It’s not often we get a chance to talk about the people and things we encounter in a more relaxed format, so to speak. In “Talk back …” our writers have space to discuss the stories we have covered.
By Charles Sercombe
In all of the murder trials I covered for The Citizen in the 1980s and 1990s, the paper that covered the news of Hamtramck for 75 years, there is one that I still remember crystal clear.
Well, fairly clear. The fog of time, you know, plays tricks on the memory. So, to help clear things up, I walked over to the Hamtramck Public Library and looked through the old Citizen issues.
Not to be macabre, but this murder case was one of the most grisly murders in the city, and it got worse with each twist and turn. It was actually two murders committed on the same night, in the same place.
Where to start?
Probably the beginning makes the most sense. It was in the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1988 when I heard the police dispatcher on the office police scanner say something about two bodies that were found in a lot on Conant and Miller.
What lay ahead for me that long afternoon, not to make this matter trivial, is ripe for a scene out of the movies.
When I got there, there were indeed two bodies in that lot. A local guy who worked for the local cable company of that time discovered the bodies while he was high up on a utility pole installing a cable line.
Police detectives were already there, standing over the clump of two dead men, taking photographs. From the sidewalk, you couldn’t really make out much besides some clothing. The overgrown grass and weeds obscured the rest.
It was bitter, bitter cold as I waited for the county morgue’s van – called the “meat wagon” – to arrive to pick up the bodies. I remember the western sky as the sun was setting, it was orange-red marble.
That sky, perhaps with memory being softened now, seemed both poetic and menacing.
I had my trench coat on – yeah, talk about a walking cliché – but that was no match for the biting wind.
Nextdoor to the lot was a bar called “C Street Café.” It had a reputation of being a rough bar, and it was one that I stayed far, far away from. The bar is long gone, demo’d for some forgotten reason.
I eventually couldn’t take the cold anymore and decided to warm up in the bar.
I don’t usually do this on work time, but at the time the cold was so fierce I decided to buy a shot to warm up. Besides, there was a good chance that those two dead men had something to do with this bar.
My hunch proved to be spot on … but that was an easy guess. I’m jumping slightly ahead, though.
It was dark inside, and I remember just a few people were there. I felt an immediate hostile vibe. The bartender was unshaven, possibly hung over and looked like he had been up all night.
Being a reporter, I like to think I get to ask insanely stupid questions at insanely awkward moments, no matter the consequences. There’s a method to this madness.
I ordered the shot and asked flat out: “Did anything happen here last night?”
I’m not sure what the bartender said, he seemed to be mumbling under his breath.
I remember, too, it was odd, there were beads of sweat all over his face. And if looks could kill, I’d be the third victim that day if there weren’t so many cops around. The question certainly hit a nerve because the few people sitting at the bar immediately moved away from me.
The bartender also scurried away from me.
I could not get a second drink even if I wanted to.
I nursed the shot, hoping to overhear something and to wait until the last possible moment to go back outside for the morgue to arrive.
Why would I wait for the morgue?
I waited to get the clichéd shot of the bodies being carried to the meat wagon. When the morgue showed up, the driver flung open the back door and, to my astonishment, inside were several bodies stacked up.
I got my shot all right.
The detectives were unusually quiet about things, and I decided there wasn’t much point of sticking around.
The next morning, I made my usual rounds in the Detective Bureau and casually mentioned to one of the detectives, Don Milewski, who is now retired, that I had gone into C Street to warm up while he and the other detectives were poking around in the field.
“Did you look on the floor?” Milewski said, with a grin beginning to break out.
“No, why?” I said, now realizing that I had missed something in plain sight.
As it turned out, the investigation went into the evening, and the state police were called in. The state cops brought along super strong floodlights, set them up inside the bar and turned them on.
This produced the break the cops needed. The floor was covered with blood, and a blood trail led to the back door of the bar and also out into the lot next door.
Amazing, whoever did the murders hadn’t bothered to clean up the place.
On top of that, they were too lazy to take the bodies somewhere farther away to dump. Instead, they dumped the bodies in the lot next door, making this case easy, or at least a little easier, for the cops to figure out.
What were the killers thinking?
Ah … thinking … that’s something rational and logical people do. Homicidal maniacs, on the other hand, don’t bother with logic, unless they are the cunning, cold-blooded type.
Police initially thought one of the victims had been stabbed over 40 times, while the other had several stab wounds and his throat slit.
