Recalling the post office shooting, 25 years later
By GWEN OREL
When he opened the door to the Fairfield Street post office in Watchung Plaza, Montclair Chief of Police Thomas J. Russo could smell the death in the room.
Five men were lying in a pool of blood.
It was March 11, 1995. Ernie Spruill, 56, Scott Walensky, 41, Robert S. Leslie, 37, George Lomaga, 59, and Dave Grossman, 45, lay on the floor. All were dead except for Grossman, who had a pulse, though he had been shot twice in the head. Grossman survived, later helped identify the suspect, Christopher Green, and also spoke at his trial.
The case was solved within three days.
Green, then 29, a former employee, had gone to the building to do a holdup. He knew that at the end of the day, the post office had cash on hand.
Walensky was a hero, Russo said: A customer came to the door, and he told her to leave.
“He had an opportunity to flee, but he didn’t,” Russo said. “He saved this customer’s life, went back, and got himself killed.”
Fourteen years ago, Russo published a book in which the event was described, “Street Kid to Top Cop.”
After taking $5,000, Green shot all of his former colleagues execution-style. He had told them he would not hurt them, and had them lie down. “Then he stood over each man and began pumping bullets into the backs of their heads and neck,” Russo said with disgust.
Green used Talon bullets, called “cop-killer bullets,” designed to do the most damage inside the human body.
The gruesome crime made international news.
“This was one of the most horrendous and horrible crimes in the annals of the Montclair Police Department. I feel comfortable saying that,” said Russo, who served 42 years in the MPD, eight of them as chief of police and two as a public safety officer. He retired in 2002.
Green, it came out, had been facing eviction from his East Orange apartment. The MPD got a tip from a friend of Green’s whom he had asked to help with the robbery. He refused. When the friend saw the news on TV about the robbery in Montclair, he called MPD, fearing for Green’s safety.
MPD staked out Green’s apartment, and picked him up the next morning.
By that afternoon, Green signed a confession.
For Russo, the identity of the suspect was a hard pill to swallow.
“I graduated Montclair High School with Green’s father, Clyde Green. You couldn’t find a better gentleman. He was a family man,” Russo said.
Though Russo would have liked to see Christopher Green, 29, get the death penalty, U.S. Attorney Faith Hochberg advised him that multiple murders are not listed in the law as a capital offense.
“I didn’t want to put the families through years of an emotional roller coaster seeking the death penalty, to achieve the same results of having him spend his life in jail,” Russo said.
Green was sentenced to consecutive double life-terms on Sept. 22, 1995, after pleading guilty to the March 21 shooting. He is still serving, said Russo.
Before the police picked Green up, they checked his background, discovering that he had a semiautomatic weapon registered with MPD.
Even had they not gotten a tip, Russo is sure they would have found Green, through tracing the bullets.
The community mourned. “It was a sight to see,” Russo said. “The postal authorities had 100 trucks in a funeral procession. The people of Montclair and the clergy came together at a memorial in Watchung Plaza. A plaque was put up.”
Montclair has not forgotten: Every year people place flowers on a memorial and share tributes on Facebook. Russo’s mailman sometimes talks to him about it, though it’s 25 years later.
“I think and I hope that this is what I term a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Russo said.
THE PAST AND THE PRESENT
Radio broadcaster Carl Kraus was in Montclair the day of the holdup and shootings, listening to what was going on through a police scanner in his car. “When I heard them say, ‘We need people for pronouncements,’ I knew it was a serious situation, that people were dead,” he said. Kraus lived nearby, and casually knew two of the murdered postal employees.
He was stunned. “I had no idea that something like this could happen in this town. It was inconceivable,” he said.
From a block away, he saw a big convergence of media and news trucks, as well as police cars, in front of the post office.
The time in between the shooting at the post office and the arrest was nerve-wracking for the public, Kraus said.
“There was a great degree of anxiety,” Kraus said. “The police came around afterwards, knocking on doors, telling people this had happened, and not to answer the door to anyone not with the police department. It was not clear whether it was a maniac.
“This was like the precursor unfortunately to what occurs with disgusting regularity with mass shootings. Montclair had the unhappy distinction of leading the pack with these types of things.”
“There was substantial relief once the apprehension was made, and publicized in the press. There was a lot of sadness for people who were murdered,” Kraus said.
He praised Russo’s talents in apprehending the perpetrator so quickly. It’s personal for Kraus: A member of his own family was murdered in South Jersey in the 1930s.
Kraus is one of the people who will not forget this grisly crime. “I’ve gone to every memorial they’ve had,” he said. “They didn’t have one this year, because of the circumstances, though somebody did place a wreath of flowers on the plaque in the plaza.
“It’s important to remember, because if you don’t know your history you can’t be a good citizen. People need to know the past.”