By Jill Neimark, published on July 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
A young black woman was an accessory to the gruesome murder of a white male.She got 25 years. Ten years into her term, at a time when sentences are getting harsher, her imprisonment raises disturbing questions about punishment meted out to women who kill men, to minority women in general, and about the nature of imprisonment--and redemption.
Girl gang seized in trunk slaying, ran the headline in the tabloid New York Post on April 8, 1985. The full-page article--and other articles and columns in the New York Times and various local papers--went on to describe one of the most sensational crimes of the year, a Nassau County to New York City kidnapping and murder that required 10 detectives in Long Island and nine in New York City working overtime to break the case.
Donna Hylton has been in prison 10 years for her part in the brutal, spectacular murder, in which three men and four women tortured a Long Island real-estate broker and, once he was dead, shut him up in a footlocker to decompose.
She has haunted me from the first moment I walked through the gates of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women and she came down to meet me. She is 30 years old. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she was wearing a white turtleneck and green prison pants.
She is quite beautiful, but more than beautiful--she has a hypnotic kind of sweetness that made it hard to concentrate on what she was saying. I preferred simply to watch her, as one might watch a monologist on an empty stage, lit by a single, bare bulb. "I don't know why," she'd said on that first visit, "but I keep feeling things are going to get better. It's like a fairy tale. There's going to be a happy-ever-after."
Hylton has 15 more years to go on a sentence of 25-years-to-life. What does that sentence look like from the inside? The political noose is tightening around criminals at this very moment: New York, as of September, will have the death penalty and a new life-without-parole sentence. At the same time, no-frills prison acts around the country are cutting prison programs intended to rehabilitate mind and body--from exercise equipment to college education. The special program at Bedford Hills that allowed Hylton to receive a college education was cut this year.
Are harsher sentences and starker prisons what we want? Who is the cell block door--a symbol of justice administered slamming shut on every night?
The victim was 62-year-old Thomas Vigliarole, a balding real-estate broker cum con man whose partner in crime, Louis Miranda, thought Vigliarole had swindled him out of $139,000 on a mutual con. The two men had sold shares in a New York City condo and meant to pocket the money for themselves, but Miranda hadn't gotten his share.
The two men had so many potential cons going that, according to New York City Detective William Spurling, "it took me three months to catalogue them. They were contemplating kidnapping a judge in New Jersey and a head of state in the Philippines."
Miranda had hired Woodie George Pace, the kind of man who boasted about putting an electric drill through victims's hands, to help him. Woodie and a former girlfriend, Selma Price, who became known during the trial as "the fat lady" (she literally weighed almost 500 pounds, and had to be taken away in a special van because she couldn't fit into a regular car), had been implicated in a similar kidnapping and torture in 1981. "Selma," recalled detective Spurling, "admitted she sat on the victim and beat him. She was so fat that sitting on him would have been torture enough."
Ultimately, Miranda would ask for a ransom of over $400,000--even after the victim had died. He never got it. Maria Talag, who according to Donna called Miranda her godfather, invited Donna and two friends, Rita and Theresa, to participate in the crime. Their cut was to be $9,000 each; Donna wanted hers to pay for a picture portfolio to help her break into modeling.
Vigliarole believed the three girls were prostitutes who were going to have sex with him. Instead, they picked him up on March 8 in Elmhurst, Queens, at Maria's home, and drugged him to make him drowsy. Then they drove him to Selma's apartment in Harlem. The apartment had already been prepared for an extended torture session: The closet door had been cut, a pot put in it for use as a toilet, the windows boarded.
For the next 15 to 20 days (police aren't sure just when Vigliarole died), the man was starved, burned, beaten, and tortured. (Even 10 years later, Spurling could recall Rita's chilling response when they questioned her about shoving a three-foot metal bar up Vigliarole's rear: "He was a homo anyway." How did she know? "When I stuck the bar up his rectum he wiggled.")
The three girls took turns watching the man. It was Donna who delivered a ransom note and tape to a friend of Vigliarole's, who was able to get a partial license plate number of the car she was driving. He notified the police, who traced the plate to a rental car facility. On April 6 the suspects were arrested, and detectives spent 36 hours straight interviewing the seven men and women. "We had to keep going back and forth and catch them in lies," said Spurling. "It was a never-ending circle of lies."
