When Adam lost the tail-light of his T-Bird, things got bad. Then they got worse: A truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. Keith Botsford reports

Keith Botsford
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:22

Pell Bridge, West Lane. The bridge rises 200 feet over the cold tidal waters of Narragansett Bay below Providence, Rhode Island, the smallest state of the 50 and the second-densest in population. One rented dark-green Toyota Camry is parked there, its engine still warm, the keys in the ignition. On the back seat lie two suits: one a man's grey pin-stripe, the other a lady's, in lavender. On the front seat is a handbag, a wallet containing 50 bucks and a pair of white high-heeled shoes. It is 6.53pm on Armistice Day, 11 November 1993.

Also in the car is a dollars 240 receipt from Kelly's Sporting Goods store, representing the purchase, at 4pm that same day, of two black cotton sweatsuits with hoods, two pairs each of: 10lb ankle weights, 10lb wrist weights and 20lb waist weights. There is a receipt for a meal (4.15pm) at a Burger King in Cranston. It was, if you believe one version of the story, the last supper of Adam C. Emery (grey pin-stripe), 31, and his wife Elena (lavender suit, nee di Rocco), 36.

One version is that they took the high jump. The other version, now favoured by the Rhode Island district attorney's office, is that they staged their suicide, jumped bail, and are on the lam.

For at 2.36pm on that same afternoon, which happened to be Adam's birthday, a jury of eight women and four men had, after five-and-a-half hours of deliberation, found Adam guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Jason K. Bass on 31 August 1990.

Jason 'Jay' Bass was a likeable 20-year-old, somewhat self-conscious about his looks - he had high cheekbones and overlarge lips - who had lived a desperately normal, and brief, blue-collar life. He adored his dark-haired Mom who'd given him six brothers and sisters, and ran an antiques booth of the flea-market variety.

Jay collected football cards, and his one known passion was for cooking. According to an article in the Providence Sunday Journal, his ambition was to open a diner.

At 16, a school drop-out, he became a hamburger cook at Burger King; later he fried doughnuts at Mister Donuts. In the summer before his death, he'd been hired to manage a food concession at the Rocky Point Amusement Park in Warwick. He was a big kid at heart, and what pleased him most was that his nephew and nieces could get in for half price. He could also take home armfuls of sausage-and-pepper sandwiches.

The day his number came up was a week after he had quit his job. Early in the evening, he'd called his sister Diana saying he might stop by for dinner, which was meat loaf and mash. He never got there. Instead, he and his cousin, Joshua Post, after a while playing Nintendo and a nickel-and-dime crap game, decided to pick up Jay's friend John Gorman, a 15-year-old who managed Del's lemonade stand in the Amusement Park. They drove off in Jay's 1975 Ford LTD, dark red and white top, silver cross with blue stones on the dashboard.

During that drive, Jay Bass's path intersected with Adam Emery's. Adam's family was two or three steps up on Jay's - solid middle-class, owners of general stores and such. And according to a schoolfriend, Adam, alongside Jay or indeed most guys, was something akin to a Greek god. He was a solid, square-shouldered six-footer with dark brown hair and 'amazing' blue eyes. 'Not the brightest bulb on the tree', a touch obsessive about his appearance and fitness, a fine skier, a military policeman with the National Guard, skilled in the martial arts, Adam had gone to Rhode Island College and majored in business; besides working days as a carpenter and going to school at night, he also worked in the college coffee house. Then he went into the army on graduation and served for three years; on leaving, he found a job as a customer-service rep with Todd Enterprises, a plastics manufacturer.

Jay bunked down in working-class Warwick with his cousin Joshua; Adam lived with his wife in a ground-floor apartment in a white colonial-type house in the shopping strip and mall suburb of Cranston. Jay loved food and cooking; Adam loved his car. It was a 1985 black Thunderbird, and was his pride and joy. He was obsessed with it.

The car was perfect, and only perfect was good enough for Adam. Knowing that may help to explain the events of that evening, which was one that started out, for Jay, with his perfect kid-friends, and for Adam in his perfect car with his perfect wife.

Elena, who plays a key part in this story, was one of five children of a family that came from Italy (where she was born) to the US in the Sixties and established itself in the traditional Italian fruit-and-vegetable business. A friend described Elena, who was dating Adam while he was still at college and married him after his graduation in 1988, as being 'attractive, but she wore a lot of make-up and had big hair'. She was an office manager at a construction company, and the two of them had a 'great marriage'. The couple were 'like two peas in a pod', said a family friend. 'They loved each other a great deal and Elena often said, 'I could never live without my honey.' '

Adam and Jay's paths crossed in a car park up at Rocky Point. In Adam's T-Bird were Adam and Elena, her sister Maria and her husband, Ronnie. We know what they (having changed their minds after ordering) had eaten at a Burger King. Adam had a chowder; the others had shared two bags of the clamcakes, for which Rocky Point is locally famous. In Jay's Ford were his cousin, Joshua, and the young John Gorman, who they'd come to fetch. The two cars were parked within 30 feet of each other.

It was a balmy night and John had just climbed into the back seat of Jay's car, with rap on the radio, when another car in the lot emerged and sideswiped Adam's beloved T-Bird, breaking the left tail-light and speeding away. At the same time, Jay's Ford also left the lot.

Maria, Elena's sister, testified that she said, 'Let's follow them.' Adam backed up, turned around, and gave chase. 'That's the car] That's the car]' shouted Elena when they came up behind Jay's Ford, licence-plate AV-439.

Here the gods came into play. As the assistant district attorney was to say during the trial: 'It's like a Greek tragedy. Here's a guy who has never been in trouble (Adam), finds himself in an overwhelming situation (he's lost the rear tail-light on his T-Bird), things go bad and then get worse.'

Adam turns on his headlights to get the car ahead of him to stop. In Jay's car, speeding up to escape, cousin Joshua screams, frightened, 'What the hell is this guy's problem? He's getting ready to beef]'

Adam follows for another 1.7 miles in the dark streets and finally cuts off Jay's car in front of a grey clapboard house. Elena yells to her husband, half out of the door, to take the knife that's in the side flap of the door.

Adam says he walked up to Jay's car and said, 'I just want to talk, you hit my car.' Joshua and John say Adam ran up to Jay's window and said, 'I'm going to kill you. I'm going to kick your arse]'

Jay does what anyone would do in a panic. He tries to get out by throwing his car into reverse. Adam says he tried to reach inside the car and turn off the ignition.

There is Adam with the top part of his body inside Jay's car. There is Jay screaming hysterically. There is the car travelling backwards for 1,215 feet. The guys in the Ford are screaming. Adam is telling them he has a knife and they should stop. 'I'm feeling I have no way out,' he said at the trial. 'I had to react. I had to do something . . . They didn't heed my warning.'

It all takes a minute. Adam stabs Jay in the left arm; then again under the breastbone.

Jay's car hits a boulder and slams to a stop. Adam, bloody knife in hand, slides off the Ford. In the driveway of the house where Jay's car is stopped is Bruce Bishop, a prison guard. He tells Adam to drop the knife. Adam does, saying, 'I stabbed him.' Then he asks for a glass of water.

Jay Bass staggers from the Ford. He says he feels weak. Three quarters of his blood is gone. He is dead on arrival at the Rhode Island Hospital at 9.37pm. At Jay's sister's house, the meat loaf and mash has gone cold when the police come to tell her that Jay is dead - murdered.

The irony is that it wasn't even Jay's car that sideswiped the T-Bird. That car was never found.

That is the full story. Two-and-a-half years later came the trial. During these 30 months, after eight months in the Adult Correction Institution, Adam's and Elena's families finally raised a dollars 270,000 bail by putting up their houses as surety. Adam then returned to work at his plastics job, behaving in exemplary fashion, even getting promoted.

Adam Emery's lawyer claimed he killed in self-defence after being dragged by Jay's car: 'It began as a mistake, turned into a tragedy, but didn't make out to be a crime.' The assistant attorney general, Jack McMahon, said: 'Emery put himself there . . . You don't get self-defence when you put yourself there.' The jury ruled that Adam showed intent at least 'for a moment'. The verdict - Adam was quite correctly on bail while his lawyer moved for a new trial - would have meant a possible 20-year sentence. Elena was not charged as an accessory.

The details were amazing. Elena, in court when the jury came in, sat behind her husband saying, 'It's my fault . . . There's hell to be paid]' Her brother shouted at Bass's family, 'Scumbags]' While Elena's mother, operatic, fell to her knees wailing, 'Oh God, God, God, help my son-in-law. He's not a bad person.' Then there was the television station that filmed Elena after the verdict, and the state police that hired a lip-reader to find out what she said, which was: 'We will do what we originally said . . . You promised me. We should have done this before.'

Done what? Killed themselves, or done a bunk? At least two witnesses saw the Emerys walking on the bridge three-quarters of an hour before they allegedly jumped. A policeman, who could not search the Emery house because he came without a search warrant, claimed he saw passports on Adam's desk. The clerk who sold them the weights said, 'They knew just what they wanted. They were very quiet, very determined.' In court, he said the last thing he asked them (why?) was, 'Are you going to use these tonight?' They didn't answer.

The Emery family spent dollars 15,000 in a vain search to find their bodies. Now the families stand to lose the three houses they put up as surety. A warrant has just been put out for Elena's arrest. This indicates that the state now considers her as having aided and abetted a convicted felon's escape; but then the state has thought so from the start. More likely is that this is no more than a manoeuvre to make it easier for the courts to seize the family property.

But the Emerys and di Roccos remain certain that Adam and Elena killed themselves - 'They could not live apart'. A friend who knew them both said: 'The biggest shocker to me is that it happened at all. (Adam) was a very funny, very nice guy. He was definitely the type who would not have survived a stint in jail - a little too pretty - and definitely not a tough guy. I was shocked to hear he carried a knife.'

Can one disappear in the US? Sure. More than one million illegal immigrants do so annually. Katherine Ann Power, the Sixties terrorist, vanished for more than two decades before she gave herself up. But you can't get off a bridge like Pell Bridge without being seen, unless you're in a car. Did someone help them? Providence being a Mob town, rumours abound. As far as anyone knows the Emerys and the di Roccos are straight up-and-down people. But then does everything fit in the tale of Adam and Elena?

In how many strait-laced working-class Italian families does a girl marry a boy five years her junior? What is the nature of the obessionality such that Adam, once he met Elena, never looked at or talked about another girl? Who owns whom? Who urged whom to what? And whether suicide or escape, who decided? And why?

The assistant attorney general said: 'I don't know what anything in this case says one way or the other. Every piece of evidence we have could be construed one way or the other. Everything is a double-edged sword.' Life on the run is no fun; nor is jumping off a bridge. Amen.

(Photographs omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments