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Released Convict Faces Life As Pariah

March 18, 2002

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CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) _ He has no job. He lives on handouts from family members and friends. He sleeps in a homeless shelter across the street from a junkyard in a gritty neighborhood of New Jersey’s poorest city.

Released from prison last month after serving 38 years for killing two police officers, Thomas Trantino has been chased out of every community he’s tried to settle in.

But for Trantino, liberty is something to be enjoyed in all its trivial, everyday glory. He is savoring flowers, trying to figure out how his cell phone works, marveling at vending machines and food courts.

``This is one of the nastiest crime areas in America, right here,″ he said of the area around his shelter. ``But to me, everything here has a beauty to it, even a junkyard and a homeless shelter.″

To many, there’s nothing beautiful about Trantino’s newfound freedom.

``How could you have sympathy for him?″ asked Sally Tedesco, mother of slain Officer Gary Tedesco. ``To lose a beautiful son like that, have him killed like an animal, so young _ he destroyed my life. I guess you can kill and get away with it.″

``He reaps what he sows,″ said slain Officer Peter Voto’s son, Jerry Voto, 51. ``The only thing that could be more fitting would be if he was in a box. He’s a vicious murderer.″

On Aug. 26, 1963, Trantino and Frank Falco were drinking at the Angel Lounge in Lodi, celebrating a robbery they had pulled off the day before. Officers Voto, 40, and Tedesco, 22, arrived to investigate a disturbance. Trantino and Falco surprised them, partially stripped them and shot them.

Falco was killed the next day by police trying to capture him.

Trantino was sentenced to die in the electric chair. But his sentence was commuted to life in prison after New Jersey’s death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1972. Eight years later his good behavior and apparent rehabilitation led the state Parole Board to approve his release, but that was rescinded after an uproar.

Eventually, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered him released. He was transferred to a halfway house last year. Then on Feb. 11, his 64th birthday, he became a free man.

It’s been a rocky road.

Restricted to Camden County, Trantino got a temporary job as a substance abuse counselor in a Volunteers of America day center and was placed in a group home in Collingswood. But he was forced out after 10 days when residents protested over having a convicted killer living too close to a school.

He tried to move in with his 89-year-old father in Staten Island, N.Y. The landlord said no and threatened to evict the father. Trantino withdrew the request.

Then he tried Haddon Heights, a well-to-do Philadelphia suburb. When the state Parole Board notified Haddon Heights police, city officials held a news conference about it, quashing the plan.

``Every time he finds a place, the Parole Board tells the cops, the cops tell the mayor, the mayor calls a press conference, they rant and rave about Trantino being in town and then the landlord backs down,″ said Trantino’s longtime lawyer, Roger Lowenstein.

``They continue to punish him, long after the punishment is over. People would rather deal with the Trantino of 1963 than a rehabilitated 64-year-old man,″ Lowenstein said.

But one municipal official said it’s impossible to know whether Trantino has mended his ways.

``Has he been rehabilitated? I don’t know if he’s one bad-mouth away from taking a gun and shooting the next person who comes by,″ said Albert Olizi Jr., borough solicitor for Haddon Heights.

Besides, welcoming a cop killer would be difficult for the community, which remembers too well the slayings of two law enforcement officers in a 1995 standoff.

``It’s an unfortunate situation. But his best chances would probably be not going to a town where people know their neighbors, as they do here, but a city where you can fold into obscurity and find yourself a job and work yourself back as a productive member of society,″ Olizi said.

The Parole Board is trying to help Trantino find employment and a home, according to spokesman Chuck Davis.

At the shelter, Trantino lives in a dormitory-style room where noise, intoxication and rowdiness aren’t tolerated. Curfew is 10 p.m. He spends his days looking for work, looking for apartments, looking for a place to fit in.

Some are ready to welcome him.

``He is a humbled, kind and respectful human being who only wishes to live in a quiet, nice community,″ said Carolyn Byrne of Pennsauken, in a letter to the editor of the Courier-Post newspaper criticizing naysayers. ``Who are any of you to judge him? You all go to your churches every Sunday and recite the Lord’s Prayer with such reverence. How about living it?″

To hear Trantino tell it, there are far more people who feel that way. He talks excitedly, gesturing as he describes the small joys of his new life.

``I go to the Cherry Hill Mall, I sit in a food court eating Japanese food and a professional looking person extends his hand to me and says `I just want to wish you luck.′ The same day, an 18-year-old guy with his baseball cap on backwards said to me, `You’re Trantino! You paid your dues, man.‴

He’s had an offer to write a regular column, but he won’t name the organization. ``It’s either the Internet or cable, I’m not sure. I’m so ignorant.″

Now, after years of wishing time away, he finds himself focused squarely on the here and now.

``I’ll find a place. I’m a resourceful person. I don’t want anyone’s sympathy,″ he said.

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