then delivered a prompt apology. The startling sideshow that ensued pitted Madden-supporting parishioners against the Bridgeport Diocese, which they viewed as taking action only when the case went public. In August 2006, Father Madden abruptly left his calling. “When he first came to me, he sat here and said, ‘Vito, I have to do what’s right in God’s eyes.’ And unfortunately, I knew that day that he was done with the priesthood.”
The world we live in can be strange and wicked, even here in Fairfield County. If Vito has made a career of throwing light into darkness, then he views this as his role in the grand design. “My faith is the backbone of my whole life,” he said. “I know where I’ve been. I know what I’ve done. And I know God has saved me.”