Lawyer’s novel approach uncovers details of unsolved 1968 murder

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Sep. 23—The murder of Irene J. Izak 55 years ago created an aching mystery for her family.

“My family didn’t talk about it a lot for many years,” said Lisa M. Caputo of Taylor, Pennsylvania, Izak’s niece. “There was a picture of her up in my grandparents’ house, and I would have questions.”

Caputo was 4 1/2 at the time when her aunt’s body, savagely bludgeoned about the head, was found in a ditch near the grounds of DeWolf Point State Park on Wellesley Island in June 1968.

Izak (pronounced EE-jacques), 25, of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was a French teacher and had taught in Rochester and Binghamton, but that June was intrepidly on her way to Laval University in Quebec for a job interview, driving her Volkswagen Beetle at night to make better time.

She began her journey from Cleveland, where she was visiting relatives. It’s more than an 11-hour drive from Cleveland to Laval.

In describing Izak shortly after her murder, a close friend told the Times, she was a “brilliant, vivacious girl” who had “absolutely no fear.”

Her family never lost focus of determining what happened. Now, more than a half century later, thanks to the persistence of an attorney/crime novelist, Caputo is now confident that she has one less question, her main one, regarding the fate of her late aunt.

She takes some solace in her confidence as she views a cherished family photograph. It’s of her aunt Irene during a visit to her home in Glenburn, Pennsylvania, when Caputo was a toddler. In the photo, Izak, who was called “Lala” by her nieces and nephews, has her arm around Caputo’s older sister, Chrissy, who mischievously displays a packet of gum. To Izak’s left is Lisa Caputo’s older brother, Steve. Both children have wide smiles.

“When she would visit us, she would always bring us candy or gum,” Lisa Caputo recalled. “I believe that was the last time that she visited us at our home.”

When Caputo sees that photo, she thinks of what Izak’s killer stole from the family.

“I’m sure Lala would have married and had children of her own,” she said. “She would have been the most amazing mother. But, our family is strong, close, and loving and he did not, and never could, take that away from us.”

Izak was the youngest of five siblings, with two still living.

Five years ago, on the 50th anniversary of her sister’s murder, Helen Ewasko, now 85, told the Times: “When I think about it, it doesn’t seem like 50 years. It keeps coming to my mind. It just seems like years ago, but not 50 years. It’s still there — the loss.”

A novel interest

Thomas K. Reilly is a Southport, Connecticut-based lawyer who is also a novelist, specializing in crime fiction.

He received his undergraduate degree from St. Lawrence University, Canton, and he and his wife have a seasonal home on Wellesley Island.

Reilly came across the 2010 book, “Stained by Her Blood: The North Country Murder of Irene Izak” by David C. Shampine, longtime police and crime reporter for the Watertown Daily Times. Shampine retired in 2013 and died in 2017.

In 2010, Shampine said it was “an insider” in the case, not identified in his book, who spurred him to write “Stained by Her Blood.”

“When he laid it out on the line to me; about how significant the suspicions were, I felt I had to go with it,” he said at the time.

Reilly had not heard about the case before he discovered Shampine’s book.

Izak’s body was discovered by state Trooper David N. Hennigan, who had stopped her for speeding shortly before — and issued the young woman a warning.

Shampine documented circumstantial evidence surrounding the trooper. The book’s title refers to bloodstains found on his uniform the night of the murder, which the trooper, who died in 2009, reported was caused when he was checking Izak for signs of life.

There were no signs of robbery or sexual assault. For reasons unknown, Izak had been compelled to pull off the interstate and abandon her vehicle, which was left with its lights on.

Her body was found in a ditch off County Route 191, which was then the main road on Wellesley Island to the Thousand Islands Bridge. Hennigan reported that after he found her car abandoned, he discovered her body in the ditch, just past the entrance to DeWolf Point State Park.

The trooper discovered the body 20 minutes after he had halted Izak’s vehicle for speeding. Izak was halted at 1:15 a.m. on June 10, 1968 by Trooper Hennigan for speeding on Interstate 81, about 3 miles north of Watertown. He released her with a warning.

In his book, Mr. Shampine reported that Izak made her last stop on the U.S. mainland at 2:10 a.m. June 10 to pay the bridge toll. A toll collector, Mr. Shampine wrote, said Izak appeared to be nervous and her hands were shaking.

Times files say Hennigan, after crossing the American span, turned off on a side road to drive to the hamlet of Fineview (about 4 miles by road from the murder scene) on Wellesley Island.

Police marked the time of her body’s discovery by Hennigan at 2:35 a.m. The motive of robbery was ruled out. Izak still wore a watch and a ring. Her pocketbook — the contents apparently undisturbed — was found in her car, which also raised questions as to why she would leave her car voluntarily but leave her pocketbook there.

