A very lurid tale

Memorializing Monroe County’s murders most foul



Michael Benson

Michael Hanlon

 

I have danced with evil, stared unblinkingly at depravity, and poked at the brains of psycho killers. I have memorized playfully sadistic crimes, creepy-crawly methods and motives, and, after a beat of digestion, popped the results out in book form, packaged to give readers the willies in the middle of the night. I’m a true crime writer. I get Christmas cards from a cannibal, and three times I have covered murders most foul right here in the Rochester area. 

My fascination with evil stems from childhood trauma. On June 25, 1966, when I was nine, my babysitter, George-Ann Formicola, and her friend from just down the road, Kathy Bernhard, went swimming in Black Creek behind the Benson house off Ballantyne Road in Chili—and didn’t come home. A month later they were found two miles to the west horribly mutilated by a knife. Monroe County had its very own Jack the Ripper. The case was never solved, and it was too ghastly to be covered in detail in the newspapers of the day. I grew up knowing that a real-life boogeyman had crossed my back field. Even as a kid, paralyzed by fear, I wanted answers, to solve the crime, to find out who the monster was. I grew up to become a true crime writer. Not a coincidence.

In the 1990s, I read every true crime book. My Manhattan office was a crazy quilt of detective magazines with bright, vivid covers of lingerie-clad babes packing heat and newsprint innards as gray as a Monday morning corpse. I learned plenty about serial killer Arthur Shawcross, convicted of killing eleven women in Rochester during the 1980s. Earlier in life, he had killed two children in the Watertown area. The thing most fascinating about Shawcross was the fictional biography he gave a shrink after his Rochester arrest. He recounted his days in Vietnam, alone on jungle patrol. Coming upon a pair of “Vietcong chicks” swimming in a stream, he killed, mutilated, and cannibalized them. The man was clearly confessing to something, but his records showed that he had never been in a position to patrol a jungle, alone or otherwise. Change jungle to woods and Vietnam to Chili and he could have been describing “my” murders.

By the early 2000s, true crime was already my obsession, and I figured I might as well make a living at it. My first crime book was about a family affair in Penfield: Betrayal in Blood. In July 2003, diminutive lawyer Kevin Bryant sleepily called the cops to report that he’d been upstairs reading while an intruder came into the house and shot his wife, the beautiful and much-younger Tabatha. The tapes of that 911 call are shocking. Bryant is the calmest man in the history of 911 calls. At one point it sounds as if he yawns. 

As the story unfolded, Rochester received a lesson in the depths of human depravity. Bryant had lifestyle issues. Despite a bad ticker, he was into hookers and blow—sometimes in a motel room, sometimes in the strip joint, sometimes right there in his office—while Tabby toiled as a teller at the drive-in window of a branch bank and took care of their two little boys. 

One of Bryant’s cocaine buddies was Cyril Winebrenner, Tabby’s half-brother, a guy with mental problems, whose girlfriend Cassie turned tricks. Kevin tried to get Tabatha to become a swinger with him (and all that that implied). Instead, Tabatha sought the real love she needed elsewhere and found a boyfriend. When her husband learned he had been cuckolded, he proclaimed her dead meat and hired Tabby’s brother Cyril to murder her, promising to pay him off in cocaine. 

While the couple’s boys and Kevin were upstairs in bed and Tabatha was on the couch downstairs, Cyril entered the home, shot Tabatha in the eye, only wounding her, jammed the gun, and finished the job with a knife, which managed to unsparingly spatter the living room ceiling with her blood. Cops immediately suspected the husband, not just because cops always suspect the husband, but because that fuss downstairs must’ve been noisy as hell, yet Kevin’s reaction was somnolent. By the time he got to the top of the stairs and looked down into the horror that was his living room, he said the intruder had gone. He heard a car pull away. Tabby had a boyfriend, he said softly. Maybe he did it.

Cassie drove the getaway car, and she turned out to be the weak link in the conspiracy. Once cops flipped her, the case abruptly fell into place. Kevin Bryant was found guilty by a jury. Cyril Winebrenner and Cassie copped deals.

I asked Cyril and Tabatha’s mom why she hadn’t gone to Cyril’s trial—before the deal was cut—and the mother of both the defendant and the victim said, “I couldn’t go. I wouldn’t have known which side of the courtroom to sit in.”

My second Rochester investigation started out as an examination of the Lyell Avenue hooker killings of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ladies of the street were dropping like flies. I figured there might be a connection with my 1966 murders. Arthur Shawcross was arrested, but the murders didn’t stop. Bizarrely, at one point three serial killers were working the same corner of the city of Rochester, from Edgerton Park down to Lyell Avenue, west of Lake Avenue. And one of those serial killers was Robert Spahalski. The kicker came when I learned Robert had an identical twin named Stephen who, once killed in a manner ideentical to Robert.

By the time I got into the act, Robert Spahalski was in prison forever. Nonetheless, he and I hit it off. We became pen pals, discussing our tastes in music. We’d both grown up in the country, on dirt roads, with lots of bored troublemaking in the summertime. We each had our own special herb garden. The only difference was he grew up to be a psycho killer, and I didn’t. But we ignored that at first. I asked him if he knew of a Deep Purple album called Machine Head, and he said he wanted me to tell his story.

It was through Spahalski that I came to understand the absolute selfishness that accompanies sociopathy. I knew it existed—that conscience-free psyche that turns the blood stunningly cold—but I didn’t get it until I asked Robert how he learned to kill. He told me that when he was a teenager he put a gun to the head of his father’s favorite pig, adn blew the pig’s brains out.