Spurling himself interviewed Donna: "I couldn't believe this girl who was so intelligent and nice-looking could be so unemotional about what she was telling me she and her friends had done. They'd squeezed the victim's testicles with a pair of pliers, beat him, burned him. Actually, I thought the judge's sentence was lenient. Once a jailbird, always a jailbird."
Finally, by 8 A.M. the next day, the detectives had signed confessions from everybody but Selma Price. Later, her lawyer would use that fact to help her plea-bargain for 15 years to life. Judge Edwin Torres, who would later go on to write Carlito's Way, gave everybody else 25 years to life.
All of us are the heroes of our own stories; we tell a kind of lie about ourselves we believe to be true, a lie of selective perception. There were times I was certain Hylton was lying to me; other times I was certain I was hearing truth. There was a moment when she sang for me--the song she had played at the memorial service for an inmate who had died of AIDS.
"In 1989 we got so close," Hylton recalled. "She was HIV-positive and sick. She was in for attempted murder and prostitution. Nobody wanted to be bothered with her. So I took care of her. She got better for a while. We used to play cards and cook together. She was a real sweetheart, too; she had a son and a daughter. When she was dying she told me she loved me like a sister, and at her memorial I got up and played a Stephanie Mills song that she liked, called 'When I Think of Home.'"
"Will you sing it for me?" I asked.
She sang, her voice a little tremulous and untrained. "When I think of home, I think of a place where there's love and affection. . . ."
That moment had nothing but sweetness in it.
But there was another moment, on our second day together, when she slipped verbally, and said in an almost irritable way, "He [the victim] was going to die anyway, so . . ." and then she caught herself. I just looked at her. All her previous protestations that when arrested she'd had no idea Vigliarole was dead were clearly lies.
Hylton was born in Jamaica. She portrays herself as a victim of neglect and abuse. Her mother owned a bar. "She'd beat me, or leave me by myself a lot. I remember once in the bar she was in a good mood and throwing me up and catching me, and suddenly she moved her hands away so I fell flat on my face and broke a bone. I remember thinking, 'When will this woman ever love me?' I got this shell around me early; I just pretended everything was fine. My saving grace was my grandmother. She was so beautiful and so old they had to go to the store for her but she was like the backbone of the family. She had hair down to here. If she was around I was not getting touched.
"I came up here when I was eight. I was adopted by a childless couple who used to visit the house next to us; later they adopted another sister of mine. They asked me if I wanted to come to America and see Disney World and I said sure. At first the American kids picked on me because I was an alien and spoke in this thick patois. So, as you can see, I learned how to speak perfectly.
"When I was nine my adoptive father started molesting me. I was starting to get breasts. I came out of the bath with a towel around me, and he sat me down on the bed and asked if my breasts hurt. He started to rub them to make them feel better. Then he took me into the closet and started sucking my breasts. When he was done he said, 'This is our secret, don't tell anybody.' They really do say that!
"It went on until I was thirteen. He penetrated me like this much, a couple of times, but the reason he never got any further was I fought him; this strength just came out of me, it was like, 'You're going to get up off of me.' He told me nobody but him would ever love me, they would only want one thing from me. When I was eleven the woman next door who used to baby-sit me, and who I later found out was having sex with my father, started playing with me. I don't know if my father had told her I was game or what. She was just sitting next to me and her mouth was all over me, no talk, no nothing, it just happened.
"I told my adoptive mother, who was a psychologist, that I needed a lock on my door because Dad was coming in and touching me, and she told me I was lying. That home was a hellhole."
Around that time, Hylton, who was excelling as a student, began baby-sitting for her math teacher, who lived in a neighboring New York suburb. She'd just won a scholarship to a private high school in Baltimore. "He was so sweet and caring, so proud of me. We'd play tennis, swim, horseback ride. It felt good, like a normal family." Then one night, he molested her, too, she says.
"I thought to myself, 'My father is right. Nobody will ever love me for me. I'm no good for anything but sex.' After that I was numb. I gave up on everybody, including myself. I remember looking in the bathroom mirror at school and seeing my father's face, and screaming, 'Leave me alone!' I tried to smash the window; he seemed to be right there in the window. It was like he was chasing me or something.
"The next day I went to my school counselor and told her about my father, and she called my mother at work. My mother said I was lying, that did not go on in her house, and she threatened to send me to a mental institution. When I got home she had already told him. He came after me with everything he had, hitting me, cursing me. If I never wanted to kill anybody in my life I wanted to kill this man at this point. Nobody believed me. I couldn't do anything. Why would a kid lie about this?"