“She was edgy, nervous,” when she talked to the toll collector, retired state police investigator Raymond O. Polett told the Times in 1999. Polett previously told the Times in June 1998 that Izak asked the toll collector, the late Clifford F. Putnam, about police tactics in New York, and pointed to Hennigan’s unmarked patrol car as he crossed the bridge.

Pollett wrote the forward to Shampine’s “Stained by Her Blood.” “It was my case to solve, and I could not solve it,” he wrote. “I take full responsibility, and I will think about this case for the rest of my days.”

Polett died in 2015 at the age of 83.

Curiosity sparked

Earlier this year, Reilly filed a lawsuit against New York State Police after his FOIL request seeking documents in the Izak case were rejected.

“There’s a lot of unresolved issues and it sparked my curiosity,” Reilly said of the case in July. He called the rejection of his FOIL request, more than five decades after Izak’s murder, a “knee-jerk reaction.”

Reilly filed an Article 78 proceeding in Albany County Court to overturn the denial. Article 78 proceedings are lawsuits mainly used to challenge an action or inaction by agencies of state and local governments. Reilly’s case, scheduled to be heard Aug. 11 in Albany, never made it to that point. About a week before his court date, Reilly was sent the documents he sought in his FOIL request.

“Since that time, (Reilly’s appeal of April 2023) additional steps have been taken to determine the status of this criminal investigation and the impact the records would have on the on-going investigation,” Major William H. Gorman, Acting Records Access Officer of the Central Records Bureau, wrote to Reilly in a letter dated Aug. 18. “These steps include consultation with the Investigators currently working on this case, as well as the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office. After these consultations, it has been determined that, due to the age of the investigation and unlikeliness that investigative steps in this case will result in any criminal prosecution of an individual, the records can be released to you at this time.”

Reilly has shared the documents — a digital file of 564 pages — with Lisa Caputo. For them, it bolsters the circumstantial evidence that Shampine pointed out in his book.

“It’s not surprising that it does again direct you back to the prime suspect in Dave Shampine’s eyes,” Reilly said.

“I was shocked by a lot of things I read in there,” Caputo said.

“There are some things that Dave Shampine didn’t see,” Reilly said. “I feel bad about that because he was so dedicated to it and he would have pursued some of these facts before he wrote his book. But his FOIL request was denied.”

“Dave was such a wonderful man,” Caputo said. “He was so compassionate to our family in everything he did for us. He got difficult information and would tell us.”

The Izak family did have some success, but quite limited, with a previous FOIL request when it obtained some notes relating to Izak’s autopsy by Dr. Richard S. Lee, late Jefferson County medical examiner.

“They only sent us a page or two,” Caputo recalled. “It was about the autopsy; rough drawing and a page with horrific handwriting, so it is and was hard to make out what the coroner wrote.”

‘Aggressive’ redactions

There are many redactions in the FOIL documents.

“My name is redacted a bunch of times, and later on, there it was,” Caputo said. “In some of the redactions it was obvious it was Hennigan’s name, where other times, his name would be there. I don’t know how they chose to do that because it wasn’t a very good job whoever did it.”

“I did tell the attorney they were very aggressive in their redactions,” Reilly said. “I’m going to go back and request that some of them be removed. There’s no privacy justification for some of these. And I don’t think everything that I requested has been delivered either. There are some logs and other things that weren’t part of the original 564 pages.”

Details in the documents include the shedding of new light on Izak’s exhumation of 1998. Survivors of Miss Izak retained a private detective in July 1998 to look into the case. The detective’s findings and the family’s appeal to then-Gov. George E. Pataki prompted a renewed effort by state police. The effort included an exhumation of Izak’s grave.

“I do feel like the state police whom we dealt with at the time were trying to do everything they could, whether it was out of pressure from the governor, I don’t know,” Caputo said. “I think sincerely someone did care.”

After all the brothers and sisters of Irene Izak signed consents, then-state Supreme Court Judge Hugh A. Gilbert in Watertown issued the exhumation order Dec. 10, 1998, performed on Dec. 30 of that year.

The order, requested by then-District Attorney James T. King, authorized exhumation “for such physical, chemical or other examination or analysis as they (state police) may deem appropriate, with cost to be borne by the New York State Police.”

The exhumation at St. Vladimir Cemetery, Scranton, was conducted under the direction of Dr. Michael Baden, forensic pathologist for state police, assisted by Dr. Lowell J. Levine, state police forensic scientist and doctor of dental surgery. With the family’s consent, they retained the skull for additional work and returned other remains to the cemetery the same day.

“My mother and my aunt struggled with that — having part of her body sent away,” Caputo said.

Izak was the daughter of the Rev. Bohdan Izak, a Catholic priest of the Byzantine Rite. He had married Maria Paclawsky Kowalsky, daughter of a reverend, five months before his ordination in 1932. Priests in the Eastern Catholic religions cannot enter into marriage if already ordained. Father Izak died in 1988, and Maria died in 1991.

