Famous Jewish Criminals

by Diana J. Wynne


Ellie Arner called one morning when my mother was having a gallbladder attack.

“We want you and Judy to come out on the boat,” she said with her Long Island accent.

“We can’t,” I said, in those days before answering machines I was always the teenaged receptionist, in a house where everyone was hiding out. “She’s sick.” In 1975, my mother was often sick from something she’d eaten. After a particularly rich meal, Dr. Applebaum might have to walk over and give her a shot, and she’d walk around in a bathrobe for days, groaning.

“Really,” Ellie's husband Bobby whined. “We want you to come.”

“Yeah,” Ellie said. “Tell her to call when she wakes up.”

“Okay.” I thought it was a little weird that they were both on the phone, but I forgot about it.

My mother called Ellie back the next night. A man answered the phone.

“Bobby?” she said. It didn’t sound like him.

“Who is this?”

“Uh, this is Judy. Who’s this?”

“This is Detective R______ of the Hallandale Police,” the man said. “Do you know where Bobby Arner is?”

Before she got off the phone, my mother gave the detective her name and number and came into the living room.

“They found Ellie Arner’s Riviera in Hallandale this morning. She was in the front seat, unconscious.” Someone had beaten her in the head with a hammer; she was in the hospital in a coma. Bobby was nowhere to be found.

We couldn’t believe it. Ellie and Bobby had just moved from Great Neck, a year after we had. Ellie and my mother used to play mah jong together at Marilyn’s.

Growing up, Marilyn and my mother dieted together. Between diets, they ate together. Supposedly Marilyn had once been thin, but in all the years I knew her, she was always small and round with bright eyes and shoulder-length blonde hair. She didn’t play tennis like the rest of my mother’s friends so they started a mah jong game. It was a good excuse for tuna salad, packed in water, not oil, with Ry Krisp and cottage cheese, or Stella D’Oro diet cookies.

They were always outing someone famous who had changed their name and was really Jewish or, worse, someone beautiful who’d gotten fat. My mother had been a big fan of Esther Williams’.

“Like a blimp,” Marilyn would say, clacking her tiles.

“What about Kathryn Grayson?” my mother would say.

“From ‘Showboat?’ Ttss tss” They shook their heads in disgust.

We lived in Marilyn’s house for a little while when I was 7, after my grandparents had to sell the house on Chestnut Drive in a hurry. The IRS was closing in again and great-grandma Rose had just died.

Mama and Dicken sold the house with the stone stage and goldfish pond for a song and left for the Bahamas. What they couldn’t sell, they gave away, including my German shepherd. So we wound up at Marilyn’s to finish out second grade with a few suitcases and the remains of our furniture.

My mother went out to deal with the lawyers one day and left me alone. Marilyn cornered me for some offense, probably talking back or not wanting to share: “You don’t even live here,” she screamed, trembling. “These aren’t your things anymore.” Marilyn’s family yelled all the time. My mother never raised her voice; when she wanted to hurt me, she was always extremely calm and usually smiled.

With no room of my own for the first time in my life, I cried in the bathroom. Marilyn yelled through the door. Later, I went back to Suellen’s room and crawled into the wooden four-postered bed that had been mine and before that my mother’s. I turned on my black and white portable TV, but there was nothing on, so I settled on “Madame X,” already in progress. The courtroom scenes terrified me.

Marilyn stayed with us in Miami while Ellie was in the ICU. She had still not spoken. One afternoon, our doorbell rang, and there was Bobby Arner. He was a fat, obnoxious man who always had to bear-hug everyone. My mother said he could never wait to get her alone in a room to brag about his sexual prowess. This was not popular with me either when I was 13, so I hid in the Florida room where I could listen and watch them through the screening. My mother and Marilyn walked in the backyard with him.

“Bludgeoned!” he said. “Who would try to kill my Eleanor?”

“What I don’t understand, Bobby” Marilyn said, “is how she could have gone out for breakfast and not seen someone hiding in the back seat.”

“Yeah,” my mother said, nodding. We watched a lot of detective shows. My mother always liked the scene near the end of the hour where the woman is alone with the murderer, far from help, and says to him, “You know, you’re crazy!” as if that’s going to help the situation.

Bobby looked around for a prop. Settling on a shovel my mother was using to plant mango trees, he grabbed my mother in a bear hug. “Like this,” he said, gesturing with the shovel, “From behind.”

Ellie Arner died. She never regained consciousness to identify her murderer. I remember her as a quiet, warm, heavy set lady who came over for my mother’s Friday night poker game. They had just moved to Florida, bought a boat. We were going to have such fun with them.

Bobby Arner was indicted for murder. Detectives called my mother from both sides of the case; she was characteristically noncommittal, said she knew of no instance of Bobby hurting or threatening Ellie (“which I didn’t,” she says, a little defensively). We got an unlisted number.

His sons testified against him. Turned out he had a girlfriend who squealed after he dumped her. Did it for the inheritance. Marilyn said he ended up on a chain gang in New York.

We were all very surprised. The only criminals I knew besides my grandfather’s friends, who tended to be embezzlers, were Darryl Agrella and Ronnie Zamora, who went to my junior high and were after all pretty famous. Ronnie and some friends robbed and killed his 82-year-old neighbor, took her money, and drove to Disneyworld!

If this sounds familiar it’s because star attorney Ellis Rubin represented Ronnie, claiming insanity by reason of television violence. He said Ronnie watched too much “Kojak.” The Florida jury tried him as an adult and put him away for life; 25 years later, he was still doing time. Darryl Agrella, the accessory, was back in the attendance office a year later.

“Imagine that,” Marilyn said to my mother on the phone, “That lunatic had his hand around your neck with a shovel and I just stood there.” My grandmother says he must have been out on bail, that afternoon when he demonstrated the physical impossibility of killing your wife from the low back seat of a Riviera with a hammer, a hammer that was bloody with his fingerprints.