Two arrests were made soon after and two other suspects were being sought, a brother and sister duo who’s father owned the bar.
The lead suspect was a fellow with the peculiar name of Waiver Watson. His accomplice was George Alford, who agreed to tell police investigators what had happened.
The brother and sister, James Pallitto and Rita Pallitto, who was all of 17 years old, were arrested about a week later in a drug raid at a Clinton Twp. hotel. Rita was the only one not charged with murder. Instead, she was accused of armed robbery.
Alford (the accomplice) wasn’t the only one to talk to investigators: So did Rita and Watson and a witness by the name of Jonathon Tusly.
The preliminary examination in Hamtramck 31st District Court was pure theater. There were different attorneys for each suspect and some had two lawyers. The lead suspect, Watson, had his exam held separately to allow his new attorney to get up to speed on the case.
The two victims turned out to be Bartle Bell, 27, and Richard Wooten, 26, both employed at the former Cooks Food in Hamtramck.
According to one of the suspects, Bell won money from Watson, whose nickname was “Dough Boy,” in a crap game earlier in that fateful evening. Later, they all went to C Street to play pool, betting $100 a game. The games went on, lasting long after closing hour to 3:30 a.m.
That’s when things took a fatal turn. According to a witness, Jonathon Tusly, who had to fight back tears as he testified in court, Bell (the soon-to-be victim) accused Watson of cheating. Watson started fighting with Bell. After Bell was “subdued,” Watson ordered both victims to empty their pockets.
While Bell was on the ground, Alford and a person described as the bar manager held Wooten back. Alford held a knife and the bar manager pointed a gun at Wooten’s head.
What happened next still makes my stomach turn.
Watson took a pool cue, held it vertical above Bell’s head and “slammed” it down repeatedly. …
… Can you imagine what Bell’s buddy was thinking, being held at knife and gunpoint while his friend was being savagely beaten?
After the attack, Watson “ordered” Tusly to help him drag Bell out to the lot.
The witness, Tusly, told police that what he saw next was Watson making a repeated stabbing motion into Bell’s body – with his arms pumping up and down.
As Tusly returned to the bar, he saw Alford dragging out the limp body of Wooten.
According to the county Medical Examiner, Bell was stabbed 18 times, and Wooten was stabbed eight times and his throat was slashed.
Watson told police a far different story. He said Bell indeed accused him of cheating, but it was Bell who started the fight by swinging a pool cue at him. Watson said he stabbed Bell in self defense and wrestled Bell to the ground. He said three men took Bell out to the lot and came back to announce that Bell had died.
Rita Pallitto told police that Watson’s version of things was “bullshit.”
Anthony Pallitto told police that he dragged Wooten out to the lot, but it was unclear what further role he played.
The night wasn’t over yet.
Tusly and Alford drove to Tusly’s house on Gallagher St. on the Detroit side of the Hamtramck border where Watson and Rita Pallitto met up with them.
“When they (Watson and Pallitto) got there, they threw money at me,” Alford later told police.
The money was divided up.
Watson also brought in a rib dinner that he took out of Bell’s 1986 Chevy Nova.
“I might as well eat the man’s dinner,” Watson said, Alford told police. “He don’t need it now.”
Tusly also testified that Rita Pallitto decided to keep Bell’s car.
“I can drive this car for a week,” she said.
The car was later found in a Clinton Twp. garage, destroyed by fire.
The four suspects were later convicted in subsequent trials. A couple of years later, Pallitto’s father was busted for drug dealing in a raid at C Street.
I’ve always wondered, was the father the mysterious “bar manager”? Was he the bartender who served me?
There were some notable moments during the Hamtramck trial. Rita Pallitto was only 17 years old and was openly naive about what was happening to her. At her preliminary trial, she asked out loud if it was OK to go home.
The attorneys started to crack up.
They had to repeatedly explain to her why she couldn’t go home and why it would be a very long time before she could.
Watson sat silent, with a Bible open on the desk he sat at. He appeared to be intently reading it during testimony. I thought to myself, it’s a little too late for salvation.
His parents wept in court.
I also remember Bell’s parents asking detectives if their son’s car would be returned to them. That was before it was known that it had been burned.
I walked away from this case wondering, at what point did the suspects lose their humanity?
Was it the moment they killed their victims, or was it later when they ate their first victim’s rib dinner?