Irene Izak, her parents and her three brothers and two sisters were refugees from Communism, having come separately in 1946 and 1949 from Ukraine.

“They did tell us there wasn’t enough DNA to get enough information,” Caputo said of the autopsy. “Then, we really thought something was going to happen because they told us it wasn’t actually the rocks that initially killed her.” The family was told it could have been an object like a flashlight.

“But again, nothing came of that either,” she said.

“There were three identical indentations in her skull making it highly likely she was struck viciously by a flashlight,” Reilly said, reflecting the FOIL documents, which included a diagram of a skull. “The NYSP tried to track down the type of flashlight used by the troopers back in 1968; apparently they were unsuccessful.”

Among other “notable” items for Reilly in his FOIL results: — “Hennigan’s account of what he did after he found Irene’s body changed multiple times. He supposedly picked her body up, at other times he says he slipped and fell on her, etc.”

“I had never heard that before,” Caputo said. — “Why wasn’t Hennigan’s flashlight taken for evidentiary purposes?” — Izak’s car was pulled over for speeding by Hennigan — allegedly at 75 mph, Reilly notes. “A month later, troopers presented evidence that her car could only go 62 mph and witnesses saw his car at a rest stop together with the VW.”

‘Some crossed signals’

Reilly was confident in how his real-life plot line would turn out when he sued to get the sequestered documents related to the Izak case.

“I never for a second thought I was going to not get it,” he said. “I knew they were making me jump through hoops. But all the case law, everything, was dead set against them. They knew they didn’t have a chance.”

But he was stymied in another FOIL request. In August, Reilly requested from Jefferson County Administrator and Records Access Officer Robert F. Hagemann III all records regarding the investigation and/or legal review of the Izak murder investigation. He sought records both from the county District’s Attorney’s office and sheriff’s office.

On Sept. 8, Hagemann denied the request, which he explained in a document to Reilly: “The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department does not have any records meeting the criteria for the request, and the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office considers this an open case and therefore none of their records can be released.”

This confused Reilly, especially the “open case” aspect, noting that in his letter from Gorman, Acting Records Access Officer of the Central Records Bureau, that documented the approval of the release of the state police Izak FOIL documents, the records access officer wrote that officials consulted “with the Investigators currently working on this case, as well as the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office.”

Reilly appealed the decision and in that appeal explained his key point: “It seems likely that whomever Hagemann spoke to at the Jefferson County DA’s office was unaware of the discussions the state police had with the DA’s office. It is even more unlikely that the DA is taking a position directly at odds with the state police and restricting access to the documents I seek. I hope the records which I seek will be made available immediately.”

Jefferson County District Attorney Kristyna Miles said the conflicting information is a matter of “some crossed signals.” She had been told that the case was still open, therefore, she wasn’t going to release anything.

“I have since learned that the New York State Police has released documents,” Miles wrote Tuesday in response to an email from the Times. “Because there was never an arrest in this case and no prosecution, I have a very limited file. Everything I have is from the NYSP and it is certainly not 500 documents. Anything that I have is duplicative of anything that the NYSP has already released.”

Miles said that to be clear, she has no knowledge of what the NYSP has released in the Izak matter.

“But the DA’s office has no documents that are not duplicative of the NYSP file. I have requested a copy of the NYSP’s FOIL response and I will compare it with what I have to be sure.”

‘True Events’ series

Reilly said he is mostly done with his novel that is based on the Izak case. It is the second book of his “Inspired By…” series. His first novel in the series, “Bridgeport: Inspired By True Events,” concerns the brutal murder of a rookie cop and a frenetic hunt for the killer.

“I’m going to revise some of the things based on the facts,” he said.

But one fact, true-to-life, will stay with him. “This case has hung over that poor family for their entire lives.”

Caputo said she learned of Reilly’s involvement in her aunt’s case from a July story published in the Watertown Daily Times highlighting the attorney’s lawsuit in his drive to get FOIL documents.

“At first, I was shocked because I had no idea why he was doing it,” she said. “And then I read he was an author and wanted to write a book, not based on my aunt’s murder, but with information from it. I was excited when I read that he was suing the New York State Police because I thought maybe we’d get more information after all these years.”

In addition to that new information, the Izak family is left with memories and artifacts left behind by Irene Izak. Her Volkswagen was eventually returned to the family in Pennsylvania, and the vehicle was scrapped years later. In the mid-1990s, Caputo asked for the return of Izak’s watch and the ring that she was wearing on the night of her murder. Both were returned. The ring is from Marywood Seminary, from which Izak graduated in 1963. It was an all-girls high school on the Marywood University campus in Scranton. It burned down in 1971 and was never rebuilt.

“It took a while, but they sent me my aunt’s ring,” Caputo said. It arrived the day before she discovered she was pregnant with her first child. “I had so much mixed emotions.”

She still does.

“A lot of time has passed and people’s lives go on,” she said of the case. “But not to my family. It’s always going to be there.”

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