I asked him, “Were you angry with your father?”

“No,” he replied, “I felt like pork chops.”

His twin, Stephen, killed a man in Elmira,  New York, in 1971, sneaking up behind him on a stairway and hitting him over the head with a hammer. Twenty years later, Robert would identically kill a victim, bludgeoning to death from behind his only male victim in Webster.

On New Year’s Eve 1990, Robert murdered Rochester prostitute Moraine Armstrong. He killed her by ligature strangulation in her apartment on Lake Avenue in Rochester. She was found in bed, almost naked, wearing only one sock. She had multiple electrical cords wrapped around her neck. Outside the building, a crowd gathered. One spectator was an antsy unwashed man with his “belly pressed against the police tape.” He said he lived across the street. Yeah, he knew Moraine Armstrong. She wasn’t a friend, but he’d seen her around. Cop took down the guy’s name and age: Robert Bruce Spahalski, 36.

In the summer of 1991, during a heat wave, there was a report of a bad odor coming from a house on Emerson Street, only a block and a half from the Armstrong crime scene. Black flies swarmed the closed apartment windows from the outside. Tentative police investigated and discovered the decomposed body of the resident, Adrian Berger. The apartment was like an oven, and the body was so far gone that the medical examiner couldn’t determine for sure what killed her. The killer had taken Berger’s car so neighbors would think she was away. He parked it a few blocks away. Berger, investigators learned, had an on-again/off-again boyfriend named Robert Bruce Spahalski. 

Spahalski’s fingerprints were found in the apartment. Police picked him up, but he didn’t have much to say. Sure, he’d seen Adrian a few days earlier; they played dice. She was fine when he left.  

There followed for Robert a decade of calm. He lived off the street. Pimping. Whoring. Selling cocaine. Had a steady girlfriend. He learned he was HIV positive and developed a desperate crack addiction, but for the longest time, as far as we know, he didn’t kill anyone. 

Spahalski killed for the last time on November 8, 2005, when he strangled his friend Vivian Irizarry in his own apartment. The murder occurred, he later said, because he’d smoked too much crack and he saw Irizarry metamorphose into a demon monster that needed to be vanquished. When he snapped out of it, he was very sad that Vivian was dead. He bathed her tenderly and moved her body into the apartment building’s basement where it was cooler and her rate of decomposition would be slowed. He later claimed that he would visit the body and cry as he told her how sorry he was. The body wore just one sock, as had Moraine Armstrong’s fifteen years earlier. Spahalski was in no condition to hide Irizarry’s body permanently. This was the end. He killed her on a Friday afternoon and the following Tuesday morning he turned himself in and confessed one by one to the four murders. 

In 2009, Robert’s twin, Stephen Spahalski, was released from prison after serving every day of his thirty-year sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping. He was so thoroughly institutionalized at that point that he considered prison home, so he was only free (and lost) for a few months before he walked into an Elmira bank, handed the teller a note demanding money, and then sat down and waited for the police to arrive. Unfortunately, instead of institutionalizing him for the rest of his life, no doubt his goal, he only received 300 days in the Chemung County jail, and today he lives in a halfway house and walks the streets of Elmira. 

In 2011, my mom and Kathy Bernhard’s mom, Alice, were sitting in folding chairs at a summer backyard party in Chili. My mom was bragging about her son who wrote about juicy murders, and Alice Bernhard said, “It’s too bad your Michael can’t write a book about my Kathy.”

My mom said, “Why don’t you ask him?” 

So I teamed up with former Wheatland cop and current private investigator Don Tubman, who knew the girls and had graduated from Wheatland-Chili High School on the evening of their murders. Together we conducted a fresh investigation and acquired records of the sheriff’s investigation through Freedom of Information requests. 

Bernhard asked me to do two things for her: 1) Find out what happened to her Kathy and 2) Get people to think about Kathy, because she was forgotten way too soon. The first request did not necessarily mean she wanted to know who killed the girls but rather what was done to the girls. Because of the crime’s ghastly nature, no one had ever told her about the crime scene. 

One of my proudest moments came just after the sheriff’s office reports arrived in my afternoon mail. I read through everything twice and in a flash realized Bernhard’s concern. I called her. 

“Kathy wasn’t tortured. She was killed quickly and the bad stuff all happened after she was gone.”

“Oh thank you, thank you. I have been worrying about that for forty years,” Bernhard said. 

Our investigation uncovered a new suspect that we liked even better than Shawcross. We developed a ton of new evidence, since folks were willing now to admit things they’d kept mum about in 1966. Abused little girls were now women in their fifties, in some cases telling for the first time what had been done to them. The case was propelled, as it says in my publicity materials, “in a startling new direction.” 

When The Devil at Genesee Junction came out in November 2015, assuring Bernhard that Kathy would be thought of more now than ever, and maybe forever, she thanked me with a big hug and told me she loved me, which was the best part of the investigation by far. 

The book is done, I told her. The investigation goes on forever. I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near finished here in Rochester. There are Kathy and George-Ann witnesses still coming out of the woodwork. 

Plus, if I could find someone to pay me, I’d love to sink my teeth into those Double-Initial murders… 

 

Michael Benson is the author of The Devil at Genesee Junction and many other works of nonfiction. 

 

This story was shot on location at Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery. The crew, from left to right: Matthew Benson (Michael’s son), intern Abby Rose Sugnet, Michael Benson, editor Jane Milliman, chauffeur George Conboy, and photographer Mike Hanlon. 

 

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