Hylton talked mainly about her childhood on the first day we spent together. We were sitting in an attorney's room at the prison, just the two of us in a room with faded yellow walls, a table, and a couple of chairs. There was no self-pity or high drama in her account; rather, her voice dropped. She was not a 30-year-old woman, but a 13-year-old girl, as if in remembering she had time-traveled backwards.
Sexual abuse is not murder and does not justify assisting in murder. As Stendhal said, character is destiny. Circumstance is not. Still, sexual abuse may be a kind of soul-murder, or soul-wounding, that not everybody survives. But every tragedy has a particular axis around which it moves. For Hylton, it was beauty that kept bringing her around to the dark side of human nature.
Robert Frost has a line in his famous and deeply ironic poem, "Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood": Knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted if I should ever come back. Instead of taking her scholarship, Hylton dropped out of school and ran away with a boyfriend. She gave birth to a baby girl; her boy-friend abused her, she says; she left him and went back to her parents. She then married George Belton, an aspiring rap singer who later became a cop. She and her daughter lived with Belton and his mother. At the time she was invited to take part in the crime, she was working at a gift shop at the Milford Plaza Hotel in New York City, which was managed by Delita Pullins, still a loyal friend.
In 1985, Maria Talag introduced her, along with Rita and Theresa, to Louis Miranda. "I was modeling part time, at little stores in Harlem, and I loved it. Models were idolized, and I wanted to be pretty that way, instead of being pretty and abused. I needed money for a portfolio, and Maria told me all I had to do was witness a rape."
All I had to do was witness a rape. That statement seems so unconscious of its own numbness and rage, and to me its the seed at the center of this drama, more than the bizarre way a kidnapping escalated into murder--or in Hylton's words, "exploded like a volcano." Not many of us could witness a rape, let alone for pay.
Here was a young woman who claims to have been molested and raped herself and unable to stop it or find even one person to acknowledge it. Perhaps for that reason she became numb. Perhaps witnessing somebody else getting raped would somehow free her. Perhaps it was revenge.
The crime quickly escalated, and Miranda threatened to kill her family and daughter if she did not comply. "He put the fear of God into us. I was to do all the driving. I wasn't in the apartment that much. Sometimes I watched the victim, and he asked me to help him. But I couldn't, I was too scared. The police never found my fingerprints, they took pubic and underarm hair and nothing matched up to me. I don't understand that myself; sometimes I think I dreamed the whole thing."
Once arrested, Hylton and her friends were put in a holding pen. "I told [the police] these people were going to kill my daughter, we had to find my daughter. I was having nightmares and couldn't sleep. And it was in all the papers, and people would point to me and say. "There she is,' like I was some kind of morbid overnight celebrity, the leader of this girl gang. When they told me the victim was dead I just broke down. I didn't believe it. Look, I know I did something wrong, but I didn't kill anybody and I didn't want anybody killed. I wasn't out for anything evil, maybe love, maybe acceptance."
Hylton's signed statement, and the recollections of Detective Spurling, tell a different story. "All the girls's hairs were on the bedsheet they wrapped him in," recalled Spurling, "so they were all on the bed with him, or maybe having sex with him." Rita and Theresa recalled hearing Hylton reading the ransom statement, while Vigliarole's captors held a knife to his throat and tried to force him to repeat it after them into a tape recorder. She was indeed sighted as the deliverer of the ransom note and tape.
In retrospect, says Mel Paroff, law secretary to Judge Torres, "she was a secondary character, not a mastermind. She didn't realize the gravity of what she was involved in." Spurling agrees: "I don't think the girls were hard-core. They thought they could use their beauty to get what they wanted."
Hylton's defense attorney, Richard Siracusa, notes that Miranda, who died in jail not long after, "was really crazy and didn't really care what happened. He had a bad heart, he knew he was dying; he just didn't care. The victim had a horrible death--he died of suffocation--and when they brought the trunk into the courtroom it still smelled.
"Miranda and Woodie and Talag were hard-core; we found S&M lesbian magazines in Talag's apartment; she was a dominatrix. But we used to call the three girls the Pointer Sisters. These girls had all these unrealistic ambitions--to get into showbiz. I really felt those three were separate and apart from the true malefactors in the case, who were Woodie, Selma, and Miranda. But the judge didn't cut anybody any slack. He's usually a maximum sentencer to begin with, and this case had some notoriety."
