Michael Benson refuses to concede defeat in a series of unsolved, half-century-old crimes – Rochester’s infamous Double Initial Murders.
“A fresh angle came up last week,” Benson says. “Life got exciting for a few days.”
Benson, a true-crime writer originally from Rochester, now living in Brooklyn, presents a slide-show talk, “The Double Initial Murders: Nightmare in Rochester,” 2 p.m. Saturday at Gates Public Library. And time hasn’t dulled public interest in the unsolved murders of Carmen Colon, Wanda Walkowicz and Michelle Maenza, which occurred from 1971 through 1973. When 1,000 people expressed interest in attending Benson’s talk after it was announced, the library had to find a bigger room.
Working with private investigator Don Tubman, a former Wheatland police officer who attended Wheatland-Chili High School, Benson says they have identified two new suspects in the case, “A strong one, one fair to middling.” And on Saturday, Benson says he will name names.
Benson’s a colorful character. His amazon.com profile claims that he has “partied with Hells Angels on both coasts.” He estimates he’s written or co-written more than 60 books, including sports stories and a companion book to the Jeff Foxworthy TV show Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? “I spent three months on the UFO beat, and found out it’s not true,” he says.
Disappointing news for anyone who believes The X-Files is a documentary, but there are other mysteries to be explored. Benson established himself as an authority on the assassination of John F. Kennedy through extensive reading on the subject, including the Warren Commission Report and its 26 volumes of supporting documents. That led to his 1993 book, Who’s Who in the JFK Assassination: An A to Z Encyclopedia, which rode the notoriety of the Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK.
So, he knows who did it?
“Yeaaah, but I don’t want to give an answer,” Benson says. “Oswald did not do it alone. I can prove that mathematically.” Mathematically, he insists, as in there are more bullet fragments than can accounted for in the bullets that Lee Harvey Oswald aimed at the president.
Benson ghostwrote what he calls his “first real, true-crime, psycho-killer book” on a gruesome series of Midwest murders. “They caught the guy two days before it was published, which gave it quite a boost,” he says. “My name wasn’t on it, but the industry knew who wrote the book and I got a career.”
His most-recent book, which he co-authored, is Carmine the Snake, the story of cold-blooded New York City Mafia mob boss Carmine “The Snake” Persico. But even though Benson left Rochester in 1974 for Hofstra University – “I met a girl, and I’ve never been back, except to visit relatives” – Upstate New York’s darkest moments creep through his keyboard. His Betrayal in Blood is the story of the 2003 Penfield murder-for-hire of Tabatha Bryant. The Killer Twins were Robert and Stephen Spahalski, who went their separate ways, yet both made murder their careers: Stephen one in Elmira, Robert in Rochester, confessing to four murders after his arrest. And Mommy Deadliest is Stacey Castor, the Weedsport woman who murdered two husbands with anti-freeze.
Rochester’s murderous past is rich territory for a true-crime writer, Benson says. It includes three men who were preying on prostitutes here in the late ’80s: Robert Spahalski, Arthur Shawcross and John White, who police were building a case against when he died of a heart attack. All three men, Benson says, found victims in the same area, from Edgerton Park down to Lyell Avenue, west of Lake Avenue.
Students of Jack the Ripper claim that a prime suspect in those murders was an American, Francis Tumblety, who lived in Rochester for a time, was in London during the killings, and is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
But the 62-year-old Benson also had personal connections to murder while he lived here. Before his family moved to Chili, he attended the now-closed Holy Family School, a few grades behind Kenneth Bianchi, who would go on to become The Hillside Strangler.
And there is The Devil at Genesee Junction, Benson’s 2015 book detailing the 1966 unsolved murders of two teenage Chili girls, George-Ann Formicola and Kathy Bernhard. Benson, who was 9 years old at the time, knew both girls. Formicola was his babysitter. Tubman, who helped Benson in the investigation, knew the victims – they were murdered on the night he graduated from Wheatland-Chili High School. At one point during his research, Benson considered Shawcross to be a suspect. “It was a horrible, Jack the Ripper-style mutilation,” Benson says, “and it happened on the railroad tracks behind my house.”
These aren’t run-of-the-mill murders. Benson was presenting a talk on The Devil at Genesee Junction here – that’s one other reason he returns to Upstate New York, when he’s documenting our criminal minds – when someone in the audience asked, “Is there something in our water?”
That crime had lingered for years in a dark backwater of Benson’s brain, as did the Double Initial Murders. “When I was in school, I can remember the terror girls with the same initials felt,” Benson says. He’s written a manuscript about the murders, but it has not yet attracted a publisher. And the story keeps changing.
And, quite frankly, the mystery seems to fall apart under close scrutiny. Police investigations, and the research by Benson and Tubman, suggest separate killers may have been responsible for the Double Initial Murders. “At least two,” Benson says. “I believe that the initials are completely a coincidence. There’s not a hint of a piece of evidence that says it’s important.”
There is certainly no evidence that it meant anything to one suspect, Joseph Naso. “He kept extensive notebooks, there are no mentions of initials in them,” Benson says. Naso, born in Rochester, now imprisoned in California for the murder of six women, was a sex offender in Monroe County, Benson says. And, “with the limited DNA, it’s difficult to eliminate him.”
Notably, four of the six women Naso was convicted of murdering had double initials.
“If he is not the Double Initial Killer, it had an effect on him,” Benson says. “He liked the whole vibe of a killer with a signature. But even though he is a really weird guy, an odd duck, there’s no sign he is a pedophile. The Rochester guy was a pure pedophile.”
So the search continues. Fresh angles. The dead, they’re Benson’s beat. The Grateful Dead, sometimes. One of his 60-something books is Why the Grateful Dead Matter. “I do like to have something where I can turn off the darkness and turn on the light,” he says. “But the darkness sells better.”
Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.