How do you make sense out of the senseless?
It is a question that has haunted Jason Minter for 43 years. But it is a question that has now been compounded exponentially by an inexplicable decision by the New York State Parole Board.
On March 2, 1977, Jason’s mother, Bonnie Minter, was raped and murdered in the home of her friend, Sheila Watson, on Route 123 in Lewisboro. It was an unspeakable crime, made more horrifying by the fact that Jason, then 6, was in the next room with his 3-year-old sister and the two Watson children, who all listened as their mothers were attacked and murdered. He would vividly remember being pushed into a bedroom with a gun shoved into his nose; the mothers begging to know what would become of their children; and the maniacal laughter of the killers as they fled the house.
It was, prosecutors argued, and a judge agreed, one of the most barbaric crimes ever committed in northern Westchester.
In 1978, the men responsible — Samuel Ayala and Willie Profit, both of Norwalk, Connecticut — were found guilty of murder, rape, robbery and other crimes, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. A third man, James Walls of Dorchester, Massachusetts, who had remained outside as the getaway driver, pled guilty to murder, robbery, burglary and grand larceny and was also sentenced to 25 years to life.
At the sentencing, Judge Richard Daronco of Westchester County Court said, “My only regret is that there is not a more severe sentence allowable which I might impose because I, without hesitation, would do so.” He added, “I firmly believe that the present maximum sentence allowable in New York state is inadequate to mete out a proper punishment to fit the ghastly crimes committed by the defendants in this case.”
The sentencing laws have since been changed. But because they were sentenced under the old law, the three perpetrators became eligible for parole in 2002. And every 18 months since, Mr. Minter has been forced to relive those horrible moments in agonizing detail, presenting victim impact statements to the parole board.
Supported by friends and family, with thousands of signatures on petitions, Mr. Minter’s efforts to see that the killers were denied parole had been successful every time — until this year. On Aug. 10, he learned that the parole board had granted Mr. Ayala his freedom. Shocked and feeling betrayed, he wrote on Facebook: “New York state has made its choice, and Mr. Ayala, who raped and murdered two mothers in 1977 and took away their children's full lives in doing so (while laughing about it), will be released in a few weeks around September 1st, 2020.” Mr. Profit had already died in prison.
The reaction was immediate, as friends and contacts of Mr. Minter, who works in the film industry, made sure the story got to media outlets. On Aug. 13, an article appeared in the New York Post, and soon went viral. That led to appearances by Mr. Minter on WABC-TV, WCBS-TV and others stations. Another online petition was started, which has topped its goal of gathering over 5,000 signatures.
Mr. Minter remains mystified as to why the decision was made, and at this point he seems resigned to the fact that chances of a reversal are slim. “We haven’t heard anything from the state,” he told The Record-Review in a phone interview earlier this week. “Usually it takes two to three months to get a transcript from the hearing. There’s really no way to expedite it; there’s really no way to appeal the decision; I don’t think that Andrew Cuomo, the governor, could overturn it. It’s possible, in rare occasions, decisions have been overturned by more senior board members, I guess. We’re looking into all of that.”
Most frustrating is not knowing why this is happening. “We still have no idea what the justification for his release was,” said Mr. Minter. “He could have Alzheimer’s or terminal cancer; we have no idea. Not that I would be pleased that he was being released for any reason, but I certainly could understand better if he was very sick. And if it’s not a terminal illness, does that mean in the last 18 months he’s suddenly turned everything around? But, he continued, “there won’t be any way to know until we get our hands on the transcript.”
Mr. Walls was paroled earlier this year. “I supported Walls’ release,” Mr. Minter said. “I thought that 43 years was enough for him, for just sitting outside.” In fact, Mr. Walls had then written to the parole board saying Mr. Ayala should never be released. “I hoped that perhaps my participation in Walls’ release would cause the board to say, ‘This is a man whose heart isn’t filled with hate, he wants justice; why would he be on board of Walls’ release if he wasn’t being fair about everything else?’ But, no.”
One of the things that sticks in Mr. Minter’s craw is the way Mr. Ayala has repeatedly lied, making contradictory claims to the board each time he has been up for parole. At various appearances, he has claimed to have been drunk or on drugs; to have been afraid his companions would kill him if he didn’t go along, even though he was clearly the ringleader; to have been only 19, when he was actually 26; and to have great remorse and be a changed man.
“I said, why would a remorseful and redeemed man continue to make excuses? And the board called him out on that, said he had still not taken responsibility for his crimes, and sent him back for another 18 months,” said Mr. Minter.
Most telling, Mr. Minter said, is that Mr. Ayala has apparently long lied to everybody, including his own family. “About seven years ago, his daughter, Denise Ayala, called me out of the blue, from Texas,” he said; she had gotten hold of his contact information after he wrote a story for Westchester Magazine in 2004. “She told me her mother had died the same way, at the hands of another man in Chicago, while Ayala was in prison. And at the end of the call, I asked her what her father said happened on that day. She said, ‘Oh, he said he was outside, he said he was the driver. He didn’t commit any violence.’ And I did not have the heart to tell her no, that was not the case; that unequivocally, your father committed these atrocities and laughed about it for days afterward. I sort of regret now that I didn’t say that,” he added.
After the murders, Mr. Minter’s family moved from Elmwood Road in Lewisboro to Cherry Street in Katonah. He switched schools from Meadow Pond Elementary to Katonah Elementary, and attended John Jay High School until moving away in 1987. Mr. Minter became involved in film and television production, and worked as a location scout for “The Sopranos” and personal assistant to the hit show’s producer, David Chase. He lived for years in the Inwood section of Manhattan and even owned a local tavern.
At one point, he returned to Lewisboro in an attempt to make a film about what had happened. “I shot about 26 hours,” he said. “I interviewed Walls in prison in Attica; went back to the house; interviewed the lead investigators; went to the D.A.’s office and looked through boxes of evidence. I put a short film together, but I couldn’t continue with it for whatever reason.” He said he “couldn’t figure out where it was going and what it was about, and could it possibly have an ending, and I just put it down. Then I picked it up again about a year and a half ago, got a crew, got equipment — and then I got sort of befuddled and put it down again,” struggling to decide “what it’s about.”
Mr. Minter said he’s not sure if he will ever finish the film. Maybe, he said, he will leave it to his daughter to do.
“I was hoping I would come to some sort of peace, knowing everything there possibly was to know about the crime, understanding why things happened that day the way they did. In the end, I felt even more disconcerted. It was just so random and brutal.”
Once, he recalled, he went to meet Mr. Walls and asked, “What were you guys doing that day?” The other man replied, ‘We were just looking for houses to rob.’”
Mr. Minter paused. “I don’t know if it will ever make sense to me.”