The obvious question begs to be asked: How much was Hylton's sentence influenced by the fact that she was a woman and minority--and had been involved in killing a white male? On average, women who kill men are set higher bail and get longer sentences.
Take the case of African-American Linda White, who was sentenced to 17 years to life for killing her abusive, drug-addicted boyfriend. In contrast, Robert Chambers, the "preppie murderer" who strangled his date, was given five to 15 years. In another mind-boggling sentence, Verdia Miller got 50 years to life for knowing about a murder her male friend committed, while he got 15 years.
Men who kill their partners serve less than one-third the prison time of women who kill their partners: two to six years, compared with an average of 15 years for women. Eighty percent of women convicted for murdering a man state that they have been physically and/or sexually abused by that man. Hylton fits that profile only loosely--she may have been physically and sexually abused, but not by the man she helped kidnap and who died in her presence.
Conditions are now changing, toward even harsher and longer sentences. To some extent, says Mel Paroff, this is a psychological shift, not a practical one. "The death penalty goes into effect [in New York State] on September 1, but by the time anyone gets executed it will be well into the [next] millennium. A whole group of lawyers are dead set against it and as soon as a case comes up they will test the law in the courts ad nauseam. It's an empty gesture, really; it makes people feel better, but it's not going to affect the crime rate. Connecticut and New Jersey have had death penalty laws for 10 or 12 years and nobody has been executed yet. For punishment to have meaning it has to be swift and closely connected with the wrong. It doesn't mean anything to kill someone in 1995 and be executed in 2007."
In New York, where sentences must fall within certain minimum and maximum terms, murderers can plea bargain for 15-years-to-life. An overburdened court system saves money every time it allows a criminal to plea bargain, not only in the courts, but in the prisons, where the state pays $25,694 a year for each inmate. There's an economic incentive to give prisoners reduced sentences.
Hylton states that she did not know she could plea bargain, that she was medicated because she was frightened and suffering sleep disturbances. (In contrast, consider Selma Price, a criminal who understood the system. Detective Spurling recalls that on the morning they were trying to get a final statement from her, she insisted that the only detective she would speak to was a man who was leaving to go home. The detective went home anyway, she never made a statement, and she was able to plea bargain.) Understanding how to manipulate the system could indeed change your punishment, or eliminate it altogether.
"For the first few years in prison I hated everybody," Donna said, "because no one was there for me and nobody had listened to me, and I thought it was all my fault. All I kept seeing was 25-to-life. There were times I wanted to scream my head off, especially when those cell doors slam shut and you're in by yourself. Sometimes you feel like they'll never open again. People here talked behind my back, they'd say I thought I was better than anybody else, because I'd never been a prostitute or gotten sick or really been on the street. People would say, 'I've never seen anybody look like you except in a magazine.' I'm a high-profile prisoner because of my face.
"One day, in 1990, I woke up and said, 'Well, I have 25-to-life, I'm in here for kidnapping and murder, I didn't murder anyone but I did help kidnap someone, and I've got to be responsible for Donna. I don't have to be that person my father said everybody just wanted to have sex with or abuse. I'm not that little girl anymore.'
"I started thinking about my daughter. I'm her mother, I'm in jail, and I can't do anything to help her. I fought for visitation, and when I saw her in court in 1992 she was so beautiful I was shocked. My heart just crashed. I have visitation but her father is not abiding by the court ruling. I've tried to contact her. I had a strong feeling her stepmother was on welfare, so I called and said I was a welfare counselor and they gave me her address. I was going to do whatever I had to, to contact my daughter.
"Now I have my bachelor's degree. I'm a certified AIDS counselor. My jail mother, as I call her, has been here 22 years, and when she came in they said she was this cold-blooded murderess. Now she takes her own time to go to the sick unit to take care of women with AIDS or tuberculosis or cancer. I work in the hospital, too. I've seen a lot of people die in here." She pauses. "People die, or they leave. They forget you. Twenty-five years is a long time."
I asked how she would describe those years, day by day.
"The doors open at 6 A.M. and slam lock at 10:30. There are four major body counts a day, and during that time you have to stay where you are and be accounted for. You have to work, and you get paid about $15 every two weeks. [When I checked with the prison, it turned out to be from 30 to 72.5 cents for the six hours of work required every day]. The food is terrible--I wouldn't give it to a dog--but we get to cook, we have coolers, and a group of us eat together. Relatives and friends send food and we all share it. We had a turkey for Christmas.
