Dennis Malvasi was the kind of kid everyone else wanted to be—the funny one, the street-smart one, the handsome one with a natural swagger. The Brooklyn neighborhood he grew up in was one of the worst slums in the city; East New York in the mid-sixties was a gangland, perpetually on the brink of a race riot. But Dennis always seemed above it all, despite being worse off than most. He had eleven brothers and sisters, with three fathers between them. His mother was so poor she sent him for a time to an orphanage upstate. Maybe it was knowing so many unwanted children that explains what happened later.
Dennis entered the Vietnam War just after the Tet Offensive. He was 17 but so eager to enlist that he found a stranger in the street to sign his parental-consent form. He served one tour as a field radio operator, drawing VC fire on a number of occasions, then turned around and re-upped for a second. As a soldier, “I felt really alive, really wanted,” is how Dennis put it. Life at home was harder. He was arrested for being in a street fight—“hanging around,” he’d later say, “with some very dangerous people.” He tried to become an actor, joining an Off–Off Broadway troupe on the Lower East Side, even winning some acclaim. But in 1975, he got stopped and frisked by a police officer on a subway platform. He was carrying a .25-caliber pistol. It was his second felony. He was sent upstate to prison for two years.
Dennis couldn’t get over the idea that he was behind bars while draft evaders received clemency. His anguished letters from jail were dated with the years he served in Vietnam, as if to will himself back in time. Some time after he got out, he became secretive—taking messages from a beeper, having his mail delivered to bars, getting jobs and a driver’s license under assumed names. He missed being in action and got licensed as a pyrotechnics expert to work with explosives. Then he started spending time with a group called Our Lady of the Roses, a Catholic fringe group that raged on about the evils of Vatican II and the sinfulness of modern life. The foulest of sacrileges, they believed, was abortion.
Dennis wasn’t a churchgoing Catholic, but he’d never believed in abortion. “Here’s the truth. Look. This is a life,” he once said, pointing to a picture of a fetus in a training book for paramedics. Now he complained to one friend about how he’d defended his country and was called a baby-killer while others were murdering the unborn with impunity.
On December 10, 1985, a small pipe bomb ignited inside a vacant men’s room at the Manhattan Women’s Medical Center on East 23rd Street. Eleven months later, another homemade explosive, this one with a half-stick of dynamite, blew a hole through the wall of the Eastern Women’s Center on 30th Street. Two weeks after that, police found an unexploded bomb with three sticks of dynamite inside a sofa at a clinic on Queens Boulevard. Finally, on December 14, 1986, the bomb squad burst into the smoke-filled Second Avenue headquarters of Planned Parenthood to find a carpet fire started by a small incendiary device, not far from a larger bomb with fifteen sticks of dynamite, enough to destroy the front of the building had it not been defused in time. The attack had the hallmarks of a highly motivated professional: blasting caps, timers, batteries, and a Catholic medal of St. Benedict. Dennis Malvasi was New York City’s first abortion-clinic bomber.
Joseph had come to Brooklyn with his family in the sixties when he was 14 years old. His parents were shtetl Jews who had stayed in Poland during the war, fighting the Nazis, only to leave in 1960 when some kids went after Joseph with a straight razor, claiming that his parents had killed Christ. His family found a tenement in the only slightly less dangerous neighborhood of East New York. His father worked as a leather cutter, his mother as a seamstress. Joseph was prone to fainting spells and panic attacks, and had to learn to speak English without a lisp. Even his friends called him the Trembler. He tried playing the clown but was too cloying and needy. “I was the water boy,” Joseph remembers. “I was in the background.”
Joseph, whose identity has been protected here for reasons that will become clear, can’t remember when he first met Dennis. It was 1964 or ’65, out on the street, playing skelly or picking up girls. He remembers Dennis as very friendly and very poor. “We hung out, but it was, ‘Hi, how’re you doing?’ We didn’t develop a closeness.” Within a few years, Dennis had enlisted and Joseph had been drafted, and the two lost touch. As a noncitizen, Joseph served Stateside, then spent the seventies leading a small, dead-end sort of life. He was a process server for the courts, a collection agent, a driver, and, finally, a counselor to veterans for the State Department of Labor. It was there, in 1985, that Joseph got a call from a friend, asking if he would look after a down-on-his-luck Vietnam veteran from the old neighborhood named Dennis Malvasi.