"What's it like? It seems like every other day there's a directive from Albany telling you what you can't do. We can't wear bandannas anymore--some man must have tried to choke another man with a bandanna, Bandannas were something we grasped onto, we'll grasp onto anything that's part of the world. And look at our pants. These pants, the way I'm wearing them, are contraband. I could get a ticket for them because of the tailoring. We have to fix them because they're made for the men and the crotch comes down to mid-thigh. We want to feel like women, but if we alter them so they're form-fitting we can't wear them.
"If I do anything wrong you can write me a ticket and fine me $5. Let's say one day I feel depressed and I just want to walk, I can't do that, it's Infraction 109.10: being out of place. I've disobeyed the direct facility moving procedure, so you take my $5. That hasn't happened in a long time to me. I know what to do and what not to do.
"Jail is the first place where nobody burned me, beat me, or molested me. You sleep alone. Your cell is small, but you feel safe. Sometimes this is the place where people get the most attention, love, and caring in their life. I don't have a family so I've made my own mother and father here. I mean, I don't even know how many mothers I have. People ask why I have so many mothers, and it's because I don't have one. We make our little family units in here just so we can keep going.
"What more can I do here? I don't want to become institutionalized. This is not who Donna is. Donna is not state property. I made a mistake, I'm paying with my whole life, but I want to do something with my life. What would it be like to be out? To pick up a phone without a guard behind me writing a ticket, to watch reruns of "The Honeymooners" at 3 A.M., to watch a sunrise without this tiny little window with bars across it, just to see the sun go down on the trees, to walk and walk without stopping, not walking in here in a continuous circle, but going and going and knowing there's no fence stopping you, no limit, just being a part of life.
"There was a woman here everybody talks about. She was named Ma Brown and came here when this prison was a farm, and people used a horse and buggy. They gave her a life sentence for murder. After 25 years they commuted her sentence and she got out. She stayed out a month or two and asked to come back. She'd come in in one century and left in another, and she was too scared. She wound up dying here. God, I don't want to end up like Ma Brown. So I'm going to Rikers Island [a jail in New York City] to make another motion in my case."
She looks down at her wedding ring: She met a 33-year-old grave digger and construction worker in January. He proposed a week later, has visited her nearly every day since, and they married in March. "I haven't been with a man in eleven years. I think about that. I got married because it makes me feel wanted. Look, I'm not going to build myself up to the point where if he lets me down I'll want to end it all. That's been the story of my life, built up to get knocked down. But I still have faith." She smiles at me. "Will you come visit me on the island?"
"The Island?" She might be inviting me to some Caribbean getaway.
"We call Rikers 'the Island'. It would be nice if you could come see me there."
I think of her story of the bandannas-"we want to wear bandannas because they're part of the world." For Donna Hylton, a visit to Rikers Island is a pleasure trip, one where she can wear a polka-dotted shirt and blue jeans instead of the clothes required by the state's stricter dress code: "I can put on cologne! I can wear black! I can have jeans, and shirts with flowers! Oh God, it makes me feel better."
I try to imagine going to Rikers Island and seeing it as an island of hope and freedom. I can't. There Hylton once again will make a motion that most likely will fail.
I think of the photos that Detective Spurling showed me: the dead man literally stuffed into a trunk, his body rotting away in great patches of blood and debris.
I think of marrying a man I can't make love to because I'm in prison. I think of her husband, who says, "Everything about her is special. It's just a feeling in my heart I can't explain. I'm trying to help her come home as soon as possible."
I think of marrying a man so I can be married, part of the world. A bandanna. A marriage license. A polka-dotted shirt.
And Delita Pullins, Hylton's best friend, whom Hylton calls her sister: "What would I have done if a man said, 'Do this or I'll kill your daughter'?"
A breathtaking eight-year-old girl who caught a man's eye. He and his wife offered to adopt her. A year later he was sucking her breasts.
The same girl, even younger, whose laughing mother throws her up and catches her, throws her up and catches her, one of the world's oldest parent-child games. Throws her up and moves her arms away. All I had to do was witness a rape.
PHOTO (COLOR): I was modeling part time, and I loved it. But I needed money for a portfolio, and Maria told me all i had to do was witness a rape.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): I haven't been with a men in 11 years. I think about that. I got married because it makes me